Educating teachers as if sustainability mattered

July 15, 2020

Alexander K. Lautensach, DiplBiol. MSc. BEd. MScT. PhD, is associate professor at the School of Education, University of Northern British Columbia, Canada where he trains teachers.
His background includes biology, environmental science, bioethics, and education. He has published several books and numerous articles in those areas.

The mission of teacher education has always been to empower teachers.
The goals of that empowerment varied through history with political and economic agenda. In the post-COVID context, individuals, communities and cultures are learning to change their ways of living in response to the challenges that the Anthropocene poses for human security and the biosphere.
The numerous manifestations of the crisis trace back to the fact that humanity has vastly overshot the planetary biocapacity as a result of rampant growth of populations and their consumption, pollution and the resulting environmental changes (including climate), loss of biodiversity, worsening socioeconomic inequities, and the misallocation of resources (e.g. for militarisation) – aggravated by a crisis of governability.

The Anthropocene is showing us that we have no hope of sustaining the status quo; nor should we cling to the beliefs, values and aspirations that led to that status quo.
The best that humanity can hope for is some kind of compromise between the transition to sustainability that nature will impose on us and a Great Transition to a desirable, sustainable future that we might yet be able to achieve.
Contrary to many overly optimistic plans, that compromise will almost certainly involve some collapse and reductions in our numbers and in our impacts on the biosphere.
Only if teachers are adequately empowered can curricula be sufficiently repurposed towards Deep Adaptation and its agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration.

Unfortunately, in the past neither public education nor teacher education in most jurisdictions have lived up to those obligations.
Highly educated individuals in powerful positions of government and industry continue to pursue policies that aggravate our predicament, in spite of repeated warnings from the scientific community over decades.
The dominant emphases, perpetuated through education, on perpetual growth, narrow interpretations of ‘progress’, denial of basic scientific principles, trivialisation of spiritual alternatives, neglect of appropriate affective learning (values, beliefs, ideals) has caused confusion and obfuscation and a widespread failure of education to adequately equip learners for the impending challenges.

My forthcoming book entitled Survival How? (2020) presents a blueprint how teacher education could be turned around to support and empower learners towards the Great Transition.
Firstly, teachers must learn to critically analyse their curriculum, including its hidden and null elements.
What features of the curriculum provide valuable benefits and should be emphasized?
What parts cause more harm than good and should therefore be subverted?
How can learners be empowered to better cope with the coming challenges despite all the counterproductive learning that has already taken place?
The agenda for this transformative education are subsumed under six overarching aims: redefine progress as achieving sustainability; replace anthropocentrism with ecocentrism; remedy skill gaps; reorient education towards the future; eliminate parochialism from education; and empower learners to take action.

Much of this educational course change will take place in the context of cultural diversity.
While teacher education is directed primarily at the individual candidate, much of the desired learning must take place collectively inside and outside of institutions of higher learning.
Entire cultures will need to learn from mistakes, muster the initiative to change accordingly, and collectively learn from other cultures.
Much of the learning will extend into ethics and moral reasoning in order to subvert the dominant ideologies of growth and domination of nature.
Sustainable human security and cultural safety represent guiding themes for strategic adaptive outcomes.
Justice in its distributive, procedural, restorative, intergenerational and interspecific interpretations will be the central value principle, adapted to maximise transcultural appeal.
Solidarity among learners from diverse cultures can grow from resisting shared hegemonic enemies such as colonialism, modernity and the conventional development paradigm. Positive deviants must be respected as role models.

The book presents a detailed taxonomy of learning outcomes for the Transition curriculum, applicable to teacher education as well as public schooling.
It discusses educational priorities for the multicultural context, specifically uncovering new ground for intercultural communication (and its limits), reversing global modernisation, negotiating the ethical minefield, and developing a curriculum for cultural safety.
Teachers will need to develop multicultural skills and non-violent ideals, transcending possible boundaries and predispositions imposed by their own native cultural environment.
At the very least, teachers need to feel empowered to implement a curriculum that does not do further harm. 

Updated: Jun. 14, 2020