Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

The surreal theatre of COP 23

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Did you go to COP 23?  Me neither – and I missed COPs 1 to 22 as well.  Black UN marks all round, I fear, and I'll not be invited to the December multi-faith Festival party again this year.

The news that "Education and Education for Sustainable Development, both formal and non-formal", were given an entire day in the COP says a lot about the bloated nature of this recurring jamboree.

This was the UNESCO (with UN partners and other organisations) plan for the day:

• 10:00-10:45, Press Conference to open the Education Day and to launch a compilation of Case studies on climate change education for mitigation and adaptation by the Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), India, UNESCO and UNFCCC.

• 11:30-13:00, The COP Presidency, UNFCCC and UNESCO organise a "high-level" debate [**] on Education and global partnerships working to combat climate change. This event will bring together environment and education ministers and international organizations to discuss how education and global partnerships can enhance the implementation of climate agendas. Invited panelists include the President of Fiji; HRH Princess Lalla Hasna from Morocco, UNFCCC Secretary General; UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences and Ministers of Education and Environment (ADGNSMEE).

• 13:15-14:45,  UNAACE [The UN Alliance on Action for Climate Empowerment] will organize a side event on Partnerships as key to changing minds and actions in order to scale-up adaptation and mitigation (CCA&M). The side event will demonstrate the tangible contribution that learning and skills development is already making to climate change adaptation and mitigation and present new types of partnerships needed to engage a critical mass of children, youth, professionals, decision-makers and society as a whole in climate action.

• 10:00–18:00, UNESCO organizes several discussion rounds including on schools climate readiness, teacher education for climate change, youth leadership and greening TVET at a dedicate UNESCO pavilion. These will be animated by UNESCO and GAP Key partners, experts, practitioners and youth representatives from around the world.

• 10:00–17:00, UNESCO, UNITAR and UNEP support the UN exhibition booth for SDG 4.

It's a fair conclusion that none of this contributes anything positive (now or in the future) to combating climate change, and not one microgram of carbon will have been saved.  I almost feel sorry for UNESCO – but not quite.



Why are UNESCO debates always "high level"?  And why do they always have to include a princess?  I'm beginning to understand why I'm never invited ...



UKSCQA anyone?

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I know that, quartered safely out here in Wiltshire, I live a sheltered life, but I was still surprised to learn about the existence of UKSCQA – the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) which "provides sector-led oversight of higher education quality assessment arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK".  News to me, I'm happy to say.

It seems the Committee brings together partners from across the higher education sector, drawing on academic, student and regulatory expertise.  It supports "a co-regulatory approach to quality and standards, working collaboratively to promote the student interest and the international reputation of UK higher education [and] brings together academics and students" as well as partners organisations: QAA / CUC / NUS / UUK / HEFCE / etc.

It has launched a consultation to review the UK Quality Code.  This ...

"seeks to ensure that the Code remains the cornerstone for quality in UK higher education, that it protects the public and student interest, and that it maintains the UK’s world-leading reputation for quality in higher education".

You can read about (and respond to) the consultation here.  Good luck with this.  It all has a timeless feel / quality to it.  UKSCQA says that the proposed changes to the Code:

  • present an approach that allows the Code to be agile and responsive
  • align the Code with ongoing regulatory change and a diversifying UK HE landscape
  • place students at the heart of the Code
  • reflect sector views about how the Code can best serve a rapidly changing sector

"agile and responsive" to what, I wonder.

Apparently there are proposed changes to student engagement which not everyone is happy about.  NUS meanwhile, sees this as a good opportunity to get ESD fully embedded in the code rather than as an additional piece of guidance (which no one takes any notice of).

Clearly, this will not happen.


Lily Gray says very little about ESD

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If you think your life is tough, spare a thought for the benighted members of the Second committee of the UN General Assembly (Economic and Financial Committee) who recently had to endure a tedious presentation about ESD.  You can read all about it here – but, really, why would you bother?  Here's an extract to save you a lot of pain:

"... representatives of member states and the UN system discussed ways towards the achievement of sustainable development, including the implementation of the international commitments on climate change and agreements on financing for development, as well as efforts for advancing the education for sustainable development worldwide.  As part of the discussions, Ms Lily Gray, Liaison Officer at UNESCO New York presented the Report on the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development as mandated in the General Assembly resolution 70/209. ..."

