Complexity, climate and the curriculum

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

I’ve been having a number of conversations recently about the curriculum review that is currently taking place here in NZ. After 15 years of working with a competency-based curriculum in NZ it is appropriate that a review be undertaken to ensure it remains ‘current’ and ‘fit for purpose.

At its simplest level, the the purpose of a national curriculum is to set out the principles, goals and the content/areas of importance to be studied by learners during their time in the compulsory schooling system. It is a way of ensuring that all learners are exposed to and engage with the content and material which are considered important for a rounded education that prepares them well for their future.

What matters?

The question here then revolves around ‘what’ should taught – who decides? why is it a priority? For example, in just the past few years we’ve seen the addition of Digital Technologies and NZ History to our NZ Curriculum – both of which have been prioritised on the basis of arguments about what is required by our learners for them to thrive into the future. The drivers of these initiatives maybe viewed as largely political and/or economic, and the approach taken in each recognises the complexity of our modern world and the need to develop both knowledge and capabilities that will enable learners to play a role as productive citizens into the future.

This is where we face a growing tension. When choosing the content (subjects, topics etc.) within the curriculum. we find ourselves focused only on the ‘near future’ (i.e. what job do I want” what skills and knowledge will I need to do this? how will this help me when I leave school?).

Fertile questions

Some years ago there was an emphasis in various places on the idea of using ‘fertile questions‘, an approach developed by Yoram Harpaz and Adam Lefstein who were concerned about the way in which traditional schooling had become very ‘atomistic’ in its approach to curriculum, teaching and learning. Fertile questions provide a more holistic approach. They are very rich and complex, and engaging with them usually means traversing a range of ‘subject’ areas. This approach is still used in a number of schools and can result in very deep learning and the development of transferrable skills.

Wicked Problems

Another approach involves tackling wicked problems – often defined as social issues which are difficult or even possible to define, to which solutions are not clear, and which cannot be fully solved. Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues

Simply put, the use of fertile questions wicked problems are examples of strategies that focus our attention on things that matter in education, a point made well in an article on Wicked Problems in Education by Yong Zhao, Michael Wehmeyer, James Basham and David Hansen which states…

What is measured in education represents a society’s view of what is important for schools to teach and what matters for children to learn. What gets measured reflects the outcomes a society expects of its education system and what its future citizens should be equipped to do. Paradoxically, once an educational outcome is measured, it becomes what matters, even if it turns out to be an unimportant, or irrelevant, outcome. What we measure is what schools and students pursue. As a result, what is measured has a significant impact on the curriculum, the educational experiences of children, and the qualities of future citizens.

Tackling the Wicked Problem of Measuring What Matters: Framing the Questions

So our challenge as educators lies in the decisions we make about our curriculum – as a nation, and as a local school community – to ensure it does address the things that matter, to us, to society and to our future generations.

Climate Change Matters

In a recent presentation to the World Economic Forum’s digital platform UpLink, which is dedicated to finding solutions to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, primatologist Jane Goodall has urged the world to work together to solve the greatest threat we’re facing: climate change.

Goodall believes the climate crisis threatens the existence of everything on the planet, including human existence, and before we can begin to tackle it, there are three major challenges we have to overcome:

  1. “While people are living in abject poverty, they’re going to destroy the environment to grow food to feed their family, fish the last fish, buy the cheapest junk food. They can’t afford to say, ‘Did this harm the environment?’
  2. “We have to solve the problem of the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us.”
  3. “We have to recognise there are 7.2 billion people on the planet and already we’re using up natural resources in some places faster than nature can restore them. In 2050, it’s estimated there will be nearly 10 billion of us. So what’s going to happen? We cannot afford to put that aside because it’s politically incorrect. We’ve got to think about it.”

World Economic Forum – Jane Goodall: The window of time to find climate change solutions is closing

Back to the statement by Zhao et al – are these the sorts of things that matter enough for us to be incorporating them into the way we approach our curriculum (and all of the decisions around what we measure that follow on from that)?

Addressing complexity and deciding what matters

It can all seem too hard – ending poverty is surely someone else’s job, not something I can influence? What can we do as a school anyway – we sponsor a child, we hold fundraisers for UNICEF etc.? These are not uncommon responses – but they indicate the presence of a much larger issue – or wicked problem. The fact that on its current trajectory our education system is unlikely to genuinely address the myriad of complex, wicked problems that our current generation of learners in schools will face in their future.

Consider, how, in the build up to the NZ election we’ve seen a promise from one party to put an end to single use plastics, and a counter argument from a different party based on the inconvenience it may cause. If, as adults, we are drawn into these polarising, binary positions around concerns that will affect the future of the planet, consider how important it is that we prepare our young learners with the skills to ‘see all sides’ and to ‘weigh up the arguments’ all while maintaining a future focused perspective that recognises the global impact even our local decisions may have.

Leave a Reply