Words by Max Girardeau, co-founder of The Visionaries.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more ‘successful’ people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” David Orr, ‘What is Education For?’ 1994
This sentiment speaks to a feeling our founding team have been sitting with for the last few years, and one of the main reasons we finally decided to set up The Visionaries. On an emotional, psychological and spiritual level we knew that our current schooling system was falling short of meeting the needs of young people, of educators and of wider society. We only have to look at the many social and environmental issues around us today to see the symptoms of an out-of-balance education system. This isn’t to discredit the incredible work schools around the country are doing to support their students’ development. However, there has been a systemic failure in creating the conditions in schools that ensure every child has the best chance of growing up knowing how to live healthily, with a sense of belonging, feeling valued for their uniqueness and empowered to live out their most ambitious dreams.
So, as David Orr quite rightly asks, “what is education for?” And further to that, “what kind of a society do we want to create?” For us, it felt like these two questions were too often only alluded to indirectly in education and not given the depth and consideration they deserved.
Between us, we’ve been working in education for over 30 years, and through our roles as teachers, youth workers, educational consultants and wellbeing practitioners, we’ve had the privilege of getting to know students and teachers at over 100 schools across the UK. We noticed the same challenges cropping up time and time again in nearly every school we encountered, regardless of their demographic or social context. We witnessed school staff and young people being held back from reaching their fullest potential by narrow accountability measures, overbearing workloads, exam stress, performance pressures and competitive learning environments. We saw first hand how this creation of oppressive and restrictive learning environments breeds apathy by blurring an individual’s sense of agency and ability to live out their curiosities and passions. Note: no individual school is to blame. This is a shortcoming of a misfiring and outdated system.
“That school has been locked away and walled in as if by a tall fence from life itself has been its greatest failing…” (Lev Vygotsky, Educational Psychology, 1926)
As Jay Griffith’s beautifully points out in her book Kith, we have penned children in, disconnected them from their ‘kith’, their home territory, the country or region where they live. Physically in schools, but also through screens, technology and as a result of a society that undervalues the vital importance of growing up in connection to the natural world. Without their autonomy to roam and without encouragement to explore the outside world we know children miss out on important lessons about healthy risk-taking, self-reliance, resilience and confidence. Worse still, they develop an identity as separate from nature, their nature.
We’ve disconnected entire generations from the natural world, alienating them from life’s beauty and interconnectivity in service of economic growth. This focus on economic development has directly undermined individual human development. It has sabotaged the maturation of life-giving skills and virtues (such as empathy, care, kindness, forgiveness, fairness) that encourage pro-social behaviour, foster healthier lifestyles and promote stewardship towards the planet.
So, in which direction should education go? What’s the role of education in shaping future society? Perhaps a first very simple step, with far-reaching consequences, would be to start framing all education as environmental education. Perhaps this would begin to undo the psychological separation we have created between humanity and nature, encouraging us to sense into the interconnectivity and interdependency of all life. The internal narratives we subscribe to that guide our behaviour and inform our decision making would shift and widen to include a consideration of the natural ecosystems on which we depend.
A second step might be to ensure schools provide experiences for students that offer them positive interactions with and in nature, so that throughout their development there is a familiarisation, a deepening connection, perhaps even a love affair with nature that takes off. Alongside this learning would be done through feelings, as well as through intellect, practical as well as theoretical. An individual’s senses would awaken to the vibrancy of the created world and their attention would be drawn to exploring who they are and how to live well, rather than focusing primarily on how to make a living, be ‘successful’ and what career to pursue.
One only needs to skim through the recent World Health Organization report ‘A Future Fit For Children’ to see just how urgently we need to take radical action to reconnect children with nature, and for us all to play a part in creating a healthier environment for future generations.
Our mission is to support schools to be powerful vehicles of change, helping society to move away from commodity towards community, from consumption to restoration, from individualism to collaboration, from alienation to connection, from atomisation to reciprocity, from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, from linear to cyclical, from exhaustive to regenerative, from scarcity to abundance, from urban back to our wildest selves.
Our programmes support schools to give future generations the opportunity to experience what it feels like to exist in a healthy community, in harmony with nature. This allows them to step out into their lives after school aspiring to recreate the beauty and belonging they know from first-hand experience is possible.