The purpose of education. There’s a question. And a route to twitter fisticuffs. Increasingly the answer appears both very narrow and very material – a focus on achieving a set of qualifications and on career pathways and earning power. Even when ‘character’ and social action are introduced into debate it slides easily into their potential for the individual rather than the development of the whole. Skills for citizenship – local, national and global – are secondary.
And as well as disagreement on the why of education the debate is also very polarised when it comes to ‘what’ education should deliver. Either knowledge or skills. Group work or individual work. Academic or vocational.
So - let’s look at this through another lens. If getting schools to teach brushing of teeth freaked Parents and Teachers for Excellence then this call to charge schools with nothing less than saving humanity should push them over the edge.
A common response to education being for anything other than access to a Russell Group University is that the proposal lacks ambition. Well – saving the human race seems a pretty ambitious concept, so a win there.
Then from the progressives there is the whole ‘teaching 21st century skills’ thing – forget that; we want the skills that will make sure the human race survives into the 23rd century.
The challenge ahead
It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”—that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms. And now it was happening here.” ― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
Confession time. I am a disaster moving junkie. Love them. The ignored scientist who always sees it coming. The corrupt politician. The dog (there’s always a dog making the jump to safety as doom erupts around them).
But disaster planning is a real thing. The world is at risk. And it won’t be us that inherits it. It will be our kids. And it won’t be us that fixes it. It will be our kids.
Maybe, rather than throwing stones at Greta Thunberg or rowing over whether our kids having a Friday off to protest about climate change, we should be preparing them to save us from the apocalypse.
And – more than that – in truth education has always been about the survival of the human race. Learning what plants and animals will kill us. Learning how to make fire. Tools. Build. Organise. Medicine. How to defend ourselves. What social learning theory calls ‘asocial learning’ – individuals learning from experience. Those things that work get passed to the next generation – ‘social learning’.
In many ways this remains the purpose of schooling – the passing on of a body of knowledge to the next generation. Social learning supported by a skilled individual.
But perhaps what’s shifted is that sense of connection between this and the immediate threats that face us a species. Social learning has been prioritised for all - the maintenance of the current body of knowledge (and one could argue the status quo of power) at the cost of those things we may need to develop to move us forward – or even save us – as a species.
So let’s focus our minds.
Clever people say these things stand a good chance of wiping us out:
And the Red Cross Annual World Disasters Report shows us their real and immediate impact.
A new discourse
Perhaps looking at the purpose of education through the lens of saving humankind may perhaps allows some new discussion. Forget the EBACC what subjects might really matter? What knowledge? What skills? What values?
Our starter for 10 is below. But play your own version. What would your top 10 be? What cultural and heritage artefacts would you store in the bunker? Who would you save?
“Hey, you know how I'm, like, always trying to save the planet? Here's my chance”
David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) Independence Day.
An ABacc – The Apocalypse Baccalaureate
- Apocalypse GSCE
Let’s not pretend these aren’t risks. Clearly we don’t want to set kids into fits of fear and panic (my 6 year old was sent into fits of panic over meteors. Not because of a Bruce Willis Armageddon scenario but because he’d heard meat-eaters were flying over the house.)
Climate change is on the national curriculum and in some exam specifications but this doesn’t guarantee all children will learn it. Conflict and migration similarly are not guaranteed subjects for all. And yet these topics – access to water, fuel - will define the future of our children. We cannot expect our children to save the world if they don’t understand the challenges that they - and others at multiple points on its surface - are facing.
Since we started Every Child Should people regularly ask what single subject we would elevate. Economics is the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of resources. It is a fair argument that understanding how this links to politics, models of citizenship, decision making and the way the world works is vital to be able to address global issues. At a time when resources are increasingly limited this is possibly the must do subject
A great case for philosophy made here by Philosophy Foundation. As the world can possibly do more with science than it ever has been able to to do we need to reflect as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park:
"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should”
- Nature studies
Accepting we are biased. We have written on this often and support several campaigns to support natural connections. But it’s obvious. If children don’t feel connected to nature – or feel its power and potential – than their incentive to protect it is limited.
- Survival skills and managing risk
Ok maybe less zombie hunting. But care of self and others. First aid. Managing conflicts. Growing food. Building. Do we over protect children? Or should we be teaching them guns and fire building?
We are a house of scientists. Rows are many over which is the best. Physics saves us in Armageddon. Biologists in Contagion. Chemists, well…….I’m sure they have their place. But the picture throughout is about the connections between science and creativity. The thinking out of the box. The application of the social knowledge to the new context. The combination of what we already know applied to that which we do not.
- Curiosity and challenge
Nearly every dystopian and post-apocalyptic future starts from the point in the future. Rarely do we see how we got there. All too easy to think that it will never happen here.
But maybe we are closer than we think:
There are scientists and politicians warning us now – like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park and Independence Day (he really is the go to disaster movie hero) – and we sweep them off. Fake news surrounds us. Social media distracts us. How do we create curious children who challenge what they see and what they are told?
From Volcano to Earthquake, 2012 to The Core; many of the things that may end us are structures of our own planet. Climate change is firmly embedded in the GCSE Curriculum and predicting tsunamis and other life-threatening planet created events is a core activity for those preparing for disasters. How do we use KS3 to develop knowledge and deep thinking on sustainability? How do we move beyond tokenistic and posters to the thinking we might really need?
The concept of saving humanity is not just about saving the people. It is about saving the culture that we value. Our heritage. What would you save? If the end cannot be avoided what do we put on the ark or bury in the cave? What is our collective heritage rather than just our personal collection?
Ah. This is tricky. Should we teach values? Well in truth we do all the time. Not just in RE but in all that we do and model. If we teach economics we already start to answer one of the core questions of all disaster films. Do we save the able or the all? In a world of the blinded and human killing plants in Day of Triffids one of the communities argues that it could afford to take some blind women in as they would have seeing children – but blind men would be left to die. In 2012 the world’s wealthy build arks to save themselves – mirroring their real world preparations.
In disaster movie lore the rich and powerful perish as their selfish ways catch up with them. But in reality world disasters already decimate disproportionately the poor and powerless.
So that’s our top 10. What’s yours?
This was originally written as part of a series of presentations on the purpose of education and as part of the discussions on what ‘Every Child Should’ learn.
One of the areas of feedback was that this was a view of the purpose of education from a particular moral/values based perspective and a belief in the science behind potential world disasters. And yes, to some degree, of course it is.
But the point is that this is of no more or less value than any other way to look at the purpose of education. To consider an ABacc that prepares us to save humanity is no more a biased proposition than an EBacc that prepares us to be ‘English’. There is no lesser academic case for philosophy than there is for geography; or for economics than there is for physics. And the content of those subjects is inevitably chosen to reflect a particular world view or values base. Until we can enter into the debate on education knowing this and accepting that we all have our biases the continuing polarisation of discussion will serve the next generation badly.
And Jeff Goldblum ain’t always going to be there to save us.