Circular Education – Can it be done?

Recently, I listened to a talk by 5 Gyres – an organisation focused on pursuing science to solutions for a planet free of plastic pollution (5 Gyres, 2018). I went along to the talk with a skeptical mindset as I’ve heard the ocean dweller cum ocean activist story many times. I worked for one… I am one!
The talk by 5 Gyres founders, Cummins and Eriksen, began with an emotive self realisation narrative of our planet’s peril, with photos/specimens of destruction as evidence, followed by discussion around taking individual action through consumer choice and beach clean-ups. This organisation’s street-cred became apparent when they spoke about the importance of research, studies, and peer-reviewed publications. The two spoke about how they were collaborating with scientists globally and collecting citizen science data to find solutions to effect change. Then Eriksen mentioned the buzzwords Circular Economy and Design Thinking as part of the solution.
He went on to talk about the Linear Economy and how few corporations are taking responsibility for their production of plastic consumables. He spoke about a system change approach and how citizens could lobby local and national governments around waste management using alternative approaches. He used Xtreme Zero Waste in Whāingaroa/Raglan as an example.

Eriksen sparked a wondering for me. Education can be perceived in a similar ‘linear economy’. Students essentially go ‘through’ a system. Could we look at education in a more circulatory way to effect change?

Circular Economy vs Circular Education 2 (4)

After exploring the comparisons between a circular economy and potential for a circular education, I’ve alluded to the fact that my mind cannot disassociate education from the human/societal life cycle and acknowledge the experiential element of the lifelong learning process.
Within the schooling/manufacturing process I struggled to create a circulatory model and recognise that I’m trying to simplify a future ‘best practice’ into the Simple Domain of the Cynefin Framework when I should accept the organic complexity of education. However, I don’t want to ignore the discomfort I have for the way we are progressing in this system. The reason for this discomfort is that through this exploration I’ve come to understand the schooling system and life are in opposition.

So, how do we achieve more balance between the system and life regarding the concept of ‘school’ involving the future focused principle?

I know from my own experiences, that to survive the workload and to maintain working relationships it is easier to continue to fall back into the dated system we are in than to continuously challenge it. It has lead to burnout, but this isn’t how I want to teach!
This is not the mindset to have when we look at the statistics. The 2010/2011 TIMSS New Zealand Year 5 results indicate a relatively low achievement compared with other countries and has steadily decreased back to 1994/1995 levels (see 2015 results here). Along with New Zealand’s average PISA scores in mathematics, reading and science declining since 2009. Although we can say the range of achievement in TIMSS within NZ was wider than nearly all the high performing countries tested in English, and NZ’s average achievement in mathematics, science, and reading remains above the OECD. The concern is something happens around Year 4 when students report a positive attitude towards science and this aligns with the expected levels described in NZC. Whereas in Year 8 this attitude shifts and the year level results do not meet the expected levels of the NZC. These findings are consistent with TIMSS and persistent NEMP findings since 1995 (Bull, 2017).
When looking at the research it shows that teachers and students do not typically possess adequate conceptions of the Nature of Science. At best, conceptions around NoS are learned through explicitly reflective instruction as opposed to implicitly through ‘doing’ science. Although I agree with this statement mostly, I challenge it in regards to dialogic pedagogy and the balance with ‘in the moment’ unplanned class discussion that can come from ‘doing’. It goes on to say teachers understanding of NoS are not necessarily translated into classroom practice or valued as highly as content outcomes (Lederman, Lederman & Antink, 2007).
The reason I target science when addressing my concern is the evidence which aligns with what Sir Ken Robinson states as the school system
killing creativity, curiosity and building a misconception for students around the importance of being ‘right/correct’ through exam/content style assessments.

There are fantastic schools implementing future focused changes, but these are pockets of innovation. It can be better! When exploring the idea of ‘circular education’, I revisited past learning and experiences to imagine what alternative approaches could look like.
The linear school system isn’t completely dated, it does have some positives. It provides a scaffolding for students to learn, understand and work in institutional systems. At the same time the linear system caters for socialisation etc and for students to internalise these norms and ideologies to then operate in society. However, this learning should be secondary to the learning that is challenging their self awareness, and the forming of their own world beliefs.

Circular Education - Apprenticing with a Problem (1)

Looking at the figure above, a student can gain a strong beginning in self awareness and to navigate institutionalism and socialisation through the first three forms of schooling (ECE, Primary and Middle). This is providing individual schools are addressing an empathic/inclusive community focused culture, incorporating learning approaches to enhance curiosity and innovation like inquiry, play, game and place based learning etc with questioning as the base for all approaches, and acknowledging the current trends that are happening in education as a learning foundation.
But, we can start to look at high school/upper secondary differently. Perhaps as the beginning of a ‘learning/transition village’ approach to lifelong learning. This village can lend itself to supporting a diverse range of local solutions to emerge, collaborate and interconnect with each other to create a diverse ecology towards learning.
One example being the ‘apprenticing with a problem’ approach (Papi-Thornton, 2016). This focus is on finding a career with social impact which is a balancing act between improving self and working to understand the problems facing our world. It would require trained facilitators to support students to recognise their core skills and strengths, and identify how they could use or build these skills to fuel social progress through participating and contributing towards existing organisations, start-ups, governments, or labs, farms, investment firms to banks etc.

Going back to what Eriksen said about the Linear Economy and how few corporations are taking responsibility for their production of plastic consumables. We, as educators, schools and learning communities, need to adhere to what he is saying and take responsibility for the education of our students. We should look at alternative approaches that decentralise this school institution into smaller, diverse and manageable forms to create balance between systems and life.
With the advancement in technology and the increased automatisation of human labour, this is the time to look at the heart of our practice and ourselves, so that we are not only engaging in the art of teaching and learning but that we are fulfilling the role not obstructing it. These thoughts are timely with the Education Minister’s announcement of a three-year review to reform education in line with changing societal needs and I hope consideration it taken to achieve this balance.

5 Gyres Institute (2018). Retrieved from:

Bull, A. (2017). Research synopsis of STEM education. In The National Science-Technology Roadshow Trust (2017). Proceedings from the workshop Sir Paul Callaghan Science Academy. (pp.19-22). Wellington, New Zealand: The National Science-Technology Roadshow Trust.

Lederman, N.G., Lederman, J.S., & Antink, A. (2013). Nature of science and scientific inquiry as contexts for the learning of science and achievement of scientific literacy. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, 1(3), 138-147.

Papi-Thornton. (2016). Tackling Heropreneurship. Clore Social Leadership Programme. Retrieved from chrome-extension://ecnphlgnajanjnkcmbpancdjoidceilk/content/web/viewer.html?source=extension_pdfhandler&

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