Greta Thunberg: what we can learn from her example

The following are my personal views arising from Greta’s words.

On climate change

Like Greta, I am with David Attenborough and the climate scientists. I actually believe Greta understates the seriousness of the crisis. It seems unlikely that the increase in mean global temperature will be kept below 1.5 deg C. Here I agree with the arguments of George Monbiot in this Guardian article.

He identifies the  crux of the problem as being embedded in the nature of capitalism.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week a paper in the journal New Political Economy, by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st century there has been a recoupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.

All life on Earth relies on the self-sustaining balance between respiration and photosynthesis that has evolved over the last 4 billion years. I was taught at school in the 1960s that this has resulted in a stable equilibrium concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 300 parts per million. This has now risen in a few decades to more than 400 parts per million and is still rising. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. Two things should be beyond dispute. The first is that the rise in concentration of this key ‘greenhouse’ gas is a result of the industrial activities of humans driven by the exploitation of fossil fuels. The second is that such a rapid and drastic change is bound to have profound global ecosystem consequences.

Even in the unlikely event that the 1.5 deg C target limit is not exceeded, so much irreversible damage has already been caused to the Earth’s climate-based ecosystems that millions of people in the parts of the world most affected by climate-driven catastrophe are now likely to either die or be driven to migrate in extreme desperation to the more temperate northern latitudes, fuelling massive political instability and the growth of state fascism.

So Greta is correct to argue for the response of extreme urgency that she articulates as ‘the need for panic’.

On the fact that she is a mildly autistic KS4 schoolgirl

Greta describes her Asbergers syndrome as a gift not a disease. Given the quality and clarity of her writing and speech making, who could argue with that?

However, in the Academised, marketised English education system, that is not how such autism is perceived by the business bosses of Multi-Academy Trusts, as indicated by the worsening off-rolling scandals that the government seems so disinclined to effectively address. However, autistic spectrum students can still experience great unhappiness even in good comprehensive schools that rightly place importance on the quality of relationships. Greta herself acknowledges that she struggles with social relationships in school. If schools rightly value social relationships as central to development and internalisation of deep understanding there is a clear challenge that must be explicitly addressed in the management of teaching and learning so as to recognise the diversity of responses of individual students.

I discovered that the Principal of Greta’s school is Sirrka Persson. She is a ‘facilitator’ within ‘Human Dynamics Sweden’. This is a quote from their website.

Many testify that they previously assumed that everyone thinks the same way, but that they now have an increased understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences. Human Dynamics has definitely benefited collaboration and is a simple aid to increase understanding of both their own and others’ way of working, being and developing.

Perhaps our schools too can learn from Ms Persson, who has posted her support for Greta on Facebook.

Until I retired in 2003, I was head of an inner urban comprehensive in Barrow-in-Furness for 14 years. We occasionally had students with Asbergers, who were supported with some success, but that was back in the days of generous SEN funding, Statementing and support from an excellent LEA local SEN team. We taught autistic spectrum awareness to all our students as part of our Anti-Bullying policy. This is important, as many serious problems can be avoided if classmates and other students are taught to be aware of the potential for social misunderstandings with students that may have a different way of thinking and responding to social contexts.

However we also had a severely autistic student with whom we could not cope.  Displays of  hostility and aggression towards other well-meaning students combined with extreme destructiveness towards the school can become too difficult to manage in a community comprehensive and require specialist provision, but what is certain is that policies of ‘silent corridors’ and solitary confinement in ‘isolation booths’ will never be acceptable solutions.

On whether school students need a right of ‘Agency’

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. While thinking about Greta Thunberg’s support for peaceful direct action, I came across this article by Tom Sherrington. I am convinced of the importance of this now that Academy MAT practice, supported by OfSTED and the DfE is so firmly moving in the opposite direction that I have copied the following from Tom’s article.

If  school regimes are permanently very tight, they’re not really giving students room to develop agency. It always strikes me as odd when schools with silent corridor policies talk about this in terms of wanting their students to walk tall, matching anyone from the local grammar schools and independent schools – none of which impose silent corridor regimes. Student behaviour isn’t truly impeccable unless students are choosing to behave impeccably – is it? Hyper-controlled behaviour is still basically a deficit model, where students aren’t trusted  – not yet.  Real agency comes when, having learned to value the truer freedoms afforded by good behaviour, students continue to behave impeccably whilst having the freedom not to. And what about learning?  If you are never given the chance to make a choice, how do you learn to make a good one?  To choose a good book? To pursue a line of enquiry beyond the set curriculum in a rigorous manner rather than a shallow one?  What’s the point of placing maximum emphasis on teaching kids to read if we don’t then later allow the possibility that students can teach themselves things by reading? Perhaps even by reading things they’ve chosen to read?  Some teachers are horrified – deeply sceptical, scoffing loudly into their twitter feeds – at the suggestion that it might be instructive to ask students for their views about things they want to learn about, ideas about the kinds of activities they value in terms of their own learning.   I remember being 14 and having some pretty clear ideas about this.  As a teacher I’ve learned a great deal from students and often been surprised and delighted by their ideas about the curriculum.  In a culture of high expectations and serious pursuit of excellence, students can bring a lot to the table, using their experience or perspectives to enrich and enhance your own.

