How is what and how I am teaching adequate to the times we are living in?

I’ve recently been re-reading an article by Keri Facer which starts thus:

“To be an educator today is to be confronted with an urgent question: how is what and how I am teaching adequate to the times we are living in?” (Facer, 2019, p. 3).

This is a question I’m constantly asking myself.

Facer notes that while we have faced change before, “change on an interlocking, global scale at the level of the molecular to the planetary and change that is happening, at least in atmospheric and technological terms, at an exponential pace, is unprecedented.” (p3.)

She draws our attention to the educational experimentation happening in the margins of our institutions, or outside them. She emphasises the importance of enabling students to have critical hope and to imagine and care for liveable futures in conversation with all those whose futures are entangled with ours.

The article explores how we might let go of some of our stories about education and the future and create narratives that imagine new liveable futures for all. One story Facer suggests we let go of is one the about upskilling students for a knowable future of competition and technological dominance. The idea here is to move away from a narrative about a single inevitable futures much like the present so we can consider more open futures. Facer also suggests we let go of stories where adults imagine a particular desired future for youth thus closing down the possibilities they might imagine. Finally she asks us to discard narratives that draw on anxiety about the uncertainties of the future with education as a talisman for preparing young people to survive. This last story can lend itself to educational solutionism (a phrase borrowed from my colleague Huw Davies) that asks education to magic up better futures and fails to consider the wider social, political and material forces affecting what might happen. Facer reminds us that’s it’s not the responsibility of our children to deal with the climate and nature emergencies, it is ours.

As ways forward, Facer suggests paying close attention to the complexity and richness of the present. This can help us imagine possibilities for the future that lie outside the few dominant narratives of our times. Facer uses Anna Tsing’s work about Matsutake mushrooms here as a strong example and I agree. Tsing’s writing lends itself very well to seeing the rich relationships and interdependences of the present that question the notion of the autonomous competitive neoliberal self. Facer also reminds us of Indigenous and feminist perspectives that offer alterative narratives to getting Western progress back on track. Instead we might think of cycles of change or rebirth that take us into quite different futures.

As Facer notes, education involving letting go of old stories asks us to work with emotion – grief, excitement, fear, overwhelm … This asks us to educate with care and attention to how everyone entangled in the learning is experiencing the whole process. It also reminds me of what I wrote in a previous blog post about considering ongoing informed consent in education. I think it’s worth bearing in mind as well that education which recognises the magnitude of the challenges we are facing can be a supportive experience for students who already understand the magnitude and feel their education is avoiding it.

Facer points out how different disciplines all bring resources to seeing the richness and complexity of the present and to imagining more creative possibilities for the future. As this article focuses on storytelling and literacy, Facer emphasises the power of genres such as speculative fiction and poetry for working with our fears and imagining world otherwise. She reminds us that needs to be collectively retold and rewritten works not individualistic neoliberal fantasies. She writes:

“we urgently need to defend education as a practice in which different futures from those that we currently imagine can be brought into being in the encounter between young people and a changing world of real physical and planetary constraints as well as abundant resources of creativity. It is (potentially) a place of freedom and encounter with difference, a unique space in which the new can come into the world in dialogue with the old. And in this practice, the way we tell stories and support students to tell them matters. […] It is through telling their own stories, learning to identify and trust, in Lorde’s terms, their as-yet unspoken desires and hopes and feelings and to weave these stories together with those of the material constraints of the planet and others living in very different conditions, that students can build the capacity for critical hope […] It is possible to begin to create educational spaces in which the surplus potential of the past, present and future are visible, in which new ideas are generated, in which the experience of living in complex material and planetary systems that decentre the human can be acknowledged. Such spaces will not immediately feel like exemplars of a new future that escapes the limits of the present, nor should they. But they will be understood as spaces where hope and trust might be developed not as an escape from the admittedly violent times we are living in, but in and through an awareness of the other qualities that our times also have – generosity, love, anger, fear, friendship, collegiality and care – built through the collective encounter with the complexities of the present.” (p. 13)

Powerful words.

Drawing to a close, I argue that reflecting carefully on how our (inter)disciplines can bring complexity and richness to our understanding of the present and to our stories of possible futures is critical.

Wicked Educational Questions for Wicked Problems

I’ve been thinking about the recent news about the climate emergency and reflecting on the current political situation in the UK. The sadness and anger this has provoked has led me to ask again what we can do in climate education to help things onto better trajectories. Lurking behind that question is another question about whether climate education will have a quick enough impact, or whether I should be putting my energy into other forms of activism. For the moment, I think I’m sticking with education, as that’s where my strengths and experience lie. Hopefully educational work also helps me reach lots of people. In the background, I’ll hedge my bets by helping out Extinction Rebellion Stirling from time to time.

