ripping up the linear textbook for a new school of thought

“Free thinkers at 17?”

These words, uttered by headmaster Gale Nolan in the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, were in response to the unorthodox teaching methods of english teacher John Keating. I was reminded of them this week listening to the tales of school teachers in Scotland, many of whom were looking to take the circular economy quite literally, back to school.

The meeting was hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as part of its educational outreach programme. The Foundation is working with Education Scotland and a handful of teachers north of the border to expand the understanding and reach of the circular economy agenda in secondary schools, and explore what opportunities there are to promote it to pupils within the current curriculum.

Whilst at the meeting, which took place in Dundee in a venue that fittingly overlooked the ice-breaking RRS Discovery ship, I heard from one of the teachers at Paisley Grammar in Renfrewshire – a school that has embraced circularity as a future employability baton and is now running with it. It hopes to pass this baton onto the kids by engaging them creatively in the application of circular economy principles.

For the past year or so, the school has organised a Circular Economy Expo – it’s a competition open to 3rd year pupils across all departments, not just the more obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Pupils are tasked with devising educational tools, products and business models that can be held up as good, illustrative examples of circularity, and then these are showcased to the rest of the show.

It’s a great idea. But as the teacher from Paisley Grammar noted, getting initiatives like this off the ground requires a change in mindset – not just among the students, but the teachers themselves. It was very telling to hear how some teachers initially felt uncomfortable with allowing their classes the freedom to think so creatively. They had to be persuaded to let go of the reins and teach in a different way.

The circular economy is disruptive precisely because it is a framework for thinking. Those who are leading on it readily admit that they don’t have all the answers and probably never will. Many of us are having to go back to the classroom to figure it out – if we can start this at an early age, so much the better. But the concept is so radical that it challenges the very heartbeat of our economy and all the institutionalised structures that underpin it – academia included.

I return full circle (nice little closed loop touch, there) to the Dead Poets, it’s such a great film.

“There’s a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for” – John Keating

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