Rio+20: Who teaches who?

Today’s featured Rio+20 entry comes from Carla Washbourne, a PhD student in Civil Engineering (School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences).

Carla only narrowly missed out on making the shortlist with her engaging entry on the dangers of our currently prevalent system of rigid pedagogy and the risk this poses to the enthusiasm of young people.

Echoing a theme identified by many of our entrants (that of the importance of education in helping to solve issues of sustainable development), Carla’s entry was particularly praised by the judges for the personal and passionate spin she applied to the issues: by doing this, she really captured the imagination of the judges and prompted a lot of involved debate on the issue!

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Who teaches who?

Sitting at a conference table in the snow-coated pre-Christmas haven of Newcastle upon Tyne it can seem easy to feel distanced from the issues when contemplating international development (I.D.). We are often given to abstractly discuss the whys and wherefores of development in countries which are greatly removed from our experience, both culturally and geographically, and we can forget that development is not only of concern away from our relatively comfortable home in the global north.

Whilst the Newcastle Rio+20 symposia events in late 2011 provided a perfect setting to mull over some of the broader topics of I.D. in a global context, they also provided a great opportunity to converse with a diverse group of participants about the minutiae of their perceptions and ideas regarding these issues. For me this was the most unprecedentedly valuable aspect of the event.

I was privileged to share my table at the main symposium event with a handful of AS level Environmental Studies students from Newcastle College. From our conversations, I came away with the resounding feeling that some of the seemingly distant issues we were contemplating were also pretty significant much closer to home. Education was flagged as a critical puzzle-piece in achieving sustainable development, but some very personal insights drew me to ponder how education can become a force for ill…

The issue:

  • The teaching of ideas related to I.D. to young people in the UK is in danger of being far too rigidly defined and pedagogical
  • When this leaves little scope for individual or creative thinking it deals a pathological blow to enthusiasm for the issues

Is it really dangerous to maintain a rigid pedagogy in teaching of subjects related to topics like I.D.? We must consider that in the context of the UK education system many school subjects are inherently taught in a structured way which can be easily assessed. There is, however, an innate risk to introducing a ‘textbook’ culture to any subject, and this can be a very dangerous thing when considering topics as sensitive as resource management, food supply and sustainable development.

The idea of squeezing enthusiasm out of young people is terrifying, and signifies a critical failing in our current educational models. With respect to the I.D. concepts discussed at the Newcastle Rio+20 events, many young people consider this decline in enthusiasm intrinsically linked to the lack of influence they are made to feel they have on these existentially important issues.

A lack of desire to passively learn by rote and a drive to contribute personal insight and knowledge is admirable and, I believe, critical to facilitating progression on these issues.

I am by no means belittling the importance of teaching the irrevocable facts of academic subjects, just insisting that additional facets are required: once young people are ‘informed’ they require opportunities for their ideas to be facilitated and nurtured. Perhaps it is fitting that as the Rio+20 summit approaches I am reminded of the work of revolutionary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who worked extensively on developing educational concepts to empower the individual. This type of transformative education, using rational, analytical and non-biased approaches to govern personal learning is proven to be particularly effective when discussing topics related to the word around us. In this scenario the transfer of ideas could occur by a number of different interactions: teacher → student, student → student, student → teacher. This non-traditional model promotes critical thinking, reinforcing the idea that teachers do not always have the final answer and encouraging students to impart their thoughts as valued contributors.

Why are young minds so important here? Well, whilst not exclusively the case, adults often have an inbuilt approach to sensitive issues, governed by history or habit, which cannot be easily changed or challenged. Appreciation of this as a potential fallibility must be one of the keys to engendering youthful, progressive approaches to any topic, but especially valuable in I.D.

I might ask you now to picture a little fictional scenario with ‘The Global North’ playing the part of the teacher and ‘The Developing Nations’ as the students. The teacher insists on administering a rigid stance when educating their pupils, regarding their own word as authoritative and the unilateral transfer of knowledge as the norm. This is, of course, intended as a playful piece of brain fodder, but it is by no means an alien scene: the development approach of the global north can sometimes seem a little ‘textbook’ and authoritarian. There has been an accepted history of devising and applying solutions without necessarily questioning their applicability, and without fostering significant discourse with recipients. Aside from missing out on the potential benefits of local knowledge and valuable external inputs, this approach often insinuates the idea that knowledge transfer is unilateral. It also suggests that such fixed ideas are drawn from ‘best practise’; when considering such contentious topics as energy trajectories, economic structures and environmental management, this can build a damaging culture of ‘do as I say, but not as I do’.

A direct parallel can be drawn between the problems of inflexible approaches to development producing ineffective outcomes and inflexible approaches to I.D. education rendering young people’s insights static and coldly factual. We must not let this become a deeper causal relationship.

In the same way that creative solutions in many developing nations may be quashed by the application of a rigid approach to development, overly pedagogical teaching methods run the risk of putting bright young minds in the UK off of considering their capacity to influence topics within I.D. Whilst the need for basic factual education is always a given, the importance of facilitation and multilateral knowledge transfer has been historically undervalued. For progress to be made, at home and away, we must start to consider I.D. issues as problems for which we do not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are few ‘experts’ on humanity, and encouraging the input of inspired and empowered young minds could be a great asset in solving these complex issues.

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