[Originally submitted to the Global Challenges Foundation A New Shape Prize 2017]
It has always been my belief that to solve anything, you must go to the source of the problem. Anything less is just easing symptoms. Sometimes easing symptoms can buy you time to focus on the actual solution, but in practice this rarely happens, and the false sense of security it gives usually means we end up living from one round of symptom-easing to the next.
My proposal is nothing new, complicated or particularly difficult to implement. It’s a simple solution that merely needs to be replicated many millions of times. It relates to a subject that we all hold in the highest regard and treat with utmost reverence – yet its immense potential to change literally everything seems to have been overlooked.
I’m talking about education.
This proposal is a non-technical description of how I believe education can not just save our society and planet, but create much better ones. It will paint in clear, broad strokes what kind of measures I believe can be taken to build an education system that creates better people – and ultimately a better world for everyone.
Strictly speaking, this solution does not fall within Global Challenges’ remit of creating a new governance system, but I am submitting it because I strongly believe it is the only solution that can successfully and permanently solve the problems that have inspired this competition in the first place, namely: climate peril, environmental and biodiversity collapse, inequality, social disorders, poverty, hunger, etc. In other words, this solution is not about creating a better regulatory system, it’s about shrinking the source problem.
I should also add that this proposal is not for a long term education solution that may take years to mature. We don’t have time for that. Though the long term benefits will be obvious, I will also show how the effects of this proposal can be almost instantaneous if the project is undertaken effectively and with sufficient resources.
Whatever options we choose to influence our shared future, I believe we must look to nothing less than permanent, lasting solutions to address the core issues and prevent them from re-occurring. I believe this educational solution will not just prevent further problems, but actually create a much, much better world that will be safeguarded for all into the far future.
I remember when I was young I used to be cheekily curious about signs like ‘Keep off the grass’, or ‘No trespassing’ – usually as I was walking past them! The childhood world I inhabited also seemed to be filled (to my mind) with unsubstantiated imperatives like: ‘You must do your homework’ or ‘You must clean your room’!
I usually had difficulty obeying these imperatives, I have to admit, but they had a peculiar fascination for me. I remember once pondering when I was about ten years old: ‘Wouldn’t it be better if people wanted to do something rather than just telling them that they must?’
So here I am now almost 40 years later, expanding this idle thought into a proposal that I think may solve our global problems. Here goes.
The Vegetable Problem
What is the best way to get your child to eat vegetables? Order them to eat vegetables? Or, get them to like vegetables? I’m sure most people would agree the latter solution is the more desirable. But for many parents this takes more time and requires more creative thought and effort. Ordering your child to eat vegetables is certainly the faster solution but clearly not the most effective as it creates unnecessary arguments, stress, and your child is probably going to hate vegetables even more. (Often mealtime stress like this can even lead to eating disorders in later life, but I digress…)
A child that likes vegetables however, will eat them happily and probably even digest them better. And of course, meal times will be less like a war zone and a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
So, how do you get your child to like vegetables? We’ll see later.
But first let’s take a step into the adult world. We can see analogies of the same ‘vegetable enforcement practices’ – but this time many, many times more serious. People are governed and regulated by lots of short-term imperatives. We have laws, international treaties and conventions, and a market economic system – all of which are essentially instruments to regulate our behaviour. In other words, we are generally told what to do rather than having access to the appropriate understanding.
Though these governing systems are well-intentioned, they don’t always create the best outcomes, and in some cases are completely useless. The market system, for example, restricts access of vital resources to those who need it most – while rewarding those who need it least. It also rewards resource depletion and short-sighted business practices through an overriding profit imperative. Also, many corporate laws and international treaties designed to benefit the common good are perennially ignored or circumvented – rendering them practically impossible to enforce.
This resulting cocktail of a distorted rewarding system and ineffective regulatory means has without doubt brought us to the environmental and social precipice on which we now stand. Our cyclical culture of consumerism and self-interest, coupled with our great technological power, has brought our vital ecosystem to its knees.
Now, I invite you to envision a hypothetical scenario where we removed all of those controlling, regulatory forces overnight. Take away the market system, all governments, all laws, justice and accountability. What do you see happening?
Right. Well, dear reader, that there is your problem – not any regulatory system or lack thereof. The basic problem is people behaving badly. And, in my opinion, no externally applied system is going to solve that underlying problem.
