This last year of the coronavirus crisis has not only highlighted the need for an urgent re-think about what health systems should look like, it has also provided a clear reminder that “homes, schools, workplaces (indoor and outdoor) are equally, if not more, relevant structures of a health system”. In many countries, schooling and education, that many would argue doesn’t always serve children as well as it might, has changed dramatically courtesy of the continuing crisis. Perhaps this provides an ideal time to re-imagine an alternative system of education – and that is the purpose of this article.
It will outline a vision of an Ecological Education and Sustainable Schooling system, the basis of which is described in a document I prepared and published on LinkedIn some three years ago. I wrote the piece in some frustration, from long and diverse experience, with love for human beings. Those frustrations were reignited by the ways in which our thinking might, for the sake of this possibly man-made Covid calamity, be manipulated toward what I would regard as a dystopian future. One for which we are being subtly sold a trans-humanist ideal. All of this before we have had an opportunity to realise our full human potential! It is my conviction that a renewed education system based on ecological principles, root and branch, has the opportunity to grow a vibrant, intelligent, respectful and beautiful civilisation. It was also my discovery that the Alliance for Natural Health International, in its blueprint for health system sustainability, had similarly recognised the need to put ecology front and centre in re-imagining sustainable health systems, that drew me to them. The culmination of this convergence is your reading of this article on the ANH website.
>>> Meleni Aldridge, ANH-Intl executive coordinator talks to Nathalie about her views on why the current education system is betraying itself and even creating pathology, the legacy of what children are being faced with now and some of her solution-based ideas.
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The circumlocution of argument that characterises so much of our public discourse is counter-productive, whilst the limitations of evidence-based occupational practice is exposed at this time. In an article ‘Parents prepare for legal action over A-levels’, both are demonstrated, as are the damaging effects of their deployment. Teaching leaders say this. Unions say it. Parents demand it. Lawyers advocate for it.
The UK government, to whom many Brits continue to be in thrall, offers, “This year, we have published updated guidance for teachers, informed by a literature review, on how to avoid bias”, delivering little more than stasis. At the centre are the young people whose futures are dependent on our ability to invest in our imagination and intuition. And I am suggesting that our education should be a place where children and young people are able to inhabit theirs. This would mean a radical restatement of what schools are and purpose they serve. The time for a radical rethink couldn’t come sooner as the World Economic Forum continues to align more and more stakeholders and its billionaire cronies with its dystopian model of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that negates the reality of the human need for individual purpose in community.
We must take agency in the technological fruits of human ingenuity, rather than cultivate subjectivity to them in our homes and schools. It is vital too that we authentically honour the natural world and our interdependent relationship with it.
How can we do this?
"We need to create the conditions for emergence"- Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Tyson Yunkaporta 
It is indeed gratifying to align my work of Ecological Education and Sustainable Schooling with the Alliance for Natural Health and its vision, where an integrative thinking realm recognises the need for going beyond the identification of the problem to offering indications for moving forward. This speaks to a way of thinking that it is also about process, about flow.
It is not to tear down the institutional structures that have brought us here but to offer models that allow for each individual to accommodate, adapt, allow, assume and assert self-hood. I recognise, and am inspired by, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological/systems framework (Figure 1). ANH’s ‘blueprint’ offers the Meikirch Model (Figure 2) and ANH’s own Ecological Terrain. These are all exercises in progression to see the nature and extent to which these are complementary to each other within what Bronfenbrenner terms the ‘chronosystem’, the lifespan of a person, and how our institutions have a duty of care to serve the well-being of each.
Putting them side by side is to see how the child must be at the centre of the consciousness of those who have elected to bring them into the world, and those who choose to dedicate themselves to their education. The teacher’s vocation has to guide and help the child navigate his or her way through each of the systems, from the foundations of her own microsystem, to her physical, psycho-emotional and cognitive realms. The goal is to find the measure of each child in his or her unique mesosystem of home, school, and neighbourhood. This is in preparation for encounters that are then self-directed in the exo-system of workplace, cultural encounters and local democratic engagement, and the establishment of a discerning understanding of the beliefs and ideologies offered by the macro-system, the ‘big wide world’.
Figure 1. Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory. Adapted from: Bronfenbrenner U, Morris PA. The bioecological model of human development. In: Handbook of child psychology, 2007: 1–77
Figure 2. Meikirch's Model: new definition of health Source: Bircher J. Meikirch model: new definition of health as hypothesis to fundamentally improve healthcare delivery. IntegratedHealthcare Journal, 2020;2:e000046
It is the journey from the dependence of childhood to adult independence, whereby the individual is able to successfully cope with the ‘demands of life’ and navigate the individual, social and environmental determinants set out in the Meikirch model. In plain terms, in any education reset, schools must take on their responsibility to the holistic health and well-being of the child so that each child emerging from the system of education is able to make her or his unique contribution to the world. This has profound implications for pedagogy (how we teach) and curricula (what we teach).
A Graduated Pedagogy for Presence
21st century living can be characterised by a rush and remedy culture and schools are currently the induction centre for it. Despite evidence to the contrary, we often begin the formal education of children from as early as age 4.
Testing (evaluation, examination) regimes begin in Year 1 when children undergo phonics screening, overriding what is known to be the natural developmental arc of speech sounds. Gross and fine motor skills are not accounted for, nor is sensory functioning and postural control in the sedentary learning environments of the classroom. It is no wonder that cases of so-called behavioural, psychological or psychiatric disorders, for example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are spiralling and that there is a burgeoning Special Education Needs and Disabilities industry, trying to put right what we might suggest our culture is manufacturing.
