Educated Optimism

Educational futures, knowledge cultures, environmental, technological and social change

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What does ‘climate change leadership’ mean?

In March I started a new role as Zennstr√∂m Professor in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden. It’s been an interesting few months really thinking through with colleagues there, in the city and the region, how schools and universities can start taking seriously what it means to live with climate change.

A central question I’ve been working with in this role is, of course, what on earth does it mean to offer ‘climate change leadership’ today? In relation to a phenomenon so contested, complex, multifaceted and where risks of disaster capitalism and denial both abound, this is far from a simple question to answer. My response has been to see leadership as offering invitations to a discussion where our aim is to create new responses and ideas. This is not a time for dictatorial leadership, but for harnessing the different experiences and knowledge of all in society to begin to experiment with new ways of living.

Some of the areas for conversation seem to be:

Intergenerational relationships – how can and should teachers and students relate to each other in conditions in which climate change is being set up as a source of intergenerational conflict? My worry here is that opposition between generations or framing climate change as a ‘problem’ for young people to fix is really unhelpful (as my other work on all-age friendly approaches to cities points out). I’m trying to work out with colleagues how we might rethink this dynamic.

The relationship between internationalisation and sustainability – academics fly a huge amount, and also tell others to cut down their emissions. Is this hypocrisy? Should there be a massive change in academic behaviour or will this reduce the capacity of academics to act as part of a global community? Is this just individualising a problem that is structural and institutional, requiring massive changes rather than individual actions? Or is this an essential moment for self-reflection and a recognition of how much we are dependent on fossil fuels in all areas of our lives? There is a huge amount of debate and activity on this at present.

The question of emotion, anxiety and panic. I have seen a lot of students who are already massively burnt out and anxious about ‘climate change’ and who are confident that we are facing apocalypse. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of emotion amongst others who see climate change as a conspiracy theory (of either neoliberal or radical socialist flavours, pick your favourite). How we work with the emotions that talking about a changing climate necessarily brings up, seems a hugely important area to explore. This means finding ways to deal with everything from grief and anger to wishful thinking and the role of joy.

One of the areas that is particularly interesting to me here is the development of a new relationship with the planet through the Earth Rights movement. This is starting to open up ways of rethinking the rights of mother earth (as the universal declaration puts it) . It is an interesting, trickster-ish intervention that looks promising.

Relatedly, I’ve been drawn to the calls to restore culture that are emerging from groups such as Dark Mountain, David Abram or the mythologist Martin Shaw. These are important and profound shifts in our sense of who we are and our place in the universe. There is important work to do here. I wrote a piece last year on the role of storytelling in troubled times, it would benefit from a rewrite in the light of what I learnt this summer at Shaw’s School of Myth and Storytelling.

Getting from diagnosis to experimentation. I’ve been surprised at how little there is that really shows and explores how we might live in different ways to enable ourselves to fit within planetary boundaries (although see here) and how much this is reliant on stories of denial or loss (although see here). We need to create opportunities for conversations about how we can collectively begin to experiment with new ways of living. And in education, this means supporting students not only to learn about questions of sustainability, but to engage in meaningful active participation in communities to experiment and act carefully and in partnership with others.

Finally, that old bugbear keeps coming up – whose conversation is this anyway? The huge inequalities built into carbon emissions became very clear when I was shown this report that argues that over 50% of emissions are produced by the richest 10% of the global population (see also here) . How we begin to think about whose rights, futures, livelihoods are at stake in these debates seems increasingly important a conversation to be having. As in much of my other work, with Connected Communities and Common Cause, I’m concerned that we will see, again, that those who are most affected, or who have expertise to offer, are excluded from conversations that take place behind closed doors.

So – over the next year, in Uppsala, we’ll be starting to experiment in all of these areas, starting to learn and talk with people, opening up the conversation.

If you have thoughts and comments on any of the above – or suggestions for areas we need to be talking about but aren’t – please do email me at Uppsala or Bristol and I hope we can carry on the conversation.


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Universities – there is another way

Growing up in the UK in the 80s under Thatcherism, an era of strikes, hostility, growing inequality and racism – not to mention stone washed denim and dodgy perms – the Soviet Union played an important role in the imagination. It was a land where things were different, it was a whole chunk of the world where society, economy, culture were organised in a completely different way.¬† It opened up an imaginative space, a little crack in the perception of the world that encouraged you to think that what you were living with wasn’t necessarily what you were stuck with.

We need that crack in the imagination today in relation to our universities. We need to know that there are other foundations upon which education can be built, and other forms that it might take. Such a crack exists and is growing.

A couple of years ago, the Ecoversities network held its first gathering, convened by Kelley Teamey and Udi Mandell and bringing together over 50 people from all around the world who are demonstrably building new approaches to education.

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Call for Papers: Education and The Future

We’re holding the first ever Conference on Anticipation in Trento next year, under the leadership of Professor Roberto Poli (Unesco Chair in Anticipatory Systems) and with keynotes from, amongst others, Arjun Appadurai, Erik Olin Wright, Martin Seligman and many more…

I’m working with the wonderful Sarah Amsler to curate a theme on Education and the Future. The call for proposals is available here

Deadline for proposals is 15th April. Contact me if you’d like to discuss possible ideas for the conference or just to find out more.


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A world museum for education?

I was interested to read Sean Coughlan’s recent WISE post arguing that educational journalism was under-resourced in comparison to other fields such as politics and business. I completely agree. We desperately need to create a high quality public debate about education which gets us beyond the usual familiar arguments about ‘declining standards’, ‘it was good enough for me’, and battles informed more by dogma than by careful consideration of the evidence.

Investing in and improving education journalism is one way to do this, but there are others. An important one, it seems to me, is having a public institution, open to anyone, which acts as a public resource for curating, understanding, and debating the future of education. In other words, we need a Museum.

The world has museums of industry, of transport, of buttons and even of pencils… but apart from a few museums of schooling, with their regulation reconstructions of a Victorian classroom, there is no real museum of education that I know of anywhere in the world. The nearest I can think of is the brilliant online encyclopedia of informal education that is InfEd. There’s nowhere that newly appointed Ministers of Education can visit to recognise that there is, in fact, a rich history of research in this field and that there are different histories in different countries. There’s nowhere that new parents can visit to understand the ways in which teaching works, the roles they might play, the different debates in the field and the choices that they might made. There’s nowhere the education journalist can visit, as Coughlan points out, to really get to grips with the conflicting arguments. There’s nowhere a student can visit to understand what this institution is that they are expected to spend all day in, to find out more about how they learn, or to read the usually hidden history of children’s strikes, really free schools and alternative education models.

In short, because we have no museum, we have no history and we have very little public understanding. And you know what they say about people who forget their own history…

So – we need a museum. And it would be fantastic, bringing together the psychologists, neuroscientists and tecchies of the Science Museums; bringing together the historians, geographers, anthropologists of the British Museum; bringing together the researchers from the universities, the practitioners from the schools and community education groups; and enabled by digital technologies we show education in all its rich complexity around the world and throughout history.

If civilisation really is a race between education and catastrophe, then the task of creating a public space to better understand education in all its rich complexity is an urgent global priority.