Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Reflections on the Futures of Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Nov 24, 2020

On the Futures

This post is a series of short comments on the just-released document from the Canadian UNESCO chairs on the future of education. It consists of six short contributions from across the country from the various UNESCO chairs to a larger document, Humanistic Futures of Learning: Perspectives from UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks that was published in January.  So it's obviously an important snapshot.

It wasn't the easiest document to obtain. I found a reference to it on the Canadian Society for the Study of Education web site, but no link. I found it easily enough on Google, but the search engine obscures the URLs of PDFs, so I had to decode it to provide the direct link here. The larger UNESCO document was announced on this page, and if you read carefully you'll find the link to the full document at the bottom of the page.


Knowledge Democracy: Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon

The authors lament the decline of local knowledge systems; they provide a number of examples, such as Korean rice cultivation in 1910, the ancient Indian Ayurveda system of health care, the Coast Salish system of salmon fishing, and more. What happened, they write, is that "as colonial occupation of the world spread from Europe, 'modern science' also developed. This 'western' system of science systematically devalued local, existing knowledge systems by labelling them 'traditional'." And by basing modern education on the "limited epistemological foundations of what is called the 'Western Canon' or 'Eurocentric' knowledge, we have promoted one knowledge system to the exclusion and demise of others."

I think we need to tread carefully here. On the one hand, there is a valuable point to be made about "fostering the growth and spread of a diversity of languages, cultures and practices." I have made the argument for diversity many times in the past and would reiterate it here. I would also agree that there are many undesirable aspects to both capitalism and colonialism (which I think we need to make clear are not the same thing). Extractive economies, exploitation of labour and resources, and assimilation of peoples into a single whole are all undesirable. 

At the same time, practices that were useful and effective in the past are inappropriate today. They were designed for smaller populations without modern science and technology and correspondingly much lower expectations about the length and quality of life. Moreover, in many cases the ways of knowing described in traditional systems are not unique; many cultures depend on mysticism, ancient knowledge, learning from the environment, practices of stewardship, and land-based knowledge. They quite properly fit among the many other ways of knowing produced in the last few centuries of global (aka 'western') culture, and while there is no shortage of people who today 'rediscover' traditional ways of knowing for "organic foods and holistic healthcare", by and large, these ways of knowing are abandoned not because of colonialism but because they are unsuccessful.

The more serious consideration advanced in this article isn't the presumptive declaration that all epistemologies, all ways of knowing, are somehow equally valuable (because they aren't), but rather, the recognition that the many cultures, religions, languages and practices that have developed over the years and give each community its distinctiveness are themselves valuable and worthy of respect. And this is a really important point. You don't have to be a Zorastrian, or to believe in Zorastrianism, to believe that this religion and its associated culture brought something of value to the world, offers a unique perspective on things, and is worthy of being respected, being taught, and being preserved. We don't evaluate cultures, religions, languages and practices on the same terms that we evaluate epistemologies and sciences.

And this is why we need to do more in education that teach facts and theories. This is why it is important to take education out of school and into the community. As the authors say, "Learning to become an active future citizen can be facilitated by practical measures to blur rigid boundaries between the classroom or laboratory with everyday life." For example, "Cognitive tools of thinking can be seamlessly mixed with arts-based, affective methods as well as with the practice of skills." It's not because we think that mysticism produces good science. It is because we think that mysticism can, in many ways, produce good people.

Sustainability: Charles A . Hopkins,

This multi-author article explicitly endorses a vision of education directed "towards building an equitable and inclusive society in a possible future with planetary stability and well-being as the main goal." This is in response to the crises we see today: global inequalities, conflicts, climate change, mass migrations. Sustainability is offered as "a positive global vision has emerged for a just and safe future." It's hard to disagree with sustainability as a vision. However, we have to ask, is education the right vehicle for this, and are the changes being proposed the right changes?

