Ecological Transition Education and Education Reform in Korea

Cho, Hee-Yeon 

(Superintendent, Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education)

1. The Meaning of Education and Korean Education Reform

We can start with the question, “What is education?” Education is a learning process that affects human perception and behavior. It affects how we perceive the world, and how we change the world in light of that perception. In this sense, education can be defined as the learning process by which we learn to see the world and conduct ourselves in order to live with others. Through education, each student becomes a social being with particular perceptions and behavior.

If education is understood this way, it can be said to occupy an important place in the mind of those who want to change the world. For such people, education has a transformative role. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote that the purpose of reflection and human action is to transform the world. He referred to this as praxis. This transformative role of education can be found in the Learning Compass⎯the new education paradigm of the OECD. This new paradigm emphasizes social responsibility as an important characteristic of education.

*The Education Reform Movement and Democracy

At this point, let us take a look back at the recent history of Korean education reform. Since the late 1980s, democracy has been a core principle of the Korean education reform movement, and Korean education has developed in the direction of realizing, expanding, and deepening democracy. Korean education is democracy-oriented education, and I think the next step in the process of strengthening democracy brings us to ecological transition education⎯education for the realization of an ecological civilization.

The modern history of Korea is divided into a period of dictatorship and a period of democratization by the June 1987 Democratic Uprising. Prior to 1987, the dictatorship in Korea was a “modernization dictatorship”⎯a dictatorship which aimed to see Korea grow into a modern, industrial society like those in the West. Accordingly, its education was not only based on authoritarianism, Cold War anti-communism, and right-wing conservatism, but also instilled in students the ideas of modern Western civilization⎯industrialism, nationalism, grothism or productivism, and marketism. (I think current neoliberalism is an extreme form of growthism or productivism and marketism on a global scale.)

Since 1987, as Korean society has stood against authoritarianism and struggled to strengthen democracy, so too has there been a struggle to overcome the authoritarian education of the past and realize democratic education. The Korean education reform movement has been striving to change the existing education system and the perceptions and pedagogy on which it is based. There has been an effort to reform the authoritarian education bureaucracy⎯the top-down hierarchy which characterized the relationship between the central government and schools⎯and also to transform education based on democratic principles. Through this movement, democratic citizenship education came into the curriculum. We called this hyukshin education.

During the authoritarian era, the state’s main goal was to, as a developing country, catch up to advanced Western nations. Indeed, authoritarian states which are oriented towards modernization generally have this kind of character. The state demanded that education produce highly competent people in order to compete with Western companies and increase exports. I call this kind of authoritarian and market-competition-centered education “No. 1 education.” Hyukshin education, which is based on democratic principles, aims to transcend this No. 1 education.

*From No. 1 Education to Only-One Education 

In view of this, I use the phrase “from No. 1 education to only-one education” to express the values on which Korea’s hyukshin education movement is based. In an economy dominated by industrialism and growthism, education in Korea has been a competition to outdo others, to get outstanding grades and a high score on the K-SAT, and to enter a top-ranked university. But education which transcends competition, helps all students to develop to their full potential, and equally respects all students⎯of different nationalities, ethnicities, and genders, whether they have excellent grades or not, and whether they have outstanding abilities or not⎯is “only-one education.”

Through the effort to expand hyukshin education, feminism and pro-labor sentiments have been accepted, and recently, amid the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for transition to an ecological civilization has also been understood and recognized.

2. The Climate Crisis, the Ecological Crisis, and a New “Beyond-Modern” Education

I think solving the current climate crisis and ecological crisis is not a matter of addressing a particular isolated problem, but of reflecting on and overcoming the “modern” system which we have developed, and lived in, for several hundred years.

For the sake of human survival, it is necessary to consider how to turn a system which has been called “modern” and has been seen as civilized compared to what was “pre-modern” into a system that is “beyond modern.” 

* The Need to Imagine a Fundamental Transformation of “Modern” Economic and Social Systems and Ways of Life

Faced with the conditions of the climate and ecological crises, I think it is necessary to imagine a fundamental transformation of “modern” economic and social systems and ways of life, and to boldly implement such a transition. The modernity of which I speak here is based on the principles of more production, transport and distribution for cheaper production, more consumption, and more conquest and control of nature without regard for the destruction of ecosystems. This modern system has reached a crisis point because, against the backdrop of neoliberal globalization, production, distribution, and consumption is occurring at a global scale. The crisis was not so grave when products were produced and consumed at local levels, or even when production and consumption was national. However, with the emergence of global production and distibution systems, production and consumption now encompass and assimilate the world, disregarding regional and national self-sufficiency. This has led to greater consumption of resources and energy, and more destruction of ecosystems. Naturally, this crisis has worsened as the wave of industrialization has spread around the world. Now it threatens human existence, and we must imagine and implement a new alternative⎯one which, I think, should be based on a more self-sufficient local cyclical economy.

