Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: July 2009

Are young people really worried about climate change?

📥  News and Updates

I wrote the following on June 20th, and tracked down Pete Williams from Somerfield, asking for a copy of the report that Bjorn Lomborg seems to have been so impressed by.  Alas, I've heard nothing.  Time to chase again, perhaps.

Back in February, the Boston Globe ran a story about a 17-year old who had been admitted to the psychiatric unit at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne. The youth was refusing to drink water as he was worried about drought related to climate change, and was convinced that if he drank, millions of people would die. The doctors noted this as the first known instance of "climate change delusion".  

On Monday, the Guardian ran a piece by Bjorn Lomborg titled: Scared silly over climate change in which he claimed that we are "frightening children with exaggerations – they believe they don't have a future and that the world is going to end".  Most of the reportage in the story came from the USA, but towards the end, Lomborg says: "We see the same pattern in the United Kingdom, where a survey showed that half of young children aged between seven and 11 are anxious about the effects of global warming, often losing sleep because of their concern".  Indeed it would be, were it true.  But is it?  And whose survey is it?  The Guardian article didn't say.

Perhaps it was the same story as reported by GMTV in February which notes: "Half of young children are anxious about the effects of global warming, often losing sleep because of their concern".  If so, this suggests it is a survey by Somerfield.  Somerfield spokesman Pete Williams has said: "Concerns over our environment dominate the media at present and kids are exposed to the hard facts as much as anybody. While many adults may look the other way, this study should show that global warming is not only hurting the children of the future, its affecting the welfare of kids now".  

All this rather runs counter to anecdotal evidence from teachers and headteachers with whom I have talked who say that young people find the challenges around climate and environment rather stimulating and motivating – and how much of the Somerfield survey can be taken at face value depends on what was asked, and how, of course.  I'll try to track this down c/o Mr Williams – and report back.


Judging the Effectiveness of a Sustainable School

📥  New Publications

This essay explores a central question for all those involved in education and sustainability (ESD): What are you really most interested in: educational or social outcomes—what learners learn, or what they do? Although this is hardly a new question, the paper argues that it is one that needs to be emphasised at this time when we see a tightening focus on modifying behaviours, and the conscription of educational institutions and programmes to these ends. The essay takes the promotion of Fairtrade, a contemporary view on how ESD might be conceptualised, and a recent report from the English schools inspectorate, to explore where an appropriate balance might be struck between these. The essay argues that, although both educational and social outcomes are important, when it comes to making judgements about school effectiveness, this needs to be tightly focused on what young people are learning rather than on, say, the amount of energy they have saved or waste they have recycled.

The citation is:
Scott WAH (2009) Judging the Effectiveness of a Sustainable School: a brief exploration of issues; Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 3(1) 33 – 39
and the pdf is available here:



What to do about all that University Carbon

📥  Comment

Under the heading: "Let's have a heated debate: Universities are about to be given targets for carbon reduction – expect arguments about the best approach", the Guardian recently explored the issue of how UK universities might contribute to the UK's carbon-reduction targets.  Part of this, and amid a rather bewildering array of dates, percentages, tonnages and putative costs, was a comment from Iain Patton of EAUC:

"If students leave with a degree but no grasp of the social, ethical and environmental context into which they will have to live and work, have we not failed them?  No matter how large a university carbon footprint is, it is nothing compared to the impact of its graduates when they leave and enter homes and workplaces. If we miss this, we really do miss the big picture. When at university, we have the responsibility to ensure learners are exposed to knowledge and values which they can take on with them as informed, responsible citizens. Every aspect of our campuses, buildings, teaching and leadership must be oriented to achieve this."

Whilst this integrated (if not holistic) big picture view is commonplace in the context of schools (where the bringing together of issues across 'campus, curriculum and community' is an imperative of the DCSF's sustainable schools initiative, and something of a mantra), it is much less obviously the case in relation to universities where a focus on 'working' (as opposed to 'living', to use Patton's useful distinction), is more common, both generally speaking, and in relation to those degrees, courses, and units that have a bearing on sustainability.  This, given the vocational nature of much degree work (one way or another), is understandable.