Sticking with education leads me to ask how radical and transgressive our educational work needs to be to make the most difference. Is it better to work away gently – meeting other educators where they are somewhat comfortable – or do we need to push faster out of the comfort zone? To help me think about that, I’ve been reading an article by Sharon Stein and her colleagues, which explores some of the more challenging educational work we might do about the climate and nature emergencies (CNE). In this paper, the authors argue that we need to move away from pedagogies that are rooted in the systems that have caused the CNE and related wicked problems. They suggest that much current educational practice in the Global North reproduces the colonial practices and mindsets that lead us to accept destructive extractive practices and decimation of ecosystems, harming people who we didn’t have to think about in places out of sight.

Stein et al. argue that traditional CNE education can fall into the trap of giving false hope in the form of technological solutionism that avoids engaging the need for radical changes to all our lives. They write that:

“the ‘shiny’ promises offered by modernity (prosperity, exceptionalism, innocence, certainty, control, convenience, unrestricted consumption, unaccountable autonomy, epistemic universalism) have been enabled through colonial processes (genocide, ecocide, epistemicide, dispossession, subjugation, extraction, exploitation). Thus, the modern/colonial system is understood to be inherently violent and unsustainable.” p. 988

So, education that does not question these promises may reinforce the systems that have caused the CNE. This modernist education could imply that simply having better technologies and environmental regulations can enable a green future very similar to our current lives. These technologies can sometimes rely on ongoing extractive processes taking minerals destructively from contexts in the Global South. Personally I think that much traditional CNE education does actually question these promises, so I’m not sure the problem with current education is a stark as these authors suggest. For me part of the problem is that the current learning experiences about the CNE aren’t embedded enough across education and aren’t reaching many of our ‘leaders’.

Stein and her colleagues suggest that we need climate education otherwise. In developing this thinking they have worked closely with the Teia das 5 Curas (T5C) network based in Indigenous communities in Brazil. Stein et al. point out that steps towards climate education otherwise will always be partial and provisional. I think that’s helpful, as it reminds us we don’t need all the answers to CNE education to get started. Climate education otherwise involves a process of becoming aware of how those of us in the Global North have benefited from past harm, giving us a greater responsibility to repair the damage to climate and nature. I think that’s important and I don’t think all of our current CNE education does this well. This is not about asking us or our students to beat ourselves up personally but rather to realise how we have benefited from injustice (whether we consciously chose to or not) and therefore our moral obligation to act for justice.

Climate education otherwise also questions the ways in which Western science can be seen as the only source of answers, while denying the value of Indigenous ways of thinking and being. I found this quote from the article particularly powerful:

“As Whyte (2018) points out, ‘the harms many non-Indigenous persons dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have endured already due to different forms of colonialism: ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration’ (296-297). These harms have been the direct result of the creation and maintenance of the modern/colonial system and its institutions (including universities), the futurities of which are now perceived to be under threat by the CNE.” p. 992

Climate education otherwise involves teachers and students explicitly engaging with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. I think this is crucial preparation for us and our students. Presenting clear paths to an idealised future might be appealing but it’s not realistic in terms of what we are experiencing (or will experience) through the CNE. As Stein et al. argue, we need to move away from any notions of educating students as customers who need to be kept comfortable and validated.

One of the core arguments within climate education otherwise is that root of the CNE lies in a false sense of separation. It asks that we deeply feel and know our interbeing with the natural world and all the people entangled with it. I agree this is crucial but I sometimes think that writing about education for the CNE simplistically assumes that if we feel part of nature we will stop harming it. Personally I’m not sure it’s that simple, after all people knowingly harm themselves all the time through their life choices. So I’m not sure that identifying as part of the natural world will stop us harming it.

Climate education otherwise invites us to ask questions like:

“How did we arrive at the current social and ecological crises? How can we disinvest from practices of knowing, being, and relating that perpetuate a collapsing modern/colonial system? How can we learn from and enact repair for past (individual and collective) mistakes? How can we weave relationships grounded in trust, respect, reciprocity, consent, and accountability? How can we sustain this work over the long term, sourcing energy and resilience through the struggle itself rather than ‘solutions’? And how can we do the next, modest, most responsible thing in any given context, even when it is inconvenient and goes against our perceived self-interest?” p999-1000.

I think these are good questions.

