Knowledge and education for the future.

Edgar Morin’s seven lessons for the future.

When the French sociologist Edgar Morin was asked by UNESCO for his thoughts on education for the future, he organised his proposals around seven key aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

In his introduction to Morin’s text (1999), the then Director-General of UNESCO, Federico Mayor made the case for change:

When we look to the future, we confront many uncertainties about the world our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live in. But we can be certain of one thing: if we want this earth to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, human society must undergo a transformation. The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know… We must strive to build a sustainable future. Democracy, equity, social justice, peace and harmony with our natural environment should be the watchwords of this world to come… at the base of our way of living, of governing our nations and communities, of interacting on a global scale.

Education in the broadest sense plays a key role in this because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organizing knowledge. We have to redesign our educational policies and programs. And as we put these reforms into effect, we have to keep our sights on the long term and honour our tremendous responsibility for future generations.

Edgar Morin did not propose a curriculum framework or educational blueprint, his suggestions are in effect a response to the question of ‘how to adjust our way of thinking’. His aim was to identify key challenges that educational programmes should try to address if they are to better equip us for the future.

Edgar Morin’s suggestion is that these aspects of knowledge should be included in educational programmes and adapted for different cultures and societies. His starting point is that the knowledge on which we base our understanding of the human condition is always provisional and open-ended, leaving us with many uncertainties and unanswered questions and leaving room for philosophical and cultural interpretations.

In summary, Morin’s seven perspectives on knowledge for the future are:

  1. Knowledge and error: The purpose of education is to transmit human knowledge but also to teach what knowledge is; its structures, its weaknesses, and its capacity for error. Knowledge cannot be treated as a ready-made tool to be picked up and used without some understanding of its nature. We need to know about knowledge if we are to confront error and illusion and be armed in the fight for lucidity. We need to study the properties and processes of human knowledge as well as the psychological and cultural conditions which make us vulnerable to error and illusion.
  2. Knowledge in context: Our learning needs to help us grasp the broad, fundamental problems and also to situate partial, circumscribed knowledge within these. A fragmented learning divided into disciplines can prevent us from connecting parts and wholes. We need learning that can see subjects in their totality, their context and their complexity. We need to develop our capacity to place information in a context, within a whole, using methods which help to show the connections and influences between the parts and the whole in a complex world.
  3. Teaching the human condition: The human condition should be a key subject of education. Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social and historical beings. Separating this complex unity of humanity into disciplines can make it harder to understand what it means to be human. We need to become aware of both our complex personal identities and our shared identity with all other human beings. Can we assemble and organize the knowledge dispersed in natural and social sciences, literature, philosophy and art in a way that shows the interconnections, the unity and the diversity of all that is human?
  4. A global identity: The future survival of the human species is a global challenge. An understanding of rapid global developments and a recognition of our global citizenship is now indispensable for all of us. We need to teach global history, and this should include the ravages of oppression and domination, past and present, and an understanding of how all parts of the world have become so interdependent. We need to teach about the complex configuration of global crises and show how human beings share common challenges and a common fate.
  5. Confronting uncertainty: Science has helped us achieve much certainty, but it also reveals new kinds of uncertainty. We need to learn to navigate the sea of uncertainty which flows around our islands of certainty. Education should include the study of uncertainty, whether in the physical, biological, or social sciences. We should teach about dealing with the uncertain and the unexpected and help people develop strategies to respond to new information and to manage risk.  History shows how unexpected many major events and accidents have been and how unpredictable the course of the human journey. This should prompt us to be ready to confront the unexpected and educators should work at the very outposts of our uncertainties.
  6. Understanding each other: Understanding each other is both a means and an end of human communication. Our global survival calls for mutual understanding in all directions. An education for the future needs to develop mutual understanding among human beings at all ages and levels. This also means studying the nature of misunderstanding from its roots to its effects, including the origins of racism, xenophobia and discrimination of all sorts and their relationship to the exercise of power. This should also form the basis for an education for peace.
  7. Ethics for the human species: Education should address the three dimensions of the human condition: the individual, the social and the global. An ethics for the human species requires both control of society by the individual and control of the individual by society, ie: democracy. It also calls for global citizenship. This ethics cannot be taught through moral lessons, it needs to take shape in people’s minds through a growing awareness that we are simultaneously individuals, members of a society and members of a species. Every one of us carries this triple reality within them. Any truly human development must include a blend of individual autonomy, community participation, and sense of belonging to the human species. Education should not only contribute to an understanding of our home planet, it should help this find expression in the will to realize our global citizenship.

