A mechanistic, reductionist, linear mindset, which created the problems we are now facing and needing to mitigate on local, regional, national and global scales, underpins the educational system’s philosophy, organization, curriculum, teaching and learning (Ireland, 2007).
We’ve come to realize we live in complex, dynamic, evolving, interdependent systems dependent on healthy, diverse environments; socially just, diverse, healthy societies; and effective, empowering, inclusive economies. Yet our present system and dominant educational model is rooted in reductionist, mechanistic thinking that encourages fragmentation, individualism, and transmission of knowledge through distinct disciplinary silos. The emphasis is to take things apart to understand how they work so we can then predict and control our world and ourselves. This reinforces the false notion that everything is separate and within our control. Based on concepts of efficiency, control, constancy and predictability education has been delivered through an out-dated, top-down, plan-and-impose managerial approach.
This hidden curriculum of our present educational system is perpetuating the status quo and undermining the learning needs of the 21st Century: the innovation, creativity (Robinson, 2010) and systems thinking needed in developing a sustainable society (UNESCO, 2009). Over the past 30 years, innumerable curricular as well as whole school initiatives, designed to respond to developing societal needs, have been subverted in the long-term as they have been naively grafted onto the mechanistic educational system without realizing the system itself is not designed to support these innovations (Ireland, 2007). Rather than thinking systemically, we have continued to assume these new initiatives will be effective without questioning or addressing the underlying limiting influences of our worldviews and the educational system itself. Addressing the complex ecological, social and economic challenges of our century, with climate change as a paradigmatic example, necessitates more holistic, creative, inter- and trans-disciplinary ways of thinking, acting and educating.
We believe society is at a turning point, needing to adapt and emerge from this industrial mechanistic mindset into a sustainable systems worldview where we live as integral parts of Nature with positive social and socio-ecological inter-relationships: to re-connect at all levels. We believe education needs to respond: to help people think in systems not just parts; immerse learning in our natural world and communities; and to creatively innovate to be part of the solutions we need.
Science has developed great insights in helping us understand how sustainable living systems thrive and how interdependent our socio-ecological systems are. Rather than working like a machine, where all the parts are separate, natural systems that are resilient and sustainable, exemplify interdependence, cycling, community, diversity, change and adaptation through emergence and self-assembly. Given the needs of the 21st Century, our educational systems and educational practices need to transform based on this understanding to become models of sustainable, adaptive systems, empowering life-long learners to deal effectively with complexity and change; to be creative, adaptable, resilient and empowered to develop a sustainable society.
We apply this philosophy to all aspects of education from management and organizational structure to curriculum design, community educational resources, and teaching & learning approaches. We incorporate adaptive management and organizational structures based on systems thinking; rethinking where and how learning and teaching happens, developing strong interactive community ties, critical thinking, and adaptive and transformational experiential learning opportunities. It is creative, innovative and emerging based on individual, local, culturally appropriate needs within the larger regional and global contexts.
This is 21st Century learning.
Ireland, L. (2007). Educating for the 21st Century: Advancing an Ecologically Sustainable Society. (PhD Thesis) University of Sterling, Sterling, Scotland.
Orr, D. (1992). Orr, D. (1992) Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to Postmodern World. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Robinson, K. (2010). RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms. Retrieved from:
UNESCO (2009). United Nations Bonn Declaration. Retrieved from http://www.esd-world conference2009.org/fileadmin/download/ESD2009_BonnDeclaration080409.pdf