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Post-COP26: Seven regenerative ideas for the future of education

From top-down to bottom-up, and from primary school to learning from life, we picked out some regenerative ideas in education we think are worth paying attention to.

In the second of our series of regenerative ideas for Scotland’s major industries (you can get up to speed starting with the introductory article here), we decided to celebrate ideas from both home and abroad that are paving the way for the future of education. As mentioned in the introductory article but worth repeating: innovation can be the application of ideas across geography and industries — something especially useful when we have an urgency to act. Here we look at what can be learned from hot ideas that could have a powerful impact on rethinking education for a world in a climate and biodiversity crisis.

1. Linking up bottom-up change

Photo by Eno Programme

Change often happens in two directions: top-down and bottom-up. I say ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ because both are often necessary at the same time. This is an important feature of systems changes that I will return to again and again: systemic problems have multiple causes and therefore systemic solutions should have multiple answers. There are no silver bullets when attempting to influence something as massive as the climate and biodiversity crisis or education reform.

An example of change being driven from the bottom-up is the ENO Programme, a global network of over 10,000 schools in over 160 countries. In 2019 they held a participatory visioning exercise that we at Andthen love to see in people-led organisations, in the form of a World Summit For Climate, to set goals and objectives for this network. The outcome of this summit that makes up the current activities of ENO members is:

  1. Actions for carbon capture. Schools will plant trees as part of carbon capture and a means of education.
  2. Reducing carbon emissions. Recycle and reuse protocols will be implemented to reduce waste and impact.
  3. Support network for students and teachers. To share information and support each other to make this change.

This three point plan is impressive in its simplicity. It’s breadth of essential actions to enact positive change (educating, healing and harm reduction) whilst supporting a decentralised process is a powerful model that other industries could certainly learn from if they want to enact a similar bottom-up change.

2. Overhauling curriculums from the top-down

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Top-down reform of education to include comprehensive education relevant to the climate and biodiversity crisis is slow going but beginning to emerge. In a recent analysis by Education International of countries’ plans for incorporating climate change into their education systems assessed against a 6 point criteria in the Education International Manifesto on Quality Climate Change Education for All, all countries failed. It is worth noting that the top ranking countries mostly included those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis.

Despite this abysmal progress, there are signs of change among the wealthy and big polluting countries that have the most work to do. In Italy in 2019 there was a recent movement towards incorporating climate change education into every part of the curriculum. Unfortunately, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, implementation has been challenging. Schools have struggled to adjust to remote learning, never mind introducing a radically innovative education model. Let’s hope more momentum can build here!

3. Learning in and from nature

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When looking at the root causes of what has led to the human systems that create such destruction, a literal disconnection from nature is an obvious culprit. When we look at cultures that are more connected to nature, particularly indigenous cultures, we see human systems that are more symbiotic with the land that sustains them. The simple act of facilitating learning in nature can be a powerful way to foster connection with it. However, learning in nature has so much more potential.

Learning in nature is an idea long recognised in Scandinavia, through what are called Forest Schools, that is quickly spreading to other countries around the world. Naturally, we see a higher awareness and appreciation of nature from students from these schools, but also see better engagement with learning itself. Studies have found that learning in nature helps children concentrate — particularly those with attention difficulties. It also improves problem-solving skills through a wider engagement with different skills and a holistic style of thinking. Then there are the more obvious benefits worth mentioning: being more physically active, positive exposure to microflora for our guts, and the sheer joy of discovering a cute wee beetle with a beautiful wingcase.

Hosting more learning experiences in nature feels like such a win-win for both people and planet. It certainly feels emblematic of the new world worth living in: in symbiosis with nature whilst being more meaningful, effective and fun.

4. Tackling eco-anxiety

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Young people are going to encounter news about the state of the world regardless of the level of climate education they are exposed to, and it is important that they are empowered to deal with that. Being a topic close to my own heart, a special shout out goes to the New Zealand government for supporting eco-anxiety as a key part of their new materials to support climate education in schools for 11–15 year olds. Students are encouraged to keep a “feelings thermometer” to “track their emotions, learn how to change defeatist self-talk, and consider how their feelings could generate action and response”.

