What is permanent education?

In this article, I would like to build on Marie’s call from the winter edition of Northern Edge for us to shift our direction to one where the ‘principles of cooperation, collaboration, trust, love, mutual support and sharing within a culture can together weave an environment in which people can grow, reconnect with themselves, and with each other.’ I also like the quote from David Orr who explains that ‘we must build authentic and vibrant communities that sustain us ecologically and spiritually (and) for this challenge we need a generation equipped to respond with energy, moral stamina, enthusiasm and ecological competence.’

But how can this be achieved? For me the answer is Education. Steve Sterling, in his Schumacher briefing Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, calls for an ‘authentic education’ which encourages spontaneity, insight and reflection, where people are capable of thinking critically and living with compassion, energy and high purpose. Stephan Harding, programme coordinator for the current MSc Holistic Science at Schumacher College, states that we need education that acknowledges our ancient selves so we can re-connect with Gaia and our place in the universe since its start.

On a personal level, I support these statements and I feel strongly that education urgently needs to move away from the targets of a centralised system – where all children are channelled into similar moulds and judged by how much they earn or contribute to GDP and whether or not they have left their communities to go to university.

Education should enable pupils to understand their position as an integral part of the ‘web of life’ and not as separated managers of Nature that you can opt in and out of. Education should be re-designed so that society can measure its citizen’s success on the quality of their relationships with each other, their relationship with the earth and how purposeful they feel their lives are.

This may sound eminently sensible to some, or completely deluded to others! Whatever your perspective, to wean us all off the addiction our society has to certificates and milestones will certainly be much more difficult to achieve than anyone may think. Just remind yourself of this the next time you congratulate someone on their exam results, or well-paid job that has nothing to do with improving society or the environment! However difficult the task is, it needs to happen, and now is the time for practical proposals. We need solutions that will relate to all people and not just the converted.

Education needs to be ahead of the game in visioning the ‘good life’ that all people can live so that their worth is not solely about what they consume or contribute to GDP. Thomas Berry calls for what is needed as ‘The Great Work’ where humans need to remake our presence on earth to become a benign presence – including how we provide ourselves with food, energy, materials, water, livelihood, health and shelter. Harding has also written in ‘Gaia Awareness’ (an essay in The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy that ‘there is an urgent need for an education that addresses the question of how we can develop lifestyles that are truly sustainable.’ How can we respond to this urgent need?

There is a clear recognition by most people that education is at the heart of our preparation for a changing world and I acknowledge that there are a lot of ‘eco-initiatives’ in British schools, particularly in the primary sector, but I would agree with Sterling who wrote that despite efforts ‘most education contributes daily to un-sustainability…and does little to sustain the ‘whole person’ – spirit, heart, head and hands.’

We must respond to the need for change by providing pupils with the future skills that will enable them to solve or prevent environmental and societal problems, to be the innovative and independent thinkers of tomorrow. For this to happen, many projects that are currently on the side-lines in mainstream education need to take centre-stage and the traditional subjects which are endlessly tested need to become the tools which bring this learning to life, rather than ends in themselves.

For example, every child needs to learn the vital practical skills and knowledge to care for the earth: ecology, horticulture, composting, recycling and reusing. All of these subjects can be taught through projects to a high standard, using just as much Maths, English and Science as is taught or tested in the classroom now. Children need to be shown how they can be more self sufficient and less reliant on the state and material consumption for their happiness. An example might be The Big Soup Share organised by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Campaign for School Gardening. Children need to see that they can be an important part of society and their local community from an early age, and not just when they have certain qualifications.

Children also need to know the fundamental aspects of living in partnership with nature; learning what the seasons really mean, engaging with systems thinking, how to use bio-mimicry in design and engineering, circular economics, conflict resolution, philosophical dialogue, and the ability to be involved in long term projects with no instant gratification! In my experience children love learning about this and are more than capable.

What if the ethics of Permaculture were the drivers of the mainstream Education system? What if the education experienced from 5-18 years became a permanent part in a child’s understanding and attitude that they took through life, work and relationships – instead of lots of facts and knowledge that many of us forget by the time we are 30 yrs old! Donella Meadows, in Dancing with Systems explained that ‘A sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or social systems of support.’ Education now needs to be seen by all policy makers and curriculum designers as the seed bed for developing these qualities in the next generation.

I have interviewed many schools about this subject as part of a research project on the effectiveness of Eco-education in Primary Schools and many respondents to the question ‘Why do you take part in an Eco-Schools programme?’ expressed the perhaps unsurprising view that teachers want to ‘make a difference’ and ‘because it promotes awareness of our world and the environment around us.’ More simply one teacher explained that they were ‘simply doing my bit for the environment and hopefully inspiring children to do the same.’

However, there were some more intriguing answers: ‘To encourage responsibility from a young age.’ as well as ‘To ensure the children have a realistic vision about how to mould their future.’ And, perhaps most interestingly to ‘have their (pupils) attitudes towards our environment challenged.’

One primary school explained that ‘Children take part in a wide breadth of sustainability work through projects, not just one aspect such as energy. For us sustainability is part of the whole fabric of the school. It plays a role in the whole curriculum and reaches beyond the curriculum.

How could curriculum designers and policy makers enable all schools to operate like this?

As well as the practical, project based and applied aspects of a new ‘permanent education’, we need children to develop the higher order skills that are so pertinent to permaculture and to our future: People Care and Future Care. Education about sustainability needs to break out of its ‘worthy’ box, thought of as innately good but barely scratching the surface of how society has to change. Sustainability simply needs to become who we are and how we live, rather than an add-on that we learn about when we are not too busy. Definitions of a good life need to move away from consumerism and status towards recognising the life changing quality of independent, collaborative, self-sustaining communities and individuals.

To achieve a permanent change to education, schools need a curriculum that facilitates real, interdisciplinary projects for their pupils. This requires high level thinking; dialogue and collaboration; long term links with businesses, community organisations or social entrepreneurs; outdoor space; time to work on community initiatives and inventions; catering companies that will cook food grown on site; books that promote the permaculture ethics and principles; training for staff and, ultimately, the freedom from arbitrary testing and the wasteful one year financial cycle that encourages waste and short-termism.

I hope to go into more detail in the future about the different findings of my research. However, it is important and perhaps promising to note that the words and phrases used most frequently by research participants to describe the type of person they think is needed to manage the future of our planet were Thoughtful, Ideas, Caring, Positive and Active – perhaps these could be the drivers for a more permanent education and ultimately a vision for a good life?

From an article in Northern Edge journal, Northern School of Permaculture, May 2019

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