Education as an instrument for societal change or as an end in itself?

How LORET can help teachers to unlock the pedagogical potential of addressing real-world problems in education.

Students and teacher in forest. Photo.

Students of one of the Belgian pilotschools during an out-of-school activity on sustainable food production.'". Photo: Lynn Delbeecke (Instagram: @lynndelbeecke_photography)

Societal problems and education

Open schooling is about gathering schools and other stakeholders around problems facing the (local) community. How exactly societal problems should enter the school is subject of an ongoing academic debate in educational research and a matter of concern for many teachers as well as organisations that support educators.

It is therefore not surprising that it was selected as one of the “Tensions in Global Citizenship Education” addressed by Kruit and Annoncer la couleur, two Belgian centres of expertise in Global Citizenship Education, in a magazine for NGOs, pedagogic support services, educational policy makers, teacher trainers, etc. They invited us to address this debate which resulted in a contribution to the magazine titled “Education as an instrument for societal change or as an end in itself? Moving beyond a dichotomist approach”.

In this blogpost we briefly summarise the argument made in the paper and describe how LORET (locally relevant teaching), one of the tools used in the SEAS project, can help to tackle the didactical challenges involved in addressing real-world sustainability problems in the classroom.

The school as a problem-solver or as a place for study and practice?

The debate on how to deal with societal problems in education is characterised by a tension between two standpoints, each of them driven by legitimate concerns. On the one hand, there is a concern for the urgent need of widespread mobilisation to cope with the consequences of severe global problems leading to appeals to schools to contribute to solving these problems.

Global policy institutions like the United Nations (UN) put forward that education has an important role to play in distributing knowledge, competences and values needed in transforming society towards a more just and sustainable direction.

The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that were launched by the UN in 2015 were promoted as the steppingstones towards a resilient and sustainable world and education is considered a vital catalyst in realising them by providing everybody with the knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development.

On the other hand, a concern for values such as democracy, freedom, pluralism and creativity results in objections against seeing schools as problem-solvers and turning students into objects that must fulfil the desires and goals determined by others. Instead, critics argue, the school should be preserved as a time and space for study and practice – as ‘free time’, one of the meanings of the ancient Greek word scholè.

As also elaborated in this article in the Journal of Philosophy of Education written together with SEAS partner Leif Östman, we argue for moving beyond a dichotomist approach and experiment in the SEAS project with finding fruitful ways to unlock the unique pedagogical potential involved in addressing real-world sustainability problems in education.

LORET – Locally Relevant Teaching

In the Belgian and several other SEAS open schooling networks, we use the LORET methodology created by Leif Östman and Staffan Svanberg. It is a step-by-step procedure which is designed to support teachers in using local real-world problems as a starting point for education.

The guiding principle is to offer students unique educational opportunities through combining engagement with societal problems and the realisation of curriculum objectives. With LORET, teacher teams develop a plan for implementing locally relevant teaching and design a series of lessons that take students along in an authentic sustainability problem-solving process together with local community stakeholders.

LORET workshops aim to help teachers in the challenging didactical work of selecting teaching content and designing teaching activities in such a way that students can learn from engaging with real-world problems without being reduced to instruments for realising someone else’s goals and solutions. LORET does so in two ways:

1. Carving out an educational problem for study and experimentation

Massive real-world sustainability issues like plastic waste, mobility, climate change, energy supply, biodiversity loss etc. are, in their overwhelming complexity and scale difficult to grasp and handle.

An important aspect of teachers’ didactical work and pedagogical responsibility is to turn such massive, multi-faceted real-world problems into educational content through a process of what we call ‘didactic carving’. In a LORET-workshops, teachers ‘carve out’ of a massive societal problem a (sub)problem that will be suitable for the students to work with: a problem that is, on the one hand, manageable and susceptible for the students and that, on the other hand, bears the potential to take them along in an authentic sustainability problem solving process.

Questions that guide the didactical carving are, for example:

  • whether students have sufficient knowledge, insight and intellectual capacities to be able to understand the problem,
  • whether they have access to information, whether they can influence actions and decision-making, whether the results of their work will become visible in the short term,
  • whether solution for the problem is already available and just needs to be implemented or ready-made solutions are lacking,
  • whether trying to solve the problem would require further inquiry and experimentation or there is 1 ‘right’ answer, etc.

In a LORET-workshop we thus start with a massive, locally relevant real-world problem to carve out a manageable and authentic educational problem for study and experimentation.

2. Teaching and learning as/through an authentic sustainability problem-solving process

Working with real-world problems in the classroom offers unique pedagogical opportunities. Not only does it offer students the chance to acquire specific knowledge, insight and skills; it also fosters creativity, experiences of being able to make a difference and space for engagement and commitment. Furthermore, the students can experience how different people may each have their own idea of how they can / want to solve this problem.

Engaging students in the quest for solutions hence enables educative moments that would not emerge during theoretical lessons or mere reflections in classroom discussion where no ‘real’ challenge is at stake. When dealing with real-world problems, what is said and done is not non-committal. One has to find a solution together.

Not everyone thinks the same, there may be resistance. And finally, the work of the students results in something that is practically useful which in itself is more satisfying than abstract, theoretical lessons.

Therefore, LORET supports teachers in designing a series of lessons that take students along in the whole cycle of a problem-solving process:

  • Exploring the problem (gathering and analysing information)
  • coming up with possible solutions (generating possible solutions and selecting a solution proposal)
  • implementing solution proposals (planning, implementing and documenting)
  • evaluating the problem-solving

As such, through offering subject knowledge and activities such as letting students interview local stakeholders and explore the surroundings of the school, education on real-world sustainability problems becomes an authentic inquiry in which students are addressed as subjects of change.

By Eva Roelandt, Katrien Van Poeck
Published Apr. 30, 2021 12:38 PM - Last modified Apr. 30, 2021 1:45 PM
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Blogging for transformational change

The SEAS blog focuses on current research and activities in the intersection between scientific literacy, open schooling and sustainability challenges when students collaborate with families and stakeholders from civil society and industry in becoming agents of community well-being.