 Just because you might never have had the joy of teaching students with great ideas doesn’t mean that students can’t ever have them.  In fact it may be that your refusal to allow for student agency in relation to their curriculum has held them back. [my bold]

I’ve written about this extensively under the title ‘co-construction‘.   Of course, you don’t just dump students in the deep-end and proclaim the virtue of the great struggle.  No.  You teach them to swim, set up a ramp of incremental challenge and, when ready, you let them jump in.  You build their capacity for independent learning gradually over time, moving from being tight and structured to a more open approach as their agency develops.   If that’s not an explicit goal, I don’t think it happens.  I’d suggest the same should apply to behaviour. 

[In my headship school, this principle was a core value. It was built into our ‘Behaviour Curriculum’]

One of my all-time favourite things to see in a school was when, at KEGS, I found a group of Y9s unsupervised in a classroom during lunch.  They informed me that I’d stumbled upon the new, independently initiated, KS3 Debating Society where the motion in hand was ‘This house would invade North Korea’.  The debate was underway with a self-appointed chair, two teams and an enthusiastic audience. That seems like true agency to me.  In my view, school culture should allow things like this to happen – at least in the end.  There are safety and safeguarding considerations, of course  – and this is very context specific.

But real agency has to be fuelled by trust so at some point trust has to be given. That requires a belief that whilst students must first learn to be trustworthy, ultimately, having learned, they should be trusted. [my bold]

The concept of ‘agency’ has for too long been absent from educational discourse and Tom’s article is timely. It surely cannot any longer be ignored in the wake of 16 year-old Greta’s astonishing achievement and leadership.

On the need to confront the government with their lies and speak the truth to power

Greta clearly needs no advice on this, as is evident from her speech to MPs, from which this is an extract.

The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting. Since 1990 the UK has achieved a 37% reduction of its territorial CO2 emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. And that does sound very impressive. But these numbers do not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. If these numbers are included the reduction is around 10% since 1990 – or an an average of 0.4% a year, according to Tyndall Manchester. And the main reason for this reduction is not a consequence of climate policies, but rather a 2001 EU directive on air quality that essentially forced the UK to close down its very old and extremely dirty coal power plants and replace them with less dirty gas power stations. And switching from one disastrous energy source to a slightly less disastrous one will of course result in a lowering of emissions.

But perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to “lower” our emissions. Because that is far from enough. Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2.0 deg C of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades, or less. And by “stop” I mean net zero – and then quickly on to negative figures. That rules out most of today’s politics.

It is not just its climate change policies that the government lies about. It is so arrogant that it feels able to constantly state obvious rubbish like, ‘cutting police budgets is not linked to the rise in violent crime’, and ‘Universal Credit is not linked to the proliferation of food banks’. An example is Damian Hinds statements about the value of KS2 SATs, which are comprehensively trashed in this article on the Reclaiming Schools website from which this is an extract.

Firstly we are told that children’s learning is assessed through national standardised tests ‘all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia’. This is not exactly a lie, just ‘economical with the truth’. Finland, as is well known, does not use national tests until age 18. France has recently introduced some national tests, but very light touch (20 minutes in length). ‘In most US States,  they happen annually.’ True, but anyone who thinks they raise achievement should look at the international PISA assessments where the USA, like England, bounces along the bottom.

Hinds goes on to argue that ‘these assessments do not exist to check up on our children’ but ‘to keep account of the system, and those responsible for delivering it’. If SATs are there to check the system is working, PISA does that already – and shows that it is working poorly.

The second argument is different: to check on the ‘deliverers’, the teachers. Is this supposed to reassure the parents of over-stressed children? England is a laboratory for control and surveillance. Here standardised tests link to league tables, link to Ofsted, link to performance pay, link to academisation, link to market competition… to create a total system of stress and suspicion. It is no use Hinds arguing that ‘all over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured.’ He presides over a nightmare system which leads headteachers to pass the pressure down the line to teachers who pass it on to pupils – a system held together by fear and stress. It is disingenuous to pretend it’s just an attitude problem. Hinds continues: ‘Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental exams or stop opticians measuring our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified’.

Indeed, but surely dental exams and eye tests are for the individual’s good, not to question the professionalism of dentists and opticians. [my bold]

On the wisdom of children

Our grandchildren are a great joy and this can even apply to the programmes they watch on CBBC. One such is ‘So Awkward’. This is a comprehensive school soap, but ‘Grange Hill’ it isn’t. Far from being a gritty depiction of an urban comp, this is set in a fictitious ‘smart blazer and tie’ school in an affluent suburb.

However, its writers must include ex-secondary teachers because school life and the ‘awkward’ stresses felt by teachers and their and adolescent students are so sharply and hilariously observed. There have now been a great many episodes so its brilliantly talented young cast is now suffering the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and very obviously ‘growing up’ with each new series.

The recurring theme of ‘So Awkward’ that is so relevant to this article is that the school students are always so much wiser than the adults: the parents, teachers and the headmistress.

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