The article connects to a fascinating looking TOOC (targeted open online course) called Facing Human Wrongs. I plan to work through the TOOC and see what I can draw from it for my own practice. This TOOC asks participants to stay with the urgency, magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face, despite how much we might want to turn away. It includes a multi-step consent process to this challenging work. Participants are invited to reflect on their own felt responses to the course materials. Participants in supported instances of the TOOC reported feeling a sense of relief from engaging with it, despite the challenges. They felt more able to hold the weight of the CNE without jumping to simplistic solutions or feeling overwhelmed.

To conclude, at the moment I think that we need a mix of climate education otherwise with more traditional climate education. Stein and her colleagues make some valid critiques of current educational practices but sometimes I feel that they set up an overly negative presentation of those practices in order to be able to challenge them. Stein et al. also make important points about the emotional impact of engaging with climate education otherwise and the need to repeatedly seek fully informed consent from participants. At the moment I think many of the students and educators I work with wouldn’t feel able to consent to this level of challenge and yet the climate emergency is so pressing …

Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti, Cash Ahenakew, Rene Suša, Will Valley, Ninawa Huni Kui, Mateus Tremembé, Lisa Taylor, Dino Siwek, Camilla Cardoso, Carolina ‘Azul’ Duque, Shyrlene Oliveira da Silva Huni Kui, Bill Calhoun, Shawn van Sluys, Sarah Amsler, Dani D’Emilia, Dani Pigeau, Bruno Andreotti, Evan Bowness & Angela McIntyre (2023) Beyond colonial futurities in climate education, Teaching in Higher Education, 28:5, 987-1004, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2023.2193667

New Publication!

We’ve just had another paper published based on the Wicked Problems Project. This paper is about how the participants we interviewed for the project built their academic identities around wicked problems. The paper explains how focusing their identities on these wicked problems helped our participants stay engaged with making a positive contribution despite the challenges of contemporary higher education. You can read the paper online.

Thinking about academic hospitality when teaching about wicked problems

I’ve recently become involved in a research project looking at Academic Hospitality in Interdisciplinary Education.

I think this is important for wicked problems, as most wicked problems require interdisciplinary approaches (Barnett 2007; Cantor et al. 2015; Tassone et al. 2018). We’re using the idea of academic hospitality (Phipps and Barnett, 2007) to think about how interdisciplinary teaching and learning might go forward in practice. The basic idea of academic hospitality is that a ‘host’ (say a programme leader) might have a range of ways of inviting ‘guests’ (say students and teachers from other disciplines) and making them feel welcome in their space. Thinking about everyday practices of hospitality in education can help us understand how to achieve transformative and inclusive interdisciplinary education (Zembylas, 2020).

Academic hospitality can involve (Imperiale et al., 2021; Phipps and Barnett, 2007; Zembylas, 2020):

Epistemological hospitality – the programme leader welcomes and is open to ideas from other disciplines offered by colleagues and students.

Linguistic hospitality – the teachers speak slowly and clearly and record their lectures to help students from diverse language backgrounds grasp the complex shifting language of interdisciplinary work. The classes have plenty of time for dialogue and clarifying understanding.

Material hospitality – the programme virtual learning environment is designed to be usable by participants who have poor internet connectivity or use screen readers.

Affective hospitality – sharing online ‘gifts’ such as meaningful photographs or specially written poetry between members of an online programme.

Of these, epistemological hospitality is the form most obviously relevant to interdisciplinary education. I would argue though, that the complexity and emotional challenges of interdisciplinary work on wicked problems mean that the other forms are also important.

All of this set me thinking about how we understand who are the hosts and who are the guests in a particular setting at a given time. Hospitality implies invitation into a setting across some kind of boundaries. These boundaries might be obvious doors to houses or more tacit, as with the boundaries of academic disciplines. These settings can be virtual (online meetings, virtual learning environments) although they are nonetheless embodied and enacted in specific places (when our colleagues’ children or their kitchens appear on screen) (Imperiale et al 2021).  Some of the settings might  be better understood through metaphors like ‘network’ rather than hosting in a singular home (Ross, 2019). The time may be a single meeting or a mix of synchronous and asynchronous engagement in different time zones over an extended period.

With all this being the case, it’s not at all straightforward to label some participants as guests and some as hosts (Ross, 2019). The teacher leading a class may take on the host role for a time but the student who turns on their camera in their kitchen is also hosting. Nor are hosting relationships straightforwardly warm and friendly, they inevitably involve tension and power (Ruitenberg, 2017). Wider social inequalities shape the experience of being a host or a guest (Zembylas, 2020). Think of the impact of the UK Border Agency on how we welcome some students. So how we experience hospitality when we are in a particular learning situation is socially constructed and fluid.

