Blog – Earth Day System Reform

I’ve wanted to write about post-pandemic education for some time now, and then I saw Earth Day 2021 was coming up and thought I should write about Earth Day too. Then, when I started reading about Earth Day’s origins, I realised I could write a piece about both themes because they are intrinsically linked. 

 In 1969, Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson, a long-time environmental champion, visited the site of an oil spill in California and was devastated by what he saw. He read an article about anti-Vietnam war ‘teach-ins’ on college campuses on the journey home. That gave him his #BigIdea – why couldn’t they have a ‘teach-in’ on the environment? And the concept of ‘Earth Day’ was born. 

 On April 22, 1970, over 20 million people and thousands of schools took part in the first Earth Day. By the end of the year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency had been formed. Which then kick-started the passing of a succession of important environmental laws in the US throughout ‘The Environmental Decade’. 

Earth Day Earth Day went global in 1990 – 200 million from 141 countries got involved, putting environmental issues firmly on the world stage. It currently engages 1 billion people a year – and yet it somehow feels like all that collective, collaborative, positive action of its origins has been lost somewhat in a constant battle against climate change deniers, consumerism and corporate and political greed. 

 Over the last two years, I can feel the stirrings of change, a loud echo back to those 2 million US citizens in 1970, frustrated by the status quo and demanding we take action to look after our planet and our collective future on it. And that fills me with hope. 

 Earth Day began as a nationwide ‘teach-in’ – what exactly is that? The concept of a ‘teach-in’ came about in the 1960s in the US. College staff and pupils who wanted to protest the Vietnam War found they could not hold protests on site, so they decided to use education to raise awareness of important, often controversial and challenging, issues to large groups of people. I found a great definition of it here: “A teach-in is a form of nonviolent protest which uses one of the most powerful protest tools of all: educational empowerment.”   

 I’ve spent my life in education of one form or another and not ever connected it with ‘nonviolent protest’, but I like this idea. Especially now. We are in a climate crisis, and it feels like an awful lot of us are shouting about it, yet very little is changing from the top down, where it would have the most significant impact. So the thought of arming our young people with the education, support and opportunities they need to go out there and turn protest into action is an exciting way of thinking about the work I do. 

Now to link education, the pandemic, and the climate crisis – how do we move forward and change the status quo and ‘Restore Our Earth’ (Earth Day 2021’s theme)?  

And by ‘Restore Our Earth’, I mean look at all levels of sustainability – social, economic and environmental – and the interconnectivity of it all. 

I attended a wonderful virtual event in December last year by the RSA called ‘Creativity Matters: A Tribute to Ken Robinson’. His death last year was a significant loss to education, he’d long been advocating for education reform, and I can only hope that someone someday is brave enough to listen to his words and step up to change the system. There were many great speakers at the event, one of whom was his daughter, Kate Robinson, who said, “Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve hit pause in our social systems, and we should press reset as well.” She added a quote from her father, “If you’re a teacher then to the class you ARE the system. So if you change what you do, the system can change.”   

Those points resonated with me. We live in a vital time to change the way we do business to put the planet and people first and a perfect time.  

This year has seen our assumptions about life turned upside down and shown us just how much, and how quickly, we can change and adapt. As we come out of lockdown, much as I am looking forward to a pint in the pub with friends and hugging loved ones, I also don’t want to go back to normal because the old normal wasn’t working! As Kate said, we need to take the chance we’ve got and come out of this creating a new status quo. We have the opportunity to change the way we work, learn, interact, consume, behave and take action. We have a chance to change all systems – look at the systemic issues of inequality, injustice, and discrimination inherent in our society – can we press a reset button? 

 Another speaker at the event, Sally Bacon (Executive Director, Clore Duffield Foundation), said, “In England, the first stated aim is that the curriculum ‘introduces pupils to the best that’s been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’ ‘The best that’s been thought and said’ is a direct quote from an 1869 essay by Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy.  Instead of looking to the past, we should be working towards a more equitable landscape, where education enables our children to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, but also to create new and exciting forms of culture themselves.” As Ken said, “Current systems of education were not designed to meet the challenges we now face. They were developed to meet the needs of a former age.”  The fact that our national curriculum’s first stated aim stems from a 150-year-old essay should tell us a lot of what we need to know about how out-of-touch the system is. 

 We’re trying to educate young people for a present and future severely impacted by the climate crisis, as well as to prepare them for jobs that don’t even exist yet, then “it makes sense to educate our children with the skills and capacity to think outside the box with creative solutions.”  This no doubt sounds familiar to those in the Solutions for the Planet family involved in our Big Ideas Programme 😉? (I quoted that line from an excellent article in Forbes about STEAM, which is well worth a read). 

How about this for a curriculum, from a wonderful teacher I recommend following on Twitter if you want to see creativity in the classroom: 

I attended another interesting virtual event, from The Harmony Project’s Harmony in Education Event last year. Although the focus was environmental education, the points raised echoed Sir Ken Robinson’s – Ken talked about the importance of creativity being at the heart of education. Here Richard Dunne was talking about nature being at the core of education, but both of them recognised that, as Richard said, “Now is a time for revolution, to re-evolve education and take it to a new place.” 

One of the speakers was 16-year-old Scarlett Westbrook (Teach the Future Campaign Coordinator at Students Organising for Sustainability UK), a passionate and well-armed young person who coordinates a campaign that ties a lot of what I’ve discussed in this article together. These are the main points in the campaign: 

  1. Coherent and good climate education 
  2. Bridge the inequality divide in our education system 
  3. Reform the entire system – not just the curriculum, as independent schools and academies can choose not to follow it, but the system itself because it’s the system that’s flawed. 

Many of us have the same goal. I attend lots of these events with inspirational speakers and read so many thought-provoking articles – yet we still seem to be hurtling towards a catastrophic future, which is why I put my faith in the younger generations. I feel their passion, their anger and their concern.  

 I see first-hand their resilience and creativity, and I believe that it is our responsibility to arm young people with the knowledge and support to go forth and change things for the better. But crucially to give them a seat at the table and be instrumental in carving out the future with us, instead of doing it for them. 

 This Earth Day, I’d like you to join with me in doing all you can to empower our young people however you are able. If we want to Restore Our Earth, we should take an opportunity from the pause that this devastating pandemic has forced us to take and turn it into positive change.  

We know what we need to do; we just need everyone on board – particularly our young people. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]


Sarah Milburn
S4TP Programme Manager

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solutions for the Planet Ltd