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Education to Change the World: Learning for realising one’s personal, social and ecological potential [1] June 3, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Professor Stuart Hill

Consider the points below as five preliminary provocations for reflection:

1. Anything that anyone has ever learned – and much, much more – can be learned by everyone.

2. Most of what is, is unknown. Whereas cleverness is concerned with the miniscule known, one requires wisdom, experience and intuition to engage with the unknown. Sadly current curricula, and the naive concept of ‘evidence-based decision making’, tend to neglect the unknown and the need to develop wisdom. The predictable catastrophic consequences, some of which – like species extinction – are irreversible.

 3. Throughout our history our species has evolved psychosocially[2] throughout most of the world to a ‘socialising’ culture, in which one generation designs and imposes the learning agenda on the next generation. The next step in our evolution is towards an ‘enabling’ culture, in which learners are enabled to clarify and achieve their unique (personal) and shared (social) learning agendas. Though we are a social species, rather than being socialised through education we need to be enabled to realise our social potential. Paradoxically, this is undermined by all socialising agendas, which learners respond to through diverse expressions of compliance, resistance, rebellion and withdrawal.

 4. Because of the above, strategies for motivating learning need to be recognised as part of this inappropriate ‘socialising’ approach to education – as our species is naturally passionate about learning (as learning organisms with personally relevant content, time and place specificities), and this needs to be recognised and effectively enabled .

 5. Money is just one of many tools that can be used in the service of achieving our ‘higher’ goals – such as enabling equitable and ongoing (resilient and sustainable) personal, social and ecological (and ‘spiritual’?) wellbeing. All institutional structures and processes, including those relating to money, urgently need to be collaboratively redesigned and managed (particularly regionally and locally – rather than just centrally) to reflect this understanding.

 Because of our limited understanding of the above (and many related other) ‘truths’, our species faces major personal, social and ecological challenges. It is important to ask: in what ways can education help us get out of the many messes we are in?  Most current education can’t.  In fact, it will definitely result in more mess.  So how can we learn our way forwards, and how might educators, at every level, from kindergarten to universities, be most helpful?  Well, this will require a number of important things to happen.  The first will be to dare to stop defending and perpetuating the status quo, which is what most educators do today; although usually without realising that they are doing this.  To change this we need to examine our educational systems critically; and to do this we need ‘testing questions’ related to the sort of lives it makes sense to hope to be able to live, and to the institutional structures and processes designed to support them.

Such institutions would need to effectively enable and nurture wellbeing and health (at every level), equity and social justice, peace and non-violence, love and compassion, sharing and collaboration, and ecological sustainability and healthy, species-rich ecosystems. These need to be the measures of our success, rather than growing productivity, consumption, profit and power.

At the personal level, ‘testing questions’ need to recognise individuals that are empowered, aware, with clear values and visions, in loving relationships, with a sense of purpose and meaning, and having competencies that enable them to make wise decisions and take effective, responsible actions that are life affirming[3].

Keeping all of this in mind, we should be in a position to ask the following two critical questions: ‘what in the current educational system is enabling any of this to happen?’ and ‘what is preventing this from happening?’  So, to improve things we would need to act in ways that nurture the former and phase out the latter.

We would also need to understand how each of us can best be enabled to learn.  My understanding of this is that we each have our own unique learning agenda and preferred ways of learning; and we tend to want to focus on one thing at a time, and pursue it obsessively until we have mastered it to our satisfaction.  This was particularly confirmed for me by the findings of a 15-year study called the Peckham Experiment[4]; and also in my work at the University of Western Sydney, where I aimed to enable students to learn about Social Ecology[5], which deals with all of the things I am discussing here.

So, organising learners into age groups, sticking them in classrooms, and subjecting them to imposed, diversified, daily curricula is clearly a recipe for disaster.  Predictably, most of the learners, for most of the time, are sitting there waiting for something to happen that is of relevance to their particular learning agenda.  It is a bit like roulette – with very few winners and lots of losers!

No wonder learners commonly don’t pay attention, misbehave, seek compensatory stimulation, go to sleep, drop out, and learn so little of what is being presented.  In such systems, learners really have only three choices: to go along with the agenda of the SYSTEM, and become ‘colonised’ and half dead in the process (which is what happened, and is still happening, to most of us); to rebel and tie up half of one’s energy in resisting the imposed learning agendas, and in trying to stay alive (this usually involves a diverse range of acting-out behaviours[6]); or to withdraw and drop out.    All of the world’s real geniuses, not surprisingly, were individuals who, in one way or another, were able to escape or recover from the ‘colonisation’ process.

It is not really very complex; indeed, it is actually profoundly simple: educators can be most effective by enabling learners to clarify what they want to learn, and in supporting them in their unique learning journeys.  This may involve empathetic, active listening, providing respectful, constructive feedback, appropriate challenging, facilitating access to relevant information and resources, mentoring, modelling and sharing (particularly of enabling stories from one’s own and other’s experiences, including from throughout history), acknowledging and celebrating efforts and achievements – and even, occasionally, when requested and appropriate, to actually do some ‘conventional’ teaching[7].

