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