Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Like the poor, will the Fafferati always be with us

📥  Comment

A new neologism (tautology, perhaps) this morning.  Catching up with Simon Carr over breakfast, I came upon his coining of " fafferati " which he defines as that

"wide conspiracy of over-educated, self-soaping professionals who don't know what to do telling people who do know what to do what to do".

Carr acknowledges the contribution of Lord Maurice Glasman to this like of thinking, and had the inaptly named, but appropriately shamed, Quality Care Commission in mind, but candidates for this dubious accolade seem all around us, and education is not immune.


School Food Mistrust

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The taxpayer, generous to a fault, has just wished £4.3m on the non-departmental public body the School Food Trust [SFT] for its work in 2011/12.  The detailed remit letter from Mr Gove is worth a read, especially if you were thinking that the government was being careful with your cash, or was in danger of actually running out of it.  Far from it, it seems.  Rather staggeringly, to my democratic mind, this £4.3m includes £800,000 to aid the SFT's transition to a private sector company which will no doubt continue to receive funding from the taxpayer even when this shift has taken place. The SFT must think that this is a great deal which ever way they look at it.

£1.2m of the money is for ...

"keeping the department up to date on key issues related to the nutrition of children of school age, highlighting any emerging evidence that should be considered in terms of feeding children well.  This will include advice on policy issues and nutrition for Parliamentary questions, letters and briefings".

They must be expecting an eye-watering number of questions.

It gets a bit better, however, as only  £400,000 is to be provided for building the capacity of parents, families and communities to influence the quality and standards of food children are given in school.  Mr Gove notes that

"I expect that support will probably take the form of providing simple information on what good school food should comprise and the benefits to children of consuming a balanced diet; along with advice on how to set up a local parent group empowered to negotiate with caterers and schools to feed their children well".

Well, indeed!  Rather curious, some might think, that there remains so much ignorance about "the benefits to children of consuming a balanced diet".   Could this have anything to do with the way that nutritional understanding has either been sidelined in the curriculum or suborned to commercial interests by successive governments over many years?

I searched this document in vain for any hint that what children are taught in schools might have any bearing on "the benefits ... of consuming a balanced diet", but could not find any.  Odd, perhaps, that a Department of Education should forget that what children learn in schools matters, and that there might be a link between what is taught in schools about food growing and consumption, and actual food consumption.  I can only conclude that the SFT supporters within the DfE have not read all the national curriculum submissions that have made this rather elementary 'joined up' point.  I should declare an interest, here, as I had a small role in making one of these arguments.  I also searched for any indication of how all this was contributing to the DfE's being part of the "greenest government ever".  Another no show, I fear, which is odd given the Department's historic and continuing interests in sustainability in schools (and not just in the curriculum), and the key role of food growing and consumption to this.


Discussion Groups in the Neolithic

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As I noted in the last post, during my couple of days on the Isle of Wight last week, there was some discussion of ARUP's 10 Winning strategies for the ecological age.  These were written to stimulate a consideration of future human-human and human-earth relations in the present day, but one of our group suggested that they they are probably quite descriptive of how Neolithic societies actually functioned.   Whilst being somewhat agnostic on this point (did they really go around saying: Optimise not Maximise), I found myself wondering whether, when Neolithic groups actually met up (as they surely did), whilst some were off having a céilidh and a pint of whatever it was at the time, some earnest types would sit around and consider the pressures on their way of living (too many henges cluttering the landscape, maybe), whether society needed improvement (better boats for all that rock, no doubt), and whether the curriculum needed revising (more timeless facts and less revisionist opinion, perhaps).

Sadly, I don't know enough about any of this for this fantasy to go much further, other than to say that Michael Flanders did write a satire about troubles in Neolithic times that did imply some conversation: "A henge?  What's a henge?"  Indeed; a timeless question.

Lets hear it for Edgy Co-existence

📥  Comment

Another stimulating couple of days with the Ellen MacArthur team on the Isle of Wight working with a richly diverse group of people from across interests, disciplines and sectors, all of whom are working with the Foundation on the idea of the Circular Economy, one way or another.   We did one exercise that focused on 10 Winning strategies for the ecological age that had been worked up by ARUP’s Peter Head based around Janine Benyus' Biomimicry [ See her TED talk ], with a strap line of smart responsive simplicity.  The 10 strategies are:

1   Use waste as a resource

2   Diversify and co-operate

3   Gather and use energy efficiently

4   Optimise not maximise

5   Use materials sparingly

6   Clean up, not pollute

7   Do not draw down resources

8   Remain in balance with the biosphere

9   Run on information

10 Shop locally

Some of these seems self-evident at the common sense level, others much less so.  The 2nd,  "Diversify and co-operate" stimulated a lively discussion about whatever happened to the idea of competition, particularly as this is often more visible than co-operation in the everyday natural world that inspires this list.

It boils down to a question of preferred metaphors, of course, with nature red in tooth and claw often being seen to be too redolent of markets, competition and capitalism to be dwelt on by sensitive souls who don’t think that these can have much of a role in a sustainable future – and don't want them to have any such a role.  Nature as warmly collaborative and nurturing is a much nicer template for a preferred human future, especially if your tastes run to the more local, the simpler, and to a stepping back to a better time (though when this was is a puzzle).  Nature might be socially constructed, but that doesn't mean you can construct is any old how.

The reason that we have two metaphors is because these collaborative and competitive tendencies are both full on, all the time, resulting in a very edgy co-existence – and giving the natural world its resilience and diversity.  To pretend otherwise seems dishonest.


History made today

📥  News and Updates

A question for you: When was the last time that anyone interested in sustainability and learning was invited to do anything as significant as this:

A visit to the Paris studios of RTL - France’s most listened-to radio station - to record the 'Element Terre' show hosted by Louis Bodin.  (available online here on 7th August)

Next to France2 to take part in the One O’clock live news, hosted by star presenter Elise Lucet.  (this is France's second most watched TV channel)

Finally, an evening at the British Embassy to make a presentation on the principles of the circular economy with Odile Desforges (Renault’s executive VP, and Chief of Engineering and Quality)

Well, if it’s Paris, Renault and the circular economy, then of course it must be Ellen MacArthur (whom the French tend to revere because they understand sailing better than we do) talking about the work of her Foundation.

And the answer to the question …


And so to Glastonbury

📥  News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

Well, not quite.  On Westbury station early this morning for the London train, but just for a micro second the thought occurred to me, maybe I should join the throng on the platform and go to Glastonbury instead — and astound everyone, especially myself.  But I'd been promised a gold standard lunch at the Food for Life Partnership [FFLP] conference, and hadn't brought my wellingtons, or got a ticket!

The conference was a celebration of FFLP's achievements and a good news fest.  It was also a coming together of health and educational interests (and acronyms); the admirable Sheila Dillon was in the chair.  The Minister of State gave an out of touch talk, evaluators told their complex stories, and head teachers related, with passion and persuasion, how much FFLP has done for them and their children in a wide range of ways to do with educational achievement and motivation and also health and well-being, not just for schools, but in relation to communities as well.

The event was really a looking ahead to the end of FFLP's Big Lottery funding, with both its legacy and possible future impact in mind.  The event ended with an opinionated panel discussion about securing FFLP gains for the future: not a Headteacher in sight.  In all this, it was sometimes hard to keep focus on FFLP and its future amid so much discussion of the uncertainties around the new health structures both nationally and locally, and how these interact with schools (actually, they don't).  As someone who struggles to comprehend the English health bureaucracy and its changes, it was mildly instructive to learn about the new Health and Wellbeing Boards, which were new to me, and about their relationship (if any) with the new clinical commissioning groups.  And is there really something called Public Health England?   It seems there is.

I wondered whether FFLP (or perhaps the Soil Association or Garden Organic) ought to be running a Freeschool (or three), and — more likely perhaps — whether The Food Programme will be having a half-hour dedicated to FFLP.  I do hope so.


Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 3

📥  Comment

This is the last of 3 postings about the relationship between the school science curriculum and sustainability.  The story begins here.

As I have argued, this linkage between science knowledge, understanding and sustainability does not need to be forced as both are rather ‘natural’ in scope.  It does, however, need to be made visible to schools, and encouraged, in at least two senses: [i] at a very basic level, permission needs to be given that a focus on sustainability is appropriate for school science; and [ii] that it is a necessary (but far from the only) context of study if the aims of studying school science are to be fulfilled.

These need not be separate exercises and can be established through [i] the kind of preamble statements of aims, purpose and values that we have seen (Post 2), and [ii] the identification of learning focus and/or outcomes.  So, with this rationale, and this view of scientific literacy, what is it important for young people to know, value, and be able to do in situations involving science (and technology)?

