They will inherit the earth

image: Derek Wenmoth

In my recent keynote presentation at the Aurora Institute Symposium in Palm Springs I attempted to convey the urgency we, as educators, must embrace for focusing our efforts in schools on preparing our young people for the future – their future! Not the sort of future that we envisaged when we were young, but the future as it is emerging through the trends and evidence we’re presented with on an almost daily basis. I feel extremely strongly about this -prompting the establishment of FutureMakers.NZ as a vehicle for engaging others in the quest for thinking about (and acting on) the things that matter, the things that will make a difference, and the capabilities our young people will need to ensure they can thrive (not simply survive) in this uncertain future.

One of the capabilities I believe is most important is the ability to think critically about the ideas, opinions and information that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Our traditional education system has failed generations in the past in this respect. With our relentless focus on ensuring we are covering the content we believe is important, there is often not time enough to allow (or encourage) our learners to delve deeply into the information provided, to test the ideas presented against alternative viewpoints and to establish the difference between what is fact and what is conjecture or opinion etc.

My thinking here was stimulated again this morning when I read reports of the views espoused by a Wellington City Councillor who is reported to be arguing that climate change is being driven by natural forces (and not a result of human activity). This view seems to have triggered a number of responses from the supporters of climate change action which I’m sure we’ll see more of in the coming weeks.

While I’m aware that there are many that will share this view – along with those who disagree – the issue for our young people is that regardless of what the cause is, the future they face appears to be almost certainly impacted by changes in weather patterns, sea level rise etc which in turn will affect the ability of the planet to provide food, shelter and a liveable temperature range to support life in the way we know it currently.

Our young people need to be equipped with the critical thinking capabilities to be able to navigate their way through these apparent contradictions and be guided towards being able to make informed decisions that will help shape the future rather than simply wait and respond to what happens. In this regard it was interesting today to read that Italy’s government has become the first to mandate climate change education in schools. While that is a noble (and in my view worthy) thing to do, we also know that real change in our schools, curriculum and pedagogical practice will not occur simply because of a change in legislation – it requires a change of heart, and of the beliefs of the educators.

For this to happen we – the educators – must also become more engaged in thinking critically about what we are doing in our schools, the decisions we are making about curriculum, and examine the reasons behind so much of what we are doing currently.

Back to the issue of climate change, Radio NZ’s Leith Huffadine recently recorded a brilliantly compelling piece on what climate change will mean for the next generation. In it he says:

New Zealanders born today will likely end up knowing this country as a place where homes are uninsurable, iconic landscapes are unrecognisable and mosquitos carry serious disease.

Huffadine references a number of national and international studies and identifies a number of specific threats facing New Zealand that could make it unrecognisable in the future: higher temperatures bringing malarial mosquitoes, crumbling coastlines, and the possibility that hardship and shortages will result in the collapse of what we understand as decent and humane society.

His views are becoming more widely supported with a recent report from more than 11,000 scientists who have officially declared a global climate emergency Their message is blunt: “if we don’t make rapid, deep and lasting changes to our lives, they write, there will soon come “untold human suffering”.

So what is the message here for educators? And what can we do? Here are some initial thoughts…

  1. Commit to developing your own critical thinking capabilities. Be prepared to engage in honest conversations with your peers, connect with communities of practice exploring similar ideas, be prepared to explore all sides of an issue and develop strategies for weighing up the fact from fiction etc.
  2. Consider how best to implement climate action projects within your school environment, including waste minimalisation approaches, eliminating all forms of plastic, making energy efficient investments (heat, light etc.), grow gardens, promote composting etc.
  3. Include social action projects within your curriculum planning– focus on things that matter, rather than the things that ‘feel good’ or are easy to find resources for. Reach out and draw from community expertise, and make links and connections across the wider network.
  4. Explicitly reference and emphasise (reward and value) the development of the critical thinking capabilities that you identify as being important for our young people to develop. Model these in your teaching. Identify them in others reported in the media etc.
  5. Involve your parents and community leaders – the change that needs to be made won’t occur simply because of classroom-based projects, no matter how well intentioned or researched. The change needs to be evident to all. If we want to see the change then we need to be the change!

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