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Hopeful Education

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Luke Ellis-Craven, Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/_tfFjSyIUZY

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” – David Orr

How should we respond when young people express their worries about the future of the world to us? There is, of course, a need to listen, empathise, and support. But what if the education system can do more than that? What if we can instill hope – active hope – so that our young people can be more confident about the future?

Hopeful Education aims to do just that, by encouraging young people to understand progress, believe in humanity, and help to create a better world. Let’s look at Hopeful Education’s take on these strands.

Progress is a complex notion, but in terms of Hopeful Education, it will be understood as collective social improvement in spheres such as health, education, cooperation, democracy, and prosperity.  Global improvements in all these areas have been recorded in the modern era, with a marked acceleration since 1950, but they are under-appreciated.  Highlighting such improvements often leads to disbelief, warnings of complacency, accusations of naivety, and even accusations of conspiracy with ‘the establishment’.  Some commentators believe that publicising and celebrating progress strengthens the status quo, therefore stifling future progress.  These concerns should be recognised and interrogated, but they should not stifle the public’s understanding of progress.  Hopeful Education encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Belief in humanity has been under increasing threat in recent decades.  Humans are social animals, who have thrived largely because they have learned to co-operate, trust, communicate and co-exist with each other.  These qualities are still evident in abundance, but they are under-appreciated and are being eroded by polarising and divisive political and media discourse, both deliberate and subconscious.  Blaming others, accentuating differences rather than similarities, and an over-representation of the negative side of human nature in media output (including social media) has led to a growing mistrust in human nature.  Hopeful Education seeks to reaffirm the potential of human nature to work collectively for the common good, whether that be in the classroom, inter-generationally, locally, nationally, or in the context of global governance and co-operation.

Striving for a better world can, at first glance, be accepted as a given for pretty much everyone in any society, although debate remains as to what constitutes ‘better’, and whether the scope should be restricted to humanity or expanded to cover the whole biosphere.  But – especially for children – admitting that one should strive for a better world can come across as self-evident or cliched at best, and crass or indicative of weakness at worst.  Striving for a better world is also under threat from both a resurgent nationalism and populism, and from a political focus on the economy over the environment or social wellbeing.  It also has a reputation, fostered by some social commentators and politicians, for being vague, hair-shirted, and anti-progress.  Hopeful Education champions and facilitates futures thinking and education for sustainable development, taking these crucibles beyond their current homes in citizenship and geography into the broader educational sphere.

Hopeful Education seeks to understand the reasons for nihilism, mistrust, and complacency, but as an avowedly positive movement it seeks to weaken their influence.

A syncretic approach

The three strands of Hopeful Education are not new, but their combination into a coherent educational movement is novel and potentially powerful.  Hopeful Education has been informed by a variety of influences, both from within and beyond the world of education.  This syncretic approach has its strengths, as it brings together, and builds upon, ideas which may have never been combined in this way before.  However, as Hopeful Education develops, inconsistencies, contradictions and gaps will emerge, and it will prompt a myriad of philosophical questions.  These should be viewed as strengths, a source of vibrancy, and a basis for deliberation, rather than as weaknesses.

A new type of hope

Names are powerful, and the choice of the name Hopeful Education was a long journey.  The author used alternative titles such Optimistic Education in some of his writings in 2018-2020, reflecting his personal worldview.  But this was felt to be too prescriptive, and its apparent complacency put it in danger of overshadowing the significant problems and threats faced by humanity and the planet.  Other names were also considered – see this blog post for more on this.  The author is fully aware of the body of educational literature based around the ‘pedagogy of hope’, inspired by Paolo Freire’s 1992 book of that title (republished in 2004), and including more recent additions such as ‘Educating for Hope’ by David Hicks (2014).  Hopeful Education shares some of the philosophy of the pedagogy of hope, for instance the belief that inequality and injustice should be challenged, that educating for hope should be interdisciplinary, and that it is a collective pursuit.  However, it differs in that many writers on the pedagogy of hope seem to overlook or dismiss the gains made by humankind in recent decades.  There is also sometimes, ironically, a sceptical view of human nature, and the language used in some of the output could be accused of fostering anxiety.  As the Hopeful Education movement develops, the author looks forward to engaging with adherents of a pedagogy of hope, and he trusts that his use of the root word ‘hope’ will be taken as a homage rather as a co-option or dilution of a ‘pedagogy of hope’.

Hope, progress and optimism

Hopeful Education chimes with the claims of the one of the key proponents of the pedagogy of hope – David Orr – who wrote that “Realistic hope… requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions” (Orr, 2009: 185).  Elsewhere, Orr has opined that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Orr, 2008) – which sits comfortably with Hopeful Education – but in the very next sentence he goes on to show why at least his conception of a pedagogy of hope diverges from that of Hopeful Education: “I don’t know any reason to be optimistic now, or to predict great success for the human species” (ibid).  Whilst Hopeful Education recognises environmental and social challenges, Orr’s bleak statement is in opposition to the first strand of Hopeful Education: it encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Vision 2050: the fruits of Hopeful Education

What would the world look like in 2050 if its citizens had undertaken a Hopeful Education?

  • People would be able to make more reasoned judgements and action, leading to more effective individual, corporate, and government decision-making
  • People would be less fearful and stressful, resulting in a better place in which to live and to foster future generations, measured by wellbeing and health metrics
  • People would be more emboldened to take action to resolve the remaining challenges, secure in knowledge that other challenges have been overcome: “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better” (Rosling et al, 2018, Factfulness)
  • People would have more chance to examine, and act on, local issues, as they will have contextualised global trends

In the spirit of openness, it is worth considering some of the challenges which a realisation of this vision might bring: one is that such a world might be more complacent (leading to a reduction in efforts towards realising a better world), and another is that it might become more parochial.  Also, one of the assumptions behind this vision is that the world will have experienced a continuation of the current trends in terms of human development – which is possible, but not certain, to occur.

The project begins

Achieving such a worldview will take a monumental, long-term, and multi-pronged approach.  Education will play a crucial role.   It has the power to instil hope comprehensively, and at a time of life when opinions and critical thinking are being formed.  It will not be able to succeed alone: some ideas for how a hopeful worldview might be possible outside of the world of formal education will be given due consideration, and it will be important to bear these in mind when cohesive strategies are being developed.  But Hopeful Education is where this project begins.

In my next post I will offer some ideas as to how Hopeful Education could be enacted. In the meantime, please do contact me in the comments below or via @DavidAlcock1 on Twitter. Thank you.

By alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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