Frank Furedi in ‘Turning Children into Orwellian Eco-Spies’ warns that there are resonances of Stalinism in the new orthodoxy by which we use children to teach adults about climate change. I have concerns about the same phenomenon but I’m coming from very different perspectives on both education and the environment. I’ve also had qualms when meeting people who are convinced that the solution to climate change is to educate children. The reasons for my qualms are many: It’s too late to wait until children are running the world; they can’t vote until 18 so if we should focus on educating anyone it’s the late middle-aged and elderly, who make up the majority of voters; it doesn’t seem fair to put the onus on children. The main reason I baulk is that The Government’s reductive and misguided response to every problem (the root cause of which is usually gross inequality or unchecked capitalism) is to add yet another subject to the curriculum. Firstly these expensive initiatives are based on a misconception, that children will learn by being taught a lesson, by teachers who have been told to deliver compulsory lessons. Secondly, every time a new lesson is added, the less time there is for learning that might help children adapt to a difficult future.
Furedi has written a book called ‘Wasted, Why Education isn’t Educating’ in which he decries the erosion of traditional disciplines by endless additions of trendy topics (for example in the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum). In the article he says that environmentalism is infecting every subject, such as geography and history (as if they’re not utterly relevant to those subjects). I’m not concerned so much about the death of traditional disciplines in schools, but more that those in power are so wedded to the idea of subjects per se, old or new, that they continually add more to the diet. I’m not so concerned that the environment is infecting every subject, than that ecological systems thinking has been and still is so absent from education. Furedi conflates environmental topics with ‘scare-mongering’, but, on the contrary, effective environmental education is not about frightening people. It is about empowering them, helping them develop adaptive coping strategies. The more that is understood about a frightening scenario, the more people are able to resist and cope.
I suspect that if we framed school learning differently, whereby children had more involvement in deciding what enquiries are relevant, they would decide pretty quickly that the environment is pretty relevant. If we made clear to them that learning is about preparing for the future, that to live well in the future they would need to learn how to solve problems, co-operate, access knowledge and design new solutions, they would gravitate towards the biggest problems. Furedi’s position is that our current education philosophies undermine the authority of adults. I believe that adults (in affluent societies) have eroded their own authority by becoming infantilised, yet we form myths around the gravity and arduousness of an adult working life. We underestimate the ability of children and young people to think because we have forgotten how to think ourselves. We have progressed into a state of mature denial, treating problems too abstractly, too much in isolation and too much as issues for agonistic debate.
No, not really. These are the most important subjects, no contest. They cover the three things we need: to deal with the visual world, to think analytically and experimentally, to access information and communicate. My ideal curriculum takes for granted these essentials and therefore integrates them into authentic enquiries, based on human needs. Really it is based on the two disciplines missing by name from the English National Curriculum; anthropology and environmental studies. Without understanding global cultures or the environment we fail to embrace the most compelling problems of our time.
The starting points of learning: The Cultural realm
- My story (myself understood as story)
- My language (how I grow through communication with others)
- How I imagine the world (fantasy, invention)
- How I begin to make sense of the complex world, in the many groups and situations that I live in (copying others, knowledge)
- How I must behave
Growing towards: The Cultural Realm
- Global complexity & diversity
- Systems of exchange (trade, language etc)
- How humans represent the world and their understanding of it
- How representations differ between us
- What we preserve from past knowledge, what is valuable – How can I make new representations that help me & others understand the world?
- What is good? How must we behave in the future?
The starting points of learning: The Natural realm
- How my body works – ‘Myself and other animals’
- How my body can be better (PE, food, health)
- How I can make new things, mend things and build the world (craft, design etc)
- How I enjoy being in the world (dance, music)
Growing towards: The Natural Realm
- How humans use and change the natural world (geography etc)
- Concepts for understanding the mechanisms and fabric of the world (maths, physics, chemistry etc)
- The world beyond and before culture (prehistory, animals)
- The universe beyond this world (astronomy)
- How can we improve the way we live to survive changes in the environment?
Essential for exploring these realms are abilities to:
•Investigate (question, experiment, seek knowledge)
•Record and model (using words, images, numbers, technologies)
•Dialogue (challenge, debate, interrogate, collaborate)
•Narrate (express, engage, characterise, connote)
There’s a long set of responses to Jackie Ashley’s article on Susan Greenfield’s warning to the House of Lords about the need to research the effect of technology on our brains and the way children think and learn.
