The promise of happiness has created an epidemic of depression. It’s us who are being consumed, not the objects. Postmodernism is the hidden fuel of the consumer culture. It allows everything to be erased, replicated, replaced. Nothing even aims for permanency or perfection and thus the throw-away buy again society finds its cultural justification; we’re constantly buying because we’re cool chameleons. We’re ceaselessly changing, dressing up to assume new roles. We mustn’t ever hint at commitment, because that would be the death knell of rights and choices. That way, no door is closed to us, no purchase or partner ever precluded. Sounds good, huh? But it’s not. I simply can’t continue living like this.
Tobias Jones (2007)
This book has emerged from my work with schools over the last decade. During this time I have observed people in those schools grappling with a constant barrage of reform. What has been the core of this struggle? I think, just like many struggles before it, this has been a struggle for some fundamentals which can so easily be lost in the noise of contemporary life – it is a struggle for freedom, for identity and self-definition. In reaching the current state of play in our schools, as in many institutions, people have to do as they are told rather than do as they think. This has reached pandemic proportions, as anyone who works inside any institution will recognize and experience. Having an opinion and being able to act upon that opinion is often beyond the remit of even those who are ostensibly heading up our established institutions. Instead, as we will argue in this book, we have designed into our organizations the pretence of participation, enough to control and encourage but a poor substitute for true participatory practice.
And so too do we see this happening on a wider scale. Whilst the reform has come from central government within the nation state, it is heavily influenced and informed by trends and developments on the international stage. As our world becomes increasingly globalised in its economic activity, the agenda of change is correspondingly informed by powerful networks of wealth, corporation and its associated technologies. The result of these macro-level activities has real, micro-level effect. Powerlessness is felt by people in the form of disenfranchisement, a loss of the possibility to be oneself, to have a sense of place, connection, and community. There is little doubt that the flows of networks that influence our daily lives both magnify our capability to connect, to produce, to generate new ideas and to create new economic and cultural opportunities, but they also generate a sense of alienation of self and a fragmentation of society and the place of ourselves within it. As this continually plays itself out in daily life, we witness the inability of our established organizations and institutions, built as they are upon a cultural and historical base, to keep up with the pace of change. Their method and mechanism is out of keeping with these times, and their efforts to respond accelerate, rather than impede the erosion of freedom and in the wake of that erosion we are left with ever greater sanction, restriction and accountability as national systems endeavour to keep regional and local practices within practical boundaries to provide succor to the juggernaut of globalised trade.
Little wonder then, that any centralized effort of reform fails, as with previous efforts, to demonstrate any coherent and consistent philosophy of education, nurture and learning. In this field, like so many other facets of contemporary life, constant redefinition and change is the order of the day. Experience tells us that whilst educational reform is presented as developmental and progressive, it is in fact fragmented, piecemeal and arbitrary. The cumulative effect of repeated regulatory reform is to generate a climate where people instructed to do the work feel manipulated, exploited, and undervalued by management and are bullied into fitting with a system that they often report as being out of step with both the students that they work with, and that their organizations are led without any core philosophy, or compelling vision of the future other than that which is being passed to them by the government of the day.
Whilst this might sound as if there is some grand design I think otherwise. This situation seems to have been created by accident as much as by design. We wander through what increasingly looks like an operational wilderness, where as Jones (2008) says, we have ‘communities with nothing in common, where individualism is so embedded and institutionalized that it has eroded any semblance of policy of care, idealism, or commitment to each other.’ This is eating away at the historical values of service, interdependence and relationships (Sennett 1998).
