Expanding Education’s Capacities to Face the World’s Complexities

by Clément Moliner-Roy

With support and feedback from Andrea González, Devin Bokaer, João Gabriel Almeida and Manish Jain.

We live in a multidimensional world, yet mainstream education trains us to think for a unidimensional world:

Image from the Intro-to-Complexity-May-2021, Complexity University

Indeed, most of our educational systems make us seek clear answers and single forms of knowing instead of embracing that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in which there seldom are clear answers. Furthermore, our world is filled with ever-increasingly complex challenges (Poverty, ethnic conflicts, systemic inequalities, and climate change) that involve an ever-shifting array of factors and actors. Yet, as someone who has been immersed in different educational systems as a learner, a teacher, and an advisor, I don’t feel that our educational systems prepare us to live with and face those challenges. That’s what sparked my curiosity to explore:

How education could better prepare us to live, understand, and act in a complex world? 

It’s with this question that I set off to meet members of the Ecoversities Alliance, a network committed to radically rethinking higher education. First, I met Zaid Hassan, one of the co-founders of the Complexity University, an unconventional university that prepares students “to tackle social, environmental and political challenges through the paradigm of complexity.” Second, I conducted a written interview with the Gesturing Toward Decolonial Future (GTDF) collective, a “group of researchers, artists, educators, activists and Indigenous knowledge keepers who work at the interface of questions related to historical, systemic and on-going violence and questions related to the unsustainability of ‘modernity-coloniality’’’ who conduct experiments that gesture towards the possibility of decolonial futures. Finally, I also had the opportunity to exchange with Munir Fasheh, one of the elders of the Ecoversities Alliance, who has been involved in countless experiments to rethink education. 

The current paradigm 

As the GTDF collective puts it, most of mainstream education still operates under the paradigm of “description & prescription,” as if there’s a stable and unified world out there that can be fully described and then a solution to its problems can be prescribed. For instance, most exams in mainstream education are based on finding (or memorizing) the ‘right answer’ that will bring us closer to a perfect score. This teaches learners from a young age to seek perfection and to crave simple solutions. Yet, when we face complex challenges, we realize that there’s no such thing as simple solutions. Most solutions in a complex world (like ours) will generate unintended consequences as the GTDF collective illustrates: “While we are trying to decarbonize industries in the global north, the solutions proposed are threatening the ways of being and the lands that indigenous communities have been protecting and living with for thousands of years. While you see more and more Tesla on the streets, Indigenous communities in Bolivia and Peru are suffering the effects of extractivism and commodification, particularly due to lithium mining that is used for the batteries of electric cars.” These are just a couple of examples that outline the limits of our current problem-posing, problem-solving logic which is often taught in mainstream schools. Yet, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, one of the cofounders of the GTDF collective explains in her book that this desire for “certainty” and “all-encompassing knowledge is in the same harmful cluster as the desire to conquer, consume, and control that has generated the colossal mess driving us towards human extinction” (Machado de Oliveira, p.165).

As Munir explains, in the current paradigm, education (especially higher education) tends to disconnect knowledge from reality… He loves to conduct this experiment when teaching math to young students. First, he asks “1+1=?” and they will all shout “2!”. Then he asks, “really?” and gives an example in which he uses a pipette to add one drop of water to another drop of water. Then, he asks the question again “1+1=?” and the students will hesitate this time to answer. This simple activity helps students realize how context and meaning matters and how important it is to ask: “What’s the connection of my knowledge to reality?” A question too rarely asked in school. Indeed, as Munir argues, lots of what school teaches might be completely useless for the learners.

