Assuming the Future: Repurposing Education in a Volatile Age

  • Stephen SterlingEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Education and the Environment book series (PSEE)


The instrumentalist view of the purpose of education manifested in recent decades through the influence of neoliberal ideology, and the set of assumptions that accompany this wave of change and reform, are critiqued from an ecological and humanistic viewpoint. A collective blindness to the global systemic issues that are shaping the near human and planetary future is present both in wider society and in educational systems that can, consequently, be deemed maladaptive to this reality. A deep learning response within educational thinking, policymaking, and practice is required based upon an emerging relational or ecological worldview, already burgeoning in diverse civil society movements. This would allow attention to be brought to generating purposes and assumptions in education aligned to, and able to address, the possibilities of systemic breakdown or breakthrough in global and local systems. Such education is supportive of living in more creative, collaborative, and explorative ways that help assure breakthrough trajectories as the century plays out.


Neoliberalism Purpose of education Global risk Anthropocene Participative reality Breakthrough 


  1. Armstrong, S., & Pamlin, D. (2015). Global challenges12 risks that threaten human civilisation. Global Challenges Foundation, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford: Oxford University. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  2. Avent, R. (2016, October 9). Welcome to a world without work. The Observer, pp. 37–39.Google Scholar
  3. Bentley, T. (1998). Learning beyond the classroom—Education for a changing world. London: Demos/Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Boffey, D. (2015). Half of all teachers in England threaten to quit as morale crashes. Retrieved from
  5. Boulding, K. (1978). Ecodynamics—A new theory of social evolution. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  6. Chapman, J. (2002). System failure. London: Demos.Google Scholar
  7. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS). (2016). Success as a knowledge economy: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice. Retrieved from
  8. Escrigas, C. (2015). A higher calling for higher education. Boston, MA: Tellus Institute. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  9. Gore, A. (2013). The future. New York: W.H. Allen.Google Scholar
  10. Greer, D. (2013). New assumptions and new solutions for higher education reform. Center for Higher Education, Strategic Information and Governance, NJ: The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Retrieved from
  11. Gurría, A. (2014). Editorial—Education and skills for inclusive growth. Education at a glance 2014 OECD indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  12. Holmwood, J., Hickey, T., Cohen, R., & Wallis, S. The alternative white paper for higher educationIn defence of public education: Knowledge for a successful society. Retrieved from
  13. Homer-Dixon, T. (2006). The upside of down—Catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilisation. London: Souvenir Press.Google Scholar
  14. Marshall, P., & Peters, M. (1999). Education policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.Google Scholar
  15. Martínez-Rodríguez, F., & Fernández-Herrería, A. (2016). Is there life beyond neoliberalism? Critical socio-educational alternatives for civic construction. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14, 1–12. doi:10.1080/14767724.2016.1195726CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Meadows, D. (2009). Thinking in systems—A primer. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  18. Peters, G. (1999). A systems failures view of the UK National Commission into Higher Education Report. In R. Ison (Ed.), Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 16(2), 123–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Press Association. (2016). Primary school pupils ‘driven to self-harm amid tests and social media stress’. Retrieved from
  20. Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopin, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., & Swart, R. (2002). Great transition: The promise and lure of the times ahead. Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute/Tellus Institute.Google Scholar
  21. Renner, M. (2015). The seeds of modern threats. In L. Mastny (Ed.), State of the world 2015: Confronting hidden threats to sustainability (pp. 3–17). Washington, DC: Earthwatch Institute, Island Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Rockström, J. W. (2015). Bounding the planetary future: Why we need a great transition. Tellus Institute. Retrieved from
  23. Smith, W. (2016). The global testing culture—Shaping education policy, perceptions, and practice. Oxford: Symposium Books.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Sterling, S. (1996). Education in change. In J. Huckle & S. Sterling, (Eds.), Education for sustainability. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  25. Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education—Re-visioning learning and change, Schumacher briefing. Dartington: Green Books.Google Scholar
  26. Sterling, S. (2003). Whole systems thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: explorations in the context of sustainability. PhD diss., Centre for Research in Education and the Environment, University of Bath. Available at:
  27. Sterling, S. (2009). Towards sustainable education. Environmental Scientist, 18(1), 19–21.Google Scholar
  28. Strauss, V. (2013). Five bad education assumptions the media keeps recycling. Retrieved from
  29. UNESCO. (2015). Rethinking education—Towards a global common good? Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  30. Verger, A., Lubienski, C., & Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2016a). The rise of the global education industry: Some concepts, facts and figures. Retrieved from
  31. Verger, A., Lubienski, C., & Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2016b). The emergence and structuring of the global education industry—Towards an analytic framework. In A. Verger, C. Lubienski, & G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.), The world yearbook of education 2016: The global education industry. London: Routledge. Retrieved from Google Scholar
  32. World Economic Forum. (2016). The global risks report 2016 (11th ed.). Geneva: WEF. Retrieved from Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Sustainable Futures (CSF)University of PlymouthPlymouthUK

Personalised recommendations