Here I would like to mention a few things about alternative economic and social systems and ways of life. 

On October 1, 2018, the 48th Session of the IPCC, which was held in Incheon, approved a special report entitled Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees. In short, to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, carbon emissions should reach net zero by 2050. In order to do this, by 2030 we have to cut our emissions by 45% from 2010 levels. This consensus on climate change presupposes that the carbon-based industrial era is, and should be, over.

*The Need for Ecological Transition Away From the Current Global Industrial System

First, I would like to emphasize the need to concern ourselves with how to transform the global industrial food production and distribution system into an ecological system that is appropriate for the climate change era. For example, considering the link between the structures of reproduction of existing industries and the green economy, we should create a circular economy and a low carbon economic system. Using a variety of new technologies, including active and passive technologies, we need to begin an era of zero-carbon architecture and build zero-carbon schools. Of course, our challenge is to reduce energy use. As more and more countries become industrialized, the excessive-energy-consumption lifestyle of humans is becoming more convenient. However, nature cannot tolerate this. Moreover, until the present, if cheap production has been possible anywhere on the planet it has been best to produce goods there and deliver them to consumers through global distribution networks. But now we also need a transition away from the current global transportation-distribution system. We should also consider creating a new technology system which minimizes transportation using the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile technology. Naturally, we need to regulate fossil energy emissions, introduce autonomous vehicles, and minimize unnecessary use of transportation through vehicle sharing.

We should make efforts to realize the maximum possible self-sufficiency and circular economic potential of the local area⎯which has been regarded as antiquated⎯by actively promoting the local circular economy. Of course, we need to reduce energy consumption due to the movement of materials. Green agriculture has already spread under the name of organic farming. As a European Union report has said, a shift in strategy from “Farm to Fork” should be undertaken in order to produce more sustainable agricultural products. This could be applied to so-called precision agriculture, organic farming, agricultural ecology, forest ecology, and strict animal welfare standards.

A new approach to financial investment is also needed. The same standards as in the aggressive investment in the green economy and alternative energy should be applied to the movement of capital, social standards that limit investment in carbon-emitting companies should be established, and financing for the above-mentioned circular economy should be secured.

In fact, it is the case that certain efforts are being made in individual policy areas⎯global standards on carbon emissions are compelling them. From an ecological (civilization) transition perspective, it is just a matter of how to create an interconnected system.

*The Need for a New Conception of the Economy

If we are to conceive of the economy in a new way, the most important epistemological challenge is changing our conception of how the economy circulates.

In the current conception of neoliberal globalization, the basic spatial unit of economic circulation is the globe⎯a self-sufficient circular economy on a global scale is presumed. However, from the perspective of ecological civilization, it should be emphasized that maximum self-sufficiency of the local circular economy should be the basic starting point. I think this is the heart of sustainable development and a sustainable economy. The European Union’s Green Deal project is thought to be a step in this direction. For example, “Farm to Fork” is a comprehensive circular economy process which encompasses production, agriculture, distribution, consumption, food culture, waste, and recycling.

The economy is cyclical, and the neoliberal world economy based on the global value chain is, of course, a global-scale economic cycle. But its scale and anonymity are a problem, as is its “placelessness.” Production has no knowledge of, and no responsibility for, the subsequent consumption process and unacceptable waste problems. Worsening global pollution and inequality can be likened to living on a round Earth but thinking that it is flat. If the fact that companies are not bearing the true economic and social costs is considered, at a fundamental level the flow of the global economic system is not economical. It is in this context in which Helena Norberg-Hodge makes clear her criticisms of international trade and argues that the alternative is local.

The global profit economy⎯the market⎯has stopped functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, in our era in which the climate crisis makes itself felt in everyday life, in order to cope with the looming ecological and social risks it is important to increase self-sufficiency, reduce transport distances, and have a regional base for basic needs such as food, energy, health, childcare, and housing. In addition, existing conceptions of food, clothing, and shelter could be replaced with various aspects of the sociocultural commons, which would facilitate more communication and connection between people.