Here’s my post to the Comment is Free blog on the Guardian site:
I thought I’d have a proper read of Susan Greenfield’s piece rather than pick over Jackie Ashley’s muddled article. Greenfield skims over a lot of ground, conflates lots of ideas and begs loads of questions, but I think she means well in arguing, ironically, that the key skill in education is learning how to ‘pose appropriate, meaningful questions’. She also supports Futurelab’s work, which is good work because it positively embraces the potential of new technology to generate enquiring minds. She is calling for an open debate and I would suggest that an agency like Futurelab is best placed to articulate the questions. However, it’s fun to pick holes so I can’t resist pointing out where she begs some questions: 1) She assumes that young people aren’t reading sustained narratives anymore. But I remember seeing that there had been a huge increase in children reading fiction (need to check that though). In my schooling, 23-34 years ago-ish, we didn’t read sustained narratives but bits of text on the blackboard and in worksheets. My sustained reading was voluntary. If you look at the 50 years of mass secondary education, much of the effective learning would be through crafts, science experiments, physical and social activity. Very few children learn mostly through reading and writing, although some do and then they may find the time for sustained reading out of school. 2) She says that in a multimedia presentation ‘you would be having an experience not learning’. But doesn’t brain-based learning theory say that you learn through sensory reinforcements and experiences? 3) She assumes that children are spending most of their time learning via screens and seems to have wiped teachers and other mentors out of the equation. I understood that access to ICT and multimedia presentations in schools was still too limited. 4) She assumes that children or teachers don’t make time to reflect or talk during or after seeing a multimedia presentation or film. She suggests that films (e.g. films of books) will make us lose our imaginations, but films can inspire children to read books, write books, write comics, invent new stories, imagine other worlds, want to travel, want to solve the world’s problems. The heart of the issue she raises is the ‘wow’ and ‘yuck’ factor, that our responses to stimuli will become too superficial. The way to avoid this is to invest in education, to ensure that education enables young people to develop critical thinking skills, to take ownership of their learning and to learn through experience, through problem solving, and to have as much access as possible to web-based information, films, books, sounds and more to help them solve these problems.
I just read Douglas Rushkoff’s blog http://rushkoff.com/blog.php and he makes a good point about fun at work as opposed to fun as work. This is explored more in his new book about innovation in business Get Back in the Box. http://www.rushkoff.com/box.html It relates to my point about fun and creativity in education. I don’t believe in just adding the arts as rewards or light relief extrinsic to the process of learning. I believe that fun in education happens when you feel as if you are making real, valuable stuff happen, when you are being inventive and being sociable.
I watched Yo Beckles on TV last night, working with 3 bright and funny kids from Fortismere School, having read the media controversy about her. I’m pretty sure any teacher could have done a better job than she did, if they were given the time to focus on coaching 3 kids. Many teachers would have taken a more subtle approach, more suited to these questioning kids. The programme missed many opportunities to ask questions about what education could be and how these kids could actually help to change it. Just as Yo’s single colour is purple, the single issue hammered home was ‘you have to play the game, do what the teacher tells you, no questions asked, work hard, because if you don’t….’ These students were into sport, drama, music and computers. Yo got them to look at achievers in these fields and translate that ambition into their academic work. Pressure was put on the students and their parents. But there was no discussion with teachers about opportunities to integrate music, drama, sport or creative computing into their subject. There was no talk about how to harness the passion, practical skills and wit of these kids. There must surely be lots of teaching at the school that does engage these kids in such ways but we didn’t see it. The impression formed was that for too much of the school day, individuals have to subjugate themselves, sit still and quiet in boring classrooms, tackle abstract subjects by soaking in words in order to regurgitate them for exam success. The programme budget could have been better spent on curriculum experiments, enabling teachers to break from the norm, enabling students to be challenging, funny, different and productive. These students were being encouraged by Yo to work only for their personal success, not for the community or for bigger goals. Personalised learning shouldn’t mean just learning for your own gain but working in teams, contributing your strengths and your questions, learning from those of others.