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By Stefani Burosch

This article was published as part of Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg Volume 2, Issue 1 (2018)

Burosch, S. (2018) On the Brink of Peril and Promise: Renewing the Moral Imperative for Transformation in Education – The Ontario Context. Reframe: The Journal of Self-Reg, 2(1), 34-41

The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century place us on the brink of great peril and great promise. This position paper provides a brief and non-exhaustive overview of the rapidly expanding collection of local and global voices calling us to action, with a focus on the Ontario context. Those of us advocating for educational transformation to support human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability are presented with an incredible window of opportunity to effect social change. In order for us to seize this moment, we will be required to learn from one another and to break down the silos that have hindered a unified vision for moving forward. If we are to achieve our vision for human flourishing, we must leverage recent advances in neuroscience and embed a neurophysiological concept of safety, reflected across all levels of the ecological system from the individual to the societal, into our discussions about equity, well-being, and social and ecological health.

Keywords: education transformation, social justice, ecological sustainability

On the Brink of Peril and Promise: Renewing the Moral Imperative for Transformation in Education – The Ontario Context

The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation.

— Center on the Developing Child, Toxic Stress

As a global society, we are currently poised at the tipping point of a critical time in human history. As a species, we face perils associated with climate change as increasingly severe natural disasters devastate human populations around the globe (McMichael, 2014). We face the alarming loss of biodiversity and large-scale impacts on world ecosystems (Ainsworth et al., 2016; De Vos, Joppa, Gittleman, Stephens, & Pimm, 2015). We face humanitarian crises as people flee persecution and the ravages of wars fought over ideological differences (Haynes, 2017). We face growing threats to sustainability as we see sources of clean drinking water poisoned and food insecurity increasing as a result of ecological changes spurred on by shifting weather patterns (Haile, Wossen, & von Braun, 2017; Nidal, 2017). And we find ourselves once again on the precipice of global conflict and the threat of a nuclear arms race.

We are living in a moment in time shaped by paradigms that have given rise to social, cultural, economic, and environmental disenfranchisement around the world (Haynes, 2017). As a result, we have witnessed the rise of both a real and perceived lack of safety, in many senses of the term, that pervades our experiences as individuals and as communities situated in local and global contexts. Primitive brain responses rule the day – perpetuated by anxieties and fears that cause mistrust of our fellow human beings (Shanker, 2015). These conditions are the breeding grounds for prejudice, discrimination, and hate, as evidenced by the current resurgence of protectionism, neo-Nazism, and the threat of domestic and global terrorism (Enderwick, 2011; Haynes, 2017).

And yet, as we stare into the abyss of the unprecedented perils facing the human race today, we are also poised on the brink of unimaginable promise. We can reference the enormous leaps in technological advances over the last century, which have led to astonishing accomplishments in every field of inquiry from medicine to engineering to the arts. Or we can reference our expanding exploration of our universe. But underlying all of these feats is a common truth – a truth that is evident in some form or another in almost all cultural and religious traditions around the world, and a truth that recent advances in neuroscience are illuminating with a new beacon of understanding. The truth is this: human potential, rooted in our biological imperative for social connection, is absolutely dependent on our ability to create a sense of safety and belonging for all (Center on the Developing Child, 2007; Shanker, 2017).

Stated another way, safety, in all senses of the word, is a non-negotiable precondition of human growth, development, and flourishing. This necessary precondition acts across and within all levels of a dynamic ecological system. Risk and protective factors related to the social determinants of health, and the conditions that create them, impact the well- being of individuals, families, communities, and societies on local and global scales vis-à-vis their influence on human growth and development. When we have a sense of safety, in the neurophysiological sense, we can explore, take risks, and innovate. We can experience and sustain a deep sense of connection and belonging through the relationships in our lives. In short, safety allows us to experience what it is to be fully human and to realize our highest potential as individuals, communities, and societies (Center on the Developing Child, 2010).

Our understanding about the effects of psycho-social and physiological stressors on human behaviour and optimal functioning has developed due to the work of many great thinkers and scientists, including Dr. Stephen Porges. Porges proposes a hierarchical model of the human stress response system based on a growing understanding of the evolutionarily designed brain. This model is explored in his work on Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2011).

