Highlights and Insights from the 2020 Edge Annual Lecture
This year, the Edge Annual Lecture focused on an urgent, yet often neglected, topic: the need to integrate the environment into our education system. Having worked in this space for nearly twenty years, Edge was well-positioned to bring its partners together to discuss their respective projects, methodologies and visions. The tone of the event was optimistic and unconventional, which created the delightful (if rare) after-effect of feeling more energised after the zoom call than upon entering it (definitely worth a watch of the recording).
The event Chair, Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle and Shadow FE & Universities Minister, Emma Hardy, kicked off the lecture by recognising the pandemic as a catalyst for change and an opportunity for us to create new norms in the education sector. Keynote speaker Sir Tim Smit, the co-founder of the Eden Project, was quick to take up this challenge. Given his experience spearheading a project that turned a sterile pit of clay into a teeming hub of environmental learning, attendants need not have been surprised by the scale of change he was advocating and preparing for.
Tim explained that, in his view, we are on the verge of a “Green Enlightenment.” With vivid and humour-infused words, he celebrated the advances in mycology and microbiology that are creating a new kind of consciousness: the realisation that humans truly are a part of and not apart from nature. This holistic understanding of humans as part of “the majesty of the natural world” is central to the Eden Project’s approach to environmental learning. From this philosophical vantage point, humans can act with humility and face the changes to come with resilient poise.
In addition to a Green Enlightenment, Tim noted several concurrent trends that he thinks will render the next ten years “shocking”. The race against climate change is forcing economies worldwide to decarbonise and transform. Tim highlighted three such transformations: the oil industry is dying, electric vehicles and car-sharing are on the rise, and Big Agriculture may be replaced by lab-grown meat and new dairy technology. But Tim is not worried about how today’s children will fare in tomorrow’s brave new world. He knows that they are clever and clear-sighted. It’s for our education system to support their savviness through initiatives such as introducing a GCSE in Natural History. For Tim, it is a question of rights. He argued that young people have the right to understand nature’s ways - how to seed a plant and help it grow, for example - and education systems must respect this right.
The two other panellists, George Lamb and Shaun McInerney, gave useful insights as to how to implement change at a system-wide level. In 2018, George founded GROW, a new environmental education programme that offers London-based pupils the chance to farm and learn mindfulness training. George’s innovative approach of merging environmental with emotional literacy was borne of his desire to create an upstream solution to the problems he saw as endemic to society. For George, there is a strong connection between mental and physical wellbeing and both of these life skills require using the environment as a context for learning.
Also dedicated to upstream, system-wide change was Shaun McInerney, the Senior Project Coordinator of Ashoka Changemaker Education. He argued that education systems must prepare young people for the future by teaching them environmental literacy, as well as how to be adaptable. This means collapsing anachronistic dichotomies that have plagued education discourse for decades, such as vocational versus academic and skills versus knowledge to provide both a knowledge-rich and skills-based curriculum. At Ashoka, the Changemaker ethos explicitly teaches mind-sets and dispositions that will equip young people to lead in a fast-paced, potentially unrecognisable future.
Each of the speakers advocated for environmental education from similar yet distinct perspectives. Tim focused on its potential to profoundly change the way in which children experience and interact with the natural world around them, of which they are only a part. George saw growing and cooking food as forms of agency that are just as important as learning how to think critically. Finally, Shaun linked environmental literacy with skills of resilience and adaptability that will help shape the leaders of tomorrow. Whichever way you look at it and whichever version of the future you subscribe to, Edge’s Annual Lecture made clear that nature will have to play an increasing part in twenty-first century education.
Kayla Cohen, a former student at Minerva Schools at KGI and intern at the Edge Foundation, is currently studying for a Masters in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics.