This is the second in a number of reactions to the recently published NAEE Manifesto. It’s from Dr John Foster at Lancaster University. As ever with our blogs, what is set out here is not necessarily the view of the Association.
This is a very impressive manifesto into which much careful professional thought has evidently gone. If even a significant minority of schools were doing all the cross-curricular integrating, experiential learning, community-wide liaising and whole-institution thinking which it promotes, we should be in a very much better place as regards public environmental literacy than we currently are. And yet…I can’t help getting a sense of ‘Forward to the 1990s!’ from it. It is written in a tone and seems to be written for a situation in which environmental issues are still problems (even wicked problems), with their solutions being pursued by science and government in an organised way through processes to which school students may be encouraged to think of themselves as learning to contribute. It conveys no feeling of being written for the situation in which Greta Thunberg wants us all to panic – and in which increasing numbers of activists, including importantly school-aged activists, are taking to the streets in that spirit because our governing institutions are fraudulent or at best lethally complacent and very palpably haven’t got our backs.
There of course is the rub – how do you put panic on the curriculum? More orotundly, how do you express in curricular terms the desperate urgency of the current real crisis, in a context where teachers and students are routinely distracted by a regime of adventitious testing, where the handling of controversial issues is policed by the light-touch Gestapo of the DfE, where school students have many and varied sources of anxiety in their lives already and where simply scaring the shit out of them would be both unprofessional and unproductive?
I have myself wrestled with this conundrum, not as a schoolteacher but in relation to university outreach work with sixth-forms and others. Maybe there is no resolving it, and the most that formal education can do is what is sketched in the manifesto. But in case that is not yet proven, maybe thought should be given to making room in any follow-up action for at least these themes:
· Students as eco-anxious : that is going to be increasingly their condition and they will bring it to school; it is essentially dishonest to teach them in a tone or spirit which tries to allay eco-anxiety by suggesting that it is misplaced. Rather we should be encouraging those who are anxious to confront the grounds for being so, and those who are not yet anxious to become so – at the same time as giving them hope that with suitably transformative action, all is not yet lost. Unless education rises to this challenge, students will surely cease to trust it.
· Students as activists : the school strike movement is a reality about which all will know, even those not participating – but at the only place where the thinking behind the manifesto explicitly touches on this issue, it does so by way of a masterly piece of tactful non-positivity: “Schools are…not instructed to actively discourage” students from joining campaigning groups. But without explicitly encouraging students to become strikers, the emergence of this movement and the reasons for it must surely be made a principal focus of any responsible teaching about currently relevant affairs.
· Students as change-agents : we are told that “Young people should certainly not be sent home to correct their family’s bad environmental habits”. Well, maybe they shouldn’t be sent home on such a mission (irately discomfited parents brandishing the Daily Mail in the Head’s office would waste precious staff time), but they should unquestionably go home on it, and an important role of the school should be recognised as equipping them to do so. It is surely now evident that theirs is not just the generation which will have to cope with the worst consequences of the climate emergency, but the one which will have to shame, nag and persuade its elders into action before it is altogether too late.
John can be contacted at: email@example.com