The model proposes that humans have evolved four mechanisms for responding to stress. The first is social engagement, which is the most recently evolved mechanism. It is the basis for empathy and human connection. When social engagement is not available or when we are in an energy-depleted state, the brain defaults to older mechanisms of survival – fight and flight. In such circumstances, a whole neurophysiological cascade of changes occurs to prepare the body to deal with a threat. When the threat, real or perceived, overwhelms our capacity to either fight or escape, we go into freeze. Freeze is an event wherein the brain shuts down non-essential functioning in an attempt to conserve energy should there be a moment to escape.

We see these ancient evolutionary mechanisms for safety and survival at work on all levels – from the personal to the societal. The key point here is that a lack of safety creates the conditions for fear and fear drives disconnection. When safety does not exist and when we don’t have social engagement available to us, we turn to flight – run, withdraw, escape, avoid; fight – attack, defend, protect; or freeze – shut down, numb, disconnect. When looking at the rates of mental illness and chronic disease around the world, social isolation, loneliness, and the widespread health and environmental problems facing societies today (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014; Kessler et al., 2007; Ross, Oliver, & Villeneuve, 2013), I cannot help but see these things as being connected to a lack of safety, which I suggest underlies a general loss of hope, meaning, purpose, and belonging throughout modern day societies, created by social and ecological injustices.

The work of Stephen Porges, and others in the fields of neurobiology and neuropsychology, provides us with a growing explanatory framework for understanding how the neurophysiological concept of safety impacts health and well-being from the individual to the societal level. This growing body of work helps us to understand the conditions that can lead to a lack of empathy and social discord. However, it also helps us to understand the conditions that engage our biological mechanisms for prosocial behaviour and social cohesion (Shanker, 2015). Given the challenges facing humanity today, it is vital that we begin to rigorously apply these new understandings to areas of study and practice positioned to promote human health and well- being through social solidarity and healing (Shanker, 2018). Nowhere do I see this work as being more important than in the realm of public education.

The Moral Imperative for Educational Transformation

A vast body of research, recognized in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, has demonstrated the power of education to lift groups experiencing vulnerability and marginalization out of social, economic, political, and other forms of oppression (Kulild, 2014; United Nations, 1990). Education is one of the most powerful tools that we possess to address the complex challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and beyond.

So what is the moral purpose of education today and what is the moral imperative for educational transformation? Is it simply to ensure achievement or success for every student, whatever that means? Is it to contribute to long-term health and well-being outcomes for every child? These are certainly worthy causes. However, in light of local and global threats to safety and security, perpetuated by social, political, and economic inequities, I would suggest that we need to extend our thinking about educational transformation even further.

A scan of the literature and practice landscape in Ontario related to educational transformation and leadership reveals an apparent knowledge and practice divide between leaders in education advocating for improved student learning outcomes and those advocating for enhanced equity and student well-being. In the student achievement sphere, the work towards improved student learning outcomes has been led by giants in the field such as Michael Fullan and his work on “new pedagogies for deep learning” (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014), and John Hattie, whose research focus is on high-yield instructional and assessment practices (Hattie, 2009). More recently, Simon Breakspear has added to the discussion of educational transformation with his approach to developing agile leaders of learning “with capabilities to improve learning and teaching, and navigate change, within the complex relational environments of contemporary schools” (Breakspear, Peterson, Alfadala, & Khair, 2017, p. 1).

In the equity and well-being sphere, the work has been led by thought leaders such as Dr. Stuart Shanker with his work on self-regulation (Shanker, 2016a), Dr. Jean Clinton with her work on early childhood learning in Ontario (Clinton, 2013), Dr. Patrick Carney with his work on a model for resilient, active, and flourishing students (Carney, 2015), and Dr. Kathy Short, leader of Ontario’s School Mental Health ASSIST team, who takes a systematic, implementation science approach to embedding everyday practices for mental health into Ontario schools (Santor, Short, & Ferguson, 2009). These sorts of well-being initiatives have focused primarily on well-being in education at the level of the individual student or at the level of the student in relationship with caregivers, educators, and communities.

Indeed, the Ontario Ministry of Education defines well- being as “that positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that we feel when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met” (Ontario Ministry of Education [MOE], 2016, p. 1). It further states that promoting well- being is one of the four interconnected goals of Achieving Excellence, Ontario’s renewed vision for education. This goal is based on the principle that our education system needs to help students build the knowledge and skills associated with positive well-being so that they can become healthy, active, and engaged citizens.