These questions are the point of contention when the authors say things like "education should prepare learners for the world as it exists and acknowledge the past, yet teach perspectives, values, norms, skills and competencies to address a world as it could be tomorrow." Just what are those "perspectives, values, norms, skills and competencies?" Who decides? On what basis? Is there some foundational set of these that everyone must have, or is there room for different perspectives and world views? We can agree that "An education that is purposed towards building an inclusive and equitable future for all is needed" and still wonder whether this is the only or even primary purpose for all of education.

The discussion is offered as a set of three insights, which are summarized here:

  • 'Learning to know' includes "the diversity of ways of knowing, and the socio-emotional dimensions of living that are crucial to the formation of knowledge";
  • 'Learning to do' includes "being engaged for an inclusive and equitable future with education as a common public and global good"; and
  • 'Learning to be' includes being able to 'coexist peacefully and in balance with all life on the planet."

(I changed the last item from 'learning to live together' to 'learning to be' because it's the sort of editorial change needed to give the argument cohesion and flow).

The article ends with six specific proposals for change. I would hesitate to adopt these as any sort of guide. A cynical way of describing them would be "a staunchly conservative perspective of education draped in the language of social justice". Read the six closely and you'll see they recommend 'cognitive learning', 'secured knowledge', 'formal learning spaces', 'testing systems', and 'transmission pedagogies'. These are in no way replaced, but are rather 'built on', 'explored', 'expanded', 'include', or 'focus'. 

And that takes us back to our three insights, which when we look at them again really amount to a description of the content we want our existing educational institutions to deliver, rather than any genuine insight into how our approach to education could actually change to support 'learning in all its dimensions', 'complex systems', 'non-formal learning', 'culturally appropriate', 'transformative learning' and 'holistic models'.

Arts Education: Lawrence O'Farrell and Benjamin Bolden

This article argues in favour of arts education.

The authors argue that "a prescribed and linear curriculum delivered within a closed system is approaching the point of irrelevance" because it cannot reflect the diversity of student experiences or rapid pace of technological change. Thus, "educators must prepare for a future in which the arts will inevitably play a key role." If you're like me, you'll note that this conclusion does not follow from the premises; it's one possible outcome among many, and in fact, I would suggest that the response will be that we devise many different systems of learning to accommodate diversity and change, rather than to simply attach arts onto the curriculum for everybody.

I think there's a better argument for the arts (beyond the simple observation that people like art and would prefer that it continue in all its forms) in the need to have the capacity to think in multiple modalities, that is, to be able to explore not only what exists or is probable, but also to explore the ranges of possibility and necessity, of what is desirable and what is not, of what things could be, of what things should be. That's why art does not merely "reflect the cultural and economic conditions in which they are created", but also, as the authors say, they "have the capacity to adjust to changing
circumstances; to speak to future generations under previously unimagined circumstances."

Connection to Nature: Liette Vasseur and Christine Daigle

When I was traveling around Australia in 2004 looking for insight in places like the Barrier Reef, the hills of Kakadu, and the solitude of Uluru, I found it unexpectedly while waiting for a bus in Strahan, on the western shores of Tasmania, in the words of Olegas Truchanas, 1971: "If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet, if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept the view than man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole - then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, and largely artificial world." 

You see, it's not just about being connected to nature, it's about being connected in the right way. That's the point of this article. "Most are aware that the current way of living is unsustainable," they argue, "yet very few are willing to make drastic changes, favouring instead the status quo, which focuses on economic growth and profit." I would argue that actually very few people chase 'profit' per se but are rather focused on earning a livelihood, which is a much different thing. Similarly, when James Gustave Speth states "The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy," I don't think this describes the majority, but only a self-interested minority, and so instead of his suggestion that "we need a spiritual and cultural transformation," I think that a much more focused approach would be more effective.

The authors argue, "Our faith in our technological skills and scientific know-how leads us to think that we need not worry about the health of our ecosystems as they currently stand." I don't think this is true, on several levels. First, the statement blends the two very different concepts of science and faith. We can make educated guesses about what is possible with science and technology, but few would think of such guesses as 'faith'. Second, I think the statement represents the beliefs of a minority of people; most of us are quite properly well aware of the limitations limitations of science and technology and quite rightly place the blame (and the solution) for today's environmental crises at the feet of culture, politics and economics.