For PISA, scientific literacy refers to young people’s:

  • Scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena and draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues
  • Understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry
  • Awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual and cultural environments
  • Willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen    OECD 2009:128

In what follows, one way of thinking about the outcomes of a science education ending at Key Stage 4 is set out, with sustainability in mind, based on the OECD notion of scientific literacy.

Students should have an appropriate knowledge and critical understanding of …

1 fundamental ecological concepts; viz: diversity of lifeforms,  communities of lifeforms in specific areas,  ecosystems,  adaptation of animals and plants to their environment,  energy flow through such systems,  material cycles in nature,  inter-relationships between energy flow, material flow and the viability of lifeforms and communities

and to have studied these, as appropriate and possible, at first-hand.

2 theories of genetics, inheritance and evolution, the theories and practices of plant and animal breeding, and the concepts of biotechnology and genetic engineering.

3 ways in which the natural world is of benefit to humanity; viz:

  • a source of those resources necessary for life and bio-processes (eg, viable ecosystems, a benign climate, a clean atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, nutritious, edible and palatable food, clean water)
  • a source of resources required for social and socio-economic activity (eg, fuels for heat, transport and economic activity, raw materials for shelter, security and economic activity, eg, minerals, plant crops, gases)
  • a means of disposing of the waste products of humans and their socio-economic activities in order to render such waste harmless, and/or in order to recycle/reuse it for further/future use

4 the evidence around the ways in which both social and economic human activity are thought, increasingly, to disturb and stress natural cycles and flows, and jeopardizes the viability of such systems; viz:  habitat loss and the commensurate effects on species and biodiversity; agricultural land loss;  acidification of soils and the oceans;  desertification;  eutrophication;  temperature fluctuations;  global warming, accelerated climate change; pollution of air, groundwater, land, waterways, and the oceans;  stratospheric ozone layer depletion, …

5 ways in which human activity is using up resources which are finite and irreplaceable, the search for alternative materials, and the problems associated with this.

6 arguments about, both the need to change the ways in which humans use energy and the urgency of such action, and the steps which are being taken to shift to greater use of renewable sources.

7 the large discrepancies in the use of energy and resources across the world, and the resulting differences in the quality of life and life-expectancy for different groups of people; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

8 arguments about how humans have a duty of care and responsibility towards other life-forms on the planet, both in the need to treat them humanely (eg, in experimentation, agriculture, hunting, their use in commerce and in domestic contexts) and in the need to do nothing to jeopardise their continuing viability at the species level; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

9 arguments about how humans have a duty of care towards the needs of future human generations and the future of the planet; and of the ethical issues raised by such differences.

10 the implications of all of 4 to 9 for the quality and perhaps even the existence of future life on the planet (human and all other), including a critical understanding of the quality of the arguments and evidence upon which such concerns are based, and the implications for future policy, activity, training and education.

Students should acquire such knowledge and understanding in a way which …

11 requires them actively to engage with ideas and data, and allows them to appreciate the complexities of the arguments

12 gives them appropriate first-hand experience of environmental issues in authentic contexts

13 allows them to acquire suitable practical environmental investigation and action skills

14 demonstrates the links between science and other disciplines

15 involves a respect for evidence and a recognition of the need for balance

16 requires them to create their own theories about how environmental issues might be understood and dealt with

17 increases their own sense of concern and responsibility for the future of lifeforms on the planet

So that students, individually and/or collectively, will have the ability and motivation to …

18 comprehend and contribute to the on-going debate about environmental and sustainability issues in a way which is both scientifically and environmentally sound, doing this in a critical way

19 be aware of individual and collective impacts on environmental systems in daily life and work, and think about how these can be mitigated

20 help influence those around them at work and in the community to raise the level of awareness of environmental/sustainability issues and the implications of actions

21 use their action skills at home, at work and in the community, for positive social benefit

22 contribute through deliberative social processes to shaping policy at local and national levels.

Although this has a strong environment / sustainability element, it remains a science course of study, where the sustainability issues are aspects of a scientific focus on the nature of, and our understanding of, the natural world.  It has been interpreted only for those aspects of science that have a bearing on an understanding of sustainability and environmental issues.  As such, this does not address all those other elements which do not have such a link.

