In their article “Uncaging adolescent creativity,” Phil Jarvis and Jennifer Fraser offer a perceptive critique of Canadian education systems, pointing to characteristic failures that seem evident in many other countries as well.
Their critique highlights the disempowerment of graduates through poorly conceived curricula, crushing student debt, disengagement with their own potential and disaffection with learning per se. Much of that failure takes shape during high school, continues through the post-secondary sector and leads to a compounded failure of disparate education systems to “adequately prepare students for adulthood.”
As their solution to address that failure, the authors advocate “personalized, real-world, project-based learning.” Stage-appropriate support and individualized guidance are to unleash individual creativity and lead to self-empowerment. Their call for “instilling in students the confidence, courage and creativity to try new ideas and reach higher,” to allow them to make mistakes and to use those as learning opportunities, invokes Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization as the highest human need and educational achievement. Teachers are to collaboratively plan curriculum to focus on individualized project design and on setting free the student’s intrinsic idealism, while presumably protecting them against all kinds of harmful extrinsic idealisms. The learning process is to culminate in the student-driven creation of products that demonstrate mastery of content standards, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. To nurture this kind of learning during the critical window of ages 10 to 25, where the neural groundwork is laid for lifelong learning, adult support and encouragement, is essential.
I wish to emphasize that as an educationist I find very little fault in all that. I suggest that what led the authors astray in their argument is rather their own lack of vision. It manifests, for example, where they frame the educational challenge as “entering today’s workforce and how to build a fulfilling adult life.” I argue that the actual challenges our young people will face are not at all situated in today’s world but in the future. Despite all the uncertainty about what kind of future awaits our graduates, we can be certain of one thing: this future will be more different from the present than any future was for any past generation. The reason lies in the quickening rate of global change, referred to by some as the Great Acceleration, that has brought us to a new period in human history dubbed the Anthropocene.
What kinds of changes will be most instrumental in determining our graduates’ future? Climate change is only the most obvious global change, among increasing resource scarcity, swelling population, the growing impacts of these on the earth’s biocapacity and deteriorating ecological support structures. At this time our global demands are exceeding the biosphere’s capacity by 50 percent; we have transgressed two of nine planetary boundaries that delimit our safe operating space and are likely to cross two others. Unprecedented numbers of refugees, displaced from homelands that will have become flooded or otherwise uninhabitable, will seek shelter in Canada and struggle to come to grips with the unfamiliar values and traditions they encounter here — as will Canadians when we welcome them.
Consequently, the major challenge will not be for individual learners, trying to manage their transition into a hypothetical workforce. The real Great Transition (a term coined by the scenario researcher Paul Raskin) will involve our global and regional societies shifting from wasteful, short-term practices that have overtaxed the earth for half a century to a future in which all resources are used sustainably, all environmental impacts are limited to avoid further damage to ecological support structures, and the root causes of violent conflict are addressed equitably across the board. This world will offer very few opportunities for “growth” in the traditional sense but a whole lot of growth in creativity, in personal development and in reflection on value priorities and on what development and progress really mean. Self-actualized graduates will be better at that type of growth, but it will not be enough for what needs to be accomplished. In the words of the man I regard as North America’s most insightful educationist, David Orr:
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.
Hence, an effective curriculum for the Great Transition will involve learning outcomes that surely include empowering individuals to self-actualize and to pursue their personal aspirations — but it will also need to go beyond that atomistic individualism. At this point a transition in some form is inevitable; it is up to education systems to enable the coming generations to avoid letting it become a whimper and to make it a truly Great Transition. To get them to accomplish that, our institutions will need to give them opportunities to do a whole lot more social-emotional learning, future visioning, empathizing, connecting with the parts of nature that keep them alive, preparing to be offended by the cultural Other and liberating themselves and others from their dependencies on corporate power structures that serve nothing but the short-term interests of a tiny elite. The Great Transition is about discovering humanity’s true place on earth and learning that it is not a throne.
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