Reorienting curriculum for the Anthropocene
Xavier Fazio — 18 September 2020
Our planet officially crossed a threshold in time a few years ago. A geological working group recommended that our planet is now in a new age, the Anthropocene epoch. This was intended to mark the fundamental ways humans have changed our planet. Yet few acknowledged that this change was not just of our geophysical and ecological reality, but compels a shift in our thinking.
Today, this geological nomenclature seems apropos given that we have seen in a very short period of time the physical and biological reciprocal impacts of COVID-19 and our planet. We are now at a turning point in our collective future, and education is the way forward. Collective and collaborative approaches to education are necessary for citizens to confront complex socio-scientific environmental challenges. Education has the important task of reorienting learners to the environmental realities that we now confront, and realities that we cannot yet forecast.
Our schools are complex systems, nested within local, regional, and global social-ecological systems. This seemingly obvious but often neglected reality becomes ever more prescient as we look toward the futures of education. This synergistic state of schools prompts serious questions regarding curricular knowledge and the learning required to address planetary sustainability. Edgar Morin (1999) states in his seminal book:
Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical beings. This complex unity of human nature has been so thoroughly disintegrated by education divided into disciplines, that we can no longer learn what human being means. This awareness should be restored so that every person, wherever [they] might be, can become aware of both [their] complex identity and shared identity with all other human beings.
must move beyond disciplinary fragmentation
An oft promoted approach to address human and planetary sustainability in education is to consider interdisciplinary curriculum and pedagogies. The basic assumption is that if learners in schools engage in authentic and meaningful learning activities – that is, interdisciplinary sustainability learning nested in their schools and communities – this engagement will help learners address our ecological crises. While this outcome is laudable, implementing these progressive encounters with youth, teachers and communities are difficult due to the complex systemic relationships amongst educators and students, school facilities, curriculum and learning programs, and the local ecological system. Many times this difficulty reflects disciplinary ‘imperialism’ that stalls collaboration in many educational settings. Curricular models found in most schools must move beyond disciplinary fragmentation in order to effectively ‘interdiscipline’ knowledge and competencies apropos to addressing the unsustainable practices that damage our social-ecological systems.
Our current approach to curriculum making can be summarized by the famous expressions: ‘seeing the forest but not the trees’; or, ‘seeing the trees but not the forest’. This is manifested by competing approaches to curriculum, expressed in terms of global competencies or standards. Using systems thinking principles as cognitive tools can assist educators to transform curricula and learning. Indeed, a systems approach to curriculum making can adapt and revise our current thinking so we can move past an either/or dichotomy represented by individual or holistic perspectives regarding curriculum in schools. This approach differs from reductionist approaches, which often promote simple causal and linear relationships to school curricula. Indeed, perceiving curriculum making as a deterministic process is inadequate to the realities facing our schools and socio-ecological systems.
There are innovative pedagogical models that embrace systems thinking perspectives. And current ‘green’ or EcoSchools initiatives embody a systems perspective —though not explicitly— with respect to curriculum and local ecological systems. The goal is to foster curricular innovation to creatively and imaginatively respond to cultural and social-ecological contexts of schools and improve the well-being of all learners and the planet. One way forward is to leverage technological advances to assist schools in using a complex system thinking approach to curriculum.
Morin’s important complex lessons for the future of education, laid out at the end of the 20th century, are still important guideposts directing our travels for curriculum making in the Anthropocene. As he astutely stated: “The predominance of fragmented learning divided up into disciplines often makes us unable to connect parts and wholes; it should be replaced by learning that can grasp subjects within their context, their complexity, their totality.” It is time to reorient our curriculum in relation to the Anthropocene and move beyond disciplinary fragmentation for our human and planetary sustainability.
Dr. Xavier Fazio is a Professor of Science Education and Environmental Sustainability Education at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. His research interests broadly focuses on promoting relevant science and environmental sustainability education, teacher development and curricular innovation in collaboration with researchers nationally and internationally.
For additional work on education and the anthropocene please see the Futures of Education background papers commissioned in the category of Human and Planetary Sustainability.