Inevitably, what is set out is incomplete.  It is indicative, rather than definitive, and can only be an illustration of what might be.


Barratt Hacking EC, Scott WAH & Lee E (2010) Evidence of Impact of Sustainable Schools.  London: Department for Children, Schools and Families

Bybee R (1997a) Achieving Scientific Literacy: From Purposes to Practices; Portsmouth NH: Heinemann

Bybee R (1997b) Towards an understanding of scientific literacy, in W. Gräber & C. Bolte (Eds.), Scientific Literacy: An International Symposium, Institute for Science Education at the University of Kiel (IPN) Kiel, Germany,

OECD (2009) PISA 2009 Assessment Framework Key competencies in reading, mathematics and science; Paris: OECD

OECD (2003) The PISA 2003 Assessment Framework mathematics, reading, science and problem-solving knowledge & skills; Paris: OECD

[1] By way of contrast, how PISA categorieses knowledge of science is set out in Appendix 2


Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 2

📥  Comment

This is the second of 3 postings about the relationship between the school science curriculum and sustainability.  The story begins here.

A rationale for why the study of science needs to be a core aspect of young people’s experience at school might be something like this:

A large proportion of the situations, problems and issues encountered by individuals in their daily lives require some understanding of science (and technology) before they can be fully understood or addressed.  Thus, an understanding of science and technology is central to young people’s preparedness for life in modern society, as it enables them to participate fully in a society where science and technology play such a significant role, and confront individuals at personal, community, national and even global levels.

This understanding also empowers young people to participate appropriately in the determination of public policy and action where issues of science and technology impact on their lives, and therefore contributes significantly to the personal, social, professional and cultural lives of everyone.

Thus, studying science is important, not only because a study of science is culturally important, but also because doing this also empowers people, individually and socially.

One way of thinking about the purpose of a formal science education is to see this as making students scientifically literate, appropriate to age and culture.  In this sense, we need a conceptual framework that will enable a shared understanding of what this might mean in practice.  OECD, for the purposes of its PISA assessments, has defined scientific literacy in this way:

The capacity to use scientific knowledge to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human history. OECD 2003:133

This draws on Bybee’s (1997) work; in particular on his ‘third level of scientific literacy’ which is termed “conceptual and procedural literacy” as being more appropriate for PISA purposes than levels one & two (nominal and functional scientific literacy), and level four (which OECD deems only appropriate for specialist study).

The distinction made here between scientific knowledge, and what one might term social capability in relation to that knowledge, is striking.  Importantly, of course, mastery of levels one and two are implicit in mastery of level three.  Thus, appropriate knowledge and understanding are a necessary component of any science course, both as an end in themselves, and as a means to a much more significant social purpose.

It follows from the above that, for PISA, students’ knowledge is important, but so is their capacity to use this knowledge effectively, as they carry out cognitive processes that are characteristic of science and scientific enquiries of personal, social, or global relevance, as a preparation for students, either now or in the future, making decisions.  Of course, this way of thinking about science education in schools is not significant just because the OECD sees it in these terms, as it is a somewhat mainstream cultural rationale throughout developed, socio-liberal economies.  However, because OECD / PISA is such an important international benchmark of educational attainment, many would see its having additional weight.

The appropriateness of a focus on (environmental) sustainability within formal science education seems implicit in the way that scientific literacy has been viewed here:

the capacity … to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human history.

… as an interest in (and education about) sustainability is not focused on the natural world, per se, but about human interactions with that world, and in this, scientific knowledge and understanding is a crucial component of such a study.   This mirrors the focus of the two aims which provide the “essential context” within which English schools currently develop their curriculum.  Aim 2 states (inter alia) that:

the school curriculum should develop students’ awareness and understanding of, and respect for, the environments in which they live, and secure their commitment to sustainable development at a personal, local, national and global level.  It should also equip pupils as consumers to make informed judgements and independent decisions and to understand their responsibilities and rights.

It also fits with the statement of values and purposes that currently underpin the school curriculum which (inter alia) says:

Education is also a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy, and sustainable development.  Education should reflect the enduring values that contribute to these ends.  These include valuing ourselves, our families and other relationships, the wider groups to which we belong, the diversity in our society and the environment in which we live.

The next post will look at the implications of all this for what might be taught in school science.


