From helping develop critical thinking to feeling empowered, education has many personal benefits. But it can also equip students with the know-how to tackle pressing global challenges
Studying for a degree can help  people tackle global challenges
Illustration: Ryan Todd/The Guardian
Illustration: Ryan Todd/The Guardian
A syllabus for saving the world‘You’re not just a consumer of knowledge’: how studying for a degree can help people create positive social change

From helping develop critical thinking to feeling empowered, education has many personal benefits. But it can also equip students with the know-how to tackle pressing global challenges

  • The buzzword “self-optimisation”, along with modern mantras such as “always be learning” and “be the best version of yourself”, have become incredibly popular in recent years. One reason these phrases resonate is because self-improvement can be a crucial step towards improving the world.

    From the climate crisis to social inequality and global health emergencies, the problems facing humanity are so big and interconnected that each individual person is both affected by them and also able to have an impact on them. Likewise, the sheer scale of the challenges faced by humanity call for big ambition – and big aptitude.

    One upshot of this is a renewed regard for expertise. Not so long ago, populist politicians frequently dismissed experts as elite, out of touch and irrelevant. But reality has begged to differ. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, people across the world realised just how much we depend on knowledge and scientific breakthroughs. For Prof Keith McLay, provost of learning and teaching at the University of Derby, the fact that the World Health Organization recently declared an end to Covid-19 as a global health emergency underlined how much we need experts to solve problems. “Nobody ever solved a problem without reasoning or analytical skills or without the ability to understand. Education is the building block for that,” he says.

    These analytical and critical thinking skills have become particularly crucial in a world rife with division, fake news and disinformation, in which people increasingly struggle to agree on basic facts. “It’s not sufficient to dismiss something as a lie or not real without being able to back that up with evidence and analysis,” says McLay. “That’s what higher education is about. Every degree programme is about positing a hypothesis: you present evidence, analyse it and arrive at an outcome. [Doing that] is antithetical to [the] post-truth [era], and that’s what we reveal to our students.”

    McLay highlights a 1990 quote from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” And in today’s era of social flux, war, conflict, and chaos, he notes that now, more than ever, we must learn from the lessons of the past. “Now is the time that we must use education to solve global social problems and avoid conflict,” says McLay. As a professor of early modern military and naval history, he is keenly aware of the kind of devastation that unchecked conflict can lead to.

    “Our students are encouraged to find the solutions to the most pressing global challenges and create positive social change … These young people are learning how to direct their anger and frustration with the current state of the planet and lack of change from politicians and heads of state into positive action, specifically aiming to make a difference,” he explains. “They are not just learning from books. They are active in the field with our leading researchers. Some have worked with the team in the Maldives, Seychelles, Guam, for example – making new discoveries, and conducting groundbreaking research that could change everything about the world we live in.”

    For instance, he points to the university’s world-leading team working on various projects associated with coral reefs. The majority of these studies explore the impact of the damage caused to the world’s reefs by climate change. Some of the university’s students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – have played significant roles in some of the projects, for example, conducting research in the university’s aquatic research facility on impacts associated with coral bleaching and disease.

    “This is what the role of a university should be – to find the finest and most passionate minds and provide them with the skills to critique, challenge, discover, and change,” says McLay, who has responsibility for the strategic leadership of learning and teaching and the academic portfolio across the whole of the University of Derby. “These individuals are our future. It is their learning that will be applied to challenges and diseases, which we can’t even begin to imagine at this time. They will bring the solutions. It is down to us to give them the skills, experience, and education.”

    Do you have an idea for a novel research project or course syllabus that could supercharge humanity’s efforts to save the world? The University of Derby is challenging 16- to 24-year-olds to submit a short proposal, with the chance to win £1,000, and to partner with its academics to develop a MOOC (massive open online course). Find out more at derby.ac.uk

    Deborah Robinson, professor of special educational needs, disability and inclusion at the University of Derby’s Institute of Education, highlights the role that education has to play in helping people feel more empowered, fulfilled and effectual. “It can open up possibilities and, in short, it can make people feel fulfilled and happy,” she says. “Where there is high-quality education, particularly education that enables debate and critical thinking, we know we see more acceptance of diversity and experience more peaceful and tolerant societies.”

    Robinson works with colleagues to improve the social and educational inclusion of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Her research explores policy and practice for SEND (special educational needs and disability) and inclusion in the areas of teacher education, service provision, assessment and literacy. “For me, the challenge is how education can be a catalyst for social inclusion. Education itself is wonderful as a process but it must lead to people being able to fulfil their potential and experience an included adulthood where participation in work and community life is possible for all disabled people.”

    Inclusivity is also crucial when it comes to careers guidance. The University of Derby is also home to the UK’s leading research institute for careers information, advice and guidance, the International Centre for Guidance Studies (iCeGS), which has been helping schools and colleges to deliver careers guidance since it was established 25 years ago. “Our research focuses on transition. We work with different organisations to understand what best supports individuals to progress in life and to achieve their goals. We help them to raise their aspirations and expectations for life,” says Siobhan Neary, professor of career development practice and head of iCeGS, whose research focuses on CPD (continuing professional development), workforce development and professional identity. “We look at how careers are integrated in the curriculum. Discussions about careers involve everyone, so it is important it is not sidelined.”

    There are many other ways the University of Derby tries to make students feel more included, involved and empowered. Its Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme gives second-year students the chance to take part in a funded research project that tackles big global problems.

    “If you are studying for a degree, you are not just a consumer of knowledge – you’re a creator of it,” says Sarah Charles, head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby, which has collaborative working arrangements with schools and colleges locally, nationally and internationally.

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    Staff at the university have long been conscious of the role education plays in equipping individuals with the skills to tackle wider social problems – and how this is interlinked with realising a student’s full potential. “The philosophy that underpins our approach to learning and teaching draws on the work of Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, who writes a lot about potential,” says McLay. “We want our students to have both the content- and subject-specific skills of their degree programme, whether that be nursing or engineering. Importantly, they must also have the graduate skills to enter the world as citizens who can apply what they have learned and renew their potential time after time.”

    The university bases its curricula on an applied approach that gives undergraduates opportunities to put what they learn into practice, either through an industry placement or by getting representatives from industry to come into the university. Students studying a humanities-based subject – history, for example – get the chance to work with a museum or other cultural organisations based in Derby on something such as a forthcoming exhibition, or to help train museum guides in what the university calls “live briefs”.

    Placements are not a one-way street, says Charles. All stakeholders can benefit from involvement. “The symbiotic relationship between theory and practice is realised on placements allowing students to apply, evaluate, and generate new knowledge.”

    Do you have an idea for a novel research project or course syllabus that could supercharge humanity’s efforts to save the world? The University of Derby is challenging 16- to 24-year-olds to submit a short proposal, with the chance to win £1,000, and to partner with its academics to develop a MOOC (massive open online course). Find out more at derby.ac.uk

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