Here, I think we can make use of the smart digital technology of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution⎯for instance, IoT and artificial intelligence⎯to devise an alternative global economic system based on energy transition and a Green New Deal, and on the local circular economy. This should be discussed as a positive socio-structural alternative and should become an important social agenda.

3. COVID-19 and New Ecological Sensibilities

Our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic compels us to reflect on our current economic and social systems and ways of life. I think new reflective sensibilities can lead to an alternative reconstruction⎯based on the self-sufficient local circular economy⎯of global economic and social systems and our current ways of life

For example, humans have been confronted with an entirely new experience by the COVID-19 crisis. Many people think we will be able to return to our pre-pandemic lives. But tens of millions of people have been infected and more than a million have died, and we have, remarkably, witnessed the world’s economy coming to a stop. And we are experiencing the paradox of the pandemic: Nature is beginning to recover. The coronavirus must serve as a corrective to the civilization we have mistakenly built. As interconnected beings, we are called to reflect on humanity and nature, reflect on our civilization, and bring about a “new normal” for human civilization

We cannot outsource responsibility for the Earth. The COVID-19 pandemic has once again confirmed a very old lesson: “You reap what you sow.” Nobody can relieve us of the pollution we produce. In the past, we have “outsourced” it to developing countries, but we cannot do this any longer. We have reached a critical point. We each are realizing that the Earth’s problems are our problems⎯our individual problems and the problems of our communities.

*A New Understanding of Interconnectedness

From an ecological civilization perspective, through the pandemic we have been brought face to face with the old, long forgotten wisdom that humans, animals, and nature are all interconnected. The coronavirus also reminds us that we are interconnected through existential risks from disasters⎯a virus which has lost its natural habitat is now destroying human and natural ecosystems by using us as its new host. A single person infected with the virus can transmit it to hundreds of others, and through social distancing we are barely managing to survive. This pandemic clearly shows that the lives of humans and animals are interconnected, and that a person’s health and safety is inseparable from the health and safety of the entire community.

On this point, the Buddhist conception of causality and the relationship theory of the Korean intellectual Shin Young-bok have implications for us. Most religions and philosophies look back and try to identify causes, trying to grasp the essential entity. However, Buddha believed that all phenomena are based on interdependence, and valued processes more than results and relationships more than individual entities. From the Buddhist perspective, “I” cannot be separated from “what is not I.” It is true that for those who are used to I-am-good-and-you-are-evil dichotomous thinking, this is difficult to accept without a Copernican turn, but in this view, determining fortune or misfortune is not a goal but a process, and fortune or misfortune is something that is not in me alone, but is in the relationship between you and me. In the Buddhist conception of causality, and in the relationship theory of Shin Young-bok, it goes without saying that a relationship of happiness implies not one-way domination but mutual respect. Our model of education should reflect this.

Also, the relationship between our current modern industrial civilization and the coming era of artificial intelligence is becoming a pressing issue. We all have concerns about when the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence will bring us to technological singularity and what kind of impact that will have on human civilization. Would the emergence of super-intelligence mean that humans would no longer be useful? I am not sure about that, but I am sure that it is time to reflect on what it means to be human.

The age of artificial intelligence is commonly referred to as the Fourth Industrial Era. On one hand, this could mean the arrival of a new industrial era symbolized by big data and AI but, on the other hand, it could mean a new kind of era which transcends industrial civilization and addresses the needs of the climate crisis. The arrival of the new AI era should not exacerbate our current ecological problems but should be taken advantage of in a way such that it contributes to overcoming the climate crisis.

4. The Urgent Need for Ecological Transition Education

As mentioned above, based on the need for an alternative to our current economic and social systems and ways of life, and on the wisdom we have gained through the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot but discuss the need for a new educational paradigm. This is what I am promoting at schools in Seoul through a new policy called ecological transition education.

The climate crisis and the pandemic, particulate matter, species loss, and the other environmental catastrophes that we are experiencing are structural disasters caused by the systemic limitations and errors inherent in today’s industrial civilization. This complex crisis has been brought about by mistaken societal behavior which has led to disharmony in nature. As the world pursues Western-style economic development, it uses resources without limits and produces massive amounts of waste. In the process, we have used far too much fossil fuel and caused global temperatures to rise.

