School Break: Learning Strategies Fit for our Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jan

Outdoor2

It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.  Albert Einstein

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.  Robert Frost

When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind. African Proverb

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.  Socrates

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete. Paula Hawkins

I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room. Barbara Kingsolver

There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.  Gandhi

The UN had a relatively quiet week but not one without its disappointments.   A General Assembly preparatory meeting for the 2020 Oceans Conference exhibited little energy despite the urgency of ocean health in an age of melting ice caps and our self-inflicted “plastics Armageddon.”  In the Security Council a debate on the Middle East during which the US and Israel attempted to divert attention away from Palestine and towards Iran was accompanied by an Arria Formula discussion chaired by Russia and devoted to undermining the conclusions of investigators probing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria.  As is so often the case, what could well have been an opportunity for “staying with the questions” of chemical weapons use became just one more political football as most members had made up their minds long before this Arria commenced and the Russians seemed determined (and largely failed) to use Douma report inconsistencies to call other chemical weapons allegations into question.

We have said this many times previously, and we say it again each semester to our new (and returning) cohort of interns – the UN represents an extraordinary learning opportunity but is not in any sense an extraordinary learning community.   We politicize questions and reporting with regularity. We rarely if ever ask the “next question” or stay with the questions on the table long enough to exhaust more than a portion of their significance. We generally fail to link the questions in one room with those taking place in others, nor do we ever examine the pedagogical limitations of the conference rooms in which our wilfull neglect of curiosity takes place, rooms that are much better suited to predictable political discourse than to kindling the flames we must light if our own and our children’s futures are to be secured.

Such pedagogical limitations within this UN space have implications for our efforts to promote SDG 5 and thus insure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This goal is a particular priority for the current General Assembly President, HE Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and he incarnated this priority in an all-day, High-Level, International Day of Education event this past Friday to promote SDG 5 implementation.  In his opening remarks, the PGA made reference to the gap between current levels of school enrollment (especially for girls) and the “skills” we will need to tap if we are to successfully pursue our sustainable development responsibilities.  Enrollment gaps matter, to be sure, and the PGA made a special plea to the international community to consider how to better serve (and finance) the educational needs of all children, particularly those “trapped” within zones of conflict.

In that same vein, Japan (speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends) noted that even improvements in “basic reading skills” can have positive implications for goals such as poverty reduction ane the promotion of “sustainable peace.”   And always-thoughtful Ireland highlighted the importance of “empowerment through learning,” and its “opportunity schools” that intentionally “break down cycles of disadvantage.”

Though I probably would never have said so when I was a teenager, classrooms clearly do have a role to play in securitng a more peaceful and sustainable future.  There are skills — including those related to “literacy” in all its forms — that classrooms are well suited to develop.  And in many parts of the world, classrooms represent a welcome escape for young people, escape from the problems in their communities but also an escape from the limitations endemic to those communities.   Classrooms managed by gifted teachers (of which there are thankfully millions around the world) can help young people work around “the holes in their lives” and kindle flames that will serve youth (and the rest of us) in ways that they can sustain for much of the rest of their lives.

But as much as we might value classrooms and advocate for more and better funded schools, there are also significant caveats, some of which were raised during the opening segments of this High Level event.  Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed herself noted the prevalence of classrooms in which “children don’t learn much of anything.”  She called for a “transformation in the way we interpret and value knowledge,” noting specifically the importance of learning which addresses hate speech and extremism and that can do much to narrow technology gaps.  The DSG understood that alongside the need to place underserved children in classrooms is the larger responsibility of schools and communities together to “prepare children for the world they are set to inherit,” including those aspects of the world that they may not be so keen to embrace.

As many of Friday’s morning speakers intimated, this preparatory task is one much easier said than done.   Once we shift our focus from merely expanding school enrollment numbers to addressing those millions of other children in danger of being left behind in this “decade of action,” the complexities of our educational task become apparent.   Schooling has positive implications for literacy and poverty reduction and can help narrow some technology access gaps.  Moreover, classrooms can provide stability — a comforting routine — where it is safe for some to open their minds and even their dreams in the presence of skilled and trustworthy educators.

But classrooms have several downsides which those committed to sustainable development must interrogate.   They can be places of competition rather than collaboration where the “winners” are able to escape the confines of their communities and build their own brands in far-away places.   Moreover, classrooms are only one of the places where children can learn what those on Friday agreed are worthy pedagogical objectives. Indeed, some of the most engaging educational encounters I have experienced — in most cases through the sheer brilliance of friends and colleagues — took place not in classrooms but in prisons, around campfires, in church basements, in art museums and cultural sites, around family breakfast tables.  Indeed, if we want children to build their base of knowledge and curiosity, we have to engage more of the places (and the “teachers” who occupy them) where children seeking to learn can learn best.

As we pursue the goals and targets of SDG 4, we need to ask more questions and sit longer with the questions we pose.  Are our classrooms well-suited, for instance, to teach empathy for those in need or those with less?  Are they places that can properly promote “place-based” learning — deeping the familiarity of young people with home environments and cultures — and then encourage youth to make local changes?  Can they help young people develop “deep roots” such that they no longer need to fear the winds which they will surely encounter over what we hope are long and fruitful lives? Are they places where young people can successfully overcome their limitations and practice the curiosity that will keep them learning long after their time in classrooms has ended?

Perhaps they can, but this is unclear.  Whhat is clearer, to us at least, is that education for sustainable development requires more from each of us and will likely require even more going forward. Indeeed much of what it requires is in our hearts and minds beyond our policy matrices and spread sheets.  We  must find a way to inspire caring in an increasingly indifferent world; to promote civic engagement and conflict resolution at a time when our politics seem so degraded; to encourage doing the right thing even when no one is watching; to help others to learn and succeed rather than incessantly calling attention to our own “accomplishments;” to see more clearly the links between how and what we consume and the fate of persons escaping flood waters from our denuded forests and melting icecaps or from the toxic remnants of our polluted waterways; to prepare people for the community responsibilities and employment opportunities to come and not simply those of the present.

The “future” that we ask schools, families and other educational influences to help prepare young people for is uncertain at best and, at the very least, such uncertainty is not to be laid at their doorstep.  If it is to be truly transformational, part of this “preparation” must involve a deeper commitment to modeling by the rest of us: modeling the civic and environmental engagement that we seek to inspire in the young; modeling mindfulness regarding the implications of how we live and what we share with others; modeling an “awakening” in ourselves of empathy and solidarity that we hope to arouse in our students; modeling a commitment to solving the problems on our watch rather than running out the clock and shuffling the game along to the next generation.

If truth be told, we’re not doing particularly well in this regard.  Friday’s sesssion embraced some elements of the “transformation” called for by DSG Mohammed, but largely without an examination of the “educators” in homes and communities that have been marginalized amidst our school-focused policy obsessions as well as the diverse contexts for successful learning that we have yet to fully embrace. Such contexts can change what young people know and how young people learn, making space for those who will never be able to grasp in classrooms more than a portion of what they will need to know and experience, feel and share, if their contributions to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world are to be fully experienced and duly recorded.

A flame not a bucket.  This is the educational agenda that the SDGs call for and that will take more than classrooms and their teachers to achieve.  If indeed we are committed to providing “inclusive and equitable” education for youth (as we must), then we need also to promote the duty of older folks beyond school walls (including at the UN) to help awaken youths’ best selves.

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