I think the notion of ‘figured worlds’ from Holland and her colleagues is useful here (Holland et al. 1998). A figured world is a ‘socially and culturally constructed realm of interpretation in which particular characters and actors are recognised, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes are valued over others’ (Holland et al. 1998, 52). So, for example, in the figured world of an interdisciplinary course we would find ways of recognising different participants as hosting or guesting depending on the stories available to us in from the subject areas – and other cultures available to us – about what being a host or being a guest involves and about who gets to take those roles. The ways of doing, stories we tell, and power relations that make up the figured world are used by learners to ‘figure’ their own roles in that setting (Holland et al. 1998; Rubin 2007; Urietta 2007).  We might think about what we could do in constructing that figured world so that all our students feel like legitimate hosts and welcome guests.

Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cantor, A., V. DeLauer, D. Martin, and J. Rogan. (2015). Training interdisciplinary ‘wicked problem’ solvers: Applying lessons from HERO in community-based research experiences for undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 39 (3), 407–419.

Holland, D., D. Skinner, W. Lachicotte Jr., and C. Cain. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Imperiale, M., Phipps, A. and Fassetta, G. (2021). On online practices of hospitality in higher education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 40, 629-648.

Phipps, A. and Barnett, R. (2007). Academic hospitality. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 6(3), 237-254.

Ross, J. (2018). Casting a line: Digital co-production, hospitality and mobilities in cultural heritage settings. Curator: The Museum Journal 61(4), 575-592.

Rubin, B. (2007). Learner identity amid figured worlds: Constructing (in)competence at an urban high school. Urban Review 39 (2), 217–249.

Ruitenberg, C. (2017). Unlocking the world: Education in an ethic of hospitality. Routledge.

Tassone, V., C. O’Mahony, E. McKenna, H. Eppink, and A. Wals. (2018). (Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: A responsible research and innovation perspective. Higher Education 76, 337–352.

Urietta Jr, L. (2007). Figured worlds and education: An introduction to the special issue. Urban Review 39 (2), 107–116.

Zembylas, M. (2020). From the ethic of hospitality to affective hospitality: Ethical, political and pedagogical implications of theorizing hospitality through the lens of affect theory. Studies in Philosophy and Education 39, 37-50.

Landscapes of practice and wicked problems

I’ve recently been reading a book called Learning in Landscapes of Practice by Etienne Wenger and colleagues. I think this book presents a useful shift in metaphor away from the notion of ‘communities of practice’ from Wenger’s earlier work. The idea of landscapes of practice is that we all of us in our professional lives move across diverse communities and multiple boundaries in our own particular trajectories. I find this idea works better for me when thinking about teaching wicked problems than the narrower communities of practice metaphor.

When we think about learning in relation to communities of practice, we tend to emphasise how the learner moves from peripheral to deeper participation in one community with its particular norms, values and practices. Life is more complex than this, especially when we are working on wicked problems. Thinking about moving across a landscape lets us think about multiple possible paths, different kinds of boundaries and experiences of getting lost! As Wenger and colleague put it (p.2):

“The metaphor of a landscape ensures that we pay attention to boundaries, to our multimembership in different communities and to the challenges we face as our personal trajectories take us through multiple communities”.

As well as introducing the idea of landscapes of practice, Wenger and colleagues introduce the distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘knowledgeability’. Competence is being able to understand and practice well within one community. Knowledgeability is the capacity to work well, collaborate and be understood across multiple communities. I think this distinction is important, as those working across multiple communities might feel deskilled or less able when they have less time to devote to the practices of a single community. Yet their knowledgeability is crucial to working well with wicked problems.

Practical Strategies for teaching about wicked problems

I had a great time recently running a workshop for University colleagues about teaching about wicked problems. We had some excellent discussions 🙂 I’ve posted the recordings of my parts of the workshop and the slides below in case anyone wants a look.

Practical Strategies Part 1

Practical Strategies Part 2

Practical Strategies Part 3

How to embed wicked problems through whole university curricula

I’ve just been rewatching this excellent keynote by Professor Amy Tsui at the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference. I think Amy does a fantastic job of explaining what it really takes to transform university curricula to prepare students for wicked problems. She sets out the whole process including the consultations, discussions, development of shared language and shared perspectives on curricula, policy, implementation, resourcing and evalution. Very inspiring!

Keynote talks | The University of Edinburgh