We need a new model of education that gives young people the skill and understanding to address the collective challenges faced by humanity
Teachers, as with many of those working in institutionalised professions, are so wrapped up in the cut and thrust of day-to-day survival that they rarely pause to consider the original purpose of the system in which they work. When universal education was introduced in England and Wales in 1870, it was largely on the back of pressure from industrialists who feared that Britain would lose its global competitive edge without a better skilled and educated workforce. Liberals were concerned about the newly enfranchised masses’ ability to choose ‘wisely’ at the ballot box.
Our education system was designed to meet the needs of the industrial age. In countries where industrial capitalism required innovation, entrepreneurship and captains of industry, the mantra in the classroom evolved to include critical thinking and analytical skills. In the still under-industrialised, low-wage and supply-side economies of the south, learning-by-rote and memorisation of teacher-fed ‘knowledge’ remain stubbornly resilient to the relative free-thinking of the liberal enlightenment. The ‘factory model of education’ that aims to reproduce us in the fashion of ‘rational economic man’ has scarcely changed in 140 years.
In her influential book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that a new model of education is urgently needed to meet the needs of the post-industrial era. Outside of education, meaningful, often fierce, debate is raging around what this might look like. The future of work, economic democratisation, sustainable ecosystems and circular economies are hot topics and our educationalists and pedagogues are starting to look stale, mute and left behind.
The potential costs of inertia could not be greater. Some hoped that the pandemic might shake schools up and realign priorities. To some extent it is still too early to say whether this is happening and there have been some hopeful signs of progress, particularly with regard to mental health and a renewed focus on student wellbeing. However, in general the conversation has been disappointing. If Covid-19 is the consequence of our increasing misuse of the natural world, and if today’s generation of young people are amongst those most affected by the consequences of our flailing attempts to control the pandemic, then the inadequacy of our post-Covid-19 timidity could not be more stark.
Mental health may indeed be a good place to kick-start the reform process. The causes of our ongoing mental health crisis, as experienced by at least one in five (and rising) five- to 16-year-olds are complex and multifarious. However, if we look at what worries young people today, the key features of anxiety and worry paint a shocking portrait of the state of the world.
According to recent surveys by the Financial Times, along with increased economic insecurity and rising living costs, Generation Covid is feeling increasingly powerless, vulnerable and daunted by our collective challenges: climate change, growing inequality, conflict and threats to international cooperation. Young people are collectively experiencing a persistent niggling sense that things are not right, that the world is either at or somewhere near a devastating turning point and that, most importantly, nobody seems to be doing anything to lead us back to dry land. In some cases they are able to articulate this and define it with explanations such as ‘climate change’, ‘environmental crisis’, ‘authoritarianism’ and so on, but in most cases it simply equates to feelings of despondency, powerlessness, insignificance and disconnect. To reiterate, this is not an attempt to explain the mental health crisis but to acknowledge some of the issues that many young people are beginning to articulate.
In their 2009 book, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, psychology professors Anthony Scioli and Henry Biller identify nine types of hopelessness and urge us to identify which type we are suffering from and then engage in a mind-body-spirit struggle to replace powerlessness with hope. Much of this is about changing our thinking and replacing the negative with the positive, but all nine types speak of a common language of deploying rationality to reduce our irrational tendency towards doom, alienation and abandonment. What though, of a world in which, however hard we struggle to identify potential sources of hope and progress, the overarching narrative – at least for our physical world – becomes one of tragedy, destruction, regression and devastation?
Even the most timid of reformers might suggest that Generation Covid needs a new purpose and a collective project aimed at helping it to see that change is possible. Whole-school collective activism and action planning can make young people feel powerful again. It should be a scar on all of our consciences as teachers that four million children felt powerful only by abandoning school and taking part in the Fridays for Future movement.
When school ‘eco-councils’ in assembly halls around the world stand up on stage once a year and tell their sleepy-eyed audiences that ‘next Thursday will be World Earth Day’ and that students should come dressed in green and turn off all the lights between 9am and lunchtime, our feelings of collective hopelessness deepen. When head teachers write home to parents encouraging ‘the use of reusable plastic bottles’ or ‘car-pooling on the journey into school’, even the most disinterested and ill-informed young people know deep down that, however hard they try to imagine otherwise, there remains a vast chasm between where we are and where we need to be.
Perhaps the central problem is not with these initiatives themselves but with the way in which they are ‘tagged on’ to the core (industrial era) business of our schools, side-lining them to a peripheral status along with the myriad of other initiatives rolled out every year. More worryingly perhaps, the same can be applied to school curricula. The big challenges of our post-industrial world – achieving environmental sustainability and eliminating critical human deprivation – are relegated to the fringes of ‘non-core’ subjects or, in many parts of the world, not included.
While we continue to rank and measure Generation Covid’s numeracy and literacy (both essential tools), today’s classrooms remain largely silent when it comes to the values and knowledge we will need to move into a post-carbon circular economy and society.
As the American social scientist Christina Kwauk argued in Roadblocks to quality education in a time of climate change, published by the Brookings Institute in February 2020, our refusal to stop seeing learners as “separate from the non-human world… is in contrast to a more radical framing of the learning crisis in terms of children’s inability to understand concepts like human dignity or to engage in planetary or relational thinking, thus affecting their ability to not only be responsible to distant people and places and past and future generations but also stewards of the environment and non-human life”.
Environmental stewardship remains, with a few notable exceptions, relegated to subsets of geography and science curricula and very few educational systems have made it a subject in its own right. As Kwauk goes on to say, a narrow focus on climate science means that we also ignore climate justice. Addressing inertia within education itself remains a moral obligation if we are to meet our responsibilities to Generation Covid. But it is also necessary if we are to meet humanity’s urgent need to keep the rise in global warming below 2C and halt biodiversity loss, air pollution, chemical pollution, ocean acidification and land conversion.
In May 2021, Unesco said that environmental studies should be standard teaching in all schools by 2025. As Lorenzo Fioramonti, former education minister in Italy, one of the first countries to do so (although its implementation has been patchy), said: “Without faster progress on education there will be no chance of achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.” The Brookings Institute has called for climate action projects in all schools by 2025. In the UK, the Labour Party recently presented a bill in parliament to introduce ‘sustainable citizenship education’ in schools from 2023. The momentum for change is out there.
The question remains whether the steps taken towards a post-industrial education system get resigned to the dustbin of greenwashing, hopelessness and inadequacy, or whether they represent a grown-up, radical and desperately needed vision for today’s realities. Governments need to engage in a radical overhaul of the fundamentals of purpose, philosophy and methodology at the heart of a stagnant system. But it would be a massive sign of progress if calls for change and proposals for action came from within, rather than without, the teaching community.
Joe Hall is a teacher and currently Head of Sixth Form in an international school in the Middle East
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2021
We recently Celebrated the winners of the Student Design Awards and the Pupil Design Awards 2022, at our ‘Designing our futures’ event. Learn about our awardees and their innovative designs.
RSA Fellows are invited to a free film screening of 'The Migration Blanket - Climate Solidarity', at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Thursday 28 July at 16:30-18:30 BST
Andy Haldane Tracy Brabin
Andy Haldane and Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, discuss how investing in culture and creative industries can make a success of local growth and levelling up.