There’s massive work that needs to be done (and undone!) about our education to better account for the complexity of our lived realities. That being said, the Zaid and folx* from the Complexity University, are convinced that it is possible to better prepare learners for complexity, just like it is to learn and teach cooking. It’s not something that happens fast, though, and there are no miracle tools that will do the work for us. You can give the best blender, fridge, and oven to a neophyte chef, yet their meal probably won’t turn out that great. Same goes with complexity, it’s not a few tools that will make them ready to grapple with it… But practice, just like anyone can practice becoming a better chef, anyone can practice dealing with complexity, exploring different tools and combinations of flavors, textures, and mixtures, to find ways to analyze complexity and intervene in our reality for the sustainability of our future(s).

* Define folx: same meaning as folk but with the emphasis on the inclusion of all groups of people.

Doing what needs doing, not what we want to do

As the GTDF collective puts it, if we want to live sustainably and avoid the (almost-inevitable) collapse of our human society, we need to do the work that needs to be done, and not only the work that we want to do both as individuals or collectives. For instance, there is more and more evidence that shows that we would need more than two planets to sustain over time humans’ current resource consumption and waste generation. Yet, who is willing to sacrifice and let go of some of the goods that bring us comfort, even if those goods are often made possible due to social and environmental harm? Who is willing to let go of chocolate? Of disposable diapers? Of their car? Of their job? Etc.

Imagine what education would be like if it were all about exploring “what needs to be done?”. If it were about exposing the injustices and extractive practices that are hidden behind the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the technologies we use? As Zaid outlines, it would have to invite people to go out in their community (and beyond), to discuss with locals, to observe the rights and wrongs that are happening. For instance, he used to generate such learning space in a local economy course for MBA students at Oxford University. He explained that learners were always reluctant to leave the classroom, but they’d always come back three hours later with a bunch of realizations to share on what was happening and what needed to be done in their community.

Giving up on human exceptionalism

It’s important to understand that “identifying what needs to be done” cannot be done purely from a human perspective, as the GTDF collective explains. In fact, it has to come from the guidance of the greater metabolism we are a part of. Along this line, the GTDF collective is committed to “pedagogy that aims to decenter the rational human as the epitome of evolution and center the metabolism of Earth as a force that creates and sustains the possibility of every form of life in this planet.” This involves “interrupting patterns and desires that reproduce violent (and sometimes unintentional) behaviors towards each other, non-human beings and the metabolism of Earth.” 

Image from the Intro-to-Complexity-May-2021, Complexity University

Along the same line, the Complexity University invites learners to see the world as a forest (ecology), meaning as a complex system with multiple layers of connections, and interrelationships. This challenges Western education which currently fails to help people become aware of the relationships that are established between them and the non-human world. Some argue that the tradition of adhering to the science streams that attempt to “objectify” the world, to better understand it and control it, just widens this gap.

From a world-as-ecology perspective, experimenting to create change lies in the importance of tending to the relationships. This includes the relationships that we humans have with one another, as well as the relationships that we have with non-human world. As the GTDF collective puts it, this calls for developing a new set of relational capacities  for “relating beyond knowledge, identity and understanding and enacting politics from a space of collective entanglement and radical tenderness – embodying the existential conditions of responsibility before will, whereby generosity, humility and compassion are not enacted as intellectual choices but as a habitus that drives the emergence of new forms of relational politics”.

Realize our complicity in social and environmental harm

When talking about entanglement, it’s easy to see and imagine the beautiful side of it. How the trees make the air that we breathe, how the sun embraces us with warmth, how water makes the plants that we eat grow, etc. Yet, the GTDF collective reminds us that we also need to relate to the ugly side of entanglement. How the goods that we consume to enhance our comfort are the result of extractive processes such as deforestation and cheap labor. They shed light on the fact that many of the privileges and benefits we enjoy today are the result of historical and systemic injustices, and that “our mode of existence has caused the extinction of multiple species and is set to cause our own” (p. 36).

Thus, for the GTDF collective, education within and for complexity is also about realizing our complicity in social and environmental harm. It’s about seeing interconnections between the past, the present, and the future. This invites us to “own up to the wrongs of our ancestors”, and recognize our current privileges and entitlements, as we attempt to gesture toward a better future for the entire metabolism.