Ms Gray's presentation is notable for its reliance on jargon; for example:

  • sustainable development as a way of life
  • engaging youth meaningfully
  • supporting education for values and empowerment
  • applying technological advancements in education
  • broadening thematic focus and scope of partners
  • a better and more sustainable future for present and future generations
  • ESD as an integral element of quality education

... and my particular favourites:

  • strong inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships and strategic alliances
  • global multi-stakeholder consultation and coordination
  • inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities

This is how the GA committee discussion is summarised:

"... representatives of member states stressed the importance of education for the implementation of the Agenda 2030, while highlighting the role of partnerships and cooperation mechanisms at all levels. They called for the international community to provide inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels as this “will help learners to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities to participate fully in society and contribute to sustainable development”.

Note here that the focus is on quality education with no mention of ESD.

However, all you ESD groupies and junkies out there, don't despair as the Chinese will be introducing a new General Assembly resolution on ESD later this year, and it will be full of the Thoughts of Chairman Xi – Huzzah!


Daly, Meadows and the SDGs

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So, how do the SDGs map onto the Daly & Meadows model?  Here's a first approximation ...

Wellbeing – is the Ultimate End – happiness, fulfillment & enlightenment – to be achieved through ethics

Goals: – ?3: Good Health and Well-Being  

Human and Social Capital – are the Intermediate Ends – health & wealth, knowledge, leisure & mobility, consumer goods – to be achieved through the political economy

Goals: 1: No Poverty   2: Zero Hunger   ?3: Good Health and Well-Being   4: Quality Education   5: Gender Equality   10: Reduced Inequalities    11: Sustainable Cities and Communities     12: Responsible Consumption and Production   16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions     17: Partnerships for the Goals

Built and Human Capital – are the Intermediate Means – Manufacturing & infrastructure work, tools & materials – to be achieved through science & technology

Goals: 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth    9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Natural Capital – provides the Ultimate Means – solar energy, natural cycles and systems, biological resources & minerals

Goals: 6: Clean Water and Sanitation    7: Affordable and Clean Energy   13: Climate (change)   14: Life Below Water    15: Life on Land

In a way these layers resemble the Stockholm wedding cake, but with the goals distributed differently.  The cake was:

Partnership Goal                     17

Economic Goals                8  9  10  12

Social Goals                 1  2  3  4  5  7  11  16

Biosphere Goals               6  13  14  15


But Daly / Meadows is (in this view):

Wellbeing Goals                                                                    ?3

Human and Social Capital Goals                1  2  ?3  4  5  10  11  12   16  17

Built and Human Capital Goals                                        8  9

Natural Capital Goals                                                6  7   13  14  15

The way I have constructed this illustrates how unbalanced the goals are with their strong focus on enhancing human and social justice, and their relative neglect (in Daly / Meadows terms) of the point of life.  It's as though the authors of the goals focus on making things a bit less worse in material terms for a lot of people – and that's it.

Of course, there are a lot of people whose lives need to be less worse than they are now, so that is understandable as a priority.  But that's not everything ...


The responsibilities of schools towards the goals and their learners

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As part of my reflections on last week's St George's House consultation, here are a few thoughts about schools and the SDGs:

If we’re to think about what schools might do in relation to the goals, it’s important to think about outcomes, and at a basic level, perhaps we have 4 kinds of responsibility as citizens to ...

  • understand that the Goals are important
  • think critically about these in relation to people’s lives and interests
  • weigh arguments and discuss possibilities and practicalities
  • get involved whilst reflecting on the appropriateness of actions

So what can schools do as a preparation for such a citizenly role?  And what are the practical ways forward?  Perhaps educators also have four kinds of responsibility to ...