This theme is also taken up in the recent work of Braungart and McDonough (2009) who argue that industrialists, engineers, designers, developers, and managers and leaders of all persuasions did not intend to bring about the devastating effects that we witness in both our societal structures and in our impact on the planet upon which we live and depend, but, that they continue through their choices, to perpetuate those paradigms which do damage to the world. What we have inherited is the ‘consequence of outdated and unintelligent design’ (2009 p.43) and demonstrates a ‘intergenerational remote tyranny,’ an influence over future generations through the defects of our actions in the past. In their work, Braunhart and McDonough graphically illustrate the cumulative impact of poor design upon human and ecological systems (ibid p.62) by comparing the consequences of human action to a cumulative design brief which;
• Puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water and soil each year
• Produce some materials that are so dangerous that they will require constant vigilance by future generations
• Results in gigantic amounts of waste
• Puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can’t be retrieved
• Requires thousands of complex regulations - not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
• Measures productivity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
• Erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices
Braungart & McDonough (2009, p.62)
In our efforts to make our responses to previous systemic reforms we have, inadvertently, added to the scope, scale and dysfunction of our current ways of doing things. An example in education is in the drive for more efficient school systems. The problem is that efficiency (whether it is in the management of the school, or the process of instruction that is adopted) has no independent value, it relies upon the value of the larger system of which it is a part and the consequential effect limits rather than opens up the potential for innovation and improvement. Added to this is the fact that efficiency is not very much fun. An efficient system (and we might generalize here across almost all of the public sector services at this point) focuses on narrowly defined and pragmatic purposes that are able to be scrutinized and measured against predetermined criteria of desired quality, this eradicates the need for individual action and decision and mediates practice through desired protocol and procedure, against which performance is measured and modified. What efficient systems fail to do is to include and nourish anything related to beauty, creativity, fun, excitement, dreaming and imagining. Therefore attempting to make an existing system, ‘less bad’ (ibid p.65) is fundamentally flawed as a goal in itself. Again, Braungart and McDonough (2009) help us here through an illustration of current ways in which we are responding to environmental challenges. As we have become more and more eco-conscious, we generate systemic responses to rectify the damage we are doing, but we do so with reference to the same system that caused the problems in the first place. Again taking the idea of a design brief, they suggest that what we are doing is:
Designing a system that:
• Releases fewer pounds of toxic material into the air, water and soil each year
• Measures prosperity by less activity
• Results in gigantic amounts of waste
• Meets the stipulations of thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly
• Produces fewer materials that are so dangerous that they will require future generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror
• Result in smaller amounts of useless waste
• Put smaller amounts of valuable materials in holes all over the world where they can never be retrieved (p.62)
As long as we maintain a trajectory of ‘less is good’, we continue to fail to tackle the fundamental problems, and the ultimate failure of this approach is, according to Braungart and McDonagh (p67) is a failure of the imagination. Our response to the environmental destruction of the planet is to purge ourselves and feel guilty, exhort ourselves to consume less and undergo reducation and sacrifice for the sake of future generations. This failure of imagination is simply the failure to recognize that this is an impossibility, and indeed an irresponsible response. It may provide some potential however, to slow down what is taking place and open the door to transitionary thinking and actions, and this suggests that we might need to explore the potential for using existing arrangements as interim measures to achieve bigger game plans.
It is possible therefore to stop and consider one’s own self in this grand narrative, do I choose to play my part and be engaged in the strategy of tragedy, or do I begin to implement and participate with others in a strategy of change?
What for example, about entirely different ways of progressing which work from a different frame of reference altogether? There are other, compelling versions of reality which conflict and contrast with the prevailing orthodoxies. Many of these different visions of social reality are witnessed in pressure groups and ad-hoc networks often characterized as being in opposition to the mainstream, or as representing some form of resistance to the larger systemic practices. Whilst this might be the case, and that people organize to challenge specific issues or circumstances, we also know from the studies of new social movements that the organized action of people, whether it be social, spiritual, cultural or economic must be understood on their own terms (Castells 1997). And whilst it might be the case that at the macro-level where globalization, and knowledge economics are being driven by huge, wealthy corporate networks who disenfranchise societies and create a detached and disaffected workforce (ibid p69), there is always a vibrant and growing constituency of people working at a micro-level whose practices are helping them to respond and generate in ways that function counter-culturally and enhance their self-definition. This is a widespread phenomena both within, beyond and between institutions. It extends into networks of small businesses (an example is the response of local food producers who come together to source, provide and create local markets for their produce in response to the supermarket/superstore development) it extends into families and friendship groups (for example in the form of alternatives to state provided support for childcare and caring for family members), and we can also see evidence of this new social movement influencing the idea of community (for example in the form of land reclamation and land-banking for community food growing projects across the country, or in self-help groups who combine to generate their own micro-economies like those found in the womens village networks in India). These small-scale, self-defined life-projects have enormous transfer value – as they carry with them some essential characteristics of the practice of freedom, choice and foster an ability to survive in an otherwise turbulent environment.
