Educating for the Future we Want?

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've been reading Stephen Sterling's opening essay in the new GTI Forum, The Pedagogy of Transition.

It begins:

"Formal education systems have—or should have—a critical role in the global social learning process underpinning the Great Transition.  On the face of it, the challenge seems straightforward.  If current educational policies and practices insufficiently address ecological, social, and economic sustainability, we can just do some tweaking and add on some key ideas.  Job done.  Except it is not so simple. If education is to be an agent of change, it has itself to be the subject of change. Our educational systems are implicated in the multiple crises before us, and without meaningful rethinking, they will remain maladaptive agents of business as usual, leading us into a dystopian future nobody wants."

And ends:

"We are approaching fifty years since the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm endorsed the key role of education, nearly thirty years since Agenda 21 proposed that education is “critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness,” and five years since the SDGs set a target date of 2030.  The ambitious UNESCO “Futures of Education” initiative promises a chance to reset direction and priorities.  But to date, strong cultural inertia and the counterforce of neoliberalism have slowed progress, and the time is long overdue for holding Westernized education policy and practice to account.  Now, efforts to transform education are greater than ever, but so, too, are the stakes and urgency.  We need to move fast and with bold aspiration, while retaining critical reflexivity, as we create a new chapter in the evolution of our ways of educating on this—as yet—still beautiful planet."

In between these paragraphs, Sterling is writing mostly about formal education whilst noting that there is much more to learning than what goes on K through 25.  Universities have more influence and control over what they teach (and research) than do schools.  In part, this is because of a culture of academic freedom, and because they tend to be more trusted by governments.  Thus, you might expect a greater freedom to innovate and to be in tune with passing zeitgeists.  And universities also have a specific focus in that their students graduate into work or future study whilst for many school students it's just more of the same.

If you read the essay I guess that you'll be nodding your head at quite a few points, and pausing to think at others – well, Stephen's papers always do that to me.  I was particularly struck by this passage:

"Historically, the central role of education has been to socialize the young and to ensure continuity in society, whether indigenous, pre-modern, or modern. In stable conditions, this reproduction function is sufficient. But not in volatile and uncertain times, when the future will not be a linear extension of the past and when social innovation, creativity, and experimentation is critically important. The contradiction now is that the more we try to ensure continuity by doing more of the same, the greater the prospects for a discontinuous and chaotic future become."

This – "when the future will not be a linear extension of the past and when social innovation, creativity, and experimentation is critically important" –  is the key argument for "formal education systems [having] a critical role in the global social learning process underpinning the Great Transition".  I can see this argument having force within FE / HE with their interface with the world of work, although is there really evidence that, say, science and technology undergraduates are not being well prepared for the emerging green jobs – even in institutions that look from the outside that they are merely "accommodating" or "reforming" as opposed to doing anything more "transformational"?

But do these arguments really apply to schools, given that much of what they do remains a preparation for more learning?  Not everyone will be convinced – particularly in the besieged world of the DfE – down in the very appropriately-named Sanctuary Buildings.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Interesting thoughts summed up well in the short concluding paragraph.