The focus on head learning as a function of the brain is at the expense of the reality of learning and knowing as embodied and experiential. Furthermore, as the work of renowned psychiatrist, author and thinker, Dr Iain McGilchrist shows, it is the dominance of the technocratic left hemisphere that “is more concerned with abstract categories and types” neglecting the right hemisphere “preference for the things as they actually exist” that bosses the way we do education.
Disembodied learning has been the order of the day, and our increasingly virtual world means we are encouraged to celebrate the connective power of technology from our discrete places of physical isolation. But, in his 2019 book, McGilchrist also dedicates a chapter to the human instinct of imitation as grounded in the body which gives rise to imagination and empathy and social intelligence. He suggests it is a faster learning process than transmission, the pedagogical principle to which we remain wedded. He reminds us, “Children eagerly imitate other human beings, but do not imitate mechanical devices that are carrying out the same actions”.
Table 1: Graduated Pedagogy for Presence - design Nathalie Bethesda
The thing is that the very people who are developing the technology and selling it to us know this: Parents who include executives of Silicon Valley tech companies are sending their children to schools where tech takes secondary place to the pedagogical approaches detailed above, and where the developmental arc of childhood determines the way the children learn, from imitative to imaginative and experiential, to dialogic, as well as what they learn.
To that end we have to have a broad and balanced offer in all of our schools in which children can find the measure of their own capacities in a range of multiple intelligences that reside to different degrees in each of us (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences Source: Discovery MI PresSchoolPhoto by: http://edel518.wikispaces.com/Multiple+Intelligences+and+Software
Capacities curricula will allow children to explore their environment; to sing and to dance, find an instrument of choice; to paint and to sculpt; to converse in languages not their own; to read widely and to express their ideas in different media and registers; to be able to reason; to build structures, to cook meals; to collaborate and co-operate in work and in play; to not just acquire knowledge but be able to connect it. This is about an education that is playing the long-game that is built on solid foundations of the knowledge of human capacity, potential and evolution. It shuns experimental education systems based on virtual learning and programming that have never been put to the test of time.
Destination Data as Accountability
“In the long run you want a happy, healthy 35-year-old and no-one’s going to remember what your 4th grader gets in Math”.
- Waldorf School of the Peninsula. Preparing for Life
For the second year in a row, school exams have been cancelled in the UK and many other countries because of the ongoing crisis. Whilst the situation has been incredibly disruptive to the hundreds of thousands of young people involved, whose school careers have been framed around exams being the arbiters of their futures, it could, like so many forms of disruption, be an opportunity for the teaching profession. It is not that assessment is not an important part of the learning process. It’s more to do with how assessment is conducted through terminal exam that is counter-productive to the creativity, inter-personal skills, curiosity, persistence and drive, all of which are necessary if those emerging from the education system are to flourish while coping with the demands of an ever changing environment. Exams have become an accepted but insufficiently validated part of the atomised curricula, and they further dissociate the fruits of learning from its ultimate purpose which requires that all aspects of it are inter-disciplinary and integrated. They give a false impression that the learning required to allow individuals to be able to successfully navigate adults is over, that is’ a case of ‘job done’.
There are of course other methods of assessment that allow children and young people to demonstrate their learning and development in which they are required to analyse, theorise and engage intellectually with the world. Humanity, if it is going to survive and continue to evolve in its existing non-transhuman form, needs citizens who are able to think and discourse critically and independently. Rich Tasks and Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) are just two working models that encourage a form of continuous assessment and have the potential to reinvest teachers as authoritative facilitators and partners of life-long learning.
I am suggesting that schools be asked to report on students’ ongoing career trajectory otherwise we cannot really evaluate the success of education. What if, instead of the raw data of say GCSE or A level numbers and grades, we learned that schools had x students who had entered social care; x students were working in administrative positions; x students had gone into engineering…? Through such chronosystem or alumni reporting, we would, I suggest, have far better indicators as to how schools are able to support the development of capacities of their students. If their students have arrived at a satisfying occupation that sustains them, we might also establish some measure of a students’ psychosocial health and happiness, as well as their self-acceptance and self-actualisation.
Like any seismic change in education, it would be necessary to radically revise teacher training regimes where these alternative pedagogical approaches and capacities curricula are lynchpins to an ecological education. The parallels with what are required to a sea change in healthcare, and the need for a complete remodelling of the education of medical doctors, is uncanny.
Ecological education suggests an organic relationship between practice and theory; learning and therapeutic communities and processes; subjects and disciplines; skills and competencies; as well as the natural, social and cultural systems that we navigate. Those systems too are ripe for renewal in order for schools to become sustainable.
Among the changes I recommend to initiate this transformation in education are:
All schools should be inclusive of all age groups (through schools) and social strata (comprehensive)
We should aim to have small, local schools in every community
Classes should be a maximum of 26 pupils
Teachers contracts should incorporate no more than 50% teaching time with the rest of the day dedicated to planning, preparation and assessment, as well as pastoral work and collegiate meetings
Each school should also provide a parent/child provision, a nursery and an early years – we must reinstate our playing fields, parts of which should provide for a garden, vegetable plots, natural growth area as well as formal courts and pitches as part of the provision of learning
Formal learning should not begin until age 6 in primary (lower school) and should have the same teacher until middle school transition
Reinstate the middle school system from aged 9-14 as an immersive, creative environment
Secondary (upper school) to comprise young people 14-18 in a challenging, dialogic environment where all students continue to enjoy a balanced curriculum that offers, physical as well as intellectual
Schools are currently implicated in physical and psycho-emotional dis-ease that likely is the spawning ground for the burgeoning ill-health that the majority of populations in industrialised nations face in later life. The stresses that are endured in pressurised classrooms overseen by overburdened teachers have a lasting and potentially generational effect that may contribute to an important burden on social care and health systems. It is a false economy to persist with the present, failing and unvalidated system of child education. It is time for an education reset.
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