In turn, I also think that such movements have the potential to take our current ideas of school much further, as the overspill of the new social movements touches individuals through its connectivity from one sphere of influence to another. It was Alain Torraine (1965) who generated the classic typology which is very helpful here, when he defined a social movement by three principles: identity, adversary and societal goal. Each of these principles are individually highly unpredictable; we can ask exactly what these groupings might identify themselves with, who or what they identify as the basis of their challenge or resistance, and what they might pursue as social goals. Whilst they are unpredictable in their own right, they are dynamic and powerful in combination.
It is true to say that there is no predetermined direction of travel of these social movements. But in the context of school there remains a resilient faith in human-scale practices in many individual school communities (Kumar http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/satishls3.htm). Scratch the surface of any normally functioning compliant school and in many cases you quickly recognize inquisitive people managing a vibrant internal conversation about making new and practical connections with ideas, resources and people for creative and potentially liberating self-defining changes in their lives. My suggestion is that people and institutions manage this despite of, and not because of the prevailing externally defined conditions and parameters of accountability to the wider systems. If we consider this in the context of school, we are seeing in effect, an internal culture creating a counter-culture for the purpose of maintenance of what the school defines as its own ethos in response to its neighbourhood of people and their needs, but perhaps more poignantly, it represents a form of resistance and protest to the prevailing order simply through the presentation of something different within its midst.
There is therefore something slightly adrift in this post-industrial period, between broad policy based initiatives at the macro level, and the practice of individuals, communities and institutions at the micro level. We are living through what commentators often describe as a ‘period of turbulence’. That is, a time when a lot of things seem to be blurred at the edges and previous certainties are not quite as certain as they once were. I think that the idea of School, and the whole school system from cradle to grave , is clearly changing, as expectations of what they do and how they do it as they are modified by the socio-cultural context in which they function.
However, out of all this complex mix, there remains a common denominator at play – schooling. Underneath all of the reform, there remains a fundamental commitment to the idea that school, as an institution, is not questioned, and that its function by and large remains intact, despite the contextual changes happening beyond the school gates. We might have many versions of school available, from Trusts to Academies, the truth is that the core technology remains fundamentally the same.
In a manner very similar to the argument of cumulative design (Braungart and McDonough) Pearce (1998) describes and challenges the unfailing commitment to the idea of school, suggesting that it is a ‘radical denial.’ Our denial is pathological, and attends to treating the failure of small elements in the belief that the system is intact, rather than asking about the system as a whole and its continual need for attention being demonstrable evidence of failure at a much wider level. We have created as a society what the 14th century Spanish Sufi, Ibn Arabi called ‘our enormous capacity for self-deception’ managing our collective desire to maintain things as they are and to carefully modify them, and yet what we have may not be correctable. For example, if the principal purpose of our education system is to produce efficient consumers and workers, and if the economic model were stable and predictable enough to guarantee that the output of consumers and workers could be accommodated within the model, then, perhaps, simply in utilitarian terms, the current operational approach would be legitimate. However, as neither scenarios are true, we deceive ourselves into thinking that these are the realities of our system.