The question is, just how far beyond this focus on degree studies (and working) is it sensible and necessary to go when resource (and expertise) is thinly spread, returns might be quite limited, and opportunity costs high?  The rhetoric (and rhetoricians) say it should be a long way, but this is a proposition worthy of some thought.

In terms of 'working', and particularly from the perspective of first employment, what a student learns in relation to sustainability on a degree course, and on associated work placements, is very significant in the development of appropriate understanding, skills, and capability – by far the major source, perhaps.  This seems much less likely to be the case in relation to 'living' where schools may have already had something of a go, and the students (as adults) will have their own exposure from media, family, peers, and, increasingly, the student union and societies – and students may not need to acquire sustainability values from tertiary institutions (which is probably just as well).

Given this, requiring universities to do everything they can in relation to addressing sustainability within the programmes they offer, whilst encouraging them to work with student unions, and possibly others, on wider issues, might seem a sensible way forward.

A Sustainable Schools Question

📥  Comment

The government’s target is that all English schools will be sustainable by 2020.  Although it's not clear what this will actually have to mean in practice, it does suggest (implicitly at any rate) that focusing on the sustainability of a school, as an institution (as opposed to just addressing sustainability through what is taught and learned through the curriculum), is necessary if learning by students is to be effective.  As we all know, a key focus of the sustainable schools initiative is that of the school’s becoming a model for activity in the community:

Schools … are invited to become models of sustainable development for their communities … turning issues like climate change, global justice and local quality of life into engaging learning opportunities for pupils – and a focus for action among the whole school community."  DfES (2006)

But doesn't all this seem a bit overblown?  Certainly, many communities up and down the country don't seem to be waiting for their local schools to issue moral direction and practical advice – which is just as well.  And anyway, don't we all learn from each other in an iterative fashion as we go along?  Richard Norgaard terms this co-evolution.

So, at the risk of seeming a backward-looking, rebarbative, sort of fellow, who's unlikely to win any green awards any time soon (this last bit is true at any rate), let me ask this question: Why isn't it enough for a school to address sustainability in its work with young people through imaginative and engaging teaching, and stimulating opportunities for learning?   Just why does a school need to live sustainability out in practice – to be sustainable, in the widest sense, as an institution in order for young people to learn?  The rhetoric of the sustainable schools initiative affirms this latter view, of course, as do my fellow bloggers here – and Ken Webster and Craig Johnson (2009) add substance, and challenge, to all this with their description of a fully sustainable school as 'eco-restorative' with positive contributions being made both socially and environmentally.   But no-one provides an argument – a justification.

It is clear that there's a choice to be made here by school communities: so just how integrated do you feel that you need to be?  Given that the contribution of the school sector to the nation's carbon / ecological footprint is risibly small, why allow an obsession with being sustainable (with most schools failing utterly until the nation's electricity supply is itself derived from fully sustainable sources – maybe by 2035?) divert energy and resource away from stimulating young people's learning?  After all, just what are schools for?


NB, This is my first blog to the 2009 national sustainable schools conference.  What started out as a bit of grit has turned into a question that seems to deserve a response.  On postcards please ...



[Re-]thinking Allowed

📥  Comment


I'm grateful to a school-based colleague who recently said to me that what schools need to do is to emphasise re-thinking rather than re-cycling.   Indeed!  was my first thought.  Then I wondered why I'd not come up with something quite as pithy through all my tedious deliberations.  But now I have, albeit in a vicarious sort of way, so that's ok.


The recent TIDE~ conference (see previous blog) used as a heading "Thinking Aloud" as the title of its final plenary session.  There was some deliberation about whether this actually ought to have been "Thinking Allowed" in recognition that QCA (soon to be, at great public expense, QCDA) had now given teachers permission to think.  I'm grateful to another colleague, this time an NGO-based one, for a conversation that asked since when did teachers need anyone's permission to do their job.   

