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EPALE

Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe

 
 

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Sustainability needs new approaches to adult learning: a role for citizens’ assemblies

29/03/2019
by Andrew McCoshan
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR PL HU RO DE

/epale/en/file/citizens-initiativeCitizens initiative

Citizens initiative

Dr Stephen Martin, Fellow of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Policy and Advisor to the UK National Commission for UNESCO, looks at why our changing environment poses new challenges for how we find solutions to problems and how citizens’ assemblies may help us learn the answers.

Adult learning for citizenship needs to respond to rapid global change which is economic, political, social, cultural and ecological. The destruction of the environment, and the various initiatives and actions, by individuals, communities, organisations and movements like the Climate Change school ‘strikers’ and Extinction Rebellion, set a bold and urgent context to repurposing adult citizenship education and lifelong learning.

Political parties of all colours are using the citizenship debate to define not simply our rights as citizens but, more significantly, our responsibilities as active agents of change. This is set against a background of declining participation in the democratic process in both Europe and the USA. Yet our political systems seem incapable of responding at scale and urgency to this democratic deficit and the planetary existential crisis.

How should adult education respond?

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals  and associated targets represent an unprecedented opportunity to learn how to tackle the root causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme poverty and put the world on a more sustainable path. And their implementation is central to the reform of our concept of citizenship and adult learning. But how should we learn about them and put them into practice as adults?

/epale/en/file/sustainable-development-goalsSustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals

We all expect our citizen’s rights to include such things as access to clean water and air, along with high-quality education and health provision. However, I suspect for many who sign up for adult education in art appreciation or horticulture (or, in my case, who are struggling with Italian classes and ballroom dancing) it means very little. Indeed, there is much evidence that any mention of citizenship issues when we are enjoying our leisure activities tends to be unwelcome.

Nonetheless, no matter how we might feel about these existential issues, humanity is increasingly and often unknowingly, faced with a widening array of complex issues in the 21st century; issues such as racial and religious intolerance, disinformation and fake news, aerial pollution, terrorism and widening inequality and poverty. And when we vote on such issues as responsible citizens in national elections, we have relatively limited understanding about how such issues are contributing to an unsustainable world, and how they can be resolved.

Sustainability needs new approaches

Although the concept of sustainability relates to the whole biosphere, at its core it is concerned with sustainable human lifestyles. To achieve such lifestyles, we all need to make decisions about a whole complex of interacting requirements, for food, housing, livelihood, health, transport etc., where decisions about one aspect can have unexpected, and perhaps undesired, effects on others and on our wider biophysical environment. Choosing to work from home can save transport fuel, but could use an even greater amount of extra fuel for home heating. To be effective, we need to learn to consider our whole lifestyle system, not just separate activities.

The journey towards sustainability is a ‘wicked’ problem  involving complexity, uncertainty, multiple stakeholders and perspectives, competing values, lack of end points and ambiguous terminology. In a word, dealing with sustainability means dealing with a mess and most people avoid messes because they feel ill equipped to cope.

The health, agricultural, financial and ecological problems we now face are qualitatively different from the problems for which existing scientific, economic, medical and political tools and educational programmes were designed.

Without the right tools, learners faced with these wicked problems may fall back on the same old inappropriate toolbox with at best, disappointing outcomes. These approaches are as much about ‘problem finding’ and ‘problem exploring’ as they are about problem solving.

Why citizens’ assemblies could be important forums for adult learning

My contention along with many others is that learners cannot deal with the wicked problems of sustainability without learning to think and act systemically. This is also supported by the growing use of Citizen’s Assemblies  (a form of deliberative democracy) as a means of supporting decision making in complex areas of social and environmental concern.  

A citizens' assembly: 

  • is formed from the citizens of a modern state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance;

  • has members who are randomly selected;

  • uses a cross-section of the public to study and learn about the options available to the state on certain complex questions;

  • proposes answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion and the use of various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts.

These assemblies aim to reinstall trust in the political process by taking direct ownership of decision-making and could, if used more frequently and sensitively, support active citizens as agencies for change. They could also enhance wider learning and understanding within civil society based on empirical evidence rather than being based on political dogma and ideology.


Dr Stephen Martin is a Fellow of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Policy Advisor to the UK National Commission for UNESCO. He is also President of Change Agents UK, Honorary Professor at the University of Worcester and Visiting Professor in Learning for Sustainability, University of the West of England.

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