Sometimes a crisis throws things into sharp relief. Makes the direction of travel all the clearer. One such thing is the way we learn. With millions of teachers and pupils no longer in classrooms, we have no choice but to think radically about how we can teach or learn differently - and better.
In January this year, when COVID-19 was a mere whisper on the streets of Wuhan, a merry band of teachers, sustainability experts, outdoor adventurers, story-tellers and creative souls gathered on a spectacular natural site in West Wales to cook up a programme for 21st Century learning. There was vigorous agreement on what knowledge, skill-sets and mindsets were needed if humankind is to have a hope in hell of enduring as a species. Not least: an understanding of the circular economy and systems thinking; collaborative and creative thinking; connection to nature; wellbeing and emotional resilience. Stuff that can't be learned in classrooms very easily.
In early March, with the imminent threat of social isolation looming, a much-reduced, but equally merry band gathered once more in a youth hostel in Pembrokeshire - this time at a safe 2 metre distance, clutching anti-viral wipes. As the world around us catapulted headlong into panic and uncertainty, we spent a rather special if surreal day buoyed by a strong sense of certainty: what we were proposing was, now more than ever, relevant and timely.
For too long we have messed with the natural order of things. When has it ever been ok to bundle a pangolin, a bat and a human into the same space? Ecosystems are an intricate web of relationships and inter-dependencies whose boundaries must be respected. We lost that respect a long time ago. Wet markets selling exotic species in China are just the tip of the iceberg. Think disappearing rainforests, ocean plastic, biodiversity loss, climate change...
As far as we were concerned, we were still working to an optimistic Plan A. Building a three-day residential programme for kids that would help them understand their place and purpose in the world. After six months of lock-down, the need to restore wellbeing, connect with others and find strength from nature would be overwhelming...
...And, most importantly, here was an opportunity for a truly teachable moment based on a direct and shared experience, still raw: why did this happen? What can we learn from it?
This year's pandemic won't be the last. In ten years, by the time this generation of young learners become adults, we are likely to have faced others. Climate change will have forced many of us to change the way we live, work and travel; jobs that exist today might no longer exist; clever algorithms will be increasingly able to manipulate all but the most emotionally resilient. The first super-intelligent beings might have been invented.
How do we prepare ourselves and the next generation for this Brave New World?
Mental agility and emotional resilience will be key. A willingness to collaborate, creatively. These things will be far harder to teach and to learn than algebra or the laws of physics. And there are far better places in which to learn them than classrooms.
It's going to need deep reserves of courage, kindness and emotional balance. Mostly from teachers whose own reserves have been woefully depleted for many years. Which is why we need to focus on their wellbeing and learning first. I'm reminded of that safety instruction for oxygen masks on the plane: 'Please put your own mask on first, before attending to your children.'
Easier said than done, but with good reason.
Time to get to work!