The Worldwatch Institute has, today, published Earth Ed: rethinking education on a changing planet.  There are 25 chapters with the first and last ones (both by Erik Assadourian, senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and director of State of the World 2017) available as no-cost downloads.  The whole thing will cost you $20 or so, plus shipping.

The last chapter is set in 2030 where Assadourian makes assumptions about how bad things have already gotten.  This begins:

“It’s 2030. The world’s population has now grown to 8.5 billion people. Global temperatures are now an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than in 1880. Seas have already risen forty centimeters since 2016, suggesting that the models of that year that projected a rise of two meters by 2100 were likely significant underestimates. The Arctic Ocean is now consistently ice-free every summer. And several countries have lost a primary source of fresh water and freshwater storage as glaciers grow smaller and smaller each year.

Many cities have been damaged signifcantly by climate change, and more than 40 million environmental refugees have fled their homelands and settled elsewhere, triggering sometimes violent backlash in their host countries. Flooding and disasters routinely cost tens of billions of dollars a year in damages, which has depleted the coffers of many national governments and diverted spending away from critical social investments, including schools.

In many places, this has caused education to take a major step backward, with governments shuttering schools, laying off teachers, cutting instructional hours, and even reducing total years of schooling. In other places, however, the convergence of economic, environmental, and social crises has led to a flurry of educational innovation: new programs, new curricula, new priorities, and new types of schools, perhaps revealing the first steps on a new educational path that is better adapted to life on a changing planet.”

There’s much of interest here, and not just in the vignettes representing the “typical” days at three of the most innovative schools of 2030—a river-based middle school in The Gambia, an ecoengineering magnet high school in Singapore, and an activist high school in Brazil.  But there’s a key question that comes to you as you read this: How?  How did all this good work come about?  To its credit, the book raises this issue:

“Yet the question remains: how can we transition away from schools that are based on outmoded ideas or even rote memorization; that feed children unhealthy foods and give them just twenty minutes a day to be outside and active; that overwhelm them with technologies for which they are not ready; and that “teach to the test” rather than offer creative opportunities to learn cooperatively, connect with nature, and “learn how to learn”?”

To something of its discredit, it doesn’t really answer it.  It says:

“… one can hope that success will breed success and that the challenges faced will breed a resolve to innovate, not capitulate.  As more children attend—and thrive in—forest schools, and as parents demand spots for their own children or even start their own forest schools, the movement will grow.  As climate change-induced flooding inundates school after school, more designers and governments will give floating schools a try, and—if the schools prove not just to be safer and unsinkable, but also to accelerate learning opportunities—these too may proliferate.  As social entrepreneurship schools create new opportunities for students as well as for the villages, towns, and cities of which they are a part, communities may clamour for these.  And as more social change leaders recognize that students are natural activists, activism schools may go from being a rare phenomenon to a leading trend of the future.”

That sounds no better than prayer to me; prayer than schools will change society for the better – and quickly – when the overwhelming evidence is that it’s society that is good at changing schools rather than the other way round.

The more realistic Chapter 1 ends like this:

“Education alone will not save humanity, but it may play an essential role in enabling people to get through the turbulent times ahead with their humanity intact. It also may help train a new generation of leaders who can slow the ecological crisis to a speed to which humanity may be able to adapt.  For education to play this role, however, it will take bold leadership on the part of educators and the administrators and policy makers that support them.  If they can summon up this leadership, then perhaps tomorrow’s students will be not only better equipped for surviving the challenges ahead, but also well on the way to building a sustainable future.”

“Perhaps” indeed.  I said more realistic, above, because at least this mentions administrators and policy-makers who really will need to be involved if the sort of change that Assadourian is optimistic for is to come about.  It’s a pity, then, that the final chapter has so little to say about how they were involved in the changes that are set out there.

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Earth Ed: rethinking education on a changing planet is available from the Worldwatch Institute.

William Scott

University of Bath