It is probably clear by now that I hold with this view suggested by Pearce. My feeling is that we need to look again at what we are doing. When a system is completely out of alignment with the world it is meant to connect with, it is not enough to simply play with the existing arrangements and hope they will reconnect. Our immediate response might be to find and then introduce a new approach that is more productive and to eradicate the earlier approach and start to think about what we might want to do next. However, this instrumental approach is not really productive and it is not what I think will happen. Indeed, it is exactly the repeat of pattern which creates the cumulative effect of intergenerational tyranny. Instead, I think we are better served thinking about the system and how a system changes. As the nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine says, as long as a system is stable, or at an equilibrium, you can't change it, but as it moves toward disequilibrium and falls into chaos then the slightest bit of coherent energy can bring it into a new structure. What we are exploring in this discussion are elements of a larger whole; what we will find, is that things which attract to each other have the potential to generate a new coherence. We don’t need to orchestrate a transition, it will come anyway, we need to understand what that transitional processes and designs look like, and look at some of the broader trends and implications of our current ways of living.
For example, let us think about a design of education where we educate people to be equipped to cope with the stage of their lives in which they find themselves, an education that sustains them by equipping them for ‘being’, and perhaps, consider what the consequences of not doing this are beginning to indicate. As Pearce says,
…the three-year-old is not an incomplete five-year-old, but a complete, total and whole three-year-old. If a child is given all the nurturing to be here as a three year old, they'll be the perfect five year old later on, and so on (Pearce 1998).
Our commodified view of education is founded on the bizzare notion that we are preparing a child for life, boxing up future needs as we ‘accelerate’ their learning and preparation for their future lives. This generates a disconnect between their current reality and some other place in time utterly out of their influence. Pearce continues, ‘The idea that we are preparing the child for life, or for the future, is a terrible travesty which betrays every facet of the human being. We don't prepare for life, we equip the child with the means to live fully at whatever stage they are in. The idea we're going to train a child at seven to get a good job at age twenty-seven is a travesty of profound dimension.’
The side effects of education as preparation for life make profoundly disturbing reading and yet remain largely unreported, particularly in the mental health of our young people. Prescott (2002) in his study of societal violence reported that ‘every 78 seconds a child is attempting suicide... It is this kind of terrible despair we breed in our children when we don't see the difference between preparing and equipping our children for life.’
Equipping as learning simply connects the person to the situations in which they find themselves. There are some important messages we can take from the idea, in response to the institutional view of education, and in the location and purpose behind that education.
First, we have to realize that education begins in the womb and that the first few years of life are powerfully formative. Secondly, there is little point wasting effort and energy trying to bring down existing institutions, perverse as they may be. It is more productive to put effort and energy into doing what must be done for as many children as can immediately be reached. This means looking to the tangible and real needs of a child, and looking at the way sin which that child is a member of a wider network of people who influence and inform their upbringing whether this be in a family, a friendship group, or in a neighbourhood, and then respond to that set of needs. It is interesting to see that the lofty, but poorly realized aims of Every Child Matters which put the child at the centre is an important stepping stone to a possible new way of approaching this issue.
The more I spent time in discussion of future design of school environment and culture, working with students and teachers on how they might best create conditions that helped them to live, the more obvious it was that the way we do things inside schools - the design - was as likely to impede than it was to enhance the potential of many people who turned up there every day. There just seems something incongruous about a narrative of educational transmission in a world where creative connection is so very possible.
The overwhelming effect of this is a sense of fragmentation - of individual lives, of families, of networks of people, of communities and of the organizations and institutions which have been created over history to support societal development. Somehow we need to reconnect, redesign, rebuild, and above all reconceive our future together, as an interconnected whole. As the prologue in the Hannover Principles so powerfully suggests;
‘Human society needs to aspire to an integration of its material, spiritual and ecological elements. Current technologies, processes and means tend to separate these facets rather than connect them. Nature uses the sun's energy to create interdependent systems in which complexity and diversity imply sustainability. In contrast, industrialized society extracts energy for systems designed to reduce natural complexity. The challenge for humanity is to develop human design processes which enable us to remain in the natural context. Almost every phase of the design, manufacturing, and construction processes requires reconsideration. Linear systems of thought, or short-term programs which justify ignorant, indifferent, or arrogant means are not farsighted enough to serve the future of the interaction between humanity and nature. We must employ both current knowledge and ancient wisdom in our efforts to conceive and realize the physical transformation, care and maintenance of the Earth.’ (Hannover principles 2000)
The need to reconnect, redesign and realign our actions generates a series of challenges concerning the relationship with self, organization, and systems. How might we best move forward, from where we are, to something else? The idea of deterministic change never appealed to me, and a decade or more of educational reform proves one thing if nothing else, that what you want is not what you get. So there seems to be something to learn methodologically about reform that might be valuable to capture and address within a conversation about a ‘future’ school.