If you're reading this (unlikely, I know) – my thanks to you both.


Schools, the Learning Society and Sustainability

📥  Comment

Schools, as institutions, need to be seen as an integral part of the wider learning society with the key role of supporting young people in the early stages of acquiring those wide-ranging understandings and capabilities that they will need to continue to develop in order to successfully engage with, and live in, the wider world. 

In terms of sustainability, the purpose of education might be seen as engaging young people and stimulating their development of awareness, understanding, skills and capabilities in relation to living sustainably with the hope (but not certainty) that this will gives rise to social participation that can contribute to the goal of social justice and human well-being on the global scale, and bolster the integrity and resilience of ecological systems within the biosphere. 

In schools the current focus of such engagement relates, in the main, to students’ personal and social activities (how they live); in universities, currently at any rate, engagement almost exclusively focuses on vocational and professional preparation (how they work).  The following questions seem to follow from this:

1.  To what extent is focusing on the sustainability of a school, as an institution, necessary to support learning about sustainability?    [ as opposed to just addressing this through what is taught ]
2.  To what extent do universities need to teach all their students about sustainability?    [ as oppossed to just raising issues in those courses that are directly germane to sustainability ]
... whilst noting that the first of these is not a question that tends to be asked of universities; and that the second is not a question that tends to be asked of schools.  


SDC Discovers Outdoor Learning – Shock

📥  News and Updates

The Sustainable Development Commission argues, plausibly enough, that "... We have still not seen the kind of transformation (to sustainability) that is needed".  In response, It launched in 2008 'Breakthroughs for the 21st Century' with the aim of creating a "dynamic and hard-hitting portfolio of ideas that could really inspire policy-makers and others to set the UK much more decisevely on the part to becoming a sustainable society".  19 of these ideas made the cut.  You can find them here, and here as a pdf: sdc_breakthroughs.

Given that a "breakthrough is something that moves us decisively away from the status quo or the usual incremental change", I was bemused to see that one of the 19 is "natural values: outdoor experiences for all".  This relies heavily on Richard Louv's, to my mind, unthought through notion of nature deficit disorder.  More importantly, however, where, I wondered does this leave the UK's learning outside the classroom manifesto that is not mentioned at all.  Even more significantly, perhaps, where does this leave indoor (ie, inside the classroom) education - because that's not mentioned either.  It is as if all we need to do is to get out more.

This SDC breakthrough is sponsored by Kate Rawles and Chris Loynes of the  School of Outdoor Studies at the University of Cumbria.  In a recent posting to the Outdoor and adventure education research [OUTRES@JISCMAIL.AC.UK]   Rawles and Loynes say: "We would be delighted to hear from anyone who is working in this area and to find out what you are doing and how it is going. We would be particularly interested in any evaluations of projects of this kind, as we plan to develop an evidence base to support the lobbying that will take place at policy and strategy levels."

Silly me!  How naive; there was I thinking that an evidence base might be in place before SDC endorsed this idea.

Understanding School to Home Transfer of Learning

📥  News and Updates

Teachers and schools are well practised in helping young people develop a wide range of awareness, understanding and skills.  This is, after all, their core purpose.  They obviously achieve these goals through what they teach, but they also do it through how they teach, seeking effective ways of interesting, motivating and engaging young people.  In addition to this, how the school is organised is important because this is also an effective way of helping young people learn key social skills and attitudes where the workings of the school mirror the values that it would like the young people to develop: for example, around inter-personal, democratic and citizenship skills, a focus on issues of care, respect and tolerance, and an encouragement of critical thinking and questioning attitudes. 

Because of all this, and because of the official fixation with behaviour change as the prime social vector leading to sustainability, there has been considerable interest recently around the idea that what children learn about sustainability issues in schools can be readily transferred to parents and the wider community and bring about behaviour change.  The idea that schools are key to resolving environmental issues is not new, and neither is the idea that families might be influenced as well – for example, through changing practice in the home around energy, water and waste in consumer choices around food, trade and transport, and in putting pressure on business, commerce and local authorities to change practices – and, if young people really can influence what families do, then schools are an obvious place from which to start.  Whilst there is probably something in this, especially around the more straightforward issues such as energy saving, research on such processes shows that opportunities for such learning are not always straightforward.  

