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Rethinking the 'human' at the heart of humanist education

Keri Facer — 26 March 2021

Quote card: "We might recognize education as premised upon curiosity, responsibility and the search for a distinctive vocation in a more-than-human natural-technical world."

Nearly 30 years ago now, two Australian academics wrote a research paper that changed my life.  In it they argued that teachers around the world were now confronting ‘aliens in the classroom’, children who, having grown up surrounded by digital technologies, were approaching learning and life in very different ways from the adults who were teaching them. That paper led to the research project that gave me my first research job. Since then I’ve been working in various different ways on this question – who are the students we think we are teaching? 

In that first project, we learnt some important lessons that are blindingly obvious when you think about them, but require constant restatement: first, that students are all different; second, that the social and economic systems, families and communities that students grow up in play critical roles in patterning the (unequal) resources to which they have access; third, that both the technological and the ‘natural’ environments that they are growing up in shape who the students are, how they learn and what they know.   They may be aliens, in other words, but they are not uniform, there are profound inequalities and we share many common features. 

Today, as UNESCO and the International Commission on the Futures of Education asks what futures for education we might imagine in 2050, this project has come back to me. Will we feel that there are aliens in the classroom in 30 years? It seems to me that now is a time to be as provocative as Green and Bigum were in 1993 and to suggest that the underpinning idea of the student we have been working with since the inception of the modern school system, requires rethinking. This change in our idea of the student must take three forms:

  • To recognise that students are deeply entangled already (and will be increasingly) with both non-human-like-intelligences and with each other – and that these entanglements will bring inequalities of their own.
  • To recognise that students’ bodies and wellbeing are interdependent with the more-than-human biophysical worlds of the planet 
  • To recognise that students are aging.

These three statements derive from the following three assumptions. The first two are ontological, addressing the core analysis of what it means to be human. The third is structural, addressing the place of education in society. 

Humans have always,
and in ways that are intensifying,
thought with each other

First assumption: that digital technologies, and the algorithmic intelligence that they use, form a fundamental part of the processes that all humans (except for a tiny minority) use to think and make sense with on a daily basis – from the algorithmic intelligence of mobile phones and search engines, to the logistical systems and databases of transport, food and energy supplies. Whether the promises of artificial intelligence are realised or not, the co-existence of humans with machine intelligences that do not operate in the same way as human minds, is already here and will likely intensify. At the same time, humans have always, and in ways that are intensifying courtesy of the increasing connectivity facilitated by our technologies, thought with each other. Making sense, creating knowledge and thinking are not solo activities, they are profoundly and fundamentally a process of interactions between self and others, mediated by tools and technologies.  As our technologies change, both the nature of human-human interactions and the nature of human-non-human interaction changes, and with it, what and how we think, learn and know.  

We are not separate from nature, we are nature,
we are in the world not outside it

Second assumption: that human existence is dependent upon the massively abundant but fragile critical zone of life on the planet, only a few kilometres deep, and that its defence and care is essential to the continued flourishing of human and much other life on the planet.  All human action takes place within and has effects upon the biosphere, only some of which can be predicted with confidence. At the same time, humans themselves are made up of and dependent upon trillions of organisms that co-exist to create the ‘holobiont’ that we call a human, and these organisms and ourselves are constantly interacting with and emerging as part of ongoing encounters between the human and the more-than-human living world.  We are not separate from nature, we are nature, we are in the world not outside it. 

Third assumption: that the global population is taking a different shape from the past, one with a significantly greater percentage of older adults, living for a significantly longer period of time. Birth rates are dropping, (some) wealthier populations are living much longer.  The median age of the global population is increasing. By 2050, barring disasters, we will be living in an older world in which children and youth are both relatively more scarce and increasingly under pressure to care for the old. The young and even middle aged adults of that time will be the generations who have lived through the years in which the older populations ignored their requests for climate action and the rebalancing of wealth and assets. Older adults will be needing to learn for longer. 

The idea of the autonomous human child ...
educated to achieve success in an economy detached from
the biosphere and assessed as separate from others ...
makes no sense in this analysis (if it ever did)

What do these assumptions do to the idea of the student imagined at the heart of education? They profoundly disrupt taken-for-granted ideas that have been shaping much of the educational endeavour in modern times. The idea of the autonomous human child - separated and separable from his (sic) environment, educated to achieve success in an economy detached from the biosphere and assessed as though separate from both others and the tools they are using to think with - makes no sense in this analysis (if it ever did). 

Instead, we need to start to imagine our education system from the ground up and from a different place.  

What would happen if we began to design education with two people in mind – a mother and her daughter, both of whom equally wish to learn. What if we assumed that they are and will be  living and working alongside forms of non-human-like intelligence that think with algorithms that enable massive and rapid processing of basic information, but that do not replace their own intelligence. What if we assumed that they were dependent upon the material world for life, air, water, shelter, food and energy. And what if we knew that they were both deeply connected with and dependent upon other humans – for love and nurture and for acting in the world. What would happen if we also remembered that despite all of these common experiences, they were both distinctive, each bringing her own constellations of experiences, vulnerabilities, dependencies and relations into dialogue with this wider world, each positioned by different forms of structural inequality that will position their access to resources. 

What would happen if, from this, we began to think that the central role of education, under these conditions, might be to support mother and daughter to become curious about this seething teeming mass of human and more than human intelligences and knowledges that she is a part of, attentive to the distinctive assets and limtations of her own connections and interconnections, responsible for her actions and the limitations of her actions within this material world, and aware of her own distinctive vocation and the gifts that she can bring to this landscape?

From this - we might begin to conceive of education not as preparation for a known world, but as a practice of encounter and revelation. Of encounter with the other actors in the world (human, technological, material, more-than human) of which we are a part, and of revelation of the possibilities in the self and in the world of the forms of being that might emerge from this encounter. We might recognise education as premised upon curiosity, responsibility and the search for a distinctive vocation in a more-than-human natural-technical world, a search that happens at all ages and stages of life. 

From this, we might begin to reframe fundamental aspects of our education – our assessment system would pivot towards understanding interdependencies and learning in situated contexts; our educational institutions would reorient towards multiple age groups; our pedagogic practice would shift to dialogue, exchange, and co-creation; our curricula would relocate the learner in and as part of the natural world; our battles for justice would begin to map the different human, machine and natural relations and resources that learners can mobilise, and argue for recognitions of difference as well as equality.

These questions and directions do not prescribe easy answers. Rather, they give us a different starting point for education from that which we see around us today, one that is almost unthinkable as we begin the inquiry into education’s futures. The unthinkable, however, is a good place to begin if we might want to imagine education for a different sort of human from the one we have been thinking with for far too long. 


Keri Facer is Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol (UK).

Cite this article (APA format)
Facer, K. (26 March 2021) Rethinking the 'human' at the heart of humanist education. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation//ideas-lab/facer-rethinking-humanist-education.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Facer, Keri. "Rethinking the 'human' at the heart of humanist education". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 26 March 2021, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab//ideas-lab/facer-rethinking-humanist-education.


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