Youth climate strikers consistently hear the same refrain from politicians: learning gets done in schools, not during street protests. But should Australian students really “get back to the classroom”?
Fifteen-year-old Emma Heyink never considered herself an assertive person, but she has surprised even herself since she began leading youth climate strikes in her home town of Margaret River, WA.
“There have been times recently when I’ve found myself talking to police or teachers who are not too keen on what we’re doing, and I’m saying, ‘No, we’re doing this today – I don’t really mind what you say’,” says Heyink.
Her new role has dramatically expanded her skill set. “I’ve had to learn logistical skills, like filling out police permits, plus safety and risk assessments; marketing skills like social media; writing and speaking to the media; I’ve learnt stakeholder engagement through working with people from different backgrounds and opinions; and I’ve done a huge amount of paperwork.”
But many politicians and education leaders oppose youth strikes, dismissing them as precious time lost from serious studies. Back in March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded to protests outside his Kirribilli House residence by saying that “learning gets done in schools”. In November 2018, Morrison responded to the first Australian youth climate strike by saying, “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism.” In October 2019, he said students should “get back in the classroom”.
In February 2019, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes said, “These strikes are on school days – school children on school days should be at school.” Then-Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack also said at the same time, “Children should be in school. They should be learning about Australian history, Australian geography.”
But can meaningful education occur outside of the classroom or school setting? And could organising climate action protests be an important opportunity to prepare young people for a rapidly changing workforce?
Numerous academics think so, including Dr Will Felps, associate professor of management and governance at the University of NSW (UNSW) Business School.
“There’s a movement within the education sector called Work Integrated Learning, which recognises that getting out there and getting your hands dirty is one of the best ways to learn, rather than teaching abstract theories that are tested on multiple choice exams,” he says.
Employees of the future will need a range of skills, some of which are different to those that previous generations developed in formal education.
“Technical skills, digital skills and problem-solving skills are all important, as are skills that are specific to one occupation or industry, like social media skills in marketing or public speaking and persuasion in communications. Understanding politics and the political process is also very important.”
Andrew Timming is professor of human resource management at RMIT University, and the deputy dean of research and innovation in the School of Management. He teaches a topic called The Future of Work, and points to a decline in what is known as “soft skills”.
“As more and more people study computer-related disciplines, they’re losing something that’s becoming more valuable – and that’s the people side,” says Timming. “I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that these types of interpersonal skills are declining.
“The real value of an education is not so much the content that you learn from the curriculum, but the fact that you learn to cooperate with people and work in teams, developing relationships – learning how to shake someone’s hand and maintain eye contact.”
Advocacy for change is also an important skill.
“You want to be able to enter a workplace, see something that isn’t working, and express why you think it’s not working – and what needs to change to make it better,” says Timming. “If you don’t have real-world skills in that area, it’s going to be much more difficult to stand up for your ideas.”
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Heyink considers these “soft” skills to be the most useful addition in her climate action work.
“I have to work with people of different backgrounds and different opinions – and I’ve had to learn to be assertive, so that I could make sure that my viewpoint was being heard. You need to speak up if something is happening that you don’t like.”
Felps considers it’s not just the skills that affect a young person’s future career success, but the way they learn these skills and their resulting approach to lifelong learning.
“Workers of the future will be responsible for proactively learning and self-teaching, as opposed to expecting learning to be organised by a university or an organisation,” he says.
A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management supports Felps’ views. The study interviewed 20 multi-national corporation executives in India’s IT sector, asking the question: “What are the skills that will be deemed critical for the upskilling of employees to remain employable, and thrive, in the era of artificial intelligence (AI)?”
The findings revealed that decision-making and continuous learning skills were two of five key skills required for employee upskilling (along with data analysis, digital and complex cognitive skills).
The study argues that “engaging oneself in an unceasing learning path while responding to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment is the key ingredient for employee success in the era of AI.”
Heyink reckons that the learning opportunities from organising climate strikes are extensive.
“I organised climate strikes in a two-person team in a regional area,” she says. “It has taught me an incredible amount.”
“It’s not that the traditional classroom is not valuable,” says Felps. “It’s necessary – but it’s not sufficient on its own. You need to take additional steps.
“The idea that people should ‘go back into the classroom’ when the whole higher education sector is trying to do everything it can to figure out how we can get out of the classroom and into the world of practice, is ironic. That thinking is definitely inconsistent with the prevailing movement within higher education.”
Emma Heyink’s voice has a spark to it when she talks about the social justice movement. “I just love being a part of it,” she says.
In fact, one of the career fields she is considering is environmental law. She knows she’d have to work very hard to get there, but she has definitely found a passion. “I’d love to do something in the climate and social justice movement, like being a community organiser,” she says.
Bron Willis is a freelance environment, science and sustainability writer based in central Victoria.