(I have paraphrased Edgar Morin’s own summary, any additions or misinterpretations are mine)

Two decades on, as we face a health emergency, a climate and environmental emergency, multiple global crises, conflicts, inequalities and injustices as well as the distortions of fake news and the threat of authoritarianism, Morin’s seven perspectives provide us with a good starting point for any educational project which aims to prepare us for the future. More than ever, we need the continuing commitment of UNESCO and others to an education which addresses global challenges and which places human rights, sustainability, peace and democracy at the centre. It falls to today’s educators to apply these perspectives to shape an education fit for the future and our current predicament should only serve to inject a greater sense of urgency into this work.

See also:

Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (UNESCO, 2001)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

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England’s unexpected exam revolution.

One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are embarking on an extraordinary national experiment in the way young people achieve their exam grades in England; switching from a heavy reliance on externally set and marked written exams towards much greater trust in teacher assessment.

Our education system has never seen such a rapid assessment turnaround. It was made necessary by the shutdown of school and college campuses for most students and the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE, A Level and other public exams.

England’s public exam system is complex, fragile and expensive, requiring careful management. From its origins in the School Certificates established over 100 years ago it has grown massively and now serves multiple purposes and audiences.

Public exams provide young people with rites of passage, generate evidence of learning and are used as passports or barriers to progression and as labels of success and failure – both for students and for the institutions they attend. The stakes are high and results prompt national debate about standards, along with being used as measures of national progress and competitiveness. They can also reveal deep social inequalities while providing a veneer of objectivity for them.

The sheer number of exams set and sat, the high dependence on external terminal assessment, the level of grade differentiation, the amount of checking and analysis required to establish validity, the degree of moderation and standardisation needed to achieve consistency and the mass of performance data generated; all this needs close management. It’s not surprising that the machinery required to run the system is so complex.

Previous changes, such as the switch from A*-G to 9-1 grading at GCSE or the move from modular to linear A Levels, required careful planning well in advance. This time, the revolution is happening in the space of a few weeks, steered by Ofqual, the exams regulator. In effect, the very experts whose job it is to hold the superstructure of exams together are now tasked with showing how well we can manage without it. Together with the exam boards, they are having to design a new system almost from scratch while keeping the interests of students and their progression at the heart of all their decisions.

We now know in broad terms what teachers and centres will be expected to provide by June for every student entered for an exam. In most cases it boils down to two things: a centre assessed grade based on the evidence available and a ranking within each grade for all students entered for that exam.

This is a radical shift. The current system’s dependence on external assessment suggests a lack of confidence in teacher assessment whereas this new process requires a high level of trust in teacher judgement. This is very welcome and, once established, that public expression of trust is something which could be built on in future.

Everyone involved will want this process to be valid and robust so that this summer’s grades can be valued and respected across the board, including by the colleges, universities and employers to which students are planning to progress. But we need to ensure that it doesn’t disadvantage those students already most at risk.

Clearly, every student’s education has been disrupted this year, but not all will be impacted equally. There is some evidence that black and minority and disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-estimated and go on to perform better in exams than predicted. Without exams this year, this under-prediction could disadvantage many.

Ofqual will be undertaking an equality impact assessment and this should take into account any evidence of systemic under-prediction and try to correct for it. And if the system can’t predict precisely what grade every single student would have achieved, the least colleges and universities can do is to be flexible about their entry requirements and generous in the additional support they provide for the Covid-19 cohort once they progress in the autumn.

Equality concerns also apply to the proposed additional autumn exam series. Opening this up widely could undermine this summer’s grades and lead to new inequalities, so it is important to clarify exactly who this is for. Rather than being offered to anyone who is dissatisfied with their result, this opportunity should be for those candidates who couldn’t be assessed in the summer or whose progression is in serious jeopardy. The focus in the autumn should be on supporting students to move forward and succeed on their new programme rather than looking backwards and spending time improving on a grade they achieved in summer 2020.

Two further issues should be considered if the process is to be as manageable and fair as possible:

First, combining all the gradings and rankings coming in from colleges and schools nationally requires some moderation and standardisation. We know that this will take into account three main elements: the previous results in each centre, the expected overall national results and each student’s prior achievements – generally the strongest predictor of results. There needs to be maximum transparency about how the national statistical model for adjustment will balance these factors. While the global pattern of results may be fairly predictable, what matters to each candidate is that their personal results represent their achievements as fairly as possible. This is particularly tricky when applied to post-16 GCSE re-takers whose progress is less easy to predict because they are not a whole age cohort and are more ‘bunched’ around a few grades.

