Greta Thunberg’s testimony before the United Nations has sparked a renewed discussion of the world we are handing our children, and it caused me to reflect on the role of our educational systems and myself as a teacher. There is no question that climate change will define the lives of our students. Addressing it will require a series of complex decisions the likes of which humanity has never faced before.
There may be technological advances that save us, but these will not be easily found. No technology will, by itself, save us from the consequences of our societal decisions. Climate change is a consequence of our inability to adapt our institutions and our economic and political thinking even as the science has become clearer and clearer. If we had had the political will and foresight to face mounting evidence that dates back for decades, then perhaps we would not be in as dire a situation as the one we are heading into now.
Blame for this failure is often directed at our political institutions, but we should not underestimate the role our educational processes and priorities played in the formation of the individuals and ideas that underpin these systems.
Education is also central to meeting these unprecedented challenges, but this will require that we rethink some of our basic priorities and approaches to teaching and learning.
Our educational system over the last century has increasingly been justified in direct economic terms. As Christopher Newfield points out in The Great Mistake, “Academia’s senior managers have helped two generations of policymakers to overvalue the private benefits of higher education, which has given an artificial, unmerited advantage to the forces of privatization over those of the public good.” In other words, he argues, the focus of education has too often been rationalized as training for success in the capitalist economy. This may no longer be a sustainable proposition.
Climate change points to a new reality that requires a shift in perspective toward the public good, but it goes even deeper than that. It also requires that our students be equipped with an entirely new set of skills in order to better prepare them for the unexpected. The combination of climate change and automation will reshape everything that we have come to accept as normal over the last 150 years. Humanity has to learn to adapt and innovate in response to unprecedented circumstances. Problem-solving is no longer just about getting a competitive edge. It will increasingly be about survival. It is critical that we provide our students with the mental tools necessary to face this uncertain future.
Our current educational practices do not in large part encourage innovative thinking by our students. Instead, they encourage our students to conform and learn the lessons of the past. If the world is changing because of technology and climate change, we must be much more selective in our emphasis and strategies of teaching to support learning in a different way. There’s no question that the past requires understanding and that knowledge needs to be maintained and sustained, but this cannot be our sole focus. Because whole industries will be reshaped and even destroyed (and this process is unpredictable), we must prepare our students with as much comprehensive knowledge as possible. However, we must also challenge them to creatively question and adapt the information that we provide to them, because it is clear that our current way of doing things has led us to this place. Rote learning will not do this.
Instead, our students’ only hope is to develop a robust ability to adapt to change. They are going to have to build their own house in a manner not seen in the developed world since the nineteenth century. Most of us inherited our metaphorical paradigmatic houses from our parents. They will inherit our legacy, but it will be a flawed one, and they will have to learn to rebuild from scratch in order to survive. Climate change and automation will put everything we assume about the way the world works in question. Our students need to have the necessary tools grapple with those kinds of questions.
What are the tools necessary for building? They are the tools of creative problem-solving, which is based on a foundation of critical thinking. They are the tools of design, iteration, and experimentation, which are based on a scientific approach. Our machines got us into the situation we are in. However, it is only through our ability to creatively use the next generation of machines that civilization can hope to survive. Our students need to know how to adapt, reinvent, and build upon these machines in order to be able to adapt to the world that is coming.
If anything, the last month of discussions have reinforced the urgency with which I have approached my tasks as a teacher and educational leader. Semester-long design challenges are the foundations of my survey government classes. Students are taught to develop creative solutions to intractable societal problems, learning critical skills along the way. While I don’t force my students down the climate change path, it is one of many options (including health, education, legal reform, and economic reform) from which they can choose. During the course of the semester they identify the challenges in their areas, investigate why government has failed to address them, and look at some possible ideal solutions. Their final portfolio is next-step strategies to their challenges.
Explaining climate change to our students is important, but no longer sufficient. We have to teach them how to develop the skills necessary to survive in this technologically-shifting and warming planet. Our challenge is to look hard at how you were teaching your students. The secret to our survival is locked up in their minds. It is time to deconstruct your teaching to help them reconstruct the world. It is the best thing you can do to prepare them for the unprecedented challenges that they will face.