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  • Finn Mackesy

Reframing 21st century education

Is our current education system fit for purpose? To help answer this question consider the current human and environmental health and well-being statistics for Aotearoa. Furthermore, consider that the average New Zealand lifestyle currently requires 2.1 Earths to sustain, meaning that the way we live our lives today is well beyond what our home planet can sustain. And consider that education has an important role to play in these outcomes - it is after all how we learn to become ‘functional’ members of our society. So how can a shift in education contribute to the health and wellbeing of Aotearoa?

To explore at least one key shift towards a fit for purpose education system it might be insightful to take a step back and revisit two foundational concepts that I argue are core to modern education. They are so ubiquitous to our lives that we take them, and their original meaning, for granted. The words ecology and economy are closely related - they have emerged from the same root word, and are arguably two sides of the same coin - two complementary skills for achieving health and wellbeing. Eco, oikos in Greek, means house or household, while logic means knowledge and nomic means management giving us the English words ecology (knowledge of the house) and economics (management of the house). One might therefore assume that based on their shared origins these concepts would still be intimately connected and that our society (and education system) would value and strive to deepen our understanding of the interconnectedness of these concepts. I think it is quite revealing that our collective cultural knowledge of our home (i.e. the living world that provides our life support system) has become fragmented and greatly diminished, while economics today seems to have forgotten its role in managing our home as it pursues growth at all costs (including significant local and global damage to our life support system). If the goal of economics was in fact to manage the health and wellbeing of our life support systems (i.e. ‘the household’/environment) so that we can continue to thrive how different might our economic model be?

So what is the role of education in all of this? Well, for one thing, our current education system largely neglects fostering knowledge of home (most commonly described today in education as ecological literacy) as a core function, and only explores the management of this same home through a narrow neo-liberal economic perspective. Today our education system neglects the fundamental connection between humans and our home environments, the knowledge developed through this immersive and intimate relationship, and how this knowledge can contribute to managing our home/local environment in a way that fosters health and wellbeing.

Simply put, if Aotearoa is to successfully adapt to a quickly changing world we need resilient and wise New Zealanders - and both of these arise from being firmly grounded in place - from having an intimate connection to ‘home’. Nothing short of a transformation in our collective rediscovery of knowledge of home and the development of a deep sense of connection to and respect for our home place (that arise with the development of local knowledge) is required. This re-focus on ecology and the interconnectedness of ecology and economics as core curriculum needs to be part of an educational reframing if we are to successfully navigate the challenges ahead for our culture and society.

Luckily many pioneering thinkers, activists and educationalists have already begun this work over fifty years ago. Pioneers like Arne Naess, David Orr, Fritjof Capra, Chet Bowers, Vandana Shiva, Wagari Maathai, Richard Louv, Joanna Macy and Michael Stone have been promoting, researching, and developing and testing educational frameworks that provide this reorientation. And educational pioneers and change agents around Aotearoa are starting to embrace an ecological world-view, ecological literacy, deep ecology, place-based education and other disciplines and pedagogies to help reground New Zealanders and foster the core relationships and skills likely needed to build a healthy, resilient, connected and adaptive culture here in Aotearoa.

If you are an educator (and I argue we all are, whether we are conscious of it or not) I invite you to reflect on the values, assumptions and relationships that you prioritise, promote, and reinforce as you play your role in transmitting culture to the next generation - the future health and well-being of Aotearoa depends on it.


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