Monday, June 20, 2011

The need for new mindsets and the importance of a future orientated education system

The first astronauts experience transformed their concept  of Earth;  as world of interconnected systems bigger than the ambitions of any one country - a planetary view.

We are reaching a stage in human development where we all need to appreciate the importance of the health, or sustainability, of the very planet we live on.

 In the past man made changes were restricted to  individual nations but now it is  widely understood that human changes have world wide consequences.   Marshall McLuhan, in the 60s, foresaw this writing: 'On Spaceship Earth there are no passengers, everybody is a member of the crew.We have moved into and age where everybody's activities affect everybody else'. It is an interconnected living world  which is showing worrying signs of stress. Developing an appreciation of this interconnection is an important role for a future orientated education system but so far schools have not taken up the challenge.

 If new minds, appreciative of the problems, are not developed then, within decades, the fate of the Polynesians of Easter Island will be replicated destroying human life on our planet. There is no denying degradation of our environment and effects of climate change -even the politicians, known for their short term thinking, are starting to take notice -  but  all too slowly.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Powerful voices are suggesting a radical change in how we think about about our consumer society, what we value and how we live. In her book 'Plenitude'  Economist Juliet Schor outlines how we are degrading the planet faster than it is possible to regenerate. Food, energy, transport and consumer goods are becoming increasingly expensive and that our usual way back to growth is no longer an option.New thinking is required to develop sustainability.  Current economic thinking does not take into account the downstream costs of industrial pollution leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab. Such indutries are loath to pay any carbon tax or clean up costs and continue to despoil  and degrade the  environment.

We are heading for an ecological crisis that can be no longer be solved by blind faith in progress and  new technology. One scientist, James Lovelock originator of the Gaia Hypothesis ( the world as a living organism), believes it is already too late to save human life!  Others write that to sustain a future population of 9 billion we would need the resources of three Earths.

Such voices would seem hard to ignore but ignored they are.

Without changes  the world is headed for a world of political conflict , often over scarce resources, a growing gap between rich and poor within and between countries, growing poverty, and environmental degradation. Inequality in any society creates fertile ground for conflicts - conflicts no longer restricted to the counties they occur in. Einstein wrote that we cannot continue trying to solve the major problems we face at the same level of thinking that created them in the first place and he is right. We desperately need these new minds.

Perceptive writers are arguing for the need to develop a planetary sustainable mindset. One such writer is Ervin Laszlo in his book 'The Chaos Point - the World at a Crossroads'.

Laszlo  writes that history shows that at major shifts of thinking happens at key points  in human development resulting in new civilisations and that the whole world now faces such a crossroads or turning point. Human genetical make up, he writes, has changed little from stone age days but in contrast human consciousness has changed dramatically in response to new situations.  Living in settled farming communities required different behaviours from an earlier mobile hunting era. Democratic ideals changed thinking in Greece and the Renaissance developed unheard of advances in thinking.  Capitalist ideal based on progress and growth  ( premised on Darwin's survival of the fittest) and socialist ideals of sharing such wealth emerged in response to the Industrial Revolution.

Such changes in thinking in the past took several lifetimes to develop but today, Laszlo writes, in our fast changing world,  time is at a premium.

Visions that drove earlier civilisations and nations as they competed for dominance now need to be applied to the world itself for without significant and widespread change our global civilisation could collapse into chaos. Easter Island on a world wide scale.

Everybody needs to be involved. Waiting for politicians to develop the courage  -as they slowly  appreciate a growing need for such changes in the voting populations will not be enough. Ideas once thought idiotic are now entering mainstream conversations.We need a new culture of planetary responsibility.

Laszlos', in his small book , is calling us to what may well be the greatest conscious moment in our collective experience as people realize  that, for the first time, humans could render themselves extinct by their own actions.

Laszlo  writes that we are a 'chaos window'  - a transitory time when any input, however small can blow up to change existing trends and bring new ideas into existence. In our lives we all know of such vital moments of choice without fully appreciating fully the consequences of our actions.

Such a moments occurs when chaotic times exists; when things are out of control; when old ways no longer seem to work; when 'business as usual' only makes things worse. Looking around our society there are no shortage of struggling institutions and organisations that fit this situation; schools amongst them. The current economic thinking, which excludes environmental consequences,  relying on growth at all costs, needs to be challenged.