Science in the Formal Curriculum – and Sustainability – 1

📥  Comment

This is the first of 3 postings today about sustainability and the science curriculum.  They are designed to be read in sequence.  Any literature cited will be set out at the end of post 3.

It seems very evident that environment / sustainability issues are excellent examples of how science concepts and processes can be exemplified in the ‘real world’ – the one that young people will grow up, live, work, and become patents themselves, in.  It is also evident from research for the DfE (Barratt Hacking et al., 2010) that young people do tend to find the study of such issues inherently interesting and motivating – possibly because of a realisation that it is their future (and world) that is being considered.  But this argument, which is essentially a recourse to the slippery notion of relevance is not the only way of thinking about the science curriculum and sustainability and, in what follows, I contend that there are two quite different sets of arguments about how sustainability can usefully be seen in relation to the compulsory school science curriculum.  These are:

[ 1 ] Sustainability – as one of a number of sources of social and personal relevance that give purchase and meaning to science concepts and processes, and hence enhance the learning of science.

This might be termed: teaching concepts through a consideration of sustainability

[ 2 ] Sustainability – as one of a number of socio-economic perspectives without which the full realization of an appropriate scientific literacy as the goal of a science education will not be possible.

This might be termed: teaching concepts to enable a consideration of sustainability

The first involves an extrinsic argument which says that science teaching will likely be more engaging and effective because of what sustainability, and young people’s interest in it, brings to it through this external validity.  The second involves an intrinsic argument which says that science teaching requires such a socio-economic perspective in order for it to be a science education that enables scientific literacy to be developed.  Here, the validity is internal.

It seems to me that the intrinsic / internal argument is much the stronger of the two, especially as this appeal to external relevance has failed so often before.  Importantly, the two approaches are not alternatives, but are better viewed as complementary.  Approach [ 2 ] certainly implies approach [ 1 ], and would be much weaker without it.  And approach [ 1 ] would likely be emasculated without the framing provided by [ 2 ].

In the next post, I shall develop the rationale for what is set out here.


Make them customise that email

📥  Comment, News and Updates

In the hugely unlikely event that I ever become a government minister, I'm sure I'd find myself impressed if hundreds or thousands of people had bothered to send me an email saying I should do / not do / start / stop / change / etc  "something" : vox populi, and all that.  However, if I were on the receiving end of such a deluge, I think I'd ask this question: How many of the email senders had bothered to change the basic text, to make it more personal, say, or to exemplify an aspect of the issue?  And as the % figures grew for those who'd done this, I think I'd begin to take more notice.  It is, after all easy to send an email that someone else has written for you.

I have thought of this in the last week in the light of People & Planet's email campaign against Tim Oates (see earlier post).  P&P have been encouraging us all to write to Msrs Oates and Gove in this fashion:

Don't take climate change off the curriculum

FAO: Mr Tim Oates & Rt Hon Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove

I am a [student / teacher / parent]

I am deeply disturbed to learn that you are recommending  to the government that climate change no longer be taught through the national curriculum.     It is absolutely crucial that young people be taught how human activity and natural processes can lead to changes in the environment and about ways in which living things and the environment need to be protected.

Without knowledge and understanding of the social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change, how can we expect young people to be ready to deal with the impacts and help find the solutions to climate change that will play such a huge role in their futures?

Climate change is widely accepted as the biggest threat facing our planet and billions of people on it.  Given the government's commitment to being "the greenest government ever" it would be shameful and tragic for the UK to actively undermine the central opportunities that our young people have through the curriculum to explore the much-needed climate solutions of renewable energy, recycling and sustainable resource management.

I urge you to reconsider your dangerous recommendation,

Yours sincerely,


P&P do recognise  the greater power of a personalised message.  In the preamble to the email text, they say:

Please adapt the suggested text and subject line below, and remember to:

  • be polite
  • let Tim Oates know if you are a student, teacher or parent
  • tell him how important your own knowledge and understanding of climate change has been to you

But, the trouble is that P&P have so packed the email with fully-formed ideas and messages that it is quite hard to add a personal or anecdotal element.   It is quite a dilemma: the more complete the message, the more likely it is that people will just send it off; the more a message is customised, the more notice is likely to be taken of it.

Next time, I wonder, might P&P decide to put more trust in their clients and draft an incomplete email that people have to amend. Fewer hits, but more impact, perhaps.  Sadly, however, I cannot see this happening.