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Incorporating circular economy in a quality secondary curriculum

The traditional economy is based on a linear business model where increased consumption leads to higher growth, more production and subsequently to bigger profits.The circular economy incorporates a completely different business model where energy and material flows are considered and nothing is wasted. Companies making the change are showing that savings can be made both for the environment and in terms of increased profitability. Secondary school students need exposure to the concepts underlying the circular economy in order to start changing behaviour and encouraging a paradigm shift.

Schools and school systems may have ignored the growing evidence in favour of studying the circular economy, fearing that it is a passing fad, or that there is no space for it in a crowded curriculum. However, there is increasing evidence that young people need to understand that this ‘new’ way of looking at resources, markets, production, waste, environment and economics is essential in a resource-limited world. So, what does the ideal curriculum for the future look like?

A quality curriculum explores challenges that are local and global, and develop interdisciplinary understanding, which is critical in addressing complex issues like the digital divide, poverty and climate change. This kind of learning promotes conceptual understanding, evaluation skills, innovative thinking and knowledge, all transferable to a range of new contexts.

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We must ensure that content is aligned with varied and meaningful assessments and important knowledge, skills and understanding assessed. Developing effective assessment will guarantee that teachers and students attach the appropriate importance to the idea. If both circular economy related information and the associated new kind of thinking is not integrated into assessments, then an excellent opportunity to embed it into schools will be missed.

Often, schools are obliged to follow restrictive and assessment-orientated curricula. In such a case, they are not able to include circular economy as it ‘isn’t on the test’! In addition, it is logistically difficult for schools to include circular economy in the curriculum as it is not clear where it ‘fits’. It can be taught through a number of subjects, but this requires extensive teacher communication and collaboration. Breaking down school-based ‘subject silos’ is one of the most important ways in which we can incorporate circular economy as part of a quality curriculum.

Curriculum essentials

Curriculum designers plan to address what students know, understand and can do (skills). Content designed around the circular economy will involve the development of knowledge and understanding from an exhaustive list. The key area is in the teaching and practice of skills development and ways of thinking, in order to be able to apply principles and concepts.

One of these ways of thinking is ‘systems thinking’, which means understanding how individual parts influence one another within a whole, and the relationship of the whole to the parts, is crucial. Through an effective ‘systems-thinking skills programme’ across subjects, students must be able to consider design within the context of use, reuse and disposal, and demonstrate their consideration of the implications of such designs. They must understand that such thinking belongs to all areas of curriculum and not only in the design technology workroom, or science lab.

Students need to be challenged further to develop the skills required to make interdisciplinary links. After learning and understanding the concepts of the circular economy, through the lenses of design technology, economics, mathematics, science, and geography, students will apply systems thinking to one particular focus. Using knowledge, skills and understanding from more than one discipline to develop a new and integrated understanding is challenging, but feasible. This interdisciplinary learning works effectively in tandem with ‘real life’ and future design contexts, which can be motivating, thought provoking and engaging for students. A number of inspiring case studies already exist for this purpose including Renault’s Choisy-Le-Roi remanufacturing plant, the Philips pay-per-lux lighting model, Ecovative’s mycelium packaging alternative and many others.[link]

Fitting circular economy into the curriculum

In transition to the high-quality interdisciplinary and project-based curriculum, current curricula offer promising docking points.

Circular economy should be viewed across many subjects, while systems thinking should be taught to the point where it is second nature to students. Circular economy creates opportunities for ‘real-world’ learning, which promote critical reflection and higher order thinking. It is difficult for teachers across different subjects to find the time and expertise to teach for a deep understanding of the circular economy framework. The answer is to devise short or long-term specialist courses. Increasingly schools are finding that traditional subjects do not meet the needs or interests of students moving into work or study. Flexibility is crucial in providing students with the opportunity to study courses designed to meet the needs of a modern education rather than those that have been in place for decades. The challenge for such courses is to devise assessment that is meaningful and supports learning.

Any quality secondary curriculum should include the circular economy. It must be incorporated in a systematic and planned way, rather than by hoping that teachers ‘in the know’ will carry the responsibility. It will further interdisciplinary learning, and be part of an approach across subjects to teaching ways of thinking both creatively and critically. By knowing, understanding and doing, within the context of the circular economy, students will be better placed to contribute to a changing world, and to make a difference as designers, service-users, and producers.

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This piece was co-authored by Sarah Mitchell. Sarah was awarded a 2:1 in Chemistry at Oxford university, has worked within strategic investment planning within the water supply industry until 2002; and as Health Safety Quality and Environment Manager within the UK oil and gas consultancy field for 8 years in Teesside. Achieved a distinction in NEBOSH National Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety and also having developed management systems for BS EN ISO 9001, BS EN ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 and achieved external accreditation for these systems.

This article is part of series that explores questions around education ‘about’, ‘for’ and ‘in’ a circular economy. Maybe you have something to say about the question of education in a circular economy as well? Do join the discussion, share the article and get in touch to contribute yourself!

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The Author

Malcolm Nicolson

Malcolm Nicolson

Malcolm Nicolson has taught in different contexts in the UK, Bahamas and Thailand. He was a teacher of IB MYP sciences and IB DP Biology and Environmental Systems and Societies. Malcolm worked for the IB with overall responsibility for curriculum development in MYP (ages 11-16) and DP (ages 16-19), as Head of MYP Development from 2007 until 2012, and then Head of DP Development until 2015. He is the founding director of Erimus Education (www.erimused.com), working with schools to improve teaching and learning through bespoke services. He has been awarded a BSc. in Ecological Sciences from Edinburgh University; PGCE (Biology and PE) from Newcastle University; MA in International Education from Bath University; and is studying for an MSc. in Energy and Environmental Management from Teeside University.