  • help learners understand why the goals ought to be of concern to them
  • enable learners to gain plural perspectives from a range of viewpoints
  • provide opportunities for an active and critical exploration of issues
  • encourage learners to come to their own views and to get involved

Doing less than this seems neglectful; doing much more runs the risk of indoctrination as we need to stimulate without prescribing.  And we need to see conceptual frameworks as scaffolding to build learning around, rather than as cages to restrain ideas and creativity.

This is, of course, a liberal educational view that puts student learning first.  This view says that educational institutions must always prioritise student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change.  It also says that we should make use of any change that’s happening, to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense, it’s fine for a school, college or university to encourage its students to become involved, and through that involvement, explore the goals, enhance social justice, save energy, create less waste, promote biodiversity, etc.

But there are limits.  Jensen and Schnack make the point with force that, ultimately, the crucial factor must always be what students learn from participating in such activities:

“… it is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society.  Its task is not to improve the world with the help of pupils’ activities. …  The crucial factor must be what students learn from participating in such activities …”

Being restorative of social (or natural) capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of learning – and it's easy to think of approaches that do that.  Thus, a successful liberal education today will be taking these goals seriously in what it does.  At its heart will be students asking critical questions of society (easy), of their learning (trickier), and of their institution (risky)  – looking for the need for change, and getting involved.  In this sense, schools are important in nurturing thinking and learning about what might constitute appropriate futures, and in helping students begin to develop skills and competences by doing so.

In these ways our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to ask pertinent questions, to understand how to make themselves heard, and how to make a difference.  And this can be in schools across the age range.


Daly and Meadows – better than a wedding cake

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I wrote yesterday about the Stockholm Resilience Centre's disappointing wedding cake model which attempts to create a convincing case for viewing the SDGs as a coherent whole.  I say disappointing because it fundamentally misrepresents the human society – human economy relationship when doing this.

The much earlier model put forward by Donella Meadows and Herman Daly makes a much better fist of this (although it does not mention the goals).  As Paul Vare and I write in our new book:

"... sustainable development can be almost as difficult to talk about as it is to carry out.  One way of thinking about it is in terms of the assets we draw on, and the technologies and institutions we use, to improve how we live: our civilisation and our wellbeing.  Herman Daly and Donella Meadows described this in terms of four capitals: natural, built, human and social.  This shows the relationship between our political economy and nature, and how all life, and the economic transactions that underpin it, are ultimately supported from within the biosphere. It also sets out the ends to which these are put.  ... "

Here is a view of the (far from perfect) model which is best read from the bottom up:

Wellbeing –

is the Ultimate End – happiness, fulfillment & enlightenment – to be achieved through ethics

Human and Social Capital –

are the Intermediate Ends – health & wealth knowledge, leisure & mobility, consumer goods – to be achieved through the political economy

Built and Human Capital –

are the Intermediate Means – Manufacturing & infrastructure work, tools & materials – to be achieved through science & technology

Natural Capital –

provides the Ultimate Means – solar energy, natural cycles and systems, biological resources & minerals

Fundamentally, supporting absolutely everything, are what Herman Daly called the ultimate means on which all life and economic and social transactions are based: natural capital.

This is energy from the sun, the Earth’s natural materials cycles and systems, all living things on the planet with their ecosystems and habitats and the genetic information they contain (including we humans), and all the minerals found in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.  Everything we do and make and know is based on this capital stock which Donella Meadows says is the heritage that we were born into, although we rarely treat it as such.

The intermediate means are what we use to process and convert natural capital to useful things.  These means include tools, machines and devices of all kinds, the factories, offices and systems in which they are used, and the skilled labour that people provide which is needed for all these.  As such, these also include schools, hospitals, transport systems, and much more.  They constitute our built and human capital.  These intermediate means set the limits for how wide-ranging an economy will be.  Such means are necessary if we are to realise what we want from life, but they are not sufficient to do this.  Managing these intermediate means is the concern of economics, social systems and politics; that is, the political economy.  We use this to value, distribute, and maintain resources across the societies in which we live.

Intermediate ends are different.  These are what governments promise us, and what economies are expected to deliver, if we work hard and/or are lucky enough: health, wealth, knowledge, leisure, and consumer goods and material things (stuff).

