School Days in 2040: Saikou’s Day aboard the Tigerfish Floating School

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040. Learn more about this series.

Today, Saikou arrived early at the dock where his school will pick him up for the day. Yes, instead of taking the bus, he’ll actually be picked up by his school, as the Tigerfish Floating School is a large boat. Over the course of the school day, Tigerfish meanders up and down a few kilometers of the Gambia River, just downstream of the city of Bansang, picking up the school’s 160 students

Today, it’s Saikou’s turn—along with his other classmates who meet at this dock—to harvest the day’s catch from the school’s dockside fish farm. Lunch each day consists of a mix of vegetables, rice, and the fish that the school raises in a series of small tanks, located on each of the docks. This ensures that even the poorest of Tigerfish’s students get adequate protein each day. The fish farms also are an integral part of the curriculum: all students will graduate middle school with a comprehensive knowledge of fish farming—from growing the insects that the fish eat, to proper harvesting and management of the tanks, to even basic veterinary training.

floating school education
Makoko Floating School in Nigeria (from CEE HOPE NIGERIA, May 2014), an early prototype of the floating school of 2040

After feeding the fish and harvesting today’s catch, Saikou and his classmates see their school approaching. The floating school is a large pyramid-shaped boat—designed not for speed but for stability, even in the worst weather. The school consists of several well-lit classrooms, a kitchen, even two science labs—as science is a priority at Tigerfish. Today, the first-year students (sixth graders) are learning about circuits and solar electricity. With a solar array covering the boat, the students have the chance not only to learn about photovoltaics in the abstract, but also to take part in maintaining the boat’s electrical system.

In the other science lab, the eighth graders, including Saikou, have been spending the day dealing with a problem. The tilapia in one of the school’s fish farms have developed some sort of disease, with many of the fry dying and many of the adult fish developing skin lesions and rubbing themselves raw against the sides of the tanks. Over the course of the day, the students have dissected several fish to explore internal symptoms, examined fish cells under the microscope, and conducted online research—first on Googlepedia and then in academic journals—to assess the problem. Their hypothesis: the fish are suffering from Trichodina, caused by tiny parasites that attach to the gills, skin, and fins.

The teacher, who has been quietly nudging the process along—helping with the equipment, engaging those who get left out, settling down those who get too excited—now makes a video call to the local veterinarian and allows the students to present their case that the tilapia are suffering from Trichodina. The vet, seeing the evidence, supports their conclusion and agrees to come by the fish farm the next day to give the fish a potassium salt bath to kill the parasites. After the call, the teacher praises the excellent work of the class, although it is the success of correctly identifying and dealing with the problem that is most rewarding to Saikou and to many of the other students.

Not every day does such a “perfect” project manifest at Tigerfish, offering the students an opportunity to expand their vocational knowledge, research skills, critical thinking, and ability to work together. However, routinely integrating river life into the school curriculum tends to offer more opportunities than would otherwise exist. Biology, chemistry, climatology, ecology, and physics are all naturally a part of life on a river—a river that most of these students will live along their entire lives.

Having a deep knowledge of and connection to the Gambia River is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Tigerfish, although gaining an understanding of the many changes occurring in the ecosystem is also very valuable. As climate change and population pressures have reduced wild fish stocks to endangered levels, farmed fish have largely replaced wild fish. And after several serious floods made schooling impossible for tens of thousands of children living along the riverbank, the idea of floating schools became more celebrated—with a quarter of The Gambia’s students now spending at least some of their school years at a river school.

Recognizing the high risk for future climate-related changes—including the potential submersion of vast areas of the country—certain skills are an integral part of the curriculum: the ability to swim well, disaster education (how to respond effectively in a crisis), and, most importantly, multilingualism. Although English is the primary school language, all students also learn French and Mandinka. The hope is that knowing two global languages will increase students’ employment opportunities in good times, and, if a large share of the population eventually becomes climate refugees (a possibility that the government now openly acknowledges), knowing both English and French will help people better integrate into other countries.

While floating schools certainly aren’t solving the climate crisis in The Gambia and the many other coastal countries where they’ve emerged, they’ve proven to be an ingenious adaptation—one that Saikou feels lucky to be part of.

Author’s note: I want to acknowledge the innovative efforts of the Makoko Floating School in Nigeria as inspiration to this future scenario.

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

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