The Time to Act is Now!

Image source: Derek Wenmoth

The image above was taken on March 15 in front of Christchurch Cathedral, where hundreds of Christchurch students gathered to show their support for action to be taken with regards the issue of climate change – part of a action provoked by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. It was a moving sight, the messages on posters combined with the speeches being made and the support shown from many hundred more adults there to support the young people.

Little did the crowd gathered there realise that within an hour of this photo being taken they would be asked to leave – quickly, with police breaking up the demonstration to warn everyone to make their way home as soon as they could. The reason – noone was objecting to their protest at all. Instead, the gathering was being brought to an abrupt close due to the protest of another individual, being carried out not far from the Square. His protest not about climate change, but about immigration and the presence of people from different cultures and religious beliefs in the city. His form of protest – the use of assault weapons to bring terror and death to a lot of innocent people.

This morning I spent a few minutes watching the video below – from a fake news show on HBO.

While presented as a comedic version of the news, the message is eerily captivating, particularly in light of recent reports of atmospheric CO2 now exceeding 415 ppm for the first time in human history and the response of NASA scientists to this news. The concern being that if carbon pollution keeps getting thicker in our atmosphere, more and more heat will become trapped on Earth, which will make the future of global warming look like something out of the planet’s distant, steamy past, hundreds of years ago – a theme described in much scientific detail in a book I read over the Christmas break titled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

So why raise this in a blog ostensibly about education? Simple. Education has always been about the future. Our ancestors recognised the value of an educated mind in preparing people to live and thrive in the world. They used stories, art and philosophy among other things to convey the understandings they had about the world. Our modern schooling system was also focused on the future – the future workforce, preparing people to work in the factories of the industrial age.

Those past view of the future were presented as a ‘stable state’ – they were predictable and consistent. An education was about learning what was known and preparing for life in a ‘known’ world. We perpetuate this thinking today whenever we find ourselves asking a young person “what do you want to be when you grow up?” – as if that is a question with a definite set of possible responses.

Our world today is characterised by accelerating change, uncertainty and complexity – as is the future ahead of us. As change accelerates we cannot simply buy into the ‘improvement’ narrative anymore – it simply won’t get us to where we need to be. In an age of uncertainty preparing for a ‘stable state’ is no longer an option – we need to be thinking of radical, transformative change in our schooling system if we are to ensure our young people are adequately prepared for the future they face. And in a world of complexity our propensity to find ‘quick fixes’ and simplistic solutions won’t achieve what’s required – despite what our politicians often try to tell us.

The illustrations I began with are but two of the many fronts that demand action. Climate change and the threat to social order and national borders. They represent problems for which there are no ‘text book’ answers, yet these are the issues that the children in our schools now will face as they grow into adulthood – some of them becoming the leaders in our communities and our nation.

It’s easy to dismiss the call for a ‘climate crisis’ as an over-reaction – and claim the evidence is wrong. But what if it isn’t – and how will we know? This sort of dilemma requires a level of understanding and critical thinking that doesn’t seem to be well represented in many levels of society today, with people on both sides of the fence falling prey to accepting and believing whatever ‘evidence’ pleases their ears the most – or serves their interests the best.

If not climate crisis, then what about our response to refugees being accepted into our country? Or the use of chemical sprays on crops, the fact that our waterways are now so polluted we cannot drink from them, the threat to health from ‘super-bugs’, deforestation, the plastic islands choking our seas, or the fact that we demonstrate a sense of ‘entitlement’ to a high standard of living that is simply not sustainable? The list goes on.

THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW – that is the message of thousands of young soon to be voters across the world. And so as educators we need to take heed, and consider our role in this. How is our curriculum changed or changing to reflect this? When we speak of ‘authentic’ projects how authentic are they? Do we genuinely focus on the competency development that the NZC has gained international attention for – or do we dwell largely in the ‘back of the curriculum’ and continue to focus on ‘delivering’ the content that is important?

THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW – the longer we focus on ‘propping up’ a broken system, the more urgent the issue that confronts us – that we may not be serving the interests of our young people as well as we should. Our generation has failed to adequately address these things, so focused we have been on economic growth at any expense, and success measured in terms of GDP and personal wealth. The least we can do is to consider the lives of those who will follow in our footsteps and consider how best we can prepare them to be the agents of change – to not simply survive in this future, but to thrive.

THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW – and it cannot be a solo effort. We have to learn to act collectively, collaboratively and with a unified purpose that leads to outcomes.

20 years ago I led a project involving a few hundred 9-10 year olds called “the Water project”. We began with a simple question – “where does the water come from?”, and over several weeks these students investigated all aspects of our domestic water supply and what happens to ensure it is kept pure enough to drink through the process of reaching the kitchen tap. This inquiry led to lots of ‘revelations’ for these young people, and they could speak knowledgeably and with conviction about the things we need to do to ensure our water is protected and preserved.

20 years later that same water supply in Christchurch now has chemicals added to it to make it ‘safe’, there is evidence of salt-water leaching into the aquifers because too much is being drawn out and we’ve just given licenses to two different companies to take out millions of litres to put in plastic bottles and sell overseas.

This is what makes the video above seem a little more real to me than the satire it is designed to be. What might the ‘news item’ in 20 years from now be about – and how would that make us feel about what we could or should have done now, while we have the opportunity?

Planning for the curriculum for 2020 and beyond, considering how we organise learning in our classrooms and even thinking about the very purpose and structure of schools and schooling must be high on the agenda of not just those in positions in government and ministries of education, but of everyone involved in the system. Learning from the frogs in boiling water fable, let’s understand that much of what we do in schools currently is no longer sustainable and continuing to do it will ‘boil us all’. We have to stop defending the indefensible and collectively design a new future. THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW.

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