Dr Harriet Marshall portrait

Written by Dr Harriet Marshall

Head of Educational Research at Lyfta and has been a global education advocate for over 20 years, as a teacher, researcher, consultant and education project leader.

Education is stuck between 6th extinction predictions and talk of a 2nd renaissance in human capabilities resulting from the 4th industrial, technological revolution. Though there are obvious contradictions between these two trajectories, there are also areas of overlap – both can seem immensely overwhelming and both are frequently accompanied by calls for a change in mindset. The problem I have observed here links to how often the ‘mindset change’ strategies work with a very narrow definition of education. Whenever there is talk of ‘educational solutions’ it is usually in reference to formal schooling and the education of young people, as if this is the only educational space that is of any importance.

Formal schooling (e.g. primary, secondary or SEN providers for 4 to 18 year olds) can no longer be considered in isolation from, or as any more significant than, other educational spaces in life. Especially not if we are to have any chance at all of meeting key climate and energy targets or the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

It is easy to understand why formal school has been historically targeted for humanity’s medicinal or instrumentalist agendas. It is a neatly bounded space with relatively clear systems and structures, and crucially it is a space which the majority of us actually understand (mostly because we experienced it – let’s be honest, everyone has an opinion of how the education system should or should not be that is mostly derived from their own experiences of schools). And so, we’ve had the following kind of thinking… Quick, we don’t have enough people with the right skills, let’s change the school curriculum. Quick, there’s a growing gap between rich and poor, let’s change the school curriculum. Quick, we need to act differently or we’ll all boil or drown because of climate change, let’s change the school curriculum.

Our learning does not stop when we leave formal schooling, in fact this sort of thinking is incredibly damaging.

Let us therefore start by emphasising the need for an all-inclusive, lifelong learning definition of educational and learning spaces. UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning has been doing exactly this and have demonstrated how vital it is for all educational sectors and spaces to work more effectively together if we are to have any hope of creating a more sustainable and socially just world. To this end, we need to better understand and incorporate intergenerational learning and participation, especially in country contexts like the UK where age-divides have never been so wide. Related to this is the need to better demonstrate the equal importance of non-formal schooling learning spaces for all ages, from the after-school club for children to the day centre for older people.

Following on from a broader and more inclusive understanding of education – we then need to re-examine the idea of a curriculum for life both in terms of content and pedagogy. Sociologists of education have illustrated for decades the importance of examining educational policy and practice through a lens of power and control. The need to be aware of how core knowledge is constructed, selected, prioritised and recontextualised (and by who) in educational spaces has never been so urgent. Recognising the historical power of ‘traditional’ knowledge disciplines and their corresponding linear models of knowledge acquisition is crucial because sometimes they are in opposition to the sort of interdisciplinary knowledge and systems-thinking also required for innovation and action for a more sustainable world. An illustration of the legacy of this power dynamic can be seen in formal schooling today. Take two minutes to reflect upon (a) which subjects are deemed the most important and why, and (b) when new curricula like ‘citizenship’, ‘environmental studies’ or ‘social and emotional learning’ are added, what status do they really have in relation to those subjects that have a clear line of ‘progress’ towards an exam (to be used as a form of credit to exchange for future employment)? 

Of course, we no longer know what ‘employment’ is going to look like in the next few years as jobs and industries shift at breakneck speed. This fact alone requires any ‘curriculum for life’ to be something that can adapt to external shifts and needs, where the ability to ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’ will be all part and parcel of general learning how to learn and where progress will be measured in a whole range of ways.

One of the most powerful curricular and pedagogical concepts I believe around today is the idea of ‘sustainable wellbeing’. When we are reconsidering the purpose of education or learning in the current #NoGoingBack context, this is one of the best answers anyone can give. Policy makers and educators in Finland have certainly thought so, where sustainable wellbeing has been made one of the six guiding principles of the education system (others include equity and equality; inclusiveness and life-long learning). A growing body of thinking around this concept makes for exciting reading in the way, for example, it brings together the fields of positive psychology, ecology and environmental science (to name just a few). 

The beauty of sustainable wellbeing as a guiding principle for a curriculum for life is that it speaks to our needs as individuals simultaneously separate from and in relation to wider societal and planetary needs. Sustainable wellbeing recognises the interconnections between our own health, wellbeing and that of others. If we properly recognise the interdependent nature of all of the goals, it is also at the heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (see previous piece on education for/about the SDGs here). Our futures will not be ‘sustainable’ unless others feel the same way. Sustainable wellbeing helps us understand purpose and the wider systems at work, in so doing, it can support resilience building. The guiding principle of sustainable wellbeing suggests a curriculum that supports the development of: empathy skills and interbeing understanding; an associated set of values related to equity and global social justice; and knowledge that is sensitive to indigenous as well as more dominant knowledge forms required for addressing the world’s increasingly complex ‘wicked’ problems.

For education to be powerful, relevant and guided by the principle of sustainable wellbeing we have to stop thinking in age, space, time and knowledge silos – however this may not necessarily require the radical systemic changes some are calling for. Could we instead begin reimagining and empowering all learning spaces through a better demonstration of their impact and value? Could we emphasise the importance of intergenerational methodologies and spaces through the sharing of the growing numbers of amazing examples of practice (for example, local cross-generational sustainable living projects)? Could we raise the profile of social and emotional learning, social justice education or ecological literacy by better showing how it is also a crucial variable for achieving academic success and/or health and wellbeing? Those of us in the bubble of sustainable development or environmental education also need to remember that not everyone shares our assumptions or values – in so doing we are less likely to judge those who, for example, want to adapt systems in an ‘evolution not revolution’ way.

We must also remember that there are forces at play that will continue to shift educational systems and spaces whether we like it or not. These forces are frequently outside of the control of educationalists and policy makers and have the potential to render any radical plans for system reform redundant. For example, if we decide that the current emphasis on performance in examinations is the root cause of our problems and set about enacting reform, it could be that progress measurement is forced to change soon anyway (think about the impact of Covid-19 when formal exams went out the window and imagine how we are going to police examination performance when mobile technology is no longer ‘external’ to a learner’s body and therefore invisible to an examiner’s eye). If we are serious about creating education systems where ‘people and planet matter’ then we need to start with what is in our control and is ambitiously achievable – my favourite contender is our collective power to change our perceptions. We can change our perceptions of what we consider important learning spaces (ie not just formal educational institutions) and we can talk more about learning opportunities throughout life. We can work towards a loosely agreed set of values, skills and knowledge forms required for individual and planetary resilience and sustainable wellbeing. We can strengthen or create the interdisciplinary and intergenerational learning spaces needed if humanity is to adapt, innovate, survive and thrive. 

People and planet will matter more to all of us when we better recognise that all education and learning spaces matter, regardless of how old we are or what stage of life we are at. Unless we do this, we run the major risk of implying that saving the future of the planet, humanity and biodiversity is solely the responsibility of the young. Just because we are 65 does not mean that we are too old to change our behaviours or unlearn old knowledge, but an over-emphasis on 4-18 schooling gives us the excuse to say that it is so. 

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