Although this is what everyone says they want, satisfaction is not always guaranteed.  This is the case even when our wants are delivered.  That is because intermediate ends are not ends in themselves, but instruments to achieve something yet higher – the ultimate ends of happiness and human fulfilment  – or so philosophers tell us.  In this view, what really ought to matter to us is beyond stuff, how we communicate, beyond even health and wealth.  In this view, all these are the means to wellbeing wherein lies true happiness, human fulfilment and enlightenment.  Clearly, not everyone shares this view of what life is all about.

Although this model (and what I have written) clearly shows its relevance to thinking about the SDGs (and vice versa).  If I have the energy, I'll try to make this more explicit in a new post.

Problems with the Stockholm Wedding Cake model

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The St George's House consultation was valuable in many ways.  One unexpected outcome for me was coming across (thanks, Paul Vare) the Stockholm Resilience Centre's Wedding Cake model of the SDGs.  It's here.

The Centre says:

This model changes our paradigm for development, moving away from the current sectorial approach where social, economic, and ecological development are seen as separate parts. Now, we must transition toward a world logic where the economy serves society so that it evolves within the safe operating space of the planet.

This is the layered cake:

Partnership Goal                     17

Economic Goals                8  9  10  12

Social Goals                 1  2  3  4  5  7  11  16

Biosphere Goals               6  13  14  15

In the model, the bottom layer of the cake represents the biosphere [ Goals 6, 13, 14, 15 ].  The next layer has Goals 1 to 5, 7, 11, 16 and this is society.  The next later is the economy [ Goals 8, 9, 10, 12 ], and at the top where, in more traditional times the bride and groom would be, is Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals | Strengthen the implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

All this immediately invites comparison with Kate Raworth's (and Oxfam's) Doughnut, but a more pertinent comparison, perhaps, is with the Daly and Meadows modelling of the Earth system and human society.  More on all this later.

As for the wedding cake, whilst it has to be right to have the biosphere where it is as this underpins everything else (and won't environmental educators everywhere be pleased), it seems odd to have the economy above society in this way, given that it is supposed to "serve society"  In this view it seems obvious that society's role is to support the economy which is where much of humanity is now stuck.  How odd that the Stockholm Resilience Centre made this fundamental error.


The 17 goals are:

  • 17: Partnerships for the Goals


  • 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • 10: Reduced Inequalities
  • 12: Responsible Consumption and Production


  • 1: No Poverty
  • 2: Zero Hunger
  • 3: Good Health and Well-Being
  • 4: Quality Education
  • 5: Gender Equality
  • 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


  • 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
    13: Climate Change
    14: Life Below Water
    15: Life on Land



A global educator's responsibilities and their limits

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The St. George's House consultation on the SDGs is over.  It was stimulating.

It seems clear to me that young people can be helped to think about global issues at at early age, and then to be helped to build on that thinking (and learning).   This raises issues of progression (and coherence), at least from a teacher’s perspective.   I remember (this is years ago) complaints from HMI that they went into schools and saw children learning about X (this was probably environmental issues) but there was no coherence to it, with 14 year olds learning in one school what 10 year olds were learning in another, and 8 year olds in another, and many students being asked to study the same things twice.  HMI said this left students bewildered.

Commendably, Oxfam (and maybe others) have addressed the progression issue in relation to global citizenship education – See page 16 of the resource you can download here.

But attempts at rational progression and coherence raise issues of instrumentalism and the possibility that learner autonomy might be jeopardised.  After all,  some learners might want to study what they find interesting (off-piste, as it were).  And any student might learn something that a school rather wished they hadn't (say to be very critical of the UK's 0.7% aid spend).  Each of these fit ill with many forms of progression that you might have come across.

In relation to all this, an awkward question presents itself.

If, at the end of a learning programme about the Goals, a student comes up to you and says this:

– That was fantastic.  Such a great programme; so many insights.  I’ve learned so much.  Thanks, in particular, for the really stimulating way that you approached it.  It’s hard to imagine it could have done better.

– Having thought about it a lot I’m convinced that we should take the goals very seriously.

