Four perspectives on truth, normality and education in times of rapid change

We are living in interesting, frightening and rapidly changing times. Where rapid changes and transformations through technology, politics, globalisation and the climate, conspire against normality. These times demand a fresh approach to education, one that provides learners with the thinking dispositions they need to turn challenges into opportunities.  "All that was 'normal' has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense.” But what thinking might guide us through this time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

The four reads shared below are a good starting point. Each presents a particular perspective on the modern era and suggests a way forward. Each has its own bias and particular flaws. The purpose of this list is not to point the reader towards a solution but to start a conversation.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

In this essay, the author takes us on a journey through our history to argue that the situation in which we find ourselves today is perhaps not as unique as we might imagine. The author shows how a superficial reading of our history and the stories we deploy as we make sense of the world blocks us from achieving a more nuanced understanding of how we arrived where we are. It invites the reader to engage in a close inspection of our histories and an even closer investigation of our stories. Yuval is blunt in his attacks on social conventions and clear in his belief that humanity has more in common than we might imagine. His detailed description of the challenges one might face in organising an event like the Olympic games in 1016 compared to today clarifies this point well. For educators, there are many points worth noting but the standout is perhaps, "In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.”

Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d’Ancona

"The notion of science as a conspiracy rather than a world-changing field of inquiry used to be confined to cranks. No longer. It seems to me intolerable that this should be so.”

In 2016 the Oxford dictionary declared Post-truth the word of the year indicating the move of the phrase into mainstream use. If as is often stated, we are living in the post-truth era, what are the implications for education? If knowledge, wisdom and expertise are no longer trusted and easily dismissed, how do we armour the intellect of our learners against such rebuttals? How do we produce young people who will seek the truth and question those who spread falsehood? These are the questions that d’Ancona tackles in “The New War on Truth”. Who and what lies behind this war on truth, what part do individuals play, and how might we tip the balance back towards a society that seeks truth and values wisdom over emotion and base reputation?

“Welcome to PostNormal Times” by Ziauddin Sardar

In this article, Sardar proposes that we have moved into post-normal times, where all that we once relied upon has dissolved, and we are left with no sense of normal. Change is rapid and unpredictable. The structures and stories which helped us to navigate our world and predict the near future have fallen and we are yet to replace them. In this in-between time, we struggle to make meaning, find certainty and know who or what we may trust. "We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.” So how might educators prepare learners for post-normality, and how will we ensure that they leave our schools with the ethical compassion they require? What is the ideal preparation for thriving amidst complexity, chaos, contradictions and uncertainty?

In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School by Jal Mehta & Sarah Fine

Having dived deep into the “why” of a rethink of what and how we teach, this book describes the authors' search for the antidote in the schools of America. What started as a research project to examine the practices of America’s more innovative schools quickly transformed into an analysis of what was missing and a search for answers. Even in schools with a reputation for being cutting edge, the authors found large numbers of students best described as disengaged from the learning process. From this starting point, the authors embark on a search for examples of teaching practice that support ‘deep-learning’. For anyone interested in developing an insight into what school might be like as we approach the challenges of this post-normal, post-truth era, this book at least asks the right questions.

By Nigel Coutts