Current Barriers and Opportunities in Educational Transformation

From my perspective as a social worker and as the Mental Health Lead in an Ontario school board, the two worlds of educational leadership and school well-being have largely been, and seem to remain, fairly disconnected. Recent efforts and commitments by the Ontario Ministry of Education spark a great deal of hope that this relationship is changing and that these silos are being dismantled. It is for this reason, in this moment of opportunity, that I would like to humbly add my voice to a chorus of voices that are suggesting that the fields of both educational leadership and school mental health and well-being could be further strengthened by learning from one another and by reorienting ourselves to a renewed moral imperative to transform educational institutions into havens that promote human flourishing through a focus on social justice and ecological sustainability.

The term “haven” was adopted by Dr. Stuart Shanker (2016b) as a way to describe schools as places that promote well-being through physically and emotionally nurturing environments. This term is a fitting one because it speaks to the neurophysiological conceptualization of safety, in all senses of the term, as an existential need that each and every one of us shares. Within a renewed moral imperative, I propose that it is essential that we think about a neurophysiologically based conceptualization of safety at all levels of the ecological system, including the personal – social support networks and other social determinants of health impacting on the individual; the familial – access to health and social services and supports; the community – social capital and civil society institutions that support and uphold safety and well-being; and the societal – addressing issues related to power, social and economic fairness, democracy, and hope, on local and global scales.

As Canada works towards decolonization and reconciliation through dialogue and action with Indigenous communities, we see the essential truth of our biological imperative for human connection, and our shared existential need for safety, reflected in Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing about human and environmental health and prosperity. The First Nations Wellness Continuum Framework (Health Canada, 2015) states that well-being is a balance of the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. When we experience mental well-being, “we have purpose in our daily lives, hope for the future, a feeling of belonging and connectedness, and a sense of meaning as we understand how our lives are part of creation and a rich history” (p. 4). This example highlights the critical importance of understanding individuals’ sense of safety and well-being as being located within social, cultural, and historical contexts.

Towards Human Flourishing through Social Justice and Sustainability

Voices for a renewed moral imperative in education, with a focus on social justice and ecological sustainability, are emerging on local and global stages from both mainstream and non-mainstream individuals and groups. The WellAhead Project is one such voice. WellAhead is a private philanthropic initiative of the J.W. McConnell Foundation that aims to improve child and youth mental health by integrating social and emotional well-being into K–12 education. WellAhead provides funding for projects that “focus primarily on systems change: shifting culture, structures, priorities, and practices of schools and the education system at-large to better incorporate social and emotional well-being as a key role” (WellAhead, 2016).

The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), an international knowledge forum consisting of over 100 schools of education in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand working collaboratively to improve professional preparation in education at the highest level, also contributes to the conversation on educational transformation. The vision of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate is “to inspire all schools of education to apply the CPED framework to the preparation of educational leaders to become well-equipped scholarly practitioners who provide stewardship of the profession and meet the educational challenges of the 21st century” (CPED, n.d.). Further, the program design is framed around questions of equity, ethics, and social justice to bring about solutions to complex problems of practice.

Recognized as a leader in education around the world, the Ontario Ministry of Education, with the recent release of Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan (MOE, 2017a), the What We Heard: Well-Being in Our Schools, Strength in our Society document (MOE, 2017b), and a monograph titled What Works? Research into Practice: Facilitating Activist Education (Niblett, 2017), has made a strong statement about the future direction of the moral imperative for education. The Ministry states in the Equity Action Plan that “ensuring equity is a central goal of Ontario’s publicly funded education system. It stems from a fundamental principle that every student should have the opportunity to succeed personally and academically, regardless of background, identity or personal circumstances” (p. 3). Further, the plan sets out a roadmap for “identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias from schools and classrooms to support the potential for all students to succeed” (p. 4).

The What We Heard report highlights the Ministry’s vision of promoting well-being, achieving excellence, ensuring equity, and enhancing public confidence in education. In addition to reaffirming a holistic definition of well-being, the findings of the What We Heard document discuss five general categories of prototypes based on common features for promoting well-being in Ontario schools: teaching, learning, and assessment practices; supportive spaces; skill-building for well-being; peer mentors and caring adults; and targeted programming. Three key areas for promoting and supporting well-being are also discussed: access to social and health services; supportive relationships and a sense of belonging; and an education system that prioritizes student well-being, with a focus on mental health. Finally, the document recognizes that achievement, equity, and well-being must be “closely interwoven in this development of the whole learner through day-to-day interactions” (p. 18).