Equally, there is something about the idea of the concept of school and the current reality of school. By this I mean the concept of learning things, building upon existing knowledge and using this in productive ways as a resource through which we can develop, both personally and as a civilization. At the same time, where this happens, the locus of learning, is clearly no longer locked to any one place. So schooling is at once local and universal. We need, I think, to explore that a little more.
And then there is that whole idea of purpose, or perhaps we might say, fitness for purpose. I do not mean this in a utilitarian way, I am not remotely interested in the idea of using schools to generate the next wave of call-centre fodder. Instead, I am interested in the purpose of education in this time of turbulence, where certainties are not certain. What might we draw from such a question and how might we use what we find out to inform and influence a future school concept? So the purpose of school is a question I want to consider.
With these ideas in mind I want to sketch out first what I mean by the title of the book creating sustainable (learning) communities.
Creating – I am interested in the idea that all human endeavour is a part of a universal, creative process. This process is constant, it is unfolding, it is dynamic and it is energizing, it resembles artistic creativity. Margaret Mead once said, "No education that is not founded on art will ever succeed." Steiner education does not teach art – it is not a subject. Instead, art is the means by which everything is taught and learned. I want to emphasise creativity in this way as a form of high play and only through high play does real learning take place. It is a centrally important part of the philosophy of education as equipping to deal with real life, promoting freedom and choice. Any other form of education is conditioning to another person’s employ, another's motive, another's idea of life.
Sustainable – I will first refer to a section in the Hanover Principles (2000 p4).
The concept of sustainability has been introduced to combine concern for the well-being of the planet with continued growth and human development. Though there is much debate as to what the word actually suggests, we can put forth the definition offered by the World Commission on Environment and Development: "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
In its original context, this definition was stated solely from the human point of view. In order to embrace the idea of a global ecology with intrinsic value, the meaning must be expanded to allow parts of nature to meet their own needs now and in the future. With this in mind, I am interested in the idea that all education is environmental education (I will go into more detail later), and that a critical function of any educative process is creating the capability to respond appropriately to the natural world to ensure that our personal and our collective impact upon that world is sympathetic rather than destructive of the planet and its resources.
Learning – I am interested in the locus of learning, first of all, who does the learning? Second, why does it have to be within an institution called school? (hence the brackets in the title of the book). Are we now, finally, in a transitional position where our work takes place both in buildings called schools but also elsewhere? What does this do to our ideas of curriculum? What might we need to learn, for what purpose, how and where might we best go about learning these things?
Communities – I am interested in re-colonising the idea of community to mean two things. One, a geographically bound group of people who may or may not have commonly held interests but who find themselves in a specific locale – such as our current version of school. Second, a group of people who share ideas and interests but who may not be in the same geosphere – possibly our ‘future school’.
There seems to be something to explore in the interplay between communities of place and communities of practice (Wenger 1998), how these inter-relate, and what we might do to attempt to understand and develop our use of the interplay through the use of new technologies which in turn can influence cultural practices – the way we might do things inside our geo-physically bound communities. How we engage with these ideas seems to be important, as our forms of action, interest, the places where we undertake such activity and the manner in which we engage are all informed either explicitly or implicitly through the principles which guide our lives.
