Discomforting Education

By Lewis Winks (University of Exeter)

It is no surprise that uncertainty has become a well-used word of late. We live in uncertain times. Some talk of wicked problems – issues so fundamentally big, that they cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple solutions, rather they demand a systemic, holistic approach or ‘nexus thinking’ as the 2016 RGS conference termed it. Every day these wicked problems ping into our inboxes, drop onto our doormats, fill audio feeds and flicker onto our screens. Ecological and social crises are unfolding across the globe – no longer the concern of those deemed to be less fortunate, as Aldo Leopold’s ‘wider biotic community’ continues to unravel at unprecedented speed. Evidenced in widespread decline of species, the spread of disease and invasive species, water pollution, displacement of people, habitat loss, deforestation, war, economic turmoil, and the marginalisation and segregation of vulnerable people…  There is no need to go on – the narrative is one well told – we’re messing stuff up and there is neither clear consensus nor solution. There is only uncertainty. But is this a bad thing? Should we hope to be certain about anything? Is certainty not another word for complacency? Does uncertainty not create fertile ground for unbounded creativity? Can we imagine a more just, sustainable world from this uncomfortable place? I cannot claim to have answers to these questions, indeed – I am unsure anyone does- but it is from this position that I would like to explore the role of uncertainty and discomfort in educating for sustainability.

This is not a particularly new topic. Others have trodden this path and have explored these themes. Of those, I particularly recommend the work of Megan Boler who has for many years written about a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’, which seeks to “invite students and educators to examine how our modes of seeing have been shaped specifically by the dominant culture of the historical moment” (Boler, 1999 p.179) and prompts both students and their teachers “[to] willingly inhabit a more ambiguous and flexible sense of self.. [and to engage with a] critical enquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs” (ibid. p. 176). There is a strong tradition of working with the unknown and unknowable as an aspect of education. In particular, education theorists have long struggled with the paradox of sustainability education: how can we educate for sustainability when we don’t really know what sustainability is? Indeed, some have proposed that it would be far better to give students the aptitudes to think for themselves: rather than teach solid facts about the shape of a sustainable world, it would be more appropriate to create critical competencies and to encourage divergent, creative thinking (Jickling, 1992). The watchword is plurality – but not everyone agrees. Plurality and uncertainty might put off action and lead to exploration of dead ends, it is claimed (Kopnina, 2015). This could be avoided by working to a plan and shifting behaviour in a predetermined direction based on policy and infrastructural changes. These fascinating discussions continue and it is probably fair to say that there is a great deal of sense in each of these positions. However, I wish to draw the focus of this piece back toward a pedagogy of discomfort, as it is there that I believe the best case is found for challenging the underpinning social norms and societal narratives which have locked into place unsustainable behaviours and practices.

Megan Boler’s Pedagogy of Discomfort and associated works have outlined the importance of ‘shattering worldviews’ if significant change is to emerge from an education which seeks to challenge deeply embedded norms. In ‘Teaching for Hope’ (2004) Boler focuses on her teaching of social injustices and the occurrence of inherited cultural perspectives which give rise to racism. Her work with HE students aimed to uncover the undercurrents of racism which prevail within large parts of American society. The work is discomforting to students – it might come across as accusatory, confrontational or challenging – and in part it is all of these things, but it is also painful, upsetting and raises issues of deep uncertainty about student’s positions in the world and their views of themselves. While Boler’s work hinges on the role of discomfort in leveraging social change in the form of challenging social injustices, the pedagogical approach also lends itself to teaching about socio-ecological crises. This year as part of my fieldwork with young people taking part in outdoor environmental education programmes I have witnessed some students shock at damage done to coastal defences after severe storms, their sadness at the rate of species decline on a nature reserve and anxiety at being asked to take part in the butchering of deer or rabbit for their dinner. I have asked myself what the role of discomfort is within these experiences and – should the educator make more explicit use of a pedagogy of discomfort – what the potential is for radically shifting worldviews and uncovering and questioning undercurrents of social and cultural norms as part of these programmes.

This is of course all far from straightforward to implement in practice. Many will read this and be alarmed at the ethical implications of making use of a pedagogy of discomfort, and take issue with causing students the deep distress required to decentre and discomfort inherited narratives – and that the nature of discomforting entails a degree of ethical violence (Zembylas and McGlynn, 2012). It is true that this educational approach does not seek security, but to say that it is not caring would be a mistake. In terms of an ethic of care, it could be the most loving and caring of activities to learn to break free of the inadequate and unjust modes of behaviour which have come to dominate society and to craft new cultural practices in their place. So too, some will cast aspersions at the naivety of such an approach in the face of the ‘student satisfaction’ agenda and the impending TEF, under which it is hard to imagine HE lecturers and educators placing students in positions of discomfort under the guise of long term and deep learning. This remains to be seen, and in many ways depends upon how such an approach to teaching is implemented in practice and how it is communicated and supported by HE institutions. My work has focused on how discomfort operates as a mediator for transformative learning in the outdoors, and I believe that the presence of choice plays an important part in the process of uncovering and rediscovering the identity of self and society. The opportunity to choose to place oneself in a position of discomfort sets this form of discomfort apart from its oppressive counterpart. In addition, discomfort as perceived by and shared with others enables empowerment to overcome previous ways of knowing. The act of sharing and collective witnessing may make discomfort formative rather than destructive (Boler, 1999 p.177).

In sum, wicked problems require more than simple answers. Working with uncertainty seems to be an important part of problem solving, but being able to work with uncertainty requires an unearthing of our own constructed social and cultural histories, beliefs and shared values – especially if those problems are deeply rooted in social practices and norms. The process of becoming uncertain can be discomforting, but this is the work that schools and higher education institutions might have to do if we are to prepare critical thinkers who are able to creatively and confidently step into a tentative future. In short, we may need to become comfortable with discomfort.

 

Boler, M. 1999. Feeling power: Emotions and education, Psychology Press.

Boler, M. 2004. Teaching for hope. Teaching, learning, and loving: Reclaiming passion in educational practice, 117-131.

Jickling, B. 1992. Viewpoint: Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23, 5-8.

Kopnina, H. 2015. Sustainability in Environmental Education: Away from pluralism and towards solutions.

Zembylas, M. & Mcglynn, C. 2012. Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. British Educational Research Journal, 38, 41-59.

 

 

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