Most of us acknowledge education is a complex system through which students develop disparate knowledge, skills, and dispositional traits over time. Frequently, education uses analogy and metaphor to draw parallels with other systems as it grapples with things like learning design, curriculum organization, and student attainment.

However, drawing on such analogies and metaphors does not come without dangers. For example, our current educational worldview often leverages analogies and metaphors drawn from dominant economic models, which embed value judgments such as profit or loss, success or failure, and winning or losing.

Such binaries are at odds with what many educators and students would see as actual values of education. Such values make for an extensive list that generally endorses communal and pro-social aspects of learning rather than economic binaries promoting individualistic competition.

Consider, for example, how today’s school graduates’ lives are dominated by economic analogies, from school report cards to university admission scores.

Students are evaluated, benchmarked, and sifted using metrics reminiscent of share prices in a stock market. Moreover, the tertiary institutions using these metrics to gatekeep student access also find themselves placed in league tables such as the QS100, which further embeds economic analogies and metaphors reminiscent of the NASDAQ or FTSE 100.

Yet perhaps this is beginning to change.

New metaphors for a new world

We are entering an era where we are grasping the significance of new analogies and metaphors such as complex systems, circular economics, and regenerative principles. Indeed, economics is establishing related analogies such as triple-bottom-line reporting and environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics to evaluate a company’s success.

Interestingly, these new analogies and metaphors also introduce a constellation of values that begin to disrupt the older binaries. If an institution seriously embraces ESG reporting, for example, it can no longer use profit and loss as the main catalyst for determining a company’s responsibility towards employee wellbeing. The analogies and metaphors we use have a direct impact on the values we acknowledge.

In our work to create a new curriculum model for the School of Humanity, we have held this as a guiding star.

In contemporary education, three analogies are common in contemporary descriptions of lifelong learning: competency, capability, and mastery. However, an audit of the theory surrounding each reveal there is little agreement on the definition of each. Indeed, these terms can be seen as a continuum with competency at one end and mastery at the other. I argue that competency is too simple a term for a diverse range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, whilst mastery is perhaps too presumptuous a description of what a high schooler acquires. Therefore, at School of Humanity, we searched for a term that denotes fluency across a range of disciplinary knowledge, future-ready skills, and sustainable values. After examining the OECD’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 (2019) we adopted the term ‘literacy’ because it provides a more open-ended and expansive description of everything a student acquires when using our Human Literacies Framework (HLF).

Re-engineering school curriculum to meet modern-day challenges

For School of Humanity, the HLF addresses the problem of complexity in learning design by establishing a model that acknowledges two fundamental principles of future-ready education.

First, the HLF recognizes the iterative nature of knowledge and skills acquisition and the regenerative reality of a challenge-based curriculum. Second, School of Humanity’s framework articulates conceptual domains and knowledge dimensions in ways that actively prioritize a transdisciplinary approach to learning design. Having said this, the literacies model is not intended as a replacement for good examples of traditional educational practice, rather it represents a reengineering of existing knowledge areas along with the incorporation of new and emerging disciplines.

Historically, the term literacy has been industrial society’s antidote to illiteracy. At the birth of industrial public education, to be literate meant being able to read, write and calculate. This view of literacy was famously described by Paulo Freire as the ‘banking model’ of education, and arguably remains the view that still holds sway today. In this analogy, the student is a passive recipient of often ideologically curated and academically endorsed knowledge and skills. Today, however, this traditional definition stands against a backdrop of a full-blown climate crisis with its direct environmental impacts and increasing global political disharmony.

In facing such a future with optimism, School of Humanity has sought to expand ‘literacy’ as an educational concept by amalgamating a range of contemporary theories.

Alternative interpretations of literacy began emerging towards the end of the last century with concepts such as critical literacy, multi-literacy, and ecological literacy, and these have all influenced School of Humanity’s development of the HLF.

Redesigning of traditional and new knowledge taxonomies

Critical literacy describes skills explored by students through a critical pedagogy approach. ‘Critical literacy offers an important strategic, practical alternative for teachers and students to reconnect literacy with everyday life, and with an education that entails debate, argument, and action over social, cultural and economic issues that matter’ (Luke and Woods 2009). In other words, critical literacy equips learners with a sophisticated awareness of the political realities of learning. And, more importantly, the HLF nurtures both the skills to successfully navigate such ideological and economic debates about the future, and contribute to their “solutioning”.

The second influence on School of Humanity’s HLF draws on the theory of multi-literacy developed by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis at the end of the last century. Multiliteracy is a set of supple, variable, communication strategies, ever-diverging according to the cultures and social languages of technologies, functional groups, types of organization and niche clientele’ (Cope & Kalantzis 2009). Importantly, multiliteracy is interdisciplinary in nature, thus dissolving traditional disciplinary distinctions in favour of more transdisciplinary concept domains and knowledge dimensions.

Finally, a third theoretical foundation the HLF rests upon is in fact three interrelated metaphors that have evolved over the last fifty years as we have come to realize our impact on, and place within, the environmental order of things. Environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy are terms used interchangeably to describe various educational frameworks aimed at addressing the need to learn in ways that help us face the future as more environmentally aware and agentic citizens. Again, such uses of literacy emphasize that the future of learning is interdisciplinary because ‘literacy… is open and inclusive, and… involves the overlap and interaction between subjects of study… and ways of knowing (Berkowitz, Ford, Brewer 2004).

Essentially, the HLF is a synthesis of traditional and new knowledge taxonomies, evolving human skills maps, and contemporary dispositional priorities. The HLF preserves relevant traditional knowledge, skills, and dispositions, whilst embracing new knowledge and the regenerative reality of the curriculum.

School of Humanity understands the dynamism of learning systems and the fluidity of knowledge, skills, and values in a rapidly changing world. We believe our worldview moves education beyond the competencies and mastery continuum by advocating that a broader range of knowledge processes be used. In other words, more powerful learning arises from ‘weaving between different knowledge processes in an explicit and purposeful way’ (Cope & Kalantzis 2009). Ultimately, our Human Literacies Framework represents one of the most authentic educational routes to a more humane society and sustainable future in education today.

Kevin House

Educational revisionist. Regenerative learning and leadership advocate.