Because there is a limit to how much individual coaching our poorly paid and under-appreciated teachers can provide, a primary task of educators is to design, establish and maintain the structures and procedures that can provide the above ‘services’ through mutual support and collaboration within, and beyond, the school learning environment.

The underlying challenge, however, is to fundamentally transform our institutional structures and processes so that all of this can actually happen; and to be constantly ready to courageously take small meaningful initiatives whenever and wherever opportunities arise.

A visual comparison of key influencing variables within ‘transformative’ and ‘colonising’ educational systems is provided below in Figure 1. Thus, within the ‘transformative’ educational systems, equitable and respectful differentiation (valuing and working with difference) replaces hierarchical differentiation (with winners and losers); enabling spontaneity and deep subjectivity (and the associated development of wisdom) replaces an emphasis on control, predictability and naive objectivity (with its focus on memorisation and limited cleverness); and nurturing loving, mutualistic relationships (co-operacy[8]) replace a focus on individualism and competition[9].

Fig. 1.  Comparison of key elements of transformative and colonising education (modified from O’Sullivan 1999 ).

Fig. 1.  Comparison of key elements of transformative and colonising education (modified from O’Sullivan 1999[10]).

Yes, if we approached education in this way humans might actually be enabled to become much more fully human, and who knows what might happen!

Stuart Hill is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and was the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at UWS, a position he held with distinction for many years. His PowerPoint presentations on this may be downloaded from website: www.stuartbhill.com . His older publications may be found at: www.eap.mcgill.ca/general/home_frames.htm . His recent books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001) and Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008) and Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (with Dr David Wright and Dr Catherine Camden-Pratt;Hawthorn, 2011).


[1] This is an edited version of the transcript of a talk that was broadcast on ABC Radio National at 5.55 pm, 3rd August 2004; www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/perspective/stories/s1168070. See also:Hill SB (2001) Transformative outdoor education for healthy communities within sustainable environments. Pp. 7-19 in 12th National Outdoor Education Conference: Education Outdoors – Our Sense of PlaceConference Proceedings. Victorian Outdoor Education Association, Carlton, VIC; and Hill SB, Wilson S, Watson K (2004) Learning ecology: a new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness: experiences from social ecology in Australia. Pp. 47-64 in O’Sullivan EV, Taylor M (eds), Learning Toward An Ecological Consciousness: Selected Transformative Practices. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.    [2] deMause L (2002) The Emotional Life of Nations. Other Press, New York. (See also: www.psychohistory.com).    [3] There is now an extensive literature on the paradigm shifts required for this cultural transformation; the following is one of the clearest recent statements: Drengson A (2011) Shifting paradigms: from technocrat to planetary person. Anthropology of Consciousness 22 (1): 9-32.    [4] Stallibrass, A (1989) Being Me and Also Us: Lessons From the Peckham Experiment. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, UK. See also: www.thephf.org; www.ru.org/stalib.htm    [5] I define social ecology as: the study and practice of personal, social [including all economic, political and other institutional considerations], and ecological sustainability and change, based on the critical application and integration of ecological, humanistic, relational, community and ‘spiritual’ values to enable the sustained wellbeing of all. See also: Wright D, Camden-Pratt C, Hill S (eds) 2011. Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet. Hawthorn Press, Stroud, UK. Powerpoint presentations on applied social ecology are available at: www.stuartbhill.com and www.scribd.com/doc/55937783; my latest publication on this is: Hill SB (2012 – in press). Considerations for enabling the ecological redesign of organic and conventional agriculture: a social ecology and psychological perspective. In: Penvern S, Bellon S, Savini I (eds). Organic Farming:  Prototype for Sustainable Agricultures. Springer, London.    [6] These are invariably addressed through ‘behaviour management’ strategies, which by focussing on the symptoms of the problem, and aiming to achieve compliance, fail to recognise, and thereby help perpetuate the underlying causes.    [7] Currently, this is being most effectively done in the best of the ‘democratic (alternative) schools’; see, for example, Hecht Y (2010) Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story. Alternative Education Resource Organization, Roslyn Heights, NY.  See also:  www.yaacovhecht.com; www.educationrevolution.org;  www.idenetwork.orgwww.aapae.edu.au (the last two sites list the 14 ‘democratic schools’ in Australia).    [8] Collaborative pluralism in the service of wellbeing for all; Hunter D, Bailey A, Taylor B (1997) Co-operacy: A New Way of Being at Work. Tandem Press, Birkenhead, NZ.    [9] In the Peckham Experiment (mentioned earlier), when children were enabled to follow their own learning agendas, rather than those of adults, they showed little interest in competition, and focussed on improving their own performance over time.    [10] O’Sullivan, E (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational Vision for the 21st Century. Zed Books, London. See also: Sattmann-Frese W, Hill SB (2008) Learning for Sustainability: Psychology of Ecological Transformation. Lulu, Morrisville, NC www.lulu.com

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