– However, I think that the 0.7% aid budget should be devoted to helping the very many people across the UK who live shockingly deprived lives (as evidenced, for example, by the latest UK social mobility report).  After all, as Kate Osamor, the Labour shadow secretary of state for international development said the other day: "The Sustainable Development Goals begin at home."

As an educator, what do you think?  Do you think you’ve done a good job – here’s someone who’s thinking for themselves after all – not to mention all that praise for you.  Or do you think you’ve failed utterly because they’re not thinking the right sort of thing?

If you're an educator, there is only one possible answer here.


The two St George's House propositions

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I am still at St George's House, Windsor, at a consultation about young people and the sustainable development goals.  This is, amongst other things, considering two propositions:

  1. Goal-related learning by students can help increase the likelihood that the goals will be valued, supported and hence realised
  2. A critical study of the goals can enhance the focus, and help raise the quality, of student learning

I drafted these two statements but neither is strikingly original – and each fails the dog training test.  Here are my thoughts on them.

Proposition 2   The Pearson website quotes from the January 2015 Buntingsdale Primary School Ofsted report saying this:

"Global education makes the learning more relevant and interesting for pupils, and so it contributes to their enthusiasm for learning."

Well, who can doubt that is the case when it is done well?  And who can also doubt that this enthusiasm – this motivation – for learning gets translated into actual learning of all kinds.  But is the key point here global learning, or is it the school’s own interest in and enthusiasm for global learning?  This is a question that Ofsted raised several years ago when it say that successful schools were those schools that had a clear purpose, focus, interest and enthusiasm.  It was this that made school interesting and worthwhile, and was readily communicated to students.  It was almost that it didn’t really matter what that interest and focus was – although Ofsted didn’t quite say that (I wish I could find the link ...).

Proposition 1    I’d say that this might well depend on a lot of things.  But it raises the question about whether it’s the business of schools to do this.  Two Danish educators, Jensen and Schnack, said not when they wrote:

“… it is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society.  Its task is not to improve the world with the help of pupils’ activities. …”

So, our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to see that they should care about them, and might do something about them.  But what they do (and whether they do it) should (and will anyway) be up to them.  It's not anyone's role or duty just to do as our teachers or parents say.

But just to be pellucidly clear, I do think we should all take the Goals seriously.  They do, after all, represent the work of the world to make itself less troubled.


How young people experience the SDGs across the UK

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As I noted yesterday, I am at St George's House, Windsor, at a consultation with a focus on young people and the sustainable development goals.  As an introduction to four presentations (from across the UK) about what they are trying to achieve when exploring the SDGs with young people, the following text was agreed by the presenters:

For the sustainable development goals to be successful – citizens, including young people, must be provided with:

  • participatory, creative and transformative learning experiences which enable them to understand the challenges, complexities, injustices, interdependencies of our world through addressing topics such as climate change and poverty
  • the opportunity to explore and understand the opportunities, connections, common aspirations and common humanity within our world
  • an education which provides them with the opportunity to develop the essential skills, attitudes and dispositions that will enable and empower them as active citizens contributing to the achievement of the goals and thus a fair and sustainable world through their own choices, behaviours and actions.

Although universal and collaborative, the goals themselves are not perfect.  Some feel they do not go far enough to address the root causes of global poverty and inequality and indeed may reinforce the unjust international system.  We must ensure that actions taken to address the SDGs use social justice rather than charity based approaches.  Therefore, we must equip young people with the skills to think critically about the goals themselves and about whether they truly address the root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change and to understand how to influence and effect change locally and globally.

At one level all this is fine, and none of it comes as any surprise, but there is something of a fault line in it.

This is evident in the last sentence, and in the 3rd bullet point:

"... we must equip young people with the skills to think critically about the goals ..."

"an education which provides them with the opportunity to develop the essential skills, attitudes and dispositions that will enable and empower them as active citizens contributing to the achievement of the goals ..."

It is, after all, conceivable that such an education might not result in people who want to "contribute to the achievement of the goals ... through their own choices, behaviours and actions".

That's the problem with (and great strength of) education at its best: it's wonderfully open-ended and unpredictable where learners don't always (want to) learn what their teachers teach.