End of the world as we know it

Should we be preparing pupils for life without oil, a return to self-sufficiency and even zombie attacks?

Joseph Lee

It is a cliche of futurology in business and education to say that children studying today will later be working in jobs that do not exist yet. In 2006, Forbes magazine took the idea a step further and attempted to imagine what those jobs might be.

Teleportation engineers, genetic screeners and space tour guides were all conjured up. But one suggestion was out of keeping with the technological utopia suggested by the others: a drowned cities specialist, recovering possessions and moving communities ravaged by climate change to higher ground.

Futurology in schools has focused on harnessing technological improvements and preparing pupils for an increasingly globally competitive and high-tech knowledge economy. But some educational thinkers are trying to turn attention to threats that may bring the march of progress to an abrupt halt.

They are making the case for an educational system that focuses on the challenges of environmental damage and economic slowdown prompted by increasingly scarce and expensive energy - "peak oil". Meanwhile, pioneering educators are preparing ideas for the curriculum that may teach us how to respond to scenarios that could bring our high-consumption society to a drastic end.

Beyond peak oil

Michael Bassey, emeritus professor of education at Nottingham Trent University and author of Education for the Inevitable: schooling when the oil runs out, quotes a short parable to illustrate the peak oil slump: "There's a wonderful Arab saying: my father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son will fly an aeroplane and his son will ride a camel." And at the same time as finding ourselves nearer the camel end of the spectrum of wealth and technology, the UK will have to support an increasingly large population of retirees.

The first key feature of the school of this future is that it will have to be local, with motorised transport costing too much and bringing to an end the idea of choice and competition in schools, Bassey says. But as one of the predominant local institutions, it is likely to form the centre of the community.

He envisages teacher-led teams of pupils supporting the elderly, helping young people in primary schools, growing food and raising livestock, providing entertainment, erecting solar panels or planting trees. Teacher training should even be extended to 18 months, he suggests, to allow them to experience an entire growing season before they start work.

"Teachers need to be community leaders as well as teachers, and students will need to be community workers," Bassey says. "Schools at the moment are expected to prepare people for the me-first, greed-is-good culture, not to think this way."

Keri Facer, professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol, points out that we may already be experiencing some aspects of the low or no growth society of the future. In her book Learning Futures, she quotes social geographer Danny Dorling's observation that wage inequality today is as large as it was in 1854, when Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times. "We are already in an economic crisis. The question is whether it's a blip," she says.

Facer believes that the current vision of a future "of universal well-being in a global knowledge economy is highly optimistic and increasingly implausible". "There is a general assumption that it will be fine if we don't think about it too much," she says.

Instead of "future-proofing" schools for new technological developments, she proposes that schools should become the sites where we develop what the future will look like.

That means becoming highly involved in economic issues: examining schools' purchasing and employment practice and helping students to shape their working future, by assisting them in making informed decisions based on labour market information, giving them the opportunity to set up social enterprises, and equipping them for green industries that can offer new economic opportunities.

Instead of education just offering a way out of local communities for the brightest, schools should increasingly look at how they can equip pupils to improve and sustainably develop their area. "The school needs to become a laboratory for building sustainable economic and social futures," Facer writes.

She also stresses the importance of intergenerational relationships, as young people will have to support an increasing number of retirees. But Facer argues that older people can be an enormous resource for education, pointing to networks such as the University of the Third Age, which brings together older people interested in learning and teaching each other.

"I was talking to someone who was a senior professor with real experience in his area who said the day after he retired, people stopped phoning him, stopped asking his advice, stopped contacting him," Facer says. "That seems as though it's a huge waste of the talent of this country."

Creating resilient communities

Some schools are already working towards this vision of a local school highly connected to community institutions. One such project is the area-based curriculum from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which has completed two pilot projects in Manchester and Peterborough.

The project establishes partnerships with local institutions to develop extended, cross-curricular projects that tie aspects of the local community to the goals of the national curriculum.

"We didn't want to stop with 'let's get more children to go to museums'," says Louise Thomas, senior researcher at the RSA. "We wanted to look at the value of the street their school's on and the communities that children are drawn from. It wasn't just about redistributing the access to some local resources, but recognising the learning value of the local area. Parents who don't have English do have rich histories and culture from other parts of the world, for example."

And those partnerships should go beyond a transactional arrangement, as if the school is buying in a service, Thomas says. Indeed, some of the Manchester schools concluded that they should have been more demanding of their partners, and that schools underestimate how profound a contribution others are willing to make.

One project in Peterborough also showed how strengthening community ties could help to improve the response to crisis. Schools used to make a one-off trip to the cathedral to learn about the Tudors. But this time, they worked year-round on a project to help design its education centre. So the relationship was firmly established when the school was flooded out, and the cathedral was able to open its doors as a temporary school.

"It's that kind of resilience of people working together that is starting to emerge. It makes the education of children everyone's business," says Thomas.

Engaged with the issues

There is also evidence that the sustainability agenda is good for student engagement, according to Ann Finlayson, director of Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd). An opinion poll commissioned by the Cooperative Group last year found that 82 per cent of pupils wanted to study global environmental issues, ranking it behind only literacy and numeracy.

"They are pretty certain that is what they will need for a job and for their life," Finlayson says.

Successful approaches to sustainability tend to involve the whole school, not just the headteacher, she says, citing Sir Stuart Rose's regret that his Plan B project for Marks amp; Spencer did not engage staff more, causing delays as they had to be trained and brought on board.

SEEd, which is developing a sustainability curriculum, also says that it needs to be included in all the core topics, not taught as a discrete subject. While many schools are doing some work on sustainability, without necessarily labelling it as such, she says that the crucial economic aspect tends to be overlooked.