In such chaotic windows of opportunity  chaos or crucial  tipping points arise when current organisations breakdown and can longer return to their prior state or behaviours.Tipping points can lead to either total breakdown or new breakthroughs and new ways of thinking.

Schools may look as if they are succeeding  and only need to be improved by more rigorous methods such as the imposition of  state sanctioned 'best practices',National Standards, testing, measurement and the narrowing of the curriculum to numeracy and literacy, but this is  just tinkering.

 Mass education which arose out of the standardized and mechanistic mindset of the  Industrial Era is no longer able to educate all students. In earlier days the  great majority were once happily excluded ( or streamed out for menial jobs  -jobs which no longer exist)  are now forced to attend. That only one in five fail is not only remarkable but ignores the fact that those who fail live in difficult social conditions created by the  industrial society of winners and losers they're forced to live in. As well, this simplistic statistic hides the deeper failure of schools to develop the unique talents of all students. With success being measured in politically defined areas  schools, by complying, ignore the need to develop the unique talents  creativity of all their students. As a result of unquestioned assumptions inherited from a failing era  little  attempt is made to develop the new minds required to solve problem old thinking has created.

In this respect schools are part of the problem.

Educational leaders need to work together to create a learning culture in their schools that ensures all students leave with the competencies to become 'connected,  confident, life long learners'; learners  who are 'able to seek , use and create their own knowledge'. Ironically schools have the curriculum to do just this. The New Zealand Curriculum, revised in 2007,   moved  well away from the technocratic measurable earlier curriculum. Unfortunately the new government, with its allegiance to a measurable  efficiency business model, is imposing National Standards on schools which is a unnecessary distraction. 

As a result most schools are based on the thinking inherited from a past industrial age -and secondary schools most of all. Even primary schools reflect past thinking with their obsession on literacy and numeracy and their enthusiasm for testing. Schools today, living as they do in a surveillance culture, do not provide the conditions for developing the creativity of their teachers or students.

Schools need to challenge the assumptions  that underpin their current thinking.

They need to ask what is the purpose of schooling in such fast changing times? They need to ask how can they ensure the innate  desire to learn students are born with are retained ? They need to ask how can they personalise learning to develop the talents  and passions of all their students?   Most of all  they need to ask themselves how they can ensure  all students leave develop with future orientated mindsets; with a new consciousness able to tackle problems unable to be solved with current thinking.

How would such schools look?

One thing is they wouldn't be standardized. If they were to work towards a vision of a sustainable, evolutionary world they would need to develop unique approaches  to personalise learning for all their students - and  they would have to model themselves the behaviors and thinking the future will require of their students. The encouragement of school creativity  would contribute to the evolution of new ideas in contrast to the current accountability 'one size fits all' culture.

Thankfully there are teachers who have started on this journey and there are well respected educators able to give them courage. To succeed however  leadership at all levels will be required

The cause of current intractable world problems is old thinking - wrong thinking. At the dawn of the new millennium, Laszlo writes, 'we can no longer ignore that current trends are building towards a critical threshold. We are entering a tipping point which we could take advantage of or pay the ultimate price'.

This new view is emerging in sharp contrast to the worldview of untrammeled self interested progress that  has dominated  since the Industrial Age. The new view is a holistic interconnected one and it will require holistic and creative schools to ensure its growth.

Schools need to be seen at the creative frontiers of society not propping up outdated thinking. Schools can  either be part of the problem or part of the solution. In reality there should be no choice and to do so they should work with others. As Margaret Mead said, 'Never doubt that the power of a small group of people to change the world; nothing else ever has'.

Laszlo concludes his book with a quote from Victor Havel , then president of Czechoslovakia, who said, 'Without a global revolution in the shape of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better...and the ecological, social, demographic, or general breakdown of civilisation - will be inevitable.'

Laslo believes it can be avoided.

Let's hope he is right.

And I believe  a new holistic  education is central to success.


Bruce Hammonds said...

I meant to write a blog about the kind of education that will be required to develop the appropriate mindsets to thrive in such a evolutionary (and somewhat at risk) future.

Next blog.

My feeling is that most schools still reflect the assumptions of a past era - a look at how time is allocated and what is assessed is the clue.

And the reactionary National Standards will block any real progress.

Anonymous said...

Schools, as they are structured today, prop up the status quo. We need some real leaders to pull schools into the future - it is where they will have to live.