Education’s “Climate Change”

Over the Christmas and New Year break I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time reflecting on a lot of what happened for me during 2017, in particular, the requests I’ve had to contribute to discussions and conferences on the them of the future of education.

Of course, it’s difficult to think about the future of education in isolation from what’s happening in the broader context of the world – including climate change. So I thought, what better way to start off 2018 than with a post that captures some of this thinking and suggests a link between the call for urgent action regarding climate change and the drivers for change in education.

Climate change has been a hot topic over the past few years, and provides an insight into how different people think and respond to a significant issue – particularly one that involves change of such scale. The key thing about this discussion is to be able to differentiate between the different components of the debate. This includes the extent to which global warming is occurring, its likely causes, and its probable consequences. Sadly, in a world that is increasingly informed by ‘sound bite’ journalism where we can selectively embrace those items that satisfy our personal beliefs or feelings, there is a paucity of deep engagement with the issues at hand. In the debates that ensue there is often a tangled confusion of thinking – resulting in binary arguments between the climate change deniers and those who feel it needs our attention.

Thus, climate change is a metaphor for what I see happening in the domain of education at the moment. We have, on the one had, those who tend to ‘catastrophize’ education, pointing out all of its current failures and lack of relevance in the modern world. On the other hand we have those who doggedly defend the traditions established in a system that is now 200 years old.  Then, of course, there is a whole spectrum of views held by those on the continuum between.

We understand only too well that climate change hasn’t just ‘happened’. The effects have emerging for many decades now,  the cumulative impact of our use of fossil fuels and industrialised processes dependent on other extractive industries. And now we’re faced with a situation that, in many ways, is a ‘burning platform’ situation, where, if we fail to act, we face the likelihood of catastrophic consequences for our planet and for humanity.

And so it is with education. While we may not be experiencing anything as disruptive as rising sea levels, devastating floods or crop failure due to lack of rain impacting our schools and classrooms, there are a number of things we need to be taking notice of that are just as challenging.

Consider the rising tide of disengagement and boredom among students as just one ‘signal’ here. This is a bit like taking notice of the rising sea level on a Pacific Island, and requires us to consider why is this happening in the first place? The contributing factors to student disengagement are varied, but research points to things such as:

  • curriculum that lacks relevance to their lives
  • students’ s experiences at school being out of step with their experiences at home and in the ‘real world’
  • a lack of cultural relevance or inclusion
  • a growing lack of ‘hope’ in the future with constant change in requirements in the workforce or where jobs are being taken over by the rise of the machines.

To dwell on the last bullet point for a moment, the brief video below provides a simplified history of the link between technology and human progress. It reveals that the change we are currently experiencing is unprecedented, and argues that automation is different this time round.

The pace and speed of change illustrated here is something that contributes to the anxiety that many students feel about the future they are facing, and the sense of hope they may have about whether there is a place for them in this sort of future. It therefore raises questions about how well their education is preparing them for this future world.

The future painted by the rise of the machines challenges the foundation of our education system – the belief that what we are doing is, in large part, designed to prepare students for the occupation they may pursue into the future. But what if that occupation hasn’t yet been designed, let alone imagined? Or worse, what if there is no occupation because it has been taken over by a machine?

This is just one example of how our education system is being challenged, and how we, like frogs in boiling water, may be guilty of persisting with systems, structures and practices that are no longer fit for purpose. We are blissfully ignoring the gradual creep of disengagement and alienation of many students due to the increasing lack of relevance to their lives, now and in the future.

This is education’s climate change moment. We are perilously close to the tipping point, where at a moment’s notice it is likely that we’ll see signs we can’t ignore any longer, such as significant groups of students to ‘act with their feet’ and simply not attend school, and a reaction from the wider community of employers who begin setting up alternative forms of learning opportunity to compensate for the failure of schools to adequately prepare young people with the capabilities required to thrive in the modern workplace – and the modern world.

So as this new year dawns, perhaps we could afford ourselves a little time to engage more seriously with these issues before we become too bogged down again in the traditions of the past that define how our current school system operates.

One thought on “Education’s “Climate Change”

  1. I like the parallel between the nature of climate change,its debates and the choices and perils facing education systems. It helps us into the urgent and complex nature of the challenges facing education today and the roadblocks to finding a way forward.

Leave a Reply