Therefore, the current problem is not something that can be solved by a narrow set of policies or changes to individual practices, no matter how few disposable products individuals use or how much they recycle. To overcome structural disasters, fundamental worldwide changes to “modern” systems are necessary, including in our own society. For this to happen, an education transition that promotes wholesale new thinking is essential.

Beyond teaching ecological content in schools, the ecology of education itself should be transformed. We must move away from education which seeks the skills and qualifications needed to ensure more consumption and more ownership, and we must move towards education which aims at sustainability⎯achieving a better quality of life while producing and consuming within the limits of the Earth’s capacity. This we call education for the transition to an ecological civilization.

*A New Education Which Transcends the Modern System

This new ecological transition education implies an effort not to improve modern education but to go beyond it.

Modern education aimed to “manufacture” human beings to meet the needs of the modern industrial society and its principles of conquest of nature, unlimited use of fossil fuels, production for exchange rather than use, and blind pursuit of profit.

Industrial civilization, as represented by industrialization, nationalism, growthism, and marketism created the modern school as a tool for the reproduction of labor so that profit can be pursued by companies and markets. In the modern school, we have called ourselves human resources. However, as the crisis of modern civilization sets in, people are breaking away from such a view and the modern conception of education.

We call our new alternative education ecological transition education⎯education for the transition to a new ecological civilization. We need to transform our present system of education and its content and pedagogy into a new model in order that humans can live justly and happily within the bounds of the natural world. We have to reimagine existing education for the wellbeing of people and the planet.

I think that, despite the many difficulties at the school level due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ecological transition education⎯which is fundamentally different from existing environmental and ecological education⎯has already begun in our schools and in many others around the world.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is in the process of implementing a mid- and long-term development plan for ecological transition education. With the aim of “zero carbon schools” the school environment will be transformed, and in order that members of the education community can grow into “ecological citizens,” I am proposing the ecological transition of the curriculum and a number of transitional tasks.

As the transition to an ecological civilization requires global efforts, policies have been made in accordance with the international standards of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development 2030 (ESD for 2030).

Also, through innovative education which seeks autonomy and collaboration, and through creative education that prepares for the era of big data and AI, we will make continuous and integrated efforts with the goal of fostering students who actively participate in ecological transition. We take seriously Greta Thunberg’s warning that “the eyes of all future generations are upon us” and we will strive to fundamentally transform our way of life.

*The Primary Areas of Focus of Ecological Transition Education

The primary areas of focus will be as follows:

1. As an aspect of “lesson innovation” there will be changes to educational content which contribute to the development of ecological awareness and sensibility in future generations.

2. Schools will have significance as small “ecological civilization transition cities (towns)” and they will be spaces where ecological transition awareness and sensibility are experienced, experimented with, and self-directed.

3. It is important to ensure that education is central to renewal of local communities. Accordingly, the self-sufficient community and the local economy will be combined to create the character of a “village education community” (of which the hyukshin education district is an example).

The next important task would probably be to revise textbooks themselves. There is an urgent need for reform of textbooks and the content of education, for instance in economics education. With respect to sustainable development education, the content of Korean economics education covers the social economy and cooperatives, but growthism, market fundamentalism, pro-business-ism, and other such values are given priority. From the perspective of the circular economy, the local circular economy, and a sustainable economy, new technologies will also be required. This new content should be included in the next national curriculum. Furthermore, I am proposing education related to the circular economy and the local circular economy, and career-, employment-, and start-up-related education. I intend to include this in the mid- to long-term plan of ecological transformation education. 

Furthermore, in order to bolster localities and regions, I think it is necessary to “ecologically synthesize” many of the policies, programs, and achievements of the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the education office. The key concepts are integration and synthesis⎯ecological synthesis and an integrated and holistic approach. I think the core values will be connection and integration between regions, generations, humans and nature, schools and villages, cities and rural areas, knowledge and behavior, and reason and emotion. Integration and diversity should also be important values in the curriculum. In terms of research, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, or trans-disciplinary research is needed (religion and science, humanities and quantum mechanics and biology, cosmology and economics, policy studies, etc.).

Ecological transformation education is an education that seeks fundamental changes in thought and behavior for the coexistence and sustainability of humans and nature. So the key is to evoke an ecologically awakened subject. Modern people cannot escape their digital devices for even a moment. But we are living and breathing in nature. If you cannot communicate with nature, you will fall ill.