People, generally, do not know how to behave – because they’ve never been taught how to behave. We are born into a society that is regulated by boundaries which simply ‘electrocute’ you if you cross a certain line. That’s the only way we learn how to live – to stay within certain parameters or face punishment. If we steal, we are punished. If we hurt someone, we are punished. If we are poor, we are punished, etc.
If we are lucky, we might have patient, caring parents with plenty of time to teach us more about the intricate ways of the world, and how to get on in life. But more often that is not the case. And, in some cases, skewed parental instruction can even be detrimental. So in short, learning how to live well, in harmony with each other and with our environment is something that is left entirely to chance.
Education – a massive, missed opportunity
“If we are to teach real peace in this world,
and if we are to carry on a real war against war,
we shall have to begin with the children.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi
A few hundred years ago, with the advent of widespread religious teaching and later the industrial age, the importance of schooling became ever greater – and the rewards were obvious. People got smarter, society rapidly progressed. Also, organised education soon became a vital part of every child’s socialisation and induction into the community. In those early days, religious schooling served moral guidelines while also promoting literacy and numeracy among the wider population.
Our school system has changed surprisingly little in the last three hundred years. Although religious instruction has faded significantly, literacy, numeracy and general knowledge of the world are still the mainstay of most educational curricula. Though much of the methodology of religious instruction was questionable (fire and brimstone, etc.), it did provide a moral instruction of sorts that hasn’t really been replaced. School today is mostly about learning facts and a specific set of skills aimed at preparing children for the world of employment. This, to my mind, is quite possibly one of the world’s greatest missed opportunities.
Life is no longer just about having a career or being part of an economic machine whose only purpose is to extract value from the natural world. This is the lesson we are now beginning to learn as we endure the effects of man-made environmental decay, and become aware of the impending employment collapse due to our relentless advances in automated systems. It’s already beginning to look like the days of preparing students for a world of ‘work’ may be gone.
We are now beginning to learn that life is more about improving ourselves; about having great relationships with other people; about realising the fullest of our potential and sharing our beautiful world sustainably and peacefully. To date, we do not possess these life skills, nor are we instructed in any systematic way to realise this true purpose. It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that almost all of society’s ills today can be traced back to a basic lack of empathy, respect and responsibility among people, and furthermore, an ever-increasing part of that society’s function is now heavily tasked with compensating for that lack.
This is quite a heavy charge to make I’m sure you’ll agree, but with a little consideration it becomes difficult to refute. Our world today is more regulated now than it’s ever been. There are more laws and regulations now than at any other time in history. This can only mean two things: a) human behaviour is getting worse, and b) our regulatory systems are ineffective at creating desired outcomes.
Now I invite you to imagine a second hypothetical scenario:
Imagine if every school in the world today was recommissioned with the task of teaching the following values as part of their core curriculum: empathy, compassion, trust, self-respect, responsibility, respect for others, sharing and cooperation, communication skills, relationship skills, problem solving, conflict resolution, coping with negative emotions, critical thinking, the balance of nature, rudimentary anatomy, nutrition, hydration, water and food bio-systems, agricultural techniques, food preparation, energy production and efficiency, household economy, natural appreciation – to name but a few.
In other words, imagine if our schools put at least the same priority on promoting better behavioural and social skills as they put on literacy, numeracy and fact learning. What if our core life learning was not merely left to chance, but instead we intentionally administered a fundamental understanding of optimal life skills within our existing education structure?
My proposal is simply this: To create a formal education syllabus based on these core life skills and introduce it in parallel with the existing educational system.
The syllabus would be drawn up by a panel of experts and comprise a set of teachers’ manuals which would include instructions for games, puzzles, exercises and challenges using physical experiential-based learning techniques specifically designed to promote learning in all of the aforementioned heading categories. Physical experience and face-to-face interaction is by far the greatest learning method we know and it can be fun and engaging too.
An example might be a cooperation game where students have to fulfil physical tasks or solve puzzles by enlisting and negotiating with others to help, thus building relationship and critical thinking skills. Another example could be the well known trust and responsibility building game where students take turns to fall backwards into an unseen person’s waiting arms. This teaches both trust and responsibility.
Another strategy to help promote inter-community cooperation and integration would be for classes to swap half of their students with another class of older or younger students for some exercises. This would encourage fostering relationships with ‘outsiders’ while also promoting respect for other age groups, thus reflecting a more real-life situation than the traditionally ‘closed’ classroom environment.