Reorienting harmful desires

When we realize the–beautiful and ugly–metabolic entanglement of which we are a part, we realize that education needs to prepare learners to “reorient their harmful desires.” This term is used by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira who is building upon Spivak’s work. As she explains, this entails rewiring our brain to reconfigure “our neuro-biological connections (neuro-genesis) by digesting and composting our traumas, fears, denials, and contradictions–confronting our insecurities and re-allocating our desires away from modern-colonial investments and addictions”. As I understand her statement, this could involve moving our desires away from chocolate as we acknowledge the social and environmental harm that is generated by its culture, production, and transportation. This could be about divesting out of the stock market as we acknowledge that its basic principle is “economic growth” is unsustainable in the long run for the metabolism we are a part which has limited resources. This could entail moving our desire away from wanting to “own land” which is a concept we’ve inherited from the past that accentuates inequalities. Paradoxically, it’s almost impossible for one to give up all of one’s harmful desires and, ironically, many of those behaviors are actually socially acceptable and sometimes even rewarded as the GTDF points out!

Imagine what schools would look like if they were about “reorienting harmful desires” or about sitting with our own paradoxes? I don’t know for you, but my current imagination barely enables me to imagine such school. Can you imagine a school that would help learners overcome the denials that sustain our violent habits of being?

From denial to acceptance

To help us grasp the paradox that we often perpetuate habits that we know are harmful in the long run (I still have a car, lots of my food is imported from afar, etc.), the GTDF collective proposes a mapping of four forms of denials. These are, and I quote: 

  • the denial of systemic violence and complicity in harm: the fact that our comforts, securities, and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else;
  • the denial of the limits of the planet: the fact that the planet cannot sustain exponential growth and consumption;
  • the denial of entanglement: our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than “entangled” within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent), and:
  • The denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face:  the tendencies 1) to search for ”hope” in simplistic solutions that make us feel and look good; 2) to turn away from difficult and painful work (e.g. to focus on a “better future” as a way to escape a reality that is perceived as unbearable).

These denials make me question how education could help learners identify their denials, but also overcome those denials and move into a state of full acceptance, of our complicity in harm, of the limits of our planet, of our entanglement with the wider metabolism, and of the magnitude of the problems we face. This is not something that can be done easily as the GTDF suggests, it requires that we “expand our capacity to hold space (cognitively, affectively and relationally) for all relevant aspects of reality (including the difficult and painful aspects), we have very little chance of approaching complex challenges or coordinating efforts in wiser (more mature), more sober, and more socially and ecologically accountable ways.” Indeed, we need to learn to sit with the pain and discomfort of accepting our complicity in the social and environmental degradation that is generated by our comforts and desires, as it’s the first step toward opening up the possibility of changing habits by overcoming the feelings of a painful internal conflict. 

Educating to fail

Furthermore, to approach complex challenges and generate the paradigm shift that is required to avoid our extinction (and that of many species), we need to rethink our relationship with failure. Currently, mainstream education wires our brains to want to have the right answer, to score well on tests to be the “best” in the class. By doing so, it makes students fear failure. Whereas in trying to interrupt harmful desires and habits of being, we are bound to fail. As the GTDF points out, “our entire livelihoods are underwritten by colonial violence and unsustainability, from the food we eat to the technologies that enable us to communicate, most of our actions are only made possible because of historical and ongoing extractivism of natural and human resources.”

The Complexity University also outlines the critical role of failure in implementing effective strategies to solve complex problems. To challenge the current problem-solving approach that is based on simplistic linear thinking, Zaid proposes a “prototyping paradigm” to tackle complex social challenges, this process consists of running what he calls “a prototyping program” meaning a set of prototypes that run in parallel. A prototype being the preliminary model or intervention that intends to create a desired change from which other models can then be developed. These programs enable us to explore the problem-solution space in ways that generate “data about how best to create value with regards to the complex challenge being faced.” As he points out, in these “trial and error spaces,” it is just as important to learn from failed prototypes as from the successful ones. This process requires consciousness in defining “successful” and identifying unintended consequences. To do so, it might be interesting to complement the “prototyping paradigm” from the Complexity University with the framework from the GTDF collective called “10 hyper-self-reflexivity questions and a list of 10 ‘potholes’ in the road toward decolonization”.