Second, large centres need help with ranking very large numbers of students. It is reasonable to expect teachers to rank the students they teach. Without this, it won’t be possible to create a sliding scale to which any statistical adjustment can be applied. But ranking every individual candidate on their own ranking point in a centre where there are several hundred in a single grade is neither practical nor more accurate. Take GCSE maths; around 100 colleges enter over 500 students and some more than 1,000. In comparison, England’s 3,500 secondary schools enter an average of 150 Year 11 students each for GCSE maths. It would make sense to limit the number of ranking points per grade and to allow centres to place some students on the same ranking point. After all, in an exam, several students can achieve the same score.

This process, and the issues it raises, reveal a system which is very sensitive to minor changes. Because the stakes are high, grade boundaries become cliff edges and small differences in outcome can have life-changing consequences. But should the distinction between grades 3 and 4 or 8 and 9 at GCSE, or between an AAB or an ABB at A Level really be so critical?

This year’s unexpected turnaround shows that major system change is possible. Once we get through this, we should take time to consider whether we really want to return to things exactly as they were. We could have a debate about what we’ve learnt from 2020 and the benefits of increasing trust, reducing the stakes, spreading the risk and dialling down the pressure. We might well conclude that simplification would be in the best interests of students, their teachers and their places of learning.

See also:

AoC response to the Ofqual consultation on grading A Levels and GCSEs (April 2020)

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Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’.

The personal is political, and this wonderful book is both entirely personal and deeply political. Nervous Conditions (1988) is the story of Tambudzai, a young woman growing up in rural Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) in the late 1960’s, told entirely in her words. Her personal struggle for emancipation is seen through her eyes and her experiences and emotions are those of a determined and single-minded individual trying to make sense of where she comes from and where she might be going.

The development of Tambudzai’s feelings about the challenges she faces is meticulously charted and we share the lessons she learns as she learns them. At the same time, her situation and the options open to her are shaped by the structural sexism, racism and colonialism  which are ever-present.

Tsitsi Dangarembga avoids explicit sociological context-setting or political analysis, showing rather than telling, immersing us in Tambudzai’s lived experience and allowing it to speak for itself without the perspective of hindsight. Through Tambudzai’s story, we become aware of the difference between the poverty and hardship of her rural home and the relative affluence of the mission where her uncle runs a school, between ‘traditional’ and ‘Western’ belief systems and between the value attributed to Shona and English. We see how gender, race, culture, language and education all intersect as signifiers of status, and currencies of respect.

Soon after moving from her village to the mission, Tambudzai describes her feelings:

I expected my sojourn to fulfill all my fourteen year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world…

For Tambudzai, reading voraciously is a major part of this transformation:

Plunging into these books I knew I was being educated and I was filled with gratitude to the authors for introducing me to places where reason and inclination were not at odds. It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything gravitating towards me.

Tambudzai’s awareness of the structures of male power and white power and the realities of subjugation emerge gradually from her accumulated experience. Her cousin Nyasha is one step ahead in developing her race and gender consciousness and for Tambudzai, Nyasha’s perspective is both fascinating and unsettling. Should she also be challenging the authority of the man who is making her liberation possible through education? Should she also question the system which seems to offer her the opportunity for emancipation? While present and troubling, these decisions are postponed in the interest of getting on with the all-important self-education project she has embarked on.

Tambudzai is expected to commit to transforming her life and that of her family while also accepting the many oppressions of racism and sexism. She senses that she will only have one opportunity and is determined to grasp it. But she is simultaneously experiencing liberation and subjugation, with the added challenge that the principal agent of both is a single individual, her uncle Babamukuru, a man she can neither completely hero-worship nor completely reject.

Tambudzai finds herself caught between the solid certainties offered by her benefactor, on condition of conformity and the questioning and challenging of everything he stands for which emanates from his daughter Nyasha:

I thought my direction was clear; I was being educated…these were the goals and this was how we would reach them. Babamukuru was my touchstone who showed me that this was true…But Nyasha’s energy, at time stormy and turbulent, at times confidently serene, but always reaching, reaching a little further than I had ever thought of reaching, was beginning to indicate that there were other directions to be taken, other struggles to engage in besides the consuming desire to emancipate myself and my family.