In the What Works? Research into Practice: Facilitating Activist Education monograph, the Ministry makes another clear statement as to a renewed moral imperative for education: “With its focus on social and ecological justice, activist education helps to connect student action with ideas regarding power, fairness, democracy, and hope, in developmentally appropriate ways” (p. 3). The monograph further suggests that activist education can promote student achievement, equity, and well-being by intellectually engaging students in enactments of activism about issues connected to students’ lives, providing exposure to instances of equity and inequity within local and global communities, and offering opportunities for focused self- reflection on well-being.

Research is also emerging from Canadian universities related to a renewed moral imperative for education. Dr. Catherine O’Brien, professor at Cape Breton University, developed a course on the concept of sustainable happiness, the first post-secondary level course on the topic. Her book Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well- Being proposes a way for “the leading recommendations for transforming education to be integrated within a vision of well-being for all” and explores “how aspects of this vision are already being realized as well as the potential for accelerating education transitions that enable people and ecosystems to flourish” (O’Brien, 2016, synopsis).

At a local level, communities are mobilizing around these concepts of sustainable and activist education as a moral imperative for human flourishing within a context of social and ecological justice. For example, the Pathway to Stewardship & Kinship: Raising Healthy Children for a Healthy Planet project emerged in Peterborough, Ontario, as a collaborative endeavour between Trent University and a broad collective of organizations representing mainstream and local First Nations communities in the areas of health, education, recreation, and economic development (Dueck & Rodenburg, 2017).

The Pathway project, funded by an Ontario Trillium grant, poses the questions, “How do we raise engaged and concerned citizens in our community? How can we teach children to care for each other, for the land and water and all the beings who share the earth with us?” (p. 1). The project’s proposed solution is a developmental framework for fostering stewardship and kinship in children from birth to age 17, developed through qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with key informants throughout mainstream and local First Nations communities. The project, which is entering the pilot phase this fall, defines stewardship and kinship in the following way:

A steward is someone who takes responsibility for the well-being of all community members, both human and non-human alike. A healthy ecosystem is the very foundation of human health. Our shared journey begins by re-discovering and respecting the deep ties that connect all things on the planet. The will to nourish these relationships emerges from a sense of belonging to a place and a sense of kinship with all who live there. (p. 2)

These examples represent a sample of the voices drawing attention to the need for innovative and disruptive social, economic, technological, and political solutions to the complex array of challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. I propose that these solutions must promote human flourishing within a model of social and ecological justice, informed by our growing understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin our collective capacity for empathy and social cohesion, to ensure human health and ecological sustainability in the centuries to come. Education is a critical tool to create deeply systemic social change, liberation, and empowerment. In this moment, educational leaders are faced with a window of opportunity – one that we must seize.

A Renewed Hope

In writing this position paper, I hope to inspire dialogue about the present barriers and opportunities for renewing the moral imperative for education at this moment in time when accelerators to systemic change are desperately needed. This paper provides a brief and non-exhaustive overview of the rapidly expanding collection of local and global voices calling us to action. Those of us advocating for educational transformation to support human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability are presented with an incredible window of opportunity to effect social change. In order for us to seize this moment, we will be required to learn from one another and to break down the silos that have hindered a unified vision for moving forward. If we are to achieve our vision, we must start to leverage recent advances in neuroscience and embed a neurophysiological concept of safety, reflected across all levels of the ecological system, from the individual to the societal, into our discussions about equity, well-being, and social and ecological health.

In the mental health world, we speak about the concept of post-traumatic growth, which is defined as “positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises” (Tedeschi & Lawrence, 2004, p. 1). It is suggested that such struggle can act as a powerful catalyst for personal and social transformation (van der Kolk, Macfarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). As the Ontario Ministry of Education states, “activist campaigns often emerge when groups identify a particular threat to their well-being and organize to resist that threat” (Niblett, 2017, p. 3). Movements such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and the Women’s March are examples of local and global acts of resistance that have emerged in response to racism, threats to Aboriginal rights, and issues of gender inequality, respectively. The work of Stephen Porges and others provides a framework for us to understand the critical role of safety in promoting healing and social solidarity as we engage in this work. Indeed, there is much hope and opportunity for growth in this time when humanity finds itself poised on the brink of great peril and great promise. By reorienting ourselves to a renewed moral imperative to transform educational institutions into havens that promote human flourishing through social justice and ecological sustainability, and by applying a neurophysiological conceptualization of safety to this work, we stand to change the world for the good of all.


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