Climate change, inequality, and the pandemic are major global crises that we are all experiencing in our daily lives. They question our political, economic, and socio-technical systems that we created to date and that bear a lot of responsibility for the crises themselves. These ‘wicked’ situations that we find ourselves in, demand change and innovation, they demand us to reflect, review, and redesign our living systems, our way of being and our way of connecting to each other. Whilst many ideas are being developed in this area, a few notable alternatives to the status quo have been proposed: they include Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (2017), promoting a new economic mindset that recognises social and planetary boundaries, Welfare 5.0 by Hillary Cottam (2020), looking at re-invention the social system that “advances richness of life” where “relational, purposive human beings…are deeply connected to [their] wider environments”, the work of Arturo Escobar’s notion of pluriverse, multiplicity of practices, underpinned by many ways of knowing and doing (2018). In these new visions, education is recognised as an important aspect by those who explore alternative systems of living and being, and although it is rarely discussed in depth there is a strong message that runs through these alternative narratives of the future: the ongoing discourse of linking education to exams, individual progression, and job opportunities is reductionist and not fit for purpose. There is an implicit call to action – to revise the purpose of what education is and what it might be for. Education needs new narratives.
For me personally, in addition to my own research on service design in sustainable education, teaching in HE and being a parent, in the last few years events related to climate change and the pandemic have become points of reflection on the current educational system at large, seeing opportunities for change and re-design in line with some of the ideas alluded above.
Activating young people to become environmental and social change makers at a local level:
When in 2019, young people joined their families and friends in a Climate Change Rally, the response of politicians around the world was to condemn this action, arguing that the best way for students to address climate change is through education. Putting aside that such rallies can be important and transformative experiences for young people, it is important to ask a question, at what point can young people engage with climate change when they are in formal education? Do young people need to wait before they qualify and become ‘professionals’ to then help and solve the issue, as suggested by ex-UK prime minister Theresa May (Watts, 2019), or should they be provided with opportunities to engage with environmental and social issues during their education, creating change at the local level and to the best of their ability, because it is empowering, educational and as Gretta Thunberg’s book title suggests, ‘no one is too small to make a difference’ (Thunberg, 2019).
Supporting creativity and innovation:
The late Sir Ken Robinson posited throughout his career that creativity and innovation are missing from the curriculum and are absent from the state educational system at large. Indeed, many educational institutions around the world struggled to innovate during pandemic to deliver education ‘well’ in the new context. Yet, it also encouraged many to turn towards creative sector, to develop new skills and even to join forces to generate ideas and build new solutions. For example, in June, 2020, hundreds of parents, students, and educators joined an open innovation, collaborative platform OpenIDEO, in a design challenge, developing solutions to adapt to remote learning and radically re-imagine what education systems might be in the future. In September, 2020, the first UK based design jam for educators – Edu Jam, run by the Service Design in Education Network in collaboration with V&A Dundee created a collaborative, open and creative space where up to hundred young people, educators and design practitioners met for 48 hours to learn and trial design-based approaches to problem solving. This sends an important message that those who are in education value creativity, design, and innovation not only as a skill taught to students in an individual lesson, but as a skill and possibly a practice that is embedded in an educational system to be better prepared to engage with evolving environmental and social challenges.
Facilitating enriched learning experiences:
Because of the pandemic, the educational system changed from providing learning at school, to providing learning at ‘home’, moving from a centralised, co-located and school-based delivery to home based, distributed and digitally-driven delivery. The radical change in the learning environment, methods, and available resources saw many students spend long, solitary hours in front of their screens with information delivered to them. I am not convinced that this was a desirable learning experience schools wanted to provide their students, but most persevered, with some detrimental impact including reduced student engagement across the sector (Lucas, Nelson, and Sims, 2020). Instead, success stories are those, where students formed alternative learning networks with peers, where families found ways to support in ways that worked for all, and where local surroundings and communities became additional learning environments (Robinson, 2020). What it highlights to me is that learning is experiential, embodied and co-created. Whilst the vision for post-pandemic recovery in education is full of techno-optimism (for example, see European Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027)), what it fails to consider is learner’s experience. As we move forward, for me one of the key questions is how can educational systems enrich rather than simplify student experiences through co-creative, collaborative and learner-centered approaches?
Enabling critical reflection:
During pandemic, many activities were forced to discontinue, giving us an opportunity to slow down. This break from everyday stress for our brain and bodies is welcome, as it is a well-known suppressant of many functions including thought processes such as reflection. Yet, quality of our action as well as our agency relate to our ability to reflect, which is an imperative skill and practice if young people are to engage with alternative systems of living and being today and in the future. However, spaces for reflection, and particularly critical reflection are scarce. What if we increased the number of safe places where young people could critically reflect on the emerging discourses about human-nature relationship (Büscher and Fletcher, 2020) to counteract the many dystopian images of our planet often presented to them. Whilst some experiment and curate such spaces (eg XSkool or Schumacher college) these are but a few.
Thus, for me the purpose of education for alternative futures is to enable ‘student experience’ that includes being activated to become environmental and social change maker at a local level, having an enriched learning experience, acquiring capacity for critical reflection, and gaining creativity and innovation skills and practices.
In my recent journal article I use service innovation lens to discuss how such student experience can be through a whole-school approach and education for sustainable development.
Dr Ksenija Kuzmina, FHEA is Programme Director for the MA/MSc Design Innovation Programme and Assistant Professor at the Institute for Design Innovation, Loughborough University, London.
Buscher, B., & Fletcher, R. (2020). The conservation revolution: radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene. Verso Trade.
Lupien, S. J., Juster, R. P., Raymond, C., & Marin, M. F. (2018). The effects of chronic stress on the human brain: From neurotoxicity, to vulnerability, to opportunity. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 49, 91-105.