Tambudzai’s story is full of reminders that she lives in a deeply unequal and hierarchical society with many layers of oppression, some more explicit than others. While her experience to date provides few first-hand interactions between black and white people, there are many portrayals of the various ways women confront or negotiate with male power, whether rooted in tradition or acquired through education. On a visit to her homestead, Tambudzai witnesses a family conference which excludes most of the women affected. The women’s responses to the debate help her see that:

…it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced…

When Tambudzai later debates tradition and ritual with Nyasha, her cousin delivers “a lecture on the dangers of assuming that Christian ways were progressive ways” and makes the link between colonial power and the denial of culture:

‘It’s bad enough’ she said severely, ’when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.’

Reflecting on another family conflict, Nyasha again provides the opening for a different way of looking at things:

You grow and you compensate. You have to. There’s no other way. We’re all trying to do it, you know. All of us. But it’s difficult when everything’s laid out for you. It’s difficult when everything’s taken care of. Even the way you think.

The story takes us up to the beginning of another major transition in Tambudzai’s life and education, and leaves the reader eager to know what form her full emancipation will take and how she will confront the multiple injustices in her life and in her country. Nervous Conditions feels like the first instalment of a broader ‘coming to consciousness’ story and Tsitsi Dangarembga has written two sequels: The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018) following Tambudzai into adulthood through and beyond the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. While the political themes in Nervous Conditions are allowed to emerge gradually from personal experience, we can expect them to burst through into the foreground in these sequels.

This powerful novel demonstrates how intertwined the political and the personal are through being so personal in its telling and so political in its impact.

See also:

From Bamako to Timbuktu (Jul 2015)

W.E.B DuBois: black liberation and education for all (Feb 2016)

What if? – dystopias in fiction (Dec 2017)

Abdellatif Laâbi – attesting against barbarism (Dec 2016)

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Rebecca Solnit on Hope.

In a crisis, it is easy to despair. ‘Don’t mourn, organise!’ is a good mantra in such situations. Mourning has its place, but our response should be neither blind despair nor blind hope. We need to understand the objective reality and to build our hope from a sound base. We must mourn, analyse and organise, oppose and propose, critique and build.

Another much quoted mantra is Gramsci’s: ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. This offers a good warning against both wishful thinking and resignation. But as the writer Mike Marqusee pointed out in a 2012 piece, ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ should not be seen as being opposites. Relentless pessimism can be debilitating but excessive optimism can compromise intellectual clarity. We need rational grounds for optimism. To make hope real we need to invest in it and, in Mike Marqusee’s words, engage in ‘a determined search for the levers of change in the here and now coupled with the imagining of a just and sustainable human society, a better human future which is a necessary prelude to making that future a concrete possibility.’

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliantly lucid contributions to understanding the threats and opportunities of our current crisis are great example of this approach; constantly snatching hope from the jaws of despair. Her extraordinary and beautiful ‘Hope in the Dark’ (Original written in 2005, updated third edition in 2016) is just what we need; now and in future.

The hope it describes is not unfounded wishful thinking or “the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine” but a hope grounded in a clear-eyed understanding of what we face and have faced, as well as the possibility of what we could create based on our new awareness.

The dark we are in is not a total absence of light. In fact, there is enough illumination to perceive all around us the elements of different and better ways of doing things. The hope “is in the dark and the edges, not the limelight of centre stage” but it can be detected.

Listing some of Rebecca Solnit’s definitions of this form of hope creates a kind of poetic catalogue of praise for thinking, understanding, imagining, learning and acting in the world and for the world:


is a forward-directed energy

is a power you don’t have to throw away

is an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists

means facing realities and addressing them

is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable

demands things that despair does not

is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair

is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities that invite or demand that we act

is an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings

is a basis for action, not a substitute for it

is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point

requires clarity; seeing the troubles in this world … and seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable

is the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand

gets you there; work gets you through

is only a beginning

See also:

What coronavirus can teach us about hope – Rebecca Solnit (Guardian 07/04/20)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Decarbonising education (March 2020)

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

Young people between hope and despair (December 2013)

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In praise of lightness – Calvino’s Leggerezza.

The Italian writer, Italo Calvino, was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1985 but died before he was able to deliver them. Luckily, we have the text of 5 of these 6 planned lectures and they are published in English as ‘Six memos for the next millennium’.

