From education to employment

The dilemma of living in the real world

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd

Have you ever used the phrase living in the real world?  Are you sure you live in it?  Many scientists and philosophers agree that reality is a highly relative concept.  Granted, certain beliefs that people may hold if they share the same profession, religion or in fact nonreligion or a love for music, cooking or cycling, may forge their views more closely together but nevertheless for almost every person the real world looks different. We all have our own idiosyncratic ways of seeing the social, political and natural environment we live in.

Of course there is a real world, it is just difficult to make out while we superimpose our values and beliefs onto it.  The proverbial rose-tinted glasses are worn by us all in different colours, shades, hues and all.  Some of these lenses we choose rather deliberately while others are passed on more or less by default, unquestioned, as part and parcel of our larger culture. Whether cultural norms that have developed over varying time periods, the media we are exposed to, the language(s) we speak, our cultural history, our family upbringing they all have a bearing on what we listen to, how we act and therefore how we view the world.

As educationalists we have an important question to ask. If there is no one reality how can we prepare young people for the real world?  If there is no one reality, does that mean that someone chooses (for us?) whose views count?  And whose views are those – those of politicians, artists, employers, religious leaders, journalists, technologists, scientists or bankers?

What would our education system, and specifically teaching and learning, look like if we chose deliberately to look at the world differently?  What if we chose different thought leaders to shape the reality of educational policy and funding?  Over the coming year I would like to explore different thinkers, well-established amongst those interested in sustainability issues.

Today let’s start with the late Donella Meadows. Donella Meadows was one of the contributors to the report Limits to Growth ?rst published in 1972 and an expert in complex systems.  Donella developed a seminal paper that still in?uences thinkers and strategists on key leverage points on intervening in complex systems.

Donella never considered it a ?nished piece of work but rather a starting point for exploring the counterintuitive world of systems.  What she placed at the top of the intervention hierarchy are the change of paradigm.  Paradigms are the key beliefs that shape our thinking and so of our reality.  So what are these key beliefs that shape society and education? Pursuit of economic growth based on continuous consumption of material goods must surely be at the top somewhere, maybe even at the very top.  It clearly shapes educational policy and the curriculum.

So when Donella argues that a system can be changed most effectively if we change the paradigms that is the basis of the system, then that would imply that in our society we would need to change the belief that economic growth is possible indefinitely.  Another one of her key leverage points to affect change in a system is to change the goal of the system itself.

Continuous economic growth is not only a belief that is deeply held but also a, if not, the key goal. You may ask why would we change the paradigm or the goal? Both are usually changed if they are found to be either not true and/or stop to serve us.  Science has quite clearly demonstrated that biophysically infinite economic growth that is based on material consumption is not possible as the planet will eventually run out of raw materials and also of space to accommodate the waste and absorb the emissions.

These limits to growth or planetary boundaries show us that the belief in the economic growth is illusionary.  There are also plenty of signs that the goal of economic growth is not serving us well.  These signs range from environmental degradation to personal, national and international debt problems, an increase in stress and social isolation, an absence of citizen participation to political conflicts, extreme weather conditions due to climate change and resource shortages.

They have possibly not hit us consistently hard enough in the West to bring it clearly home that intervening in the system at the paradigm and goal level would be the most effective way.  Instead we tend to focus at the lower level of leverage points to change the system such as how much CO2 we are allowed to release into the atmosphere or at what rate the interest rates should be set to stimulate economic growth.

At the lower end we are merely rearranging the status quo as the beliefs and goals remain unchanged.  So what would happen to the curriculum if society’s key goal changed?  What if the goal became to create common welfare instead of economic growth, as author and change agent Christian Felber advocates?  What would colleges, schools, universities teach if this were the goal?

How would it change subject priorities? How would you engage with employers if their key goal was to create common welfare and ?nancial income just an enabler rather than the main objective? How would the approach to teaching and learning change?  How would you judge success in this system?

Even on a less ambitious note how could educational organisations improve by changing paradigms and goals?  What are the defining sector paradigms and do they still serve society well?  What are your beliefs about teaching and learning and what would success look like if you challenged them?

The start of a new year is generally considered a new opportunity to make a fresh start, so let Donella Meadows be an inspiration to add new perspectives to our thinking by making use of her knowledge about how to best intervene in a system and create meaningful change.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can follow Andrea on Twitter , and Facebook, or find out more about her by visiting

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)

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