"There is a lot of work done on the environmental and well-being issues, the social side, the development issues. But there is much less on the economic side," Finlayson says. "It's important to introduce the economic perspective even into primary schools."

Projects to improve the sustainability of the school itself, such as growing vegetables or reducing energy, can be used as educational opportunities, Finlayson says.

Ashley CofE Primary School in Walton-on-Thames, an award winner for sustainability, took ideas from pupils about how to become more environmentally friendly. Finlayson suggests giving a budget to an eco-team to spend on environmental projects.

But she advises teachers to be wary of "outsourcing" sustainability education. "Teachers are very keen to teach it, but they don't feel confident with it; they don't feel they have the knowledge," she says. "They will often go and get other people to come in and present information. Sometimes they come in with a PowerPoint presentation that just tends to be a bit scary."

Indeed, though the environmental and economic threats can seem apocalyptic, the overriding message is that with the right education, people will be able to adapt.

As Facer says: "It's about teachers getting together as a group, possibly as a local authority, to say, 'What are we going to do about equipping our communities for this possibility?' There are a lot of people interested in this, but they are isolated. If we can get people together, we can find the solutions. They are not on their own."


Bassey, M. Education for the Inevitable (2011). Book Guild

Facer, K. Learning Futures (2011). Routledge

Hopkins, R. The Transition Companion (2011). Transition Books

Lemke, J.L. "Becoming the Village" in Wells, G. and Claxton, G. eds Learning for Life in the 21st Century (2002). Wiley-Blackwell

Thomas, L. Rethinking the Importance of Teaching (2012). RSA. bit.lyAqn4vD

Prosperity without Growth? The transition to a sustainable economy (2009) Sustainable Development Commission. bit.lyxLKGf

Education for Sustainable Development (2009). Ofsted. bit.lyzMTJ98

Sustainable Schools Teaching Resource: Primary, former Department for Children, Schools and Families. Hosted by SEEd. bit.lyKORC2e

For more details on the Zombie-based Learning geography curriculum, go to www.zombiebased.com

Braced for a zombie invasion

A teacher in Seattle, US, is planning to prepare his pupils for a different kind of apocalyptic scenario: zombie invasion.

In recent years, public authorities in England have been forced to take the problem of the living dead more seriously. In response to a Freedom of Information request last year, Bristol City Council revealed it had a strategy that classified outbreaks on different levels from "Ambient zombie level" to "Zombie pandemic".

However, David Hunter's main aim is to teach pupils the geography curriculum. Even if they never need to escape a mindless horde of zombies, the curriculum he is designing puts issues of the distribution of resources, climate and the availability of food to the fore in a way that today's urban students can easily understand. As games designer Tom Armitage has written about the "survival horror" genre (video gaming's name for zombie-themed scenarios), "(It) is, fundamentally, about surviving terrifying situations in the face of scarcity of resources."

"It's hard for students who are 12 years old to recognise problems of resources," says Hunter, who teaches in a middle school. "But if you set up a scenario where they have to rebuild society, then they have to think about these issues."

Hunter is keen to find new ways to engage pupils with the curriculum, having also worked with video games publisher Valve on a project to use gaming to teach literary analysis.

He got the idea for the geography curriculum, based on US national standards but using a narrative of a zombie outbreak, after hearing another teacher at a conference complain about a student who was only interested in zombies. Later, he came across a mock-historical map of Philadelphia showing an attack of the living dead, which he used in class.

"They got pretty into that map because it was a little bit different," he says. "They were asking why the centre of the outbreak was here, why are they moving along the river here? Those are the questions we want geographers to ask."

Hunter intends to complete the design of the curriculum, which will feature handbooks for pupils and teachers, along with assessments, templates and handouts, over the summer, having raised more than $11,000 on the online funding platform Kickstarter. The money will pay for professional illustration and even an evaluation of the effectiveness of the curriculum, which will be available for free download.

The lessons will be divided into five sections: preparing for the outbreak; surviving it when it reaches your community; finding a safe place to settle; building a sustainable community; and planning for long-term survival.

One lesson, Hunter says, could look at how to use maps not just for directions but to display and analyse information: so pupils could produce a map showing the position of zombies and the time it would take the outbreak to reach various destinations - like a heat map of the danger spots.

US pupils are also required to learn mental mapping. In one lesson, they might draw a map from memory identifying their initial position on hearing about the outbreak and tracing a route to safety. Later, they might use the same technique in a more sophisticated way: sketching out their future plans for a new settlement, say.

Aside from the excitement of learning with zombies, pupils seem enthused by news of how the curriculum is developing. "They see it as their project as well. They were all asking me at the parent conference, are we doing zombie-based learning?"


- Try to use the outside world much more. It could mean partnerships with important local institutions, or using the knowledge, skills and culture of parents, or the natural environment around the school.

- Partnerships should not be transactional, as though the school is buying in expertise. Do not be afraid to expect a lot of partner institutions - you may be surprised by how much they are prepared to contribute. Make education everyone in the community's business.

- "One-offs are a sort of death, (such as) the one-off assembly," says Ann Finlayson of SEEd. "To really build skills, you need to encourage action learning. Do something, review it, understand the knowledge behind what you did, then take it forward."

- Everything is linked: sustainability is best taught as a cross-curricular subject. Do not overlook economic ideas, even for younger children.

- Help pupils to understand their local area and how it fits within the global agenda. Think global, act local.

- To really make a difference, sustainability needs to be the responsibility of the whole school, not just the headteacher. As Sir Stuart Rose found at Marks amp; Spencer, a top-down approach leaves the rest of the staff struggling to catch up with the agenda.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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