If education is going to teach the truth about the climate and biodiversity crisis, then we need to support the mental health of learners to ensure knowledge leads to action and not paralysis.

5. Supporting lifelong learning

Photo by Enrol Yourself

In our interview in our previous article, Leslie McAra from the Edinburgh Futures Institute mentioned the importance of lifelong learning. Due to living longer in a world in flux, the need to change or update career is becoming more important. This couldn’t be more important in relation to the climate and biodiversity crisis where we are all having to learn new skills and capabilities in order to carry out the wholesale change required to address the scale of the problem.

Enrol Yourself, which describes itself as promoting “lifelong learning through the power of peer groups”, is looking to make learning more accessible and achievable. They are achieving this through the Learning Marathons model, which is a 6-month learning group that finds you a dozen collaborators to learn together by pooling skills, creativity, and perspectives.

Not everyone will be able to afford the financial investment of a university degree in order to change their career to be more aligned with their ecological values or in response to job scarcity in their industry from automation. The genius of Enrol Yourself is the use of self-directed peer groups to facilitate a more accessible learning experience.

6. Solving local challenges

Photo by John Ross supplied by Bunloit Estate

Why isn’t education more challenge rather than subject-oriented? This was also something explored in our interview with Leslie McAra from the Edinburgh Futures Institute, however it is also an approach tackled in a completely different context: in the highlands of Scotland.

On the north-western shore of Loch Ness, a newly-acquired estate is using an education institution as a powerful tool to tackle major systemic issues of the area. Former founder of solar energy company, Solarcentury, and former scientific director of the climate campaign at Greenpeace, Jeremy bought Bunloit Estate in 2020 to “rewild and re-people the highlands” by ecologically restoring the landscape and founding a wood school. The aim is to kickstart local jobs that make use of a local material that ecologically restores the landscape.

For academic institutions that feel out of touch with the places they are situated in, take note. The proposed Bunloit wood school responds to the local systemic issues of depopulation and ecological degradation and offers a learning experience and platform for students to develop regenerative and local jobs.

7. Testing new school models

Photo from Realdania

Despite the plethora of great ideas here, we can’t presume we have explored all the best ways to implement education. We need to continue experimenting with education.

Denmark has an excellent model, called Friskole which translates to Free School, that offers freedom for schools to implement school curriculums in their own way. The state funds 75% of fees, the remaining 25% made up by donations or fees, to implement a basic curriculum. In return, the school has freedom in how it does that and over additional subjects. This has resulted in a successful model called Den Gronne Friskole, or The Green Free School. The school uses “project-based learning and design thinking”, informed by systems thinking, to teach their pupils how to live sustainably. Topics learned throughout their time there include urban farming, carpentry, foraging, composting, and bicycle repair among others. We forget that school is supposed to prepare us for life, both professionally and personally, and in a climate and ecological crisis we should be empowered to live in harmony with the natural systems that sustain us.

This is but one example of a radical new model that together with other approaches could offer exciting learnings into how to educate during a climate and biodiversity crisis appropriately. Hopefully other schools and national education departments around the world can use insights from these to further innovate.

These ideas have applicability across the age spectrum of learning from primary school through to retraining as an adult. This was a deliberate choice from us as we can not place the burden of adapting to and mitigating the climate crisis on the shoulders of a young generation who were not instrumental in creating that world. Ultimately, that burden falls upon every one of us to rethink our human systems for the better and hopefully education ideas like the ones mentioned can support that transition.

Obviously, we are only scratching the surface of the amazing ideas from around the world that are transforming education. If you know of an outstanding regenerative initiative in the world of education that is also worthy of celebrating then let us know in the comment section below. Let’s continue the conversation!

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We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.

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William Brown

William Brown

Senior Strategist @StudioAndthen + Founder of Return To Nature | Formerly @Fahrenheit212, IDEO, Plan

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