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The challenge for education in the New Millenium
By Fritjof Capra, Presented at Forum 2000, September 6, 1997


I would like to broaden the focus of our discussion to include a non-human ecological dimension. As our century draws to a close, the great challenge is to create sustainable communities, that is, communities which embody social, cultural and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. In our attempts to build and nurture sustainable communities we can learn valuable lessons from ecosystems because ecosystems are in fact sustainable communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms. To understand these lessons of nature we need to learn the basic principles of ecology. You could say we need to learn how to speak the language of nature. In other words, we need to become ecologically literate or eco-literate. Now it turns out that to understand the principles of ecology we need a new way of seeing the world and a new way of thinking. Thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness and context. In science this new way of thinking is known as "systems thinking". It emerged during the first half of the century in several disciplines in which scientists explored living systems, be they living organisms, ecosystems or social systems, and recognised that all these living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.

"Systems thinking" has been raised to a new level during the past 25 years with the development of the science of complexity, including a whole new mathematical language and a new set of concepts to describe the complexity of living systems.

The emerging new theory of living systems is the theoretical foundation of ecological literacy. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world is ultimately a network of inseparable patterns of relationships, that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain but also the neural system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.

Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence but rather as a co-operative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. This new vision of reality informed by eco-literacy will form the basis of our future technologies, economic systems and social institutions. Either that or there will be no future for humanity. It is obvious that this has profound implications for education in the 21st century. It will require a pedagogy that puts the understanding of life at its very centre, in the experience of learning that overcomes our alienation from the natural world and rekindles a sense of praise, a curriculum that teaches our children the fundamental facts of life: that one species' waste is another species' food; that matter cycles continually through the chain of life; that the energy driving all the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life from its beginning of more than 3 billion years ago did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.

Teaching this new knowledge which is also ancient wisdom will be the most important role of education in the next century. Now because of its intellectual grounding in systems thinking, eco-literacy offers a powerful framework for the systemic approach to school reform that is now widely discussed among educators in the United States and other countries. Systemic school reform is based on essentially two insights: a new understanding of the process of learning and a new understanding of leadership. Recent research in newer science and cognitive development has resulted in a new systemic understanding of the process of learning based on the view of the brain as a complex, highly adaptive, self-organising system. The new understanding recognises the active construction of knowledge in which all new information is related to past experience in a constant search for patterns and meaning. The importance of experiential learning, of diverse learning styles involving multiple intelligences and of the emotional and social context in which learning takes place. This new understanding of the learning process suggests corresponding instructional strategies. In particular, it suggests designing an integrated curriculum emphasising contextual knowledge in which the various subject areas are perceived as resources in service of the central focus.

A great boost to achieving such an integration is the approach called "project based learning", which consists of facilitating learning experiences that engage students in complex, real world projects, for example in elementary schools a school garden or a Greek restoration through which they develop and apply skills and knowledge. Such curriculum integration through ecologically oriented projects is possible only if the school becomes a true learning community in which teachers, students, administrators and parents are all interlinked in the network of relationships, working together to facilitate learning. In such a learning community the teaching does not flow from the top down, but there is a cyclical exchange of information. The focus on learning is on learning and everyone in the system is both a teacher and a learner. Feedback contributes to the learning process and feedback becomes the key purpose of assessment. Systems thinking is crucial to understand the functioning of learning communities. Indeed, the principles of ecology can also be interpreted as principles of community.

And, finally, the systemic understanding of learning, instruction, curriculum design and assessment can only be implemented with a corresponding practice of leadership. This new kind of leadership is inspired by understanding a very important property of living systems which has been identified and explored only recently. Every living system occasionally encounters points of instability at which some of its structures break down and new structures emerge. This is what was mentioned yesterday as bifurcation points. The spontaneous emergence of order, of new structures and new forms of behaviour is one of the hallmarks of life. In other words, creativity, the generation of forms that are constantly new is a key property of all living systems. Leadership therefore consists, to a large extent, in continually facilitating the emergence of new structures and incorporating the best of them in the organisation's design. This type of what you could call systemic leadership is not limited to a single individual but can be distributed, and responsibility then becomes a capacity of the whole. In summary, eco-literacy includes three components: understanding the principles of ecology, thinking systematically, and using the principles of ecology and systems thinking as the context and language for systemic school reform. As our century comes to a close and we go toward beginning of the new millennium, the survival of humanity will depend on our ability to understand the principles of ecology, and act and live accordingly. This is an enterprise that transcends all our differences of race, culture or class. The earth is our common home, and creating a sustainable world for our children and for future generations is our common task. Thank you very much.