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An optimistic education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress

Written by: David Alcock
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9 min read

Our students are growing up in unsettling times. Climate change, plastic pollution, political polarisation, isolationism, social atomisation and anxiety are just some contemporary challenges. However, there is a compelling case to make for a rebalancing of the curriculum towards a more positive outlook, and I offer some suggestions for how this rebalancing might be achieved.

Justifications – a summary of recent global progress

I do not belittle these valid and significant concerns. In fact, I believe that a more optimistic approach to education will provide a way in which we can make great strides to combat these scourges.

However, it is incumbent on us as educators of citizens of tomorrow to view these worries in the context of a world where there have been undeniable strides in a wide variety of social and economic respects, and in many environmental areas too. On balance, while the pace is varied and the distribution uneven, life is improving for most of humankind.

For example:

  • In 1800, global life expectancy was 31; by 2017 it was 72
  • In 1800, 85 per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (less than $2/day, adjusted for inflation); by 2017 this had fallen to nine per cent
  • In 1800, child mortality (the percentage of children dying before their fifth birthday) was 44 per cent; by 2016 it was four per cent
  • In the 1930s there were an average of 971,000 deaths a year from disasters; by the 2010s this had fallen to 72,000
  • In 1970, 38kg of SO₂ particles were emitted per person; by 2010 this had declined to 14kg
  • In 1970, 1,663,000 tons of ozone-depleting substances were used; by 2016 this was 22,000 tons.

Sources: full references given in Rosling et al., 2018

So yes, extremely significant challenges to humanity, and to the environment in particular, do remain, and we should not be complacent about these – in fact, I believe that teachers play a crucial role in educating students about them. Nevertheless, I argue that we should also be aware of these hard-won gains (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Some earth system trends, 1750–2010

Source: http://www.futureearth.org/blog/2015-jan-16/great-acceleration

Misperceptions, ignorance and the ‘new optimists’

However, many people are unaware of these gains, thanks to a combination of misperceptions and ignorance about the world (Rosling et al., 2018; Duffy, 2018). But some commentators are becoming more vocal in publicising a more fact-based and level-headed view of the world (see below). While they are by no means a coherent entity, these writers hold an optimistic – or at least, in the words of Hans Rosling, a ‘possibilistic’ –view of the world.

Some key writers who inform a more optimistic education:

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and author of Enlightenment Now (2018).

Max Roser is Programme Director, Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development and runs www.ourworldindata.org.

Bobby Duffy is a Global Director of Ipsos Social Research Institute and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. He wrote The Perils of Perception (2018).

Hans Rosling was Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and he founded the Gapminder Foundation, including www.gapminder.org, which features interactive global development visualisations, quizzes and videos.  Together with Ola and Anna Rosling he wrote Factfulness (2018)

Why should educators care about misperceptions and ignorance about the state of the world?

The primary reason is that we are educating global citizens. Students may identify strongly with their neighbourhood, city, region or country, but their future is intimately tied up with global trends.

Secondly, negativity can be dangerous – it can make students fearful and more willing to think that things are out of their control; it can therefore threaten students’ mental health and resilience. Suggestions have been made that negativity promotes fatalism and an unwillingness to act on some of the most important issues facing society (Pinker, 2018), although the recent climate strike movement may contradict this argument.

We may also reinvigorate education in the public’s consciousness: Dan Ariely suggests that we should link curricula with ‘the social goals, technological goals and medical goals that we care about as a society. This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it.’ (2009, pp. 45–46)

What are the barriers for educators and our students that are preventing us from achieving a more optimistic education?

When trying to make sense of the world, humans fall foul of what psychologist and social researcher Bobby Duffy calls the ‘mistakes and shortcuts made by the human mind’ (2018, p. 12). Some of the main heuristics (psychological biases) that affect our perceptions of the world are:

  • We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
  • We focus on negative information
  • We are susceptible to stereotyping
  • We like to imitate the majority.

Moreover, Daniel Kahneman’s research finds that our judgements are typically the result of ‘fast thinking’, unless or until they are modified or overridden by slow, deliberate reasoning (see, for example, Kahneman, 2012). Our students will take on board the beliefs and misperceptions of their peers and parents; they will also absorb the overwhelmingly negative output of the mass media.

Some practical suggestions for the humanities

Duffy is keen to stress that ‘there is no magic formula to deal with our misperceptions’ (2018, p. 248), but also asserts that there are practical things that we can do. Inspired by Duffy, I propose the following strategies in the humanities:

  1. Stay up to date. It is extremely difficult to stay on top of what is happening in this changing world, but as educators we have an imperative to try to do so. Geography and politics are among the school subjects that feel this challenge the most keenly: time-pressed geography teachers (including the author) can fall into the trap of teaching statistics and generalisations that are years out of date.
  2. Cultivate deeper and more critical thinking. Scepticism, as opposed to cynicism, is a useful skill to cultivate – we should constantly question the veracity of the information we receive and encourage our students to do so too. I commonly use ‘layers of inference’ interpretation activities: placing a photograph/video/artefact in centre stage, I lead the class to consider what the source definitely tells us, what we can infer from it, and what it omits that we would like to know more about.
  3. Facts still count. It may sound trite, but facts should be used carefully to back up arguments. I say carefully, because, as Duffy (2018) points out, the academic literature on the use of facts to correct misperceptions shows mixed results. In the classroom and in assemblies, I refer to a welter of facts and graphs, many of them gleaned from ourworldindata.org. The optimist in me still likes to think that these facts will do the trick, but I am also aware that humans naturally look for confirming information, and discount disconfirming information.
  4. Promote a ‘futures geography’ approach. Significant work has been done within geography over the past decade or so to integrate ‘futures geography’ into the discipline. David Hicks has led many geographers to adopt the notion of ‘alternative futures’ in their teaching – for instance, by using timelines that split into ‘probable’ and ‘preferable’ futures. More of his ideas can be found in Hicks (2014a, 2014b, 2018) and at teaching4abetterworld.co.uk.
  5. Using lessons and schemes of work developed by, or inspired by, ‘factfulness’ (Rosling et al., 2018). I have set the ‘ignorance test’ from Gapminder for my students. I begin my teaching of hazards by discussing graphs that show deaths from hazards decreasing (but costs rising). Infographics such as those in Figure 2 could be handed out to students at the start of a unit on development – and then discussed. I have also shown all or part of the documentaries on the Gapminder website, as well as some of their thought-provoking videos and TED talks.
Figure 2: Some positive trends in the world (Source: Rosling et al., 2018)

Beyond the humanities – whole-school approaches

A wide range of subjects have a role to play in this rebalancing of the curriculum: for instance, how effective can citizenship education be if we have an outdated world view? How can we be truly critical thinkers if we are not aware of our psychological quirks? Does too much historical education focus on crises and wars and not enough on the incremental progress made by most societies, most of the time?

Here are two broad areas that school leaders could consider:

  • Critical, statistical and news literacy should be cross-curricular priorities. Duffy (2018) admits that ‘we won’t be able to teach the human out of our kids, and critical thinking is not a universal guard against misconceptions’ (p. 244) – but just because a task is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted. Might we start early – at primary school – in the task of instilling critical thinking in our students? Later in a child’s education, could we increase the proportion of their time dedicated to critical thinking, psychology and the study of statistics? Within existing subjects, we should expand the opportunity for ‘criticality’ to be taught – for instance, in source analysis in history. The breadth of subjects that our students follow could also be widened:
  • Critical thinking qualifications could be resurrected at Key Stage 4
  • We could encourage the growth of extended project qualifications and the like
  • Schools and colleges should look again at offering critical thinking at A-level
  • The International Baccalaureate is another way of encouraging students to develop their critical faculties, via its ‘Theory of Knowledge’ and ‘Extended Essay’ components.

 

  • Assemblies and beyond! Pastoral staff, headteachers and those who deliver personal development all should be aware of human progress, so that young people may be given the hope needed to thrive in our changing world. More informed deliberation could help to shift misperceptions and reduce ignorance. I have tried a ‘light touch’ approach, which is to hold an assembly on ‘positive trends in the world’ and then to encourage follow-up discussions within tutor groups. A more radical idea is a whole-school ‘deliberation day’. Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) came up with the idea of holding such days, where citizens would be invited to participate in community discussions and ask questions of experts or representatives. Could schools adapt this idea and have ‘deliberation days’ on current and global affairs, rather than leaving debating to a self-selecting crowd of confident students?

Much good practice exists, but it is too disparate, and it often occurs in optional subjects, and too late in students’ educations (and therefore, for many learners, not at all). Intentionally or unintentionally, most politicians, school leaders, teachers and producers of educational resources all play their part in continuing with the status quo in terms of the systemic barriers to a more optimistic approach to education.

Final thoughts

By rebalancing the curriculum in some of the ways outlined above, educators can play their part in raising resilient, confident, well-balanced, engaged citizens. It will be hard to counter the psychological and external forces that are giving our students an outdated and inaccurate worldview, but I believe that fighting such forces is crucial. I am putting together a manifesto for a more optimistic education, and I would like to hear your suggestions; please get in touch.

References

Ackerman B and Fishkin J (2005) Deliberation Day. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ariely D (2009) Predictably Irrational, revised and expanded edition. London: HarperCollins.

Duffy B (2018) The Perils of Perception. London: Atlantic.

Hicks D (2014a) A geography of hope. Geography 99(1): 5–12.

Hicks D (2014b) Educating for Hope: Climate Change, Peak Oil and the Transition to a Post-Carbon Future. London: Trentham Books/Institute of Education Press.

Hicks D (2018) Why we still need a geography of hope. Geography 103(2): 78–85.

Kahneman D (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

Pinker S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress. London: Allen Lane.

Roser M, Ortiz-Espina E, Ritchie H et al. (2019) Research and interactive data visualizations to understand the world’s largest problems. Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/ (accessed 1 March 2019).

Rosling H, Rosling O and Rosling-Ronnlund A (2018) Factfulness. London: Sceptre.

Rosling H (2005) Gapminder www.gapminder.org (accessed 27 March 2019)

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