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Meta-Education For a Sustainable World

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

I started my life as an education consultant about two years ago. This followed three decades of work in public education. I wasn’t an educator per se, but what could be best described as a district administrator. I worked with all sorts of people including school principals, teachers, community leaders and trustees to oversee processes that were intended to improve education system outcomes. That might seem like a rather mundane way of describing work that is so connected with people. But I was, and continue to be a systems thinker.

I am intrigued by what systems are, what they do and, perhaps more importantly, why they regularly don’t do what we want or intend them to do. The system of education is perplexing; not just to me but to almost everyone I talk to. Why do we continue to operate our education systems in a way that is so out of touch with what people want and need?

A former colleague that I enjoyed working with on district education system reviews once offered a phrase that has stuck with me over the years; “structure guides behavior”. The only person that can really get me to change my behavior is myself. But putting the necessary structures in place that can help people get to a better place is what education system thinking and action is all about.

To be clear, I’m not referring here to system efficiencies. Yes, education systems need to function efficiently within available resources. In comparison, system effectiveness demands an ongoing consideration of what the purpose of education is. Using education system efficiencies to define education system effectiveness is a trap that is easy to fall into.

Nor am I referring to the capacity of people associated with education systems. In fact, it is remarkable to consider the degree to which people are trying, with a sense of helplessness, to align with industrial-era education system structures that are out of sync with their needs. Innovation is commonplace, but our education systems don’t operate in a way that can best support this innovation.

About ten years ago I started a blog/network called Edushift. I have relied upon Edushift over the years to develop my thinking about Education system change, reform, transformation, or whatever we choose to call it. The big idea from these commonly used terms is that education needs to be something different from what it is now. A curious thing about education system change is that many people want something different, but we can’t make any substantive progress on what that something is.

When I started Edushift, I believed that “the something” related to education system structures that can address the personalized needs of students. I believed that if we could define education system change from this view, we could get closer to working through all the system structures that would support that change.

There are so many education system structures that are falling short of needs and expectations as they relate to mental health, information and data applications, professional development, communications, creativity, engagement, to name a few. These are not original or new ideas. They have been espoused by generations of educational system thinkers. Edushift was originally inspired from an animate, narrated by Ken Robinson, that I saw many years ago.

All of this is to say that I have spent a great deal of my life involved with and thinking about education systems. That is why I am now advocating, with the help of Edushift, a different view to the precarious challenges that education is facing, and will continue to face with increasing intensity, until systemically addressed. It is called meta-education system thinking.

Meta-Education System Thinking

I am an optimist. The glass is (almost) always half-full in my view. But I am also a realist. When surrounded by information and events that suggest something is afoot, it’s time to pay attention. There is much to be agreed with the idea that a watershed moment is a terrible thing to waste. We are at a watershed moment.

Education is not synonymous with learning. Education is a system structure that seeks to align the capacity of people with the elements our society deems necessary to function. The elements that our society needs to function have been changing for some time now. They have been evolving since the first phone call, the first transatlantic flight, the first radio, the first communications satellite, the first email, the first social media post and the first shot of carbon into the atmosphere that maintains our survival as a species on this planet.

What’s different now is that we are witnessing the culminating impact of an inter-connected world that is failing to work for the common good as one unified system. This is new. Our world has never been through this before. We are at a transitionary point of human development. The earth will continue to exist regardless of what happens from here. At stake is human existence on earth.

So, has the purpose of education changed from its industrial-era origins? I think that most people would agree yes, it has. Yet we continue to presume that micro-education system thinking works; that adjustments to current educational system structures will produce meaningful results in response to our need for a sustainable world. This cannot be. Changing curriculum will not resolve the global sustainability challenges facing our children and, even more concerning, their children.

Education systems are complex. They are interconnected with virtually every aspect of society. That is why education systems need to be recognized from a meta perspective – to connect education with our planet as one singular interconnected system.

Micro-education system thinking seeks answers through controlled models to predict anticipated results. In comparison, meta-education system thinking seeks the right questions – by deepening our connection together in response to the rapid changes happening across multiple spectra of our world. Meta-education system thinking is an open-ended process. (1)

The path we are on with climate change and global communications (2) will require a substantive effort to work locally for global sustainability. This is people work. It will require that we see education, not as a societal expense or credential to be purchased, but as a valuable resource to maximize the capacity of every person. Meta-education system thinking is an invitation to expand our interpretation of what education is: a vehicle to connect education with a new and necessary vision of society in a sustainable world. (3)

Recognizing meta-education system thinking as a resource for global sustainability will require political action. Political action requires public support. Public support requires clarification and understanding. This is a challenge because many generations of people have had a personal connection with industrial-era education system structures.

However, there is also a growing number of people that see the disconnect between current education systems and the need for global sustainability. Meta-education system thinking is a way forward that can unify us through a common focus.

We cannot predict all of the interconnections that happen in a complex system like education. But we can challenge ourselves to ask what it is we are trying to achieve. What is the purpose of an education system?

What does meta-education mean to you?

Phil Dawes, November 11, 2021

(1) This is already happening in many classrooms - commonly referred to as the process of inquiry. One of my fondest memories involved an elementary school that applied inquiry whereby the year would begin with a completely empty classroom. The students had self-ownership of their learning through the questions they asked instead of being told how to find answers to things. Putting the system structures in place that allow our questions to guide what we do works.

(2) It is unfortunate, and ironic, that at the same time “meta” is gaining acceptance as a concept for global sustainability, the term has been co-opted by Facebook through the term "metaverse” which, by most accounts, will further deepen the negative impact of its media platform on human health and behaviour.

(3) ”This is the task of education today: to confront the almost unimaginable design challenge of building an educational system that provides for the re-creation of civilization during a world system transition.” Zachary Stein, Education in a Time Between Worlds. p.87

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