Nothing short of terrifying

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

A headline one of this week’s newspapers has been top of mind over the past few days. It read; Planetary health-check delivers ‘unprecedented’, ‘terrifying’ picture. The article reports on the findings of the latest report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). As highlighted in the headline, the findings are alarming to say the least, and warn of dire consequences for us as a species if we don’t determine to act quickly enough (and even then it may not be quick enough!)

I was discussing this with another colleague as we’d each read the article, noting the encouragement we might take from the NZ government’s recently announced clean car rebate and of US president Joe Biden’s push for electric vehicles to make up half of U.S. auto sales by 2030. To which my colleague asked, “but what’s the use? It’s all very well for us to make sacrifices to save the planet – but what about the people in all of the other countries that continue to churn out more CO2 than we do?”

Which seems to highlight a problem we have when it comes to dealing with the long-term impact of complex issues. The decades of ‘me’ not ‘we’, of neo-liberal politics, and of an economy driven by consumerism underpinned by extractive industries have focused our attention so much on the ‘now’ that we’ve simply acted as if the current rate of consumption and productivity can continue. Despite the evidence from science and social science highlighting the perils of inaction, we are driven by our desire for more immediate gratification.

Of course, the findings of the IPCC report aren’t new. As far back as the 1970s when I was a science student at high school, I was introduced to the concept of climate change, and to the alternatives we needed to consider in our models of food production as a result of exponential population growth and the limits that would place on being able to sustain a demand for nutrition generated at the top of the food chain.

It was alarming stuff for young minds to absorb back then – but for us, that was all in the future, and our more immediate focus was on getting a job so we could earn the money we needed to build for ourselves the future that our parents encouraged us to pursue – something ‘better’ than they had.

Like many in my generation, the desire to achieve the things that society kept convincing me are important conflicted often with those early influences in my life that encouraged me to ‘live simply that others may simply live’.

The reality that we’ve lived with for some time now is that our current, consumer-driven way of life simply isn’t sustainable into to the future. Yet little changes. David Wallace-Well’s 2019 book, The Uninhabitable Earth presents a terrifying prognosis for the future of our planet as a result of this sort of mindset. His conclusion is that if things continue at the present pace, large parts of the planet will become uninhabitable by 2100.

This concerns me greatly, for if these predictions are indeed accurate (even by 50%) then what we’re talking about will affect my grandchildren, not to mention any children they may have.

This sort of thinking can become overwhelming and lead us even more to focus simply on the ‘now’, catering for our current comfort and security, and leaving such big problems to ‘them’ – the invisible ‘others’ who are continually blamed when things go wrong and appealed to when help is required. It becomes too hard for us to think about. We feel paralysed by the enormity of it all and the growing sense that whatever little we might do will not have any significant impact.

As the newspaper headline says, the consequences here are nothing short of terrifying!

What about education?

The thing is, education is in a very similar state to the environment. It’s just that the future lives of our young people don’t impact us in the same way as when our homes burn in bush fires, or we lose our livelihood due to sea level rising. Like me and my school mates in the 1970s when confronted with the science of climate change and population growth – it may provide a useful context for debate and discussion, but it’s not what we’re facing right now.

We now have a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that what we’re doing , the way we’re organised, and the principles and practices that underpin it all are not only failing so many of our learners, but also failing our society – our future society, the state of the economy the environment and the planet that these people will grow to inherit.

And yet we persist with the status quo, somehow believing that if we can just do things a little better we’ll see things improve. We’re locked into improvement when what’s needed is transformation. When we consider the alarming trends here in NZ and internationally, around the quality of educational outcomes and the growing mis-match with what is required in the real world where our young people will live and thrive, we could use the same headline – “It’s nothing short of terrifying!”

So what can educators do?

In pondering the concerns outlined above it seems to me that there are two areas in which we, as educators, must act – and act quickly.

  1. Change the experience of school.
    If we are truly going to see the change in outcomes that we believe are necessary, we need to confront so much of structures and processes we have in place that define what schools are and how they operate. So much of how schools operate is continues to be based on the principles and beliefs of the industrial age when they were developed. I’ve written about this before, but it continues to be an area that, like climate change, we tinker around the edges, without confronting the base causes. Courageous leadership is required – at the system level through to the local school level.
  2. Change our curriculum.
    Our curriculum (at a national level and school level) is a reflection of what we believe is important for our young people to know, do and understand as they prepare for life as adults. It guides what we teach and, to some degree, how we teach it. In New Zealand we’re currently in the midst of a significant review of curriculum and assessment, and much of the rhetoric guiding this is based on identifying ‘what can’t be left to chance’, and ensuring it is adequately addressed for all learners in all schools. As laudable as this intent is, the proof, as they say, will be in the pudding! As we are seek to interpret the national curriculum in our local contexts it is as important as it ever has been that we do so with a critical eye. We must seek to ensure that the things that matter, the things we can’t leave to chance, isn’t just a euphemism for basic literacy and numeracy standards, or some specific areas of content or knowledge that certain parts of our system believe are important. I’m not claiming these things aren’t important – they are! It’s more that we need to be thinking much more critically when considering the choices we make about what guides our local curriculum design. We must consider whether we’re giving adequate attention to the sorts of things our young people are going to need to navigate the complex issues and problems we’ve created and are leaving for them to solve. I’ve written previously that the Sustainable Development Goals should be seriously considered when looking for authentic, real-world contexts for our curriculum – as these are the things that will determine the quality of existence our young people will have after they leave school.

Like the climate change issue, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and conclude there’s very little we can do that will make a difference. And also like climate change, there are still those who dispute and debate the evidence (or science) underpinning the concern. This is why we need strong and courageous leadership – in our schools, our communities, our bureaucracies and our political systems. Without it the consequences for our young people may indeed be nothing short of terrifying!

Leave a Reply