The books will comprise sets of illustrated exercises or challenges for teachers to set for their students, together with teachers’ note relating to the aim of the exercise and how it interrelates with other exercises. Many of the exercises could be designed in such a way that they can be repeated in ways that do not become boring and always produce different outcomes; for example, by changing central actors or roles in games.
A Life Skills Program
The complete school program will consist of thirteen teachers’ books each containing 100 illustrated class exercises, and catering to a different age bracket from age four to adult.
This thirteen year Life Skills Program will be centred in three areas: Self, Community and World – progressing the student’s relationship outward from self with each in turn.
Each of these centres would then be taught at three stages of understanding: Awareness (sensory and emotional), Respect (boundaries and limits) and Understanding (knowledge and experience).
For example, the most basic exercises would promote Awareness of Self, while latter exercises would promote Understanding of the World. Here are some examples of how each level of understanding would be given for each centre:
Self Awareness: realisation of self, basic body functions, life, breathing, the senses, self-awareness, meditation.
Community Awareness: position in the community, affirming equality, trust, compassion and empathy.
World Awareness: place within the world, the cycle of life, other species, the balance of nature, the food chain.
Self Respect: self-love, respect and responsibility.
Community Respect: the importance of kinship, sharing and empathy.
World Respect: the fragility of life systems, resource limits.
Self Understanding: basic anatomy, hygiene, nutrition, hydration, coping with negative feelings, problem solving, food preparation, creativity, realising full potential.
Community Understanding: the purpose of sharing, community service, leadership, teamwork, interpersonal relationships, effective communication, sex, parenting and family, responsibility, resolving disputes.
World Understanding: water and food systems, agricultural techniques, energy production, efficiency, economy, critical thinking, technology, improving natural habitat.
As the program progresses these three centres will begin to merge and their interplay demonstrated through a combination of tasks and exercises. For example, a child needs to understand that self-interest is the most important, but only up until a certain point where the interests of the group become equally or more important. Similarly, group interest is only best up to a certain point until we need to consider wider environmental interest.
The main criteria for the exercises would be that they were simple to understand, effective in their design – and of course – fun!
Apart from the obvious benefits of this program, one of the greatest aspects of this proposal is how easily it can implemented. All of the infrastructure and logistics for this to happen are already in place. We don’t need to build anything, we don’t need to subscribe students and we don’t have to convince anyone of any radical new idea. The schools and the teachers are already in place. The students are ready and waiting. Many of the exercises will already be known and approved. The life skills program can simply be introduced into each school as much or as little as each teacher or governing body decides.
Production and implementation
Producing a life skills syllabus would entail drawing on many already well-known empathic and learning techniques such as Montessori , Waldorf-Steiner , Froebel , Reggio Emilia , and could also draw on the expertise of many living experts in the field like Prof. Bridget Cooper , Dr. Michele Borba  or Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl .
Production of the syllabus would involve three stages:
An initial consultation process with relevant professionals
A collaborative writing and production process
A publicity and tendering process
A consultation process will be required initially to liaise with educational professionals, child psychologists, experts in sociology and team-building techniques etc., with the aim of formulating the best approaches for constructing the syllabus.
Since this process would be mostly high level discussion, it could be organised within a couple of months and take place over a two or three day seminar.
From the consultation process we will have a better idea of precisely what professional skills would best be suited for authoring the syllabus and what source materials and existing knowledge we can draw on. It would seem appropriate to devote smaller teams to individual age brackets in which people have more knowledge and experience.
These teams will draw on existing source material, adapting it for the books, or writing new material based on personal successes. The exercises will be illustrated and laid out in generous page sizes of one or two exercises per page.
The books and exercises would be culture-neutral as far as practically possible and would be produced in a single language initially (most likely English). Once complete, the books can be sent for translation and culture localisation as necessary.
This will be the lengthiest part of implementation which I estimate would take 18-24 months.
While production is ongoing, a publicity campaign can be mounted to begin generating public interest in the new teaching products and aid their introduction into the current syllabus. For example, videos and social media can be employed to create enticing introductory videos announcing the forthcoming series.
During production it will also be desirable to organise one or more candidate countries to pledge to adopt the scheme. It would seem a good idea to have a small liaison team dedicated to this purpose. Having countries on board pre-launch would give the project a massive credibility boost.
