There is a great focus on sustainable education at the moment, likely because it is so very needed to find new innovative solutions to the huge environmental problems we are globally facing. Sustainable education generally means “green” or ecologically focused education, which is naturally of great importance — but why not add a methodological dimension to green education?
Sustainable education should be schooling that can be sustained and endured, meaning that it should be adaptable and suitable for a multitude of students, not just for the “literate” ones in the most traditional, cultivated sense of the term.
Sustainable education should be democratic and be available for the masses rather than for the few fortunate ones (who attend progressive, typically expensive, private schools).
Sustainable education should teach students how to live a good life that they can sustain and justify.
And, sustainable education should allow for diversity and for novel, unrefined approaches to problem-solving, for uncultivated research methodologies, and investigations on human wellbeing in sync with nature, now and in the future — in a fruitful mix with longstanding, well-tested methodologies, of course. Because only when we learn to honour and draw on the knowledge of our ancestors and of the specialists who have worked hard to gain profound knowledge on a specific topic (the gurus, I have chosen to call them) in a combination with new approaches and unpolished practices can we create enduring solutions for the future and honour diversity.
There is much talk about disruption and innovation in our time, but how can we anticipate the creation of something new and truly innovative, when we tend to be stuck with stagnated methods and orthodox ways? How can we solve environmental issues when we still teach product development and business models fixated on consumerism? How can we honour simplicity and the beauty of thoroughly made things and systems that celebrate equality and diversity when we applaud material success and cherish quick solutions and convenience?
Sustainable education could be alike a sustainable wardrobe (which I explore extensively in my book Anti-trend): it could consist of a core of hardwearing, long-lasting items and a colourful variety of sustainable, short-lived articles made from transient, perishable materials as well as deconstructed or upcycled pieces designed from waste-products. A mix of such elements allows for durability, changeability and individuality.
Similarly, sustainable education should naturally consist of a fundament of core-skills (like e.g., reading, writing, mathematics and science as well as philosophy, arts, music and movement or well-being), plus on top hereof of an assortment of raw, uncultivated know-hows that can be place-specific, time-specific or (to continue the previous wardrobe analogy) tailored for the individual and for the land or the place — and that could even be constructed from wasted or cast-away methodologies that have been upcycled or updated to suit our time era and timely problematics and needs).
It is important for me to stress the fact though that I am not suggesting to carelessly abandon and devalue fundamental, well-tested core-skills.
Myhusband and I recently had dinner with friends; a lovely couple with three young children. They were telling us about how they have chosen a homeschooling group three days a week for their children, which sounded beautiful and nourishing: small and safe and with lots of time for creative projects and outdoors playing. The remainder of the week they basically do what is now elegantly called unschooling, which more or less means exactly what it sounds like: to do no schooling at all.
We discussed unorthodox, progressive education and the beauty of freedom to learn in different ways than the way we were schooled when we were kids and teenagers. I voiced my appreciation of my youngest son’s school and the deep fundament of empathy and community that seeps through everything there, and my oldest son’s amazing teachers, who embrace the interests and gifts of each young person in his class.
However, I also expressed my worries about my youngest son’s slow learning curve when it comes to reading. It is going really, really slow, I said, and what worries me quite a bit is that I don’t feel like his teacher is able to motivate him or encourage him by showing him the relevance of being able to read and the amazing world of knowledge that it opens up for you. He is so curious and so eager to know about anything from plants and animals to technology and space travels that being able to do his own research by reading books and looking up facts on the internet would be such a gift for him.
The couple said that their two youngest children were also not yet able to read freely and independently, and that the homeschooling group didn’t seem to put much focus on such “traditional” academic skills.
But we are not really concerned, the husband said; who knows what skills will be useful in the future? Honestly, they might not even need to be able to read or write. Our youngest daughter can find everything she needs by using siri.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Because as much as I agree that it is next to impossible to know exactly what skills are going to be useful in the future, and as much as I therefore value children’s education that embrace this by allowing for free explorations and for innovative approaches to problem solving, reading and writing are fundamental skills that should never go out of fashion; no matter how much clever technology we have developed that can do the reading and the writing for us, and no matter how many convenient apps we have created that can enable us to take the path of least resistant (we will end up living i a world where the robots write poetry and make art, while human beings are stuck with routine based, hard labor!).
But what about when there is a blackout? I asked, not sure what else to say (this happens in Bali a lot; we often experience hours or even days without electricity due to heavy rains or damaged electricity poles). Well, then I guess siri takes a nap, and then we just do something else, he responded.
Let’s not make ourselves dependent on technology. Let’s not smoothify our lives and put convenience before all else to a degree that without our apps and without our screens and without our siris we are helpless. And most importantly, let’s not teach our children to develop and cultivate this dependency.
We are dependent on each other, on human community and interactions, and we are dependent on nature in order to establish a balanced life worth sustaining, but we are not dependent on siri, literally and metaphorically speaking. So yes, we do need to learn how to read and write, and yes that does take a long time, and yes, it is hard to make children who are used to the instant payoff of computer games and tablets understand that this process is slow and that it can be wearisome, but that it is important. Some things are worth working hard for, and this is one of them.
When renewing education and allowing for old systems to be disrupted in order to make space for innovative, novel, timely approaches to problem solving and research, we mustn’t discard the “building blocks’’ that form the basis of education.
Gaining basic insight into long standing theories and methodologies within the scheduled subject is imperative. Because, in order to be innovative there must be something to innovate!
In order to write aesthetically pleasing, thought-provoking poetry you must have a language, in order to approach mathematical equations in novel ways you must know fundamental math, in order to rewrite constitutional laws or engage in activism you must have a fundamental understanding of ethics and sociology, in order to create pioneering philosophical treatises you must understand parts of what has been written before (and hence honour the history of philosophy), in order to compose music you must be able to play an instrument and understand different music genres, in order to create aesthetically nourishing, long-lasting garments you must be able to draw and sew, and in order to create sustainable living solutions you must comprehend what sustainability means and encompasses.
Traditional shouldn’t always be a “naughty” word in progressive education.
Try building a house without a foundation! It might seem possible and straight forward at first; but after a while of hammering boards together and piling up bricks you will reach a point of stagnation and finally a point of collapse. No siri can help you and no app can support you.
There is only one thing to do; to take down your babel tower of ignorance and start from scratch by slowly creating a stable fundament — and then on top of that build your sustainable, aesthetically nourishing, well-designed, enduring house.
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This post was previously published on medium.com.
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