Youth in transition

The unprecedented crisis of natural resources we face is reflected in another type of crisis, one of human resources, with too many  people unsatisfied with their lives, either spending their days doing something they don’t really believe in – not doing what they love, or simply un-empowered to fulfill their potential and un-inspired to change the reality that surrounds them.  At the heart of our challenges therefore is not only our capacity to adapt to the changing climate (amongst other environmental problems) but also to reconstitute our own personal sense of resilience and intelligence.

To make things worse in many countries the compulsory education system dislocates people from their natural talents, forcing people to choose between arts or sciences, business or engineering, restricting creativity to the confines of mono-disciplines and theoretical exercises.  The difficulty with this type of education is that doesn´t feed our spirit, energy or passion.  As a result many people simply opt out and end up doing whatever comes their way. Take Spain as an example where 28% of teenagers drop out of school, with other countries not far behind.

Individuals need the right conditions to flourish (just like any other species) and this is how education can play a role in restoring our passions and creativity to face today’s challenges. For years the “alternative” Montessori and Waldorf schools have been creating inspiring learning environments where head, heart and spirit are nourished.  Ask a child what kind of future he or she would like and the response will invariably be a utopic blend of natural harmony, innovative technology, loving relationships and peace. If we create the conditions that empower children to listen to their intuition and follow these dreams isn´t it more likely we will end up closer to this reality?

Sustainability education and the teenage void

As for learning how to save the planet, sustainability education has been most successful at primary level. There are lots of great examples of getting complex issues such as climate change, systems thinking and cultural integration into classrooms across the globe.  Courses on social innovation, green entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and sustainability are also increasingly popular at Business Schools and Universities.  So far so good…  But what about teenagers?  With school dropout rates and youth unemployment escalating something is clearly not working. But at the same time, adolescents on the verge of adulthood are searching for their place in the world, thirsty for meaning and connection. The climate is ripe for creating a different kind of education with this age group.

Sustainability learning journeys that offer transformative experiences in nature are one way of filling this gap. Developing a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world is a great resource for educators, particularly for those dealing with a generation whose lives are increasingly virtual.  Richard Louv, advocate of the No Child Left Inside movement in the US claims the future will belong to the “nature-smart” who balance the virtual with the real, as the more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.

Intergenerational dialogue is another great resource for teenagers and the Youth and Elders is an innovative example of this. The project blends online conversations with a week’s long physical journey on a tall ship in the Baltic Sea to explore cultural maturity and stewardship of the planet.  Another innovative experience, launched in Spain is Avalon Sustainability School an initiative targeted at 13 to 19 year olds from across the Mediterranean, where the participants design their own learning experiences designed around the different ways we come to “know” things. Experiential knowing takes place through outdoor adventure and community living; representational knowing through land art, music, dance, archery; propositional knowing through debates, films and games; and practical knowing through eco-building, tree-planting or learning how to set up a social business. The participants also take part in deep transformative personal experiences such as spending 24 hours alone in the wilderness. (This and other experiences is inspired by the deep ecology movement where deep experience, leads to deep questioning, understanding and ultimately a deep commitment to the environment. )

And for the budding entrepreneurs amongst us Knowmads in Holland and Kaos Pilots in Denmark are two fantastic examples for future change agents where the boundaries between a school and a business are broken down.  Here the students learn through delivering solutions to real life sustainability challenges, offering consultancy services to different clients and taking ownership of the school-business platform. Many go on to set up their own social enterprises after graduating.

Glass half full

So for those of us who see the glass half full it´s both an inspiring and comforting exercise to explore the different transformative learning programmes available for the next generation and to remind ourselves of our incredible capacity to re-think ways of being and doing, so needed in this time of accelerated change and diminishing natural (and human) resources. Whatever kind of crisis we’re facing, the good news is that there is an emerging network of innovators, educators and organisations out there offering stimulating, liberating learning experiences for a more resilient future – what better preparation for the great Transition that lays ahead.

If the world was more like us, it would sure be a better place,”
Kevaughn Campbell, Avalon participant 2012,
18 years old from Jamaica.

Heloise Buckland
Professor and researcher at ESADE Business School
Editor of Education and Sustainability magazine 
Co-founder of Barcelonya

This post is also available in: Spanish, Catalan