Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert
I utterly loathed the final years of school. This wasn’t because of any social ineptness – I made lots of wonderful friends, many of whom I’m still close with today. Secondary school gradually dissolved my intrinsic creativity. The learning experience (or lack thereof) was frustrating and painfully mind-numbing. Learning became focused on the regurgitation of material for seemingly endless assessment. The extent of my creative experience was conjuring up evil and outlandish pranks to torment humdrum geography teachers. In stark contrast, primary school provided a perpetual banquet of creative opportunities. There was art, music and writing, and the freedom to ask absurd questions about the world. Since starting a PhD I feel as if I’ve returned to childhood – rediscovering my creative freedom in an endeavour to answer intriguing questions. But unfortunately most people don’t get this opportunity.
So why does creative and enquiry based learning suddenly disappear from the education system? Why does the learning environment suddenly change from warm and nurturing to cold, competitive and assessment focused? Is this why the intrinsic compulsion to learn, that all humans have, disappears in so many people?
I think Sir Ken Robinson has the answer. Sir Ken’s recent book Creative Schools (you should all read it and watch his Ted Talk!) draws some fascinating parallels between industrialisation, modern agriculture and the education system. I found this analogy particularly captivating given my learning experiences at school and my research interests around the impacts of agricultural intensification on ecosystems.
So the story goes: industrialisation facilitated the intensification of agriculture, which dramatically increased food yields, fueling growth of the human population. However, this has had massive implications for natural ecosystems, resulting in widespread biodiversity loss and decline of critical ecological functions and services (e.g. Cardinale et al., 2012). Key industrial principles are conformity and compliance. In industrial systems, processes are linear and production is driven by market demand. The ultimate objective is to produce large quantities of identical versions of the same product. Like industrialised agriculture, modern education is constructed around these industrial principles and focuses on output and yield. This is despite the fact that, like ecosystems, human intelligence is profoundly diverse and dynamic. By its very nature the industrial model rejects diversity and creative freedom.
Simple ecological concepts span both biological and education systems. The loss of diversity reduces productivity and resilience (e.g. Naeem & Li, 1997). Agricultural and educational industrialisation has benefited a select few people/species with particular traits, that allow them to thrive under such conditions. But this is at the expense of diversity. If we continue down this path, we lose adaptability and resilience to societal and environmental perturbations.
In a rapidly changing world, where demand on natural and human resources is increasing faster than ever, it is critical that we promote and cultivate diversity and creativity. As Sir Ken puts it “education is only really improved when we understand it is a living system too”. Perhaps the only way to combat the daunting environmental challenges caused by industrialisation is to reject the industrial model itself, at least in our education system.
Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating how functional traits drive the biodiversity-ecosystem function relationship and response to environmental change in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Anne Gaskett, David Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.