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.

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