Image from the Core Curriculum, Complexity University

Prototypes to rethink education

For our educational systems to take into account the complexity of the world and to prepare learners to live (and fail) in a fast-changing world, and to position themselves in front of wicked complex challenges, it first has to unlearn many of its practices which have unintended consequences or which sustain social and environmental harm. As Munir proposes, schools might want to consider giving up on textbooks, professors, and evaluations as they all tend to contribute to the drive of “wanting a clear and simple answer.” Along that line, Munir is already creating some prototypes of such schools both in a joint effort with existing universities and with different learning centers, in South America and the Middle East. One of his prototypes, which he calls “Mujaawrah” in Arabic, meaning a group of people who want to be together as a horizontal learning community to meet regularly to discuss their lives, their challenges, and their aspirations in creating change or reorienting their desires away from harm. “All what mujaawarah needs are people who decide to meet over a period of time to learn what they want to learn, or do what they feel needs to be done, in freedom with no authority they have to please; a social structure where people learn, think, act, relate, and manage their affairs outside confines of institutions.” (Ecoversities, 2020). Instead of doing a thesis, they will support each other in prototyping some interventions to respond to the needs of their communities (installing composting toilets, opening up a permaculture garden, running a youth group, etc.).

In itself, I think the Complexity University is also a great “propotype” of what universities could look like if they were all about preparing students to live with and tackle complex problems. The GTDF collective can also be seen as a “prototype” of a space within an existing university (University of British Colombia) that dares to question the modern foundation of the university. The collective conducts many artistic and pedagogic prototypes that strive to “undo human wrongs” and remind us that human intelligence cannot and will never know everything with certainty and that the entire metabolism which we are a part of has bio-intelligence that is much older and wiser.

Closing openings

And in this work about complexity, we often leave with more questions than answers… That’s why I want to leave you with some big questions from the interviewees, that inhabited me as I crafted this article. I hope they might inspire other parts of the greater metabolism to engage in prototyping actions that might inform our future: 

  • What will it take for us to finally confront the depth and magnitude of the problems we face?
  • If genuinely original solutions cannot come from the dominant cultural paradigms that created the problems we face, what forms of education can interrupt these paradigms and support us to sense, relate and imagine otherwise?
  • How might we sit with our complicity in these problems, and interrupt our continued investments in the system that created those problems in the first place?

Want to learn more?

Check out the curriculum of the Complexity University which is accessible online or consider taking their courses which are offered in the UK and in India (and online!).

Check out the experiments of the GTDF collective or consider joining their course called Facing Human Wrongs.  

Methodological note

This article was written through the Ecoversities Researcher Storyteller Fellowship, a program that aims to weave new narratives of what education can and should be. Fellows were invited to gather insights, real experiences, stories, learnings, and unlearning wisdom from members of the Ecoversities Alliance around the world. The article was reviewed by peer fellows, the interviewees, and the editors of the ecoversities magazine.

Clément Moliner-Roy

About the Author

Self-declared as a citizen of the world, Clément envisions a world with no frontiers. He firmly upholds Nelson Mandela’s belief that education is the most powerful force to transform the world. This conviction has driven his involvement in multiple educational initiatives: supporting a nature-based nursery school, contributing to a new era of Japanese higher education (HELIO) and launching the pilot project of a new experiential approach to higher education (Changemaker Residency). Through teaching and research, Clement also works with existing universities to amplify their social and environmental impacts. His unwavering commitment is to expand our vision of education to encompass multiple ways of knowing and being, with the overarching objective of advancing social, environmental, and cognitive justice.

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