I mentioned earlier that this is not just a long-term proposal and that we can leverage the benefits of this program almost immediately. This part of the implementation process is where some of that magic happens.
A key part of this proposal will be to create a highly visible public profile for the release of the new syllabus. Mainstream TV or radio campaign would be desirable. Why? Because this is not just about selling a syllabus to teachers – it should be about selling the idea to everybody.
If we imagine a high-level campaign that announces the release of the new syllabus while clearly defining the purpose of the scheme and what it hopes to achieve, this will almost certainly create a new public discourse surrounding the topic. If we are seen to be trying to create a better world by instilling improved values in our children with a proven system, who could not be affected by that?
Apart from being a great way to promote the syllabus, I believe these ‘side-effects’ of such a campaign would go a long way towards inspiring many adults and parents to begin adopting the same values themselves. Learning is a two-way process. Just as adults teach children, so we learn from them.
Publicity would begin shortly after production commences and be ongoing.
The immediate benefits
“Creative thinking inspires ideas.
Ideas inspire change.”
~ Barbara Januszkiewicz
While most people would be in agreement that implementing such a structured life-learning program in schools would be a great idea, the benefits of such a program may appear to be remote – ie. When those initial students finally graduate. However, this project does not need to be limited to schools.
The idea is to create manuals of games and exercises for all levels of learning – including adults. Learning doesn’t end in school, nor in the classroom. The learning scheme can be branded into a book series of party or outdoor game activities of varying complexity for adults. This would enable it to be marketed as a mainstream brand, thus also increasing its popularity and desirability in the classroom.
There is already a highly active market in team-building and bonding activities that businesses employ to create better working teams. This can of course be applied to any group of people, not just employees. e.g. friends, neighbours, family. There could even be online organised game meet-ups with strangers. For example, there could be an online organised cooperative treasure hunt game in a local area, where players need to work together to find the prize.
While promoting fun activities, the adult marketing campaign would also be leading with a description of the books’ learning methods and why they’re important. This could have huge benefits, creating a kind of public internal dialogue, perhaps causing people to question the validity of their own self-interest or absence of responsibility towards others.
Currently we live in a world where traits like compassion, empathy, cooperation and sharing are dismissed as facile or ‘weak’, but we now know that these are vital traits we urgently need to adopt to avert the disastrous consequences of seven billion people acting solely in self-interest. Broaching the conversation on the importance of these precious traits in the public arena would inevitably begin to reverse those stigmas.
The long-term benefits
The beauty of this project is that it produces both immediate and long-term benefits – both of which will continually complement and fortify the other.
A student grounded in these basic life skills from age five upwards would undoubtedly become a more centred, respectful, compassionate and sharing adult. Why? Because they have experienced it for themselves from an early age. This experiential learning will have radically altered their expectations of adult life. They will know better how to achieve their goals, how to treat other people in mutually beneficial ways, how to communicate effectively, how to resolve conflict and understand their own feelings, how and why to respect their environment and fellow beings.
Bring that to a generational level and within twenty years we will have created a more compassionate species, mature in its respect of itself, and compassionate towards its earthly domain. Such a mature species will have far less need for rigid social structures to constrain its behaviour, as it will already understand the optimal confines of its reality and act accordingly.
My proposal is to create a new education syllabus based on core life-learning and social skills to improve human behaviour both now and for the future. This syllabus would comprise a series of teacher’s instruction manuals containing practical experiential learning exercises and games for all ages of learning from age four to adult.
It’s not just time for change. It’s time to change. We are the problem – not some ineffective control system. We don’t have ineffective governance, we have poor motivations and understanding at an individual level – multiplied in our billions. Our focus should be to create better internal behaviour and motivations at the individual level, where the global infrastructure and the means to make it happen is already at our disposal. Let’s re-purpose our schools with this vital living and social information to create happier, more responsible people.
Re-shape the individual first, then society and the world will take care of itself.
And the answer to the vegetable problem?
How to get your child to like vegetables? Easy. It starts with one: You. Set the example. Love your own veggies! Get them involved in food preparation: in the growing process, or going to the market; get them to join in the cooking and preparation. Make it informative and, above all, make it fun!
NOTE: The ideas proposed here have been incorporated in the LifeGames educational program, whose educational products are due for release in September 2019.