Children as our teachers

Originally posted December 2009:

Frank Furedi in ‘Turning Children into Orwellian Eco-Spies’ warns that there are resonances of Stalinism in the new orthodoxy by which we use children to teach adults about climate change. I have concerns about the same phenomenon but I’m coming from very different perspectives on both education and the environment. I’ve also had qualms when meeting people who are convinced that the solution to climate change is to educate children. The reasons for my qualms are many: It’s too late to wait until children are running the world; they can’t vote until 18 so if we should focus on educating anyone it’s the late middle-aged and elderly, who make up the majority of voters;  it doesn’t seem fair to put the onus on children. The main reason I baulk is that The Government’s reductive and misguided response to every problem (the root cause of which is usually gross inequality or unchecked capitalism) is to add yet another subject to the curriculum. Firstly these expensive initiatives are based on a misconception, that children will learn by being taught a lesson, by teachers who have been told to deliver compulsory lessons. Secondly, every time a new lesson is added, the less time there is for learning that might help children adapt to a difficult future.

Furedi has written a book called ‘Wasted, Why Education isn’t Educating’ in which he decries the erosion of traditional disciplines by endless additions of trendy topics (for example in the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum). In the article he says that environmentalism is infecting every subject, such as geography and history (as if they’re not utterly relevant to those subjects). I’m not concerned so much about the death of traditional disciplines in schools, but more that those in power are so wedded to the idea of subjects per se, old or new, that they continually add more to the diet. I’m not so concerned that the environment is infecting every subject, than that ecological systems thinking has been and still is so absent from education. Furedi conflates environmental topics with ‘scare-mongering’, but, on the contrary, effective environmental education is not about frightening people. It is about empowering them, helping them develop adaptive coping strategies. The more that is understood about a frightening scenario, the more people are able to resist and cope.

I suspect that if we framed school learning differently, whereby children had more involvement in deciding what enquiries are relevant, they would decide pretty quickly that the environment is pretty relevant. If we made clear to them that learning is about preparing for the future, that to live well in the future they would need to learn how to solve problems, co-operate, access knowledge and design new solutions, they would gravitate towards the biggest problems. Furedi’s position is that our current education philosophies undermine the authority of adults. I believe that adults (in affluent societies) have eroded their own authority by becoming infantilised, yet we form myths around the gravity and arduousness of an adult working life. We underestimate the ability of children and young people to think because we have forgotten how to think ourselves. We have progressed into a state of mature denial, treating problems too abstractly, too much in isolation and too much as issues for agonistic debate.

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