Each of these memos touches on a different quality which Calvino felt should be valued in literature. The first is ‘Lightness’ – Leggerezza in Italian.

Calvino may be talking about language and writing, but what he has to say can also be applied to the way we think about the world more generally. He draws on a dizzying range of literary sources without expecting us to be weighed down by them, and in praising lightness he is also clear that he values weight.

Speaking of his own writing, Calvino tells us that his method often involves the subtraction of weight:

“I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

He also highlights what he sees as two opposite tendencies in literature; the one trying to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things” and the other trying to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things.”

Lightness and weight may be opposites, but they are inseparable. Calvino illustrates this by drawing, among other metaphors, on the myth of Perseus who flies weightlessly with winged sandals while also relying on the decapitated Gorgon’s head, kept in a sack, to petrify his enemies and weigh them down once and for all.

Lightness of thought has benefits for all of us as we navigate the business of being human and living in the world. For instance, how are we to fully understand the world if we only have our own personal experience to draw on? We could simply learn more and more about other individuals and their lived experience as different versions of our own, accumulating more of the same type of ‘weight’. But if we want to better understand the human condition we also need to be able to shed some of this weight and make the leap to more social or global perspectives which, while they include multiple individual experiences, are not weighed down by their particularity. It is lightness which allows us to step up and take a sociological, political or planetary view.

So, this lightness  can help us see the whole beyond the parts we know personally. It allows us to reach beyond our first-hand experience, empathize with others, generalize and see our human experience at a wider, social or global level and even go beyond purely human concerns. Lightness helps us to shift to a new level of understanding and to see the bigger picture.

Calvino refers to the “forces connecting macrocosm to microcosm” and the way that the lightness of the parts which contribute to the weight of the whole. He quotes Jacques from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ describing his melancholy as “compounded of many simples…”. Calvino sees such emergent properties as a “fine dust of atoms, like everything that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.” The parts may be light and invisible, but they are what makes up the all too weighty whole which we inhabit.

The balance between weight and lightness is also a balance between attachment and freedom. While being attached to certain beliefs, preconceptions and values, we also need to exercise the freedom to consider alternative perspectives and other ways of being and doing things. The quality of lightness is what allows us to detach ourselves from the weight of what we know and to see it from a new place.

Reading Calvino’s ‘Lightness’ reminds us of the value of letting go and ‘taking off’ as well as the need for strong foundations. In this wonderful essay he helps us gain perspective, shift our point of view and move between levels, both in our reading and in our thinking.

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

Theodore Zeldin on ‘what is worth knowing?’ (August 2016)

Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)

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An A-Z for a world which has to change.

In the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic which threatens many lives, we need to remember that this is just one of several global crises we face which will change our world in profound ways. All these challenges require us to alter the way we think and the way we tell our story.

Here is a suggested A-Z of some of what we will need to draw on:

Adaptability: We have a tremendous capacity to adapt to changed circumstances and innovate but only as long as we feel safe and our basic needs are met. Through education, we can nurture our capacity for change but we also need to ensure that the people who face the most disruption get the most support.

Basic Income: in a crisis, it is clear how essential it is to protect every citizen’s basic income. Human welfare shouldn’t be conditional, and it shouldn’t take a disaster for us to see the benefit of providing everyone with the security of an acceptable minimum standard of living which allows them to participate in society and withstand economic shocks and crises.

Care: Our economy and culture need to shift permanently towards valuing caring and nurturing at least as much as production and consumption. An ‘economy of care’ would mean making different choices and investing in different priorities; the care and education of our youngest, oldest and most vulnerable for a start.

Co-operation: Acquisitiveness, selfishness and competition are of little use to us in a crisis. Working together for the common good is clearly the only way to address the challenges we face. We need to develop a culture and practice of co-operation and build the structures which can hard wire it into our society and economy.

Democracy: We cannot put democracy on hold bescause difficult decisions need to be made. We need to develop new forms of participation and informed deliberation which empower people and locate accountability and decision-making at the level where they can be most effective, whether global or local.

Economy: Our economy should serve human needs of survival and flourishing as well as planetary sustainability. It must be built on principles of care, equality, co-operation and solidarity and we have to factor in all the consequences of production, consumption and distribution in our investment decisions.

Equality: Our economic and social policies need to be based on an assumption of the equal value, equal rights and basic entitlements of every human being on the planet and a recognition of the injustice of prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, hatred and inequalities of all kinds.