Can we fix this by changing education? The authors argue that "most people are unable to appreciate the critical functions that biodiversity and the natural environment play in their lives" and suggest that this disconnect is caused by "the strong belief that a life guided by consumerism and economic growth is the only valid path" and that for children, "greed, individualism and materialism rapidly become the guiding principles of their own world." I don't think they learn this at school. It think it's the dominant message they hear from the forces of culture, politics and economics, and I think it's heartening how many of our young people are able to resist this messaging (far more than the authors give credit to, I think).

The authors argue that education must change in order to address these issues. "We need a new educational approach that focuses on nature, our place in it and a mindfulness of the interrelations among all living organisms. Curricula and learning activities must be built and geared toward this goal." This, they write, begins with re-educating teachers. "Unless teachers themselves relearn their connection to nature and embrace the use of pedagogies to enhance the experience of children to connect with nature and learn about the current world, these changes may not occur rapidly enough."

As with some of the previous contributions, I want to ask whether this new curricular direction must be applied to everyone, whether it is the only curricular goal, and whether we have room for more diversity in our educational system. And I would make the point that changing curricula is probably the very least of what we could be doing to address climate change and environmental issues generally. I see students graduate from school very idealistic about what can be done, only to see their hopes crushed by those few who, in fact, own most of the resources and enjoy most of the power.

Landscape Reading: Philippe Poullaouec-Gonidec 

The idea of 'landscape reading' seems to be, as defined implicitly in this article, "to reimagine, in a structural manner, the environments in which we live." You can read more from Liboiron, Cronon, or Grant, Greeney and Kasten. In this article the idea is to have students "develop a sense of affinity with places and territories which will translate into a sense of belonging in order to improve the conservation of global cultural and environmental resources."

This, again, is a value-laden approach, and specifically, an urging "that we focus especially on values that are supported and shared by all, which constitute a potential for the reconfiguration of democracy and social cohesion." This is fostered, writes the author, not by being constantly on the move in search of selfies, but by "the investment of the body in the territory, whether it is plural or singular" because "the inclusive reconnection of all the human and biophysical components of a space requires time and patient commitment."

I think it is a bit hopeful to expect that being connected to the land will lead in itself to conservation. There's no real evidence to support this. In my own experience I've seen those closest to the land and the sea acting with the greatest indifference toward conservation and preservation, even to the point where they resist the efforts of 'outsiders' who have no such connection. Those closest to the land often have the most precarious livelihoods, and improved social justice, mobility rights, and economic support might be far more conducive to conservation and environmentally sound practices. 

But this is not the author's argument. Rather, the fault lies in our education. "We must develop our ability to read the territory and understand its palimpsest," he writes. "We must imagine what it might have been, what it is and what it could be." It's a way of seeing a landscape that allows for multiple views and multiple perspectives. This is great - but doesn't automatically lead to the result the author hopes for, for two reasons. First, the perspective one has when looking at a piece of land might be to reflect on its natural state, or on its history and culture, but it might also be to imagine a shopping mall or an office tower. When we encourage a diversity of perspectives, we don't include only those that accord with our own personal values. Second, the use (or non-use) of land for any purposes reduces the scope of these possibilities to one, or at best, a very few, and it is how these decisions are made that is at issue.

The author writes, "We must imagine what it (the land) might have been, what it is and what it could be. We must evoke, draw, narrate, tell, write about and transmit it. We must also become attached to the place, to feel a part of it, for a while or for a whole lifetime." That may work for some, but it by no means works for all. And it would be a mistake to make it the guiding principle of education.

Open Educational Resources: Rory McGreal

The argument for open educational resources (OER) will be familiar to most readers of this blog. As the author says, they offer a response to "barriers set in place to prevent free access to content" that "serve to erode efforts to achieve universal learning and education for all."