It is time for a great transition. The transition should begin with energy conversion. We need to change our fossil fuel-addicted lifestyle. Through this process, we will realize that we are living and breathing in the natural world. And we will be able to meet the 1.5°C target promised by the international community in the Paris Agreement.

Ecological transition schools will be brimming with education which brings humans to the realization of their coexistence with the ecosystem and fosters awakened subjects who act to overcome our addiction to fossil fuels. I have seen the promise of ecological transition education in Seoul at Guksabong Middle School. At Guksabong Middle School, together with the Seongdaegol Energy Transition Village, social cooperatives are being created, solar panels are being installed, and ecological-energy education courses are being operated through convergence classes and voluntary student activities. This is a very good example of energy conservation and ecological transition education.

In concluding, I would like to raise the question, “Where can we find hope in the midst of this dire climate crisis?” In these desperate times, anyone who pushes for alternatives or anyone who engages in dialogue about ecological transition gives me hope. Worthy of mention are the young people from Youth for Climate Action whom I met with twice last year. I felt hope as I watched them confidently demanding a sustainable future.

In my view, the education reform movement in Korea and abroad does not move towards a fixed goal, but changes and develops through dialogue with the young generation as they attend school while, at the same time, suffering and struggling under the weight of our many problems.

When I became superintendent of education in 2014, inspired by “dialogue” with the children of the Sewol Ferry disaster, I dreamed of changing our education system with innovative education policies that embody the values of “the only-one education for all” and “collaborative community education living together.”

Through the 2016-2017 Candlelight Revolution and “dialogue” with countless citizens and students, democratic citizenship education, global citizenship education, and gender education, which promote everyday democracy and embody values of diversity and equality, have been included in the curriculum.

And in the midst of this acute climate crisis, through “dialogue” with Greta Thunberg and our young people from Youth for Climate Action who have said to us, “You must safeguard our future⎯we are an endangered species!” I have announced ecological transition education, which I conceive of as praxis.

So, changes in our education system are being made through dialogue with children and young people who have been oppressed by the current reality.

I see hope in everyone who is already practicing ecological transition education, students and teachers who will practice it in the future, and in the schools to which they belong.

 Appendix 1Ecological Transition EducationMid- to Long-Term Development Plan

Ecological Transition Educationfor Sustainable Lives in the Climate Emergency Era

From Handkerchiefs to Solar Energy!Fostering Ecological Citizens Who Live Sustainable Lives

Core Task 01
Transition of SchoolCurriculum TowardsEcological Civilization

Core Task 02
Establish an Educational Environment Which Fosters Ecological Citizens

Core Task 03
Establish Foundations for Cooperation and Promotion of Ecological Transition Education 

Strengthening Links to the Curriculum
increasing ecological transition education in school curriculum
operating ecological transition schools in conjunction with the curriculum
developing ecological transition education textbooks

Establishing Zero-Carbon Schools
reducing greenhouse gas emissions at schools
transitioning to sustainable energy facilities
increasing receptiveness to the use of solar energy

Connecting with Local Community
researching and operating local circular economy education programs
cooperating with local community in the operation of ecological transition education

Running Ecological Transition Education Programs
developing and running programs
running ecological transition classrooms

Operating Zero-Carbon Schools in Conjunction With the Curriculum
cultivating environmentally- friendly attitudes
delivering zero-carbon education

Establishing the Basis for Ecological Transition Education
establishing the legislative basis for ecological transition education
strengthening private-public-school networks and systems for cooperation

Running an Ecological Transition Education Cooperation and Support Group
establishing a cooperation and support group
running the cooperation and support group

Establishing and Operating a Vegetarian Option System
establishing the foundation for a vegetarian option system
implementing the vegetarian option system at a pilot school

Improving Capacity to Deliver Ecological Transition Education
establishing systems for the operation of ecological transition education
providing support for stable and sustainable ecological transition education

Improving Ecological Transition Education Competences
facilitating and supporting a group of leading teachers
strengthening teacher training
improving the competences of parents

Supporting Clubs and Other Student Activities
running experimental ecological transition classrooms (“living labs”)
running special ecological transition student committees
running student cooperation and support groups

Creating Systems for the Strengthening and Proliferation of Ecological Transition Education
supporting and strengthening ecological transition education
sharing and disseminating cases and results
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