Food poverty: Public policy should consign every variety of poverty to history: food poverty, energy poverty, housing poverty, transport poverty, rural poverty, digital exclusion etc.

Global politics: The greatest challenges we face don’t respect national borders and cannot be tackled by any single state. Global challenges require a democratic global level of politics not beholden to national governments. Global structures like the United Nations need to be strengthened and democratised.

Growth: It is not sustainable to keep increasing production and consumption without end. We need to find ways to achieve a steady state economy which can meet human needs and support human progress in ways which are compatible with long term life on Earth.

Homelessness: Rough sleeping and homelessness are an affront to a civilised society, and we have the means to end this form of poverty, and others, if we choose to.

Inclusion: Wealth and power need to be distributed more equally and we need to remove barriers to access and participation to ensure that everyone can play a part in society.

Investment: Spending on public services, health and education are not drains on the public purse but investments which pay for themselves many times over. The way we value the returns on our investments need to take full account of the human, social and environmental costs and benefits.

Jobs: We need to redefine the value of work and its place in our lives, by sharing it more fairly and resetting the balance between constructive and nurturing purposes and destructive or unsustainable ones.

Knowledge: Our education system needs to value the knowledge and skills which people need to address the crises we face. We all need the political, cultural, scientific, economic and emotional literacy which will support a good understanding of our complex and interdependent world and the skills to make it work for everyone.

Localism: Every global crisis is experienced at a personal and local level and our understanding of the global must be rooted in our commitment to the local. We need to be citizens of somewhere to understand the challenges being faced by others elsewhere and everywhere. Globalization has brought many benefits but it can make us vulnerable and overdependent on systems beyond our control. We need to build resilient, self-sustaining communities around us.

Markets: Markets have a role in allocating resources, but they don’t deliver a fairer society. Public health, vaccines and treatments, education and social welfare should not be seen as commodities to be traded. There are many other essentials which cannot be left to the vagaries of the market.

Mutuality: The principle that we are all prepared to contribute to caring for others because we know they will contribute to caring for us can be applied to more than just the National Health Service. The idea of mutual aid makes sense in every context, at both the personal and social level, and it inspires some of the most creative grassroots community responses to our current crisis.

Nationalism: Love of country does not justify mistrust, prejudice or hatred, xenophobia or exceptionalism. National identities and values need to be seen as nesting within a shared human identity and universal values and any national sentiment should be capable of including everyone.

Openness: In a democracy, people need to have access to what the decision makers know and the reasoning for particular policies needs to be scrutinized and open to challenge. Transparency and accountability are essential in an open, democratic society.

Politics: A healthy civic life requires all of us to take part in discussion and deliberation and help make choices. Politics belongs to every citizen and should not be the preserve of a few leaders or representatives. We need to make it possible for everyone to have a voice, to engage meaningfully in the conversation about our future and help to shape it.

Production: Our productive capacity needs to prioritise what is socially useful and life-enhancing. If, in a crisis, we can convert production from weapons to life-saving medical technology, this begs questions about our priorities before the crisis.

Quality of life: Indicators such as GDP and measures of growth do not properly reflect human well-being or happiness We need to redefine what constitutes a good life and a good society and place this at the heart of public policy.

Questioning: We need to explore and define the challenges we face in order to tackle them. Secrecy and ignorance breed mistrust and irrationality and the antidote to prejudice and superstition is open, well-informed and critical public discourse.

Rationality: The truth matters, even if it is a provisional and partial account of reality, and we need mechanisms to establish and propagate it, particularly in the face of propaganda and fake news.

Resilience: Change can be sudden and difficult, particularly in a crisis, and making the transition to a different social and economic order will require practical and psychological preparation. Once individuals understand the power of working together, their communities can develop their collective resilience.

Solidarity: Looking out for others is in our self-interest and real solidarity is built on the commitment and determination of individuals. When we stand with others in challenging injustice or suffering, we are also setting a standard for what we expect of and for ourselves.

State: We need to be able to act collectively at the global, national regional and local level and hold to account those who exercise power on our behalf. We need a vision of the active and interventionist state; protecting, empowering and liberating people rather than being oppressive or bureaucratic.

Sustainability: The interests of future generations and our planet’s finite capacity for renewal should be factored in to all our decisions about production and consumption in the here and now.

