The Radical Approach of Black Mountains College

Black Mountains College bases its pedagogy on education about nature. The picture shows a hand holding a leaf in front of a path, revealing the symmetry between the pointed leaf and the horizon.

Ben Rawlence and Dr. Natalia Eernstman argue that education on climate adaptation starts with a new story about ourselves.

Black Mountains College was founded in response to the climate and ecological emergency and the realisation that our levels of understanding and preparedness are inadequate.

Disillusioned with traditional education that doesn’t prepare young people, communities and businesses for the large socio-environmental disruptions that climate change will bring, a diverse collective of experts and creatives are pioneering a unique educational approach.

We know that our current systems are not fit for purpose. We know that sea levels are rising, that droughts are worsening and that supply chain shocks and food shortages occasioned by Covid, Brexit, Ukraine and climate change are solidifying into a permanent feature of modern life. And yet, our social, political and economic systems seem utterly unresponsive to the kind of radical changes required to address these problems. Lobbying politicians alone will not cause them to direct civil servants to abandon existing metrics and processes and look at problems more holistically. Similarly, consumers alone will not convince CEOs of large corporations to be greener and act more responsibly simply through purchasing power. In short, we need leaders who fully grasp the urgency of the situation, who can see these problems holistically, and act systemically. Here in Wales, the Future Generations Act has codified new ways of working and living into law, with targets and mechanisms for monitoring and encouraging change. It’s a step in the right direction but the Commissioner needs all the help she can get in pushing the needle and speeding up reform. BMC intends to train a new generation of leaders ready to play a role in this urgent  task. 

Teaching the Future

A recent blog from a climate scientist whose classroom talk to students ‘went wrong’, entitled The Kids Are Not OK, describes a disaffected youth, totally up to speed with the science of our rapidly warming planet but at a loss to understand the inaction of the adults in their lives. It is clear that ‘grown-ups’ in general, but schools and universities in particular, are completely failing this generation. Not just because they only marginally inform pupils about the ecological breakdown that will shape their futures, but more importantly because by teaching ‘business as usual’ they perpetuate the mechanisms that underlie the crises. 

Humans learn through play, problem-solving, through engaging their emotions alongside their cognitive functions.

Students around the world are calling on schools and universities to ‘teach the future’ – and they must. A proper education system should prepare students for the challenges they may face in their lives. But more importantly, in these unprecedented times, it is schools’ moral responsibility to ‘unteach’ the things that will ultimately harm pupils’ well-being; i.e. a curriculum that promotes unsustainable and unfair patterns of consumption, production and governance. These ‘old stories’ embedded in education – which tell us how we should live – are in desperate need of replacing. To confront and adapt to the unfolding planetary emergency we will need all the creative, adaptive and collaborative capacity human beings can muster to reinvent and live by new stories.

How can we unlock this power for positive change? 

In a nutshell, rather than teaching knowledge in relation to a set of relatively stable and outdated conditions through the acquisition of facts, Black Mountains College operates on the premise that we have to become ‘human learning machines’: life-long, adaptive, creative beings, that are able to navigate uncertainty and continuously re-invent themselves to respond to ever-changing environmental and social conditions.

As neuroscience is now demonstrating, humans learn with their whole bodies, activating all their senses. Memories are imprinted in all cells, not just brain cells. Neurological pathways are built by making links through experience. Humans learn through play, problem-solving, through engaging their emotions alongside their cognitive functions. None of this is new, and yet, the science of learning only seems to be taken seriously in early years education, when children are still encouraged to express themselves through creative means, subjects are often taught more experientially, and pupils are left plenty of space to explore the world independently and collaboratively through open-ended play. 

This commitment (or instinctive feeling for) the science of learning in early years has been most evident in the growth of the forest school movement. In the most comprehensive survey to date by the School for Public Health Research, forest schools have been shown to improve not just academic outcomes but also ‘soft’ skills such as confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills, knowledge and understanding, new perspectives and ripple effects beyond Forest School. A recent study showed definitively that experiential approaches – where students learn through experience rather than ‘rote’ – have substantially better learning outcomes.

Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.

Despite this proven benefit, the need for accountability and measurability means that as young people move through the education system, their learning becomes increasingly abstract and academic. At Black Mountains College we seek to combine learning outdoors with a question-based curriculum that aids students in finding answers rather than the acquisition of knowledge followed by the testing of it. For example, how can we learn to identify plant species? Answering this question is not just about the ecology, but how the body receives and processes information. So, in one example, our plant ID course starts with drawing specimens from life.

Our Method

In order to create ‘human learning machines’, the first pillar of the Black Mountains College method is the Arts – not becoming an artist but using the methods and practices of the arts to approach problems, the world, and ourselves in new ways. Art also teaches us to subvert and disrupt, to give attention to what is marginalised but deserves to be noticed.

The second is Ecology – mainstreaming ecological thought and practice. It is the science of relationships and inter-related behaviour. Our further education students take a core programme alongside their technical training which asks ‘what are the skills we need to know for the future’? The central element of this is learning walks with invited speakers followed by practical tasks and projects helping to build the college or with other social outcomes that put ecological knowledge into practice: for example students learned about ecological survey techniques from the Biodiversity Information Service and then helped design and implement surveys on our campus of a range of flora and fauna.

Our undergraduate curriculum does not contain modules defined by subjects such as ‘geography’ or ‘physics’ but instead focuses on questions such as ‘how can we imagine the future?’

The last pillar is Systems Change. Confronting the reality of the state of our climate and the scale of the changes required can be daunting. To make a new story also means critically understanding the old one: how we got to this point, how we’d like things to be different, and what levers we have to change things. Our undergraduate curriculum does not contain modules defined by subjects such as ‘geography’ or ‘physics’ but instead focuses on questions such as ‘how can we imagine the future?’ and ‘what does change look like in practice?’ Answering this question touches on questions of compassion, empathy and an openness to revisionist histories of colonialism, capitalism and so on to understand how we got to this point and what we need to do to build better systems. We then help students to design, run and communicate a research project informed by these considerations and which targets particular social outcomes aligned to the Well Being of Future Generations Act.

This in turn is a powerful motor for hope and agency: recognising how dysfunctional our current systems are is the first step towards creating a new story for ourselves as part of a movement to change those systems and write new futures informed by properly understanding past histories. 

We envisage that graduates from the Black Mountains College higher and further education programmes will be active in all sectors and at all levels of society – pushing the needle regionally, nationally and internationally. During their studies they will be embedded in Welsh organisations and businesses, supporting existing initiatives and instigating new ones. As graduates, they will have the practical skills to help communities cope in a climate change-affected world, such as localising food production, building energy-efficient homes, developing flood and drought resilience, creating circular economies. They will also have the in-depth, holistic and systemic theoretical knowledge to rewrite the stories that we live by and influence decision-making processes in favour of future generations.

Black Mountains College is soon to be launching a new interdisciplinary degree in partnership with Cardiff Metropolitan University. Titled BA (Hons) Sustainable Futures: Arts, Ecology and Systems Change, it will equip graduates with a range of skills to understand how we learn individually as well as collectively in order to be responsive, resilient and resourceful members of communities that creatively confront challenges through improvisation and collaboration. At the end of June Black Mountains College is running a short course for community members and professionals that pilots elements of this method -applications for this course are still open, and you can apply for a bursary until the 13th of June.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Ben Rawlence is a writer, former human rights investigator, political strategist and co-founder of the Black Mountains College.
Dr. Natalia Eernstman is an artist, educator, and researcher. She is part of Black Mountains College academic advisory board and lecturer at Arts University Plymouth.

Also within Voices