The argument is this: "ubiquitous computing using the power of networks and mobile devices has opened the door for learners and instructors to access the world's knowledge from almost anywhere and at any time." In order to realize this possibility, open licensing is required. It is not enough to be able to access content; we need the right to reuse and remix content, which is what open licensing provides. By contrast, closed licensing practices, such as digital rights management (DRM), reduce access and increase inequalities. People are unable to share, to adapt content to improve accessibility, or to share across border. Commercial restrictions on content drive illegal content sharing (sometimes called 'piracy').

Some Reflections

So much of what I read in this document is the same-old same-old dressed in progressive clothing. There is an almost unrelenting focus on content: what teachers should teach, and what students should learn. Despite the occasional calls for diversity, there's this sense that we should all have the same sorts of values, only now, these should be traditional cultural values and perspectives with a sense of stewardship and getting back to the land. Even the lone call for a rethinking of pedagogy is expressed in the form of content, describing how teacher education should be changed to adapt to these new values and beliefs.

I'm not going to argue against these values directly - though I could. I think the way they have been expressed in these papers is naive and dismissive of today's youth and of global cultures. Not everybody is a colonialist capitalist stomping on traditional values and living a life dictated by greed and profit. In fact, only a very small percentage of us are. Most of us are caring people who value culture and community, who care about injustice and inequality, and who would give the shirts off their backs if they thought it would make a difference. It's just that they know it won't make a difference. And none of that is their fault, nor is it the fault of their education.

If we actually want the values described in these essays to come to pass, we have to do something radical, something that goes far beyond simply changing our curricula and assigning responsibility for fixing things to our teachers and students. We have to start living those values. And by 'we' I don't just mean teachers and academics (though it would help if the academic world actually embraced a broader and more generous sense of ethics) I mean our political, cultural and economic leaders.

But even more to the point, we have to stop thinking about education in terms of content (even open content) and start thinking of it in terms of how we can help each other make their way through the world. I commented in a tweet earlier today that "we are moving away from a mass society with mass media and toward a networked society with community media. And the calculus of the community is different, as you move beyond organizing everyone who thinks the same as you, to working with people who think differently than you." Merely giving lip service to diversity will not be sufficient. We have to be prepared to have people learn different things, in different ways, for different reasons.

And I also commented in a conversation earlier today that I'm much more interested in structural changes than attitudinal changes. Sure, perspective and ethics are important, but if the mechanics of society reward cheating, then that's what you will get. If they reward extraction economies and economic inequalities, then that's what you will get. It won't matter what you teach in schools. Right now, those with the loudest voices are every more likely to be heard, those with the most money are most easily able to make more money, and those with the greatest power are most able to extend their influence and control. None of this is caused by technology, or by a failure to appreciate nature, or landscapes, or whatever.

The hard thing society must do is to invert these advantages. To do the sort of thing it has never really been able to do. To give voice to the voiceless, to give means to the moneyless, or to give power to the powerless. But more, to give up the ability to give these things or take them away. The same applies with respect to culture, community and the environment. Right now it is cheaper and more efficient to destroy these than to preserve them. This isn't an educational problem. It won't be fixed by right knowledge or right attitudes. This is a structural problem. Toss a piece of litter and you receive a fine; toss a million pieces of litter and you're an important contributor to GDP. Instead of it being easier and easier to impact the environment once you've already impacted it, it should be harder and harder.

All of this takes us back to the question of what education is for, and my short answer, here, is: not this.



- , Nov 24, 2020
, - NEWS: CC Unesco – Reimagining the future of education – CSSE | SCÉÉ, Nov 24, 2020
, - Futures of Education: UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Network’s curated input to the International Commission, Nov 24, 2020
, - , Nov 24, 2020
, - , Nov 24, 2020
, - Methodologies: How to Read a Landscape | Discard Studies, Nov 24, 2020
, - William Cronon - HI/GE/ES 469 Course Page, Nov 24, 2020
, - Six Quick Lessons in How to Read a Landscape - Edge Effects, Nov 24, 2020
, - Stephen's Web ~ From The Block Up ~ Stephen Downes, Nov 24, 2020
, - , Nov 24, 2020
, - Reflections On The Futures Of Education, Nov 24, 2020

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