Trust: Trust is an essential currency in all the transactions of an open and democratic society. In our complex and interdependent world, we need to be able to trust in the expertise, honesty and good intentions of others. We also need to learn to be worthy of trust ourselves.

Universalism: If equality is one of our key values, we need to ensure that our entitlements are universal rather than building barriers and placing conditions on who should have access to the social benefits of citizenships. Universal income should join universal health care, childcare and education as social entitlements for all citizens.

Value: A crisis forces us to re-evaluate what matters most. When this crisis subsides, we will need to hold on to what we have learnt about what we really value and use this to help shape our future.

War: We can and should mobilise phenomenal resources in ‘fighting’ for human survival, human health and human development. However, conflicts over territory and resources will never be properly resolved through violence. The only ‘wars’ we should be engaging in are against poverty, disease, ignorance, inequality and injustice.

Wealth: We need to recognise the injustice of glaring inequalities in wealth distribution and start by defining what all people need. Accumulated resources and power are of little value if they’re not used for the purpose of addressing human concerns.

Xenophobia: There are many ways in which humans are different from each other but what we have in common is so much more important. If we allow difference to justify building barriers and promoting prejudice, mistrust or hatred we are on a path which leads to injustice, violence and war.

Young people: The future is where we will all spend the rest of our lives and the young have the biggest stake in it. Young people regularly demonstrate their concern about the future consequences of our actions, or inaction, and they need to be full partners in developing the policies which can safeguard the future.

Zeitgeist: By learning the lessons from the crises we face we can shape a new spirit of the age based on what we really value.

The world will never be the same after this crisis. It’s already clear that things won’t just get back to ‘normal’, and neither should they. From A to Z, everything will change, and it is up to us to ensure that change is for the better. Right now, we can only sketch out the outline of where we’re going and describe in broad terms the tools we will need. We need to get through this and learn the lessons about what has to change.

See also:

Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The global economy of care (May 2016)

Decarbonising education (march 2020)


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Decarbonising education.

The climate emergency is a global reality and the large scale catastrophic weather events we face on a regular basis remind us that it is affecting us in the here and now, while also threatening far more serious impacts in the future.

Such a crisis calls for urgent action on a global scale, going well beyond what is currently planned. There need to be more ambitious targets and more rapid progress in reducing CO2 emissions and our dependency on fossil fuels.

Around the world, young people have been central to the campaign for change. Within the UK student movement, two of the key organisations are the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK). UKSCN and SOS-UK have jointly drafted a Climate Emergency Education Bill which outlines how education policy could start to address the climate crisis.

The campaign for this Bill, called ‘Teach the Future’ ( is led by students, supported by Nadia Whittome MP and other members of parliament across the main political parties. I attended the launch of the proposed Bill a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the Association of Colleges and heard from some of the student campaigners who helped to shape it. Many of them are college students who are active across a range of environmental issues, working to raise awareness within their communities as part of programmes such as Friends of the Earth’s excellent ‘My World My Home’. They told me that the message is being well received by their peers. Their clear understanding of the scale of the problem and their commitment to bringing about change are impressive. But while 68% of students say they want to learn more about these issues, only 4% overall feel that they know enough about climate change.

The Bill combines urgency with pragmatism, calling for:

  • A review of how the English education system prepares students for the climate and ecological crises.
  • The inclusion of the climate and ecological crises in teacher training and development.
  • A national climate emergency youth voice fund and a youth climate endowment fund.
  • A commitment that all new education buildings will be net-zero from 2022 and existing education buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

Given the scale and impact of the climate crisis, these measures would be a modest contribution to the kind of transformative change which is necessary. Many other countries have already given climate education a higher priority within the curriculum.

The Teach the Future campaign is a great example of young people engaging constructively with the democratic process and prioritising one of the most pressing issues of the day with a high degree of scientific and political literacy. The call for a curriculum which prepares students to tackle this global challenge puts young people at the centre of a wider debate about the purpose and values of their education. Learning more about the causes of climate change and the environmental impact of human activity will lead to a better understanding of other major global challenges we face. It also raises questions about the sustainability of a social, economic and political model which depends on ever growing production and consumption but fails to meet the human needs of so many and tolerates stark inequalities.

The campaign has moved to its next phase with a meeting scheduled with the Education Secretary and it is in all our interests that the Bill’s proposals are taken seriously and lead to positive action. As the UK prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we need this campaign’s sense of urgency to be sustained and to help shape a more ambitious agenda for change, in education and across society.

See also:

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)


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