So what now? Facing the future

Written by: Dr Malcolm Groves & Professor John West-Burnham | Published:
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It is not the role of schools to solve the climate crisis, or any of the other multiple crises facing humankind. But we can choose to equip young people to face the future, say Dr Malcolm Groves and Professor John West-Burnham

The future we all now face is not what we might have once thought it was. The pandemic has seen to that.

The virus has exposed fissures and weaknesses in our social and economic life, probing them and testing us in the process. It would be both impractical and wrong to attempt simply to put things back the way they were before Covid-19 emerged.

The global failure to act on climate change, the deepening inequalities in society, and an over-reliance on excessive consumption are deep-rooted problems that afflict every country.

Taken as a whole they point to the ultimate unsustainability of many of our established patterns of living.
The pandemic has highlighted both the inter-connectedness and the fragility of our world. Not only will the future be different, whether we like it or not, it needs to be different.

Nor are schools exempt from this pressure to change. The glib assumption that the role of schools is to equip children with the skills and knowledge they need to gain qualifications for employment is now a busted flush.

Meanwhile the burden of responding to the multiple crises facing humankind will fall most heavily on the children who are in our schools today.

The focus on the future in schooling has been far less powerful than it now needs to become. Deep and profound change requires equally deep and profound learning, partly in order to respond to the gainsayers but more importantly to find new, just, and equitable responses.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein: “We will not solve the problems of today by using the same thinking and learning that created them.”

It requires an approach to learning in schools that integrates personal effectiveness, academic success, community engagement, and moral purpose.

In So What Now? (Groves & West Burnham, 2022), we term this “deep learning for future sustainability”. Such learning involves developing both depth of understanding as well as the caring and agency to act upon it in the common good.

It is not enough, for example, just to be concerned about climate change – awareness must lead to action based on relevant knowledge, skills, values, and qualities of character. Deep learning for future sustainability thus combines understanding with action, and links to moral purpose.

In 2014, Professor Gus Speth, UN climate advisor, said: “I used to think that environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”

The responsibility for fostering the inner transformation Prof Speth urges rests heavily, though by no means absolutely, with schools. There is no other social institution as well placed or with such relevant experience to contribute to this task.

Somehow our response to this challenge of change needs to balance being radical, urgent and yet realistic, given all the pressures currently placed on schools. Moreover, effective solutions will also necessarily depend heavily on local context.

It is not the role of schools to solve the climate crisis, or any of the other multiple crises now facing humankind. But they can, if they so choose, equip young people as well as possible to deal with the consequences of the serious problems they will be inheriting from us.

In So What Now?, we studied three schools striving to build back better. All are members of Schools of Tomorrow, a growing network of schools committed to a broader vision of purpose and values-led change.

We developed a view of the essential characteristics of a school which is turning more resolutely to face the future.

Such a school is one which recognises the need to change without waiting to be told by government. It has the courage to change and to continually re-assess itself on the basis of evidence. It works pro-actively to build a sense of shared purpose, nurturing wider partnerships for education and sustainability.

This school places the highest emphasis on forging high-quality relationships at every level, commits time and resources to ensuring this happens, and actively builds a positive culture of deep learning.

Finally, because these schools understand the need to create a balance of learning across the domains of head, heart, and hand (understanding, character, and agency), they build a holistic approach within their curriculum. They understand too that such a curriculum must also be personalised and relevant to each learner to a much greater extent.

As you can see, all this is about much more than just including a bit of climate science in the curriculum, for example, even though that may have a place.

  • So how well is your school preparing to face the future?
  • Are governors considering how the school could become a “better ancestor”?
  • Are parents/carers and other stakeholders involved in these discussions?
  • To what extent are students involved in discussions and thinking about the futures they may face and how best they can shape better ones for all?
  • To what extent does your school promote a culture of deep learning among staff?
  • How far does your curriculum balance the domains of understanding, character and agency?

While we encourage every school to turn its focus in this direction, there is no single right path to take. Context always matters. And it is better to do something than nothing; better to light a candle than rage at the darkness.

  • Dr Malcolm Groves is the founder director of the research and development network Schools of Tomorrow; Professor John West-Burnham is an independent writer, teacher and consultant.


Further information

  • Groves & West-Burnham: So What Now? Time for learning in your school to face the future, John Catt Educational, 2022: https://bit.ly/3dfbr6c
  • The Regenerating Schools Sustainability Summit, organised by Schools of Tomorrow and the Edge Foundation, takes place on November 17 in Birmingham. Visit https://bit.ly/3C2iMAu
  • Schools of Tomorrow: www.schoolsoftomorrow.org


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