The attached, [school-to-home-learning], summarises the position as we see it.  It was developed from research carried out for the British Gas Generation Green programme, and from research done by Elsa Lee as part of the University's MA in Environmental Education degree.


The Primary Review – and ESD

📥  Comment

I'm very grateful to Ben Ballin, of Tide~, for drawing to my attention a significant piece of text from the Cambridge Primary Review: children, their world, their education.  As I noted in an earlier posting, there is some controversy as to whether focusing on climate change, ecological problems, poverty, etc, causes young people to be apprehensive / anxious / depressed / turned off / apathetic / suicidal /  etc, or whether it is a set of issues which, handled with care and skill, can stimulate what is best in humanity: ie, that, if we act together, something positive can be done (an example of meliorism, in fact and action).

Unsurprisingly, it is the "handled with care and skill" that seems to be the key point here.  The review says:

"... children who were most confident that climate change might not overwhelm them were those whose schools had decided to replace unfocussed fear by factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability. Similarly, the teachers who were least worried by national initiatives were those who responded to them with robust criticism rather than resentful compliance, and asserted their professional right to go their own way. There is a lesson from such empowerment for government as well as schools. Of course, not even the most enterprising school can reverse some of the social trends which worried many of our witnesses. That being so, these Community Soundings have implications for social and economic policy more generally, and for public attitudes and values, not merely for DCSF and the schools."


"The soundings programme as a whole was pervaded by a sense of deep pessimism about the future, to which children themselves were not immune. Many expressed concern about climate change, global warming and pollution, and optimists were balanced by those who felt that governments were not doing enough to respond to the urgency and magnitude of the challenges. Some children also deplored the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. In the words of one child: ‘America consumes, Africa wants’. There was also unease about terrorism. The children were no less anxious about those local issues which directly affected their sense of security – traffic, the lack of safe play areas, rubbish, graffiti, gangs of older children, knives, guns. Some were also worried by the gloomy tenor of ‘what you hear on the news’ or by a generalised fear of strangers, burglars and street violence. Inevitably, perhaps, these fears were most prominent in the inner-city communities. 

Yet where schools had started engaging children with global and local realities as aspects of their education they were noticeably more upbeat. In several schools children were involved in environmental and energy-saving projects and the sense that ‘we can do something about it’ seemed to make all the difference. This more positive outlook was most evident in the school whose environmental activism was spearheaded by an ‘Eco-action’ group with representatives from each year. 

The potentially uneasy relationship between school and what lies outside its gates was manifested nearly everywhere by levels of security which would have been inconceivable at the time of the Plowden enquiry, forty years ago. Yet once inside the building there was nothing gloomy about school life as we observed it. Whatever is happening in the wider world, and whatever their anxieties about the future, these children spent their school days in communities-within-communities which unfailingly sought to celebrate the positive. Inevitably, children talked about new technologies. Their response ranged from the classic futurology of robot teachers and hologram libraries to a more considered awareness that new technologies gave them access to information unavailable to previous generations but that people should guard against excessive reliance on computers: ‘Use your brain, otherwise you will get lazy and obese’, warned one. Elsewhere children emphasised the advantage of the practical over the virtual. Children who worked out of doors (as in the Forest School which featured prominently in the Devon leg of the south-west sounding) were enthusiastic about the opportunity to ‘actually go out and do things’; others contrasted going on school trips with looking at a picture in a book or on the web, ‘because you’re seeing things, feeling things, real things.’ ... In light of the above, children’s views of educational priorities highlighted the development of generic capacities for managing life in a changing world: learning how to learn, preparing for life, developing relationships, handling responsibility, citizenship, life skills, financial management and generally ‘thinking about the future’."

Both quotes are taken from primary_review_community_soundings_report_final