Communities also generate culture – by learning through culture and by enabling learners to become cultural producers, we create the means by which true participation in the collective enterprise of making meaning and building civilization, (building cultural capital) thereby addressing the alienation I described earlier, working towards a truly cohesive society. Culture in this context goes beyond the arts, it expands to all aspects of human behaviour that contribute to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. It seems to me that our study of these issues may illuminate further what an inclusive community means. As Castells (ref) observes, new social movements sometimes have a tendency to exclude those who have the potential to benefit most from inclusion within them. In the context of this work we might ask how schools might develop a role in community capacity building through learning which is truly inclusive?
So this work is one of narrative and design. I am indebted to the informative and radically refreshing work of many in the field of ecoliteracy (Capra, Orr, McDonough). In the context of this work, the principles from the Hanover project have provided me with guiding principles for engaging in the conversation about sustainable community:
1. Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.
2. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to co-exist.
5. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.
So this is a starting point for our work, a design brief for an environmentally challenged age. The Hannover principles are an all encompassing way of envisioning the way we might connect with each other and with our world. Whilst they work on a general level, I think there are ways of taking these principles further, which in turn enable us to have something of an outline sketch of what we mean by sustainable education. I will come back to this at the end of the book in the form of a framework as I think that such a device provides practitioners with a way of exploring many of these ideas with colleagues. However, for the moment, I want to play out three dimensions of sustainable education which connect with what I have already alluded to in the title- creating sustainable learning communities.
I want to suggest that in achieving a goal of creating a sustainable learning community we have to succeed beyond, between and within our idea of school:
• Holistic – an acknowledgement that we educate the whole person, education nourishes the environmental capital (Clarke 2009), human capital, social capital, spiritual capital, manufactured capital and financial capital (Porritt 2009).
• Ethical - we educate to ensure that we extend our care and our concerns beyond the present and into the future
• Innovative – we educate in the confidence that our personal and collective efforts will seek to integrate and generate new insights
• Equitable – we educate with an awareness that resources are finite, and that we have a duty of care for each other and for the planet
• Connected – we educate to help us to see the relational patterns that inform change, from local to global, from individual to group, from living being to planet, from past to present to future, from micro to macro, from collective to self, from real to virtual
• Systemic – we educate to see the dynamics of systems, of seasons, of the interrelatedness of ecology, of the interdependence of one system upon and within another
• Contextualised – we educate to recognize the place we play in our own environment, and how we influence our surroundings by the choices we make
• Critical – we educate to help us to not take the world as given, instead we develop the capability to enquire, deconstruct, confront and reconstruct
• Emerging – we educate to construct an operational approach to organization which is generative, is deeply aware of the possibility of change
• Living systems – we educate to illustrate and understand how we are part of a wider integrated living system, and that we naturally move through phases of renewal, development, conservation and creative destruction both personally and collectively in our relationships with each other and with the planet
• Process – we educate with a deep appreciation of process as a way of constructing meaning and establishing pedagogy, everyone is a learner, reflective practice is or core methodology, our learning is participatory and grounded
• Natural – we use nature as both teacher and guide, we take every opportunity to connect our learning to natural examples and illustrations
• Freedom – we educate to ensure that every person understands and celebrates freedom, this is exemplified through choice, learning styles, learning methods, and is grounded in dialogue, participation and community
• Interdependence – we educate to see the fundamental of interdependence, we all rely upon each other and we all rely upon our planetary environment for survival
• Creativity – we educate to encourage and nurture the innate creative potential of every person, viewing the realization of the creative potential as a fundamental human right rather than an elitist or marginal pursuit.
This I think, sets the scene for this work. It is work which will scope one way forward with the venture of education, a new idea of school, and I hope it will begin to illustrate in more meaningful and connected ways what we might aspire towards in the form of a sustainable community.
I suppose as well, it needs to be stressed that this is one of many ways forward. It is deliberate in a) being idealistic, b) being committal, c) seeking forms of interdependence d) seeking pattern and coherence e) recognizing difference but understanding that there are mutually held needs. The work recognizes that there are many other ways forward that are equally possible, but without discussion and challenge we struggle to proceed beyond the narrow confines of someone else’s agenda for reform.