for what are we preparing our young people?

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The current preoccupation in educational reform seems to be with trying to do the same things we've always done, but better. I'm thrilled to have been invited to speak in a couple of sessions at the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Mauritius, on the topic of education's role in sustainable development. Below is the text from the first session, a panel presentatation at the Stakeholders' Forum, looking at skills for the future: "Education for Tomorrow's World: For what are we preparing our young people?" My thesis was that we need to adjust our view of education's relationship to the future. We should not think about education as "preparation for" and try to come up with a list of knowledge and skills for the future (which are destined to be obsolete), but rather, to focus on education as the cultivation of more deeply held dispositions which will help students respond to uncertainties and position them in an active role as co-creators of a sustainable future. 

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The title of today's session poses a question, and when we ask ourselves these kinds of questions, they push our thinking in a certain direction.  If we don't stop to challenge our assumptions periodically, we wind up going further and further in that direction without realizing the alternatives.  I was invited to speak here because of a piece of research that I worked on earlier this year about education for sustainable development in small states.  So my focus is on sustainability, and in relation to today's topic, I should talk about the kind of learning necessary to help move our countries in the direction of sustainability. And I will. But in order to get there, I want to start by deconstructing our session title a little bit. 

This title, "For What Are We Preparing Our Young People?", has some assumptions embedded in it.  In particular, it makes two assumptions which I think are a little bit problematic in terms of bringing about a shift towards sustainability. In my brief presentation I want to talk about these assumptions, and present an alternative way of looking at education and its relationship to the future. 

First, the title uses the word "preparation". When I hear that word, I contrast it to the idea of participation.. Preparation for, rather than participation in.  Certainly, there is a sense in which as educators we are preparing students to to take up their adult roles in society. But the idea that education is "preparation for" is very limiting, because it suggests that schooling is somehow disassociated from participation in social life.  This sets up an artificial distinction between life in school and life outside of school, which is problematic because as educators, we are working concertedly each day to make schooling more relevant to students, to better engage them, and help make learning applicable to their daily lives. There are a lot of good reasons to be working to break down the barriers between school and community, through things like service learning, rather than building barriers up. In terms of educating for sustainability, that is exactly the kind of thing we want to be doing, involving students in bringing about sustainability, not having them sit in a room so we can prepare them to do so.

Education is one of our most intimately social institutions.  It relates to society and culture, the way industry and business relate to the economy. They are deeply connected and mutually reinforcing. We don't first prepare students and then turn them loose into the world. From very early on they are participants in the world around them, and we need to see them as co-creators. The very best preparation they can get for anything is practice doing that thing. We ought to be moving towards a more blended approach that recognizes that students have active lives outside of school, and that through their formative schooling years they are already active players in society, and are developing habits and values which will stay with them through adulthood.  This is especially true these days, as young people are spending more and more years in school.

The second aspect of our topic that I want to address is the relationship of education to the future. We ask the question "For what are we preparing our young people?" but at the same time, we know we can't answer it in any tangible sense. Our own teachers probably did their best, but if we think about our current lives and then think back to our formal education, most of us would have to acknowledge that our teachers generally didn't guess very well.  And the world isn't slowing down. 

Thinking about things in generalities, we can identify a number of trends which should inform the education we provide our young people.  But if we try to identify a curriculum of knowledge and skills to prepare them for the future, we get into the realm of guesswork. The best we can do is to provide a solid foundation of knowledge and skills to help the students be effective in the present, and to help us to create the future together.

But what about the trends we observe now, and the direction we can see the world going? It is useful to think about those too. We see the rapid pace of globalization, and the rebalancing of power, from the west, to the east and the south. We see the integration of markets and the general shrinking of time and distance with the rise of ICTs. And with that rise, we're seeing dramatic changes to ideas of identity and community too. In addition, we see changing economics, as we begin to witness the limits of growth and the depletion of natural resource stocks. Our generation is liquidating all of its assets to maintain growth, and as a result, we're seeing climate instability and environmental degradation, with impacts on human health and the availability of natural resources.

For those of us in the field of education, the challenge is to understand the implications of these trends for our work. Back to the topic of today's session, how do we prepare young people, for instance, for virtual participation in a post-growth global community? How do we prepare them for a rapidly changing world in which the jobs they will be working in have not even been imagined yet? We can begin to formulate a list of what young people might need to learn by thinking about these trends. 

We can suggest with some confidence that young people are going to need to develop things like: resiliency, adaptivity, flexibility; resourcefulness; or commonly suggested things like creativity; and thinking about the global context, the mixing of cultures and markets, we can imagine they will also need to develop some kind of moral grounding, a sense of identity, as well as civic virtues which help hold pluralist societies together, things like tolerance and respect; my own bias is in favour of sustainability, and so we should also consider environment-related values which need to be internalized and conservation-oriented behaviour patters which need to be ingrained. 

The trouble with this list, is that none of these are things that we can teach in the way we normally approach teaching.  These things are cultivated, not taught.  They develop over time and fall more into the realm of socialization than education in the colloquial sense. They are imparted by experience and practice, rather than teacher talk and textbooks. 

So, rather than thinking about curriculum in terms of knowledge and skills to prepare students for the future, and rather than thinking of teaching as the art of imparting that knowledge and those skills, we need to begin to broaden our concepts.  We need to begin to see curriculum in terms of the comprehensive experience of students who come to school and are immersed for hours at a time, day after day, in a powerful socializing context. They learn knowledge and skills in that context, but the immersive experience is what socializes them, what shapes them as people, what conditions them to patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking. So, we need to look at teaching as more than teacher talk, and consider the many contextual factors which condition them day after day. Every aspect of the school experience is either educative or miseducative. Every aspect of schooling contributes to students political socialization and their understanding of their relationship to the environment. All of the aspects of their experience are pedagogical. And most of these factors are things which teachers and school leaders have some control over.  The school policies, the assessment practices, the instructional strategies, the seating arrangements, the role modelling, the school grounds, the way that subjects are divided, and so on. All of these factors shape the concepts that students form, the assumptions which they internalize, the values and habits which they develop over time.  We need to bring some intentionality to all of these things rather than just doing things the way they've always been done. I'm talking about school culture as a socializing force, and education as enculturation. 

From the standpoint of education for sustainability, there has already been a shift in thinking that recognizes the importance of system-wide approaches, and whole-school programs. Some of the very best work I've seen in education for sustainability is being done in small island states which are focusing on livelihoods and traditional cultural perspectives, rather than environmental science. And this is my point. In framing today's session, I was asked to speak about the topic from the standpoint of sustainability. My conviction is that we cannot simply prepare students for sustainability without engaging them in the process of bringing about sustainability. Knowledge and skills are not enough. We need to aim deeper, and to do that, we need to update our concepts of teaching and learning.  If we can learn one thing from the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, it is that sustainability is not a course to be taught, but rather, that educating for sustainable development requires a reorientation of teaching and learning systems to incorporate sustainability as a core value. If we can incorporate sustainability into the culture of our school systems in a meaningful way, rather than reducing it to a curriculum, we can begin to cultivate and socialize students accordingly.