Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: July 2011

Where there's LIFE, there's ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

... well, enormous hope and expectation at the very least.

LiFE (Learning in Future Environments) is EAUC's rebranded, refurbished and soon-to-be relaunched Universities that Count project.  It is funded by the four UK Higher Education Funding Councils: the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland (DELNI), so it comes with the best of official sponsorship, and a range of partners and supporters.

LIFE is not short of confidence:

"LiFE is a comprehensive performance improvement system developed specifically to help colleges and universities to manage, measure, improve and promote their social responsibility and sustainability performance."

This strap line is the sort of extravagent promise that often finds hubris skulking behind it, waiting its chance.  I hope not, but we'll see.  At the very least, LIFE is a great title, much better than the ambiguity of Universities that Count.  It also lends itself to a glorious range of punning extensions:

LIFEbelt – LIFE cycle – LIFEguard  – LIFEjacket – LIFEline – LIFEstyle – LIFEtime – high LIFE – low LIFE –

... and the LIFElike.  Inevitably, this has begun – with LIFE cycle.  My money's on LIFEtime as the next.

I should declare an interest as I have a bit part in LIFE's evolving self-awareness through its Learning, Teaching and Research advisory panel.  Apparently I am representing the UN Decade for Sustainable Development (sic) which will be as much a surprise to the UN as it was to me.  Let's hope that LIFE turns out to more carefully carried out than the compilation of  this list.


I name this ship ... The Environment Agency

📥  Comment

Unthinkable, I know, so why did some committee or other think it a good idea to name one of First Great Western's increasingly aged low speed trains 'The Environment Agency'.  I spotted this walking down one of Paddington's rejuvenated platforms the other day.  Such poverty of the imagination.  Time was when the original and only Great Western (it had no need to claim it was "first", everyone knew that) named its locomotives after Welsh Princes, Kings, Castles, Manors, Halls and Granges — and Warships.  It was the place, as Elvis Costello said, where "legends and history collide".  Not any more. I do believe there's even a train named after the University of Exeter.  Such depths ....

New Schools Programme backed by DFID and DfE

📥  News and Updates

Think Global reports that the Secretary of State for International Development has announced a new schools programme around development education which is "supported by the Secretary of State for Education".  It seems that this will involve working with schools in England at Key Stages 2 and 3, supporting teachers who have particular skills in teaching global issues to share best practice with other teachers.

Although Think Global has talked this up, it doesn't seem anything to get excited about, and I do wonder just  what "supported" by the Secretary of State for Education will actually mean on the ground; not much, I suspect.  And, more importantly, will any of this be about sustainability in the fullest, joined-up sense, as opposed to a very narrow focus on "building awareness of global poverty" – and on DfID's own splendid work?


Breakfasting with The Few

📥  Comment

It was a privilege this week to breakfast in the same room as Battle of Britain veterans en route to a ceremony near Oxford involving Spitfires and a new flying training school — the finer details of the event escape me.  It was impossible not to eavesdrop on their conversations — moral failing though that is — and their views on Churchill were not quite the hagiographic history presented in nearby Blenheim where you are spoilt for choice of family heroes (and where the villains and ne'ers-do-well are glossed over).

All this took place in Woodstock, a town which, in managing no-cost car parking, excellent bus services, clean streets, fine pubs, artisan shops, only one small supermarket (the Co-op, of course), and the total absence of chain stores, must be doing something right in relation to some aspects of sustainability (depending on your perspective, of course).


Playing Tight and Loose

📥  Comment

As I noted in an earlier post, if you are intent on surveying a university's teaching provision for evidence of the extent, and nature, of how this work focuses on sustainability issues, you are faced with a choice of how tight or loose a conceptual framing to adopt.  This boils down to whether, and how clearly, you are going to pre-specify what is to count as a focus on sustainability for the purposes of the data collection.  This has implications for validity.

If you go for a tight specification, you need to use text such as:

"... by a focus on sustainability, we mean xxxx."

... and if a loose one, you need to use say something such as:

"... a focus on sustainability, for example, xxxx."

What you cannot surely do is to say nothing at all, unless you are content to have very sub-optimal construct validity in whatever emerges, although even this, as I have also noted, can sometimes serve (political) ends.  I can only hope that the people behind the LIFE index have the courage to go for tight and conceptually meaningful framings when they set out to score universities' teaching focused on sustainability.


Interesting Diagnosis, but flawed Prescription

📥  Comment

In a recent Opinion Essay for JESD [Vol. 5.1], Rolf Jucker offers "some reflections on environmental education and ESD" under the title: ESD between Systemic Change and Bureaucratic Obfuscation.  Jucker paints a gloomy view of the slow development of ESD in Switzerland from his position of director of the Swiss Foundation for Environmental Education.  Through this picture, he puts forward five "basic points of ESD".  These are:

  • The current education systems (re-)produce unsustainability
  • Today's best education is destructive for the future of the planet
  • Paradigm change is needed
  • A fundamental redesign of education is needed
  • The paradigm shift must embrace systemic approaches based on the ecological insight that we live on a planet with physical and material limits.

... and in all this, the usual suspects are cited utterly irreflexibly: Capra, Daly, Einstein, Gandhi, Orr, Selby, Sterling — and Jucker.

It seems to me that [1] is probably inevitable; [2] is putting it too strongly to be of use to anyone; [3] is covered in [5]; [4]  has always been the case (and maybe always will); and in [5] the first three words might usefully be replaced by "We".

However, whilst there is much to agree with here in relation to his broad diagnosis of the problems that society (and its formal educational provision) faces, are these really the  most significant five points that might be made?  I think not, and offer the following by way of counterpoint:

1. Formal education inevitably reflects current social values and aspirations, which are themselves historically constituted and culturally embedded.

2. Because of such sociolo-political inertia, societies can find it hard to evolve swiftly in the face of changing circumstances, even when evidence shows that such a (paradigm) shift looks necessary because the threat is existential.

3. Because formal curriculum change are political processes mediated through existing socio-cultural systems and structures, the formal school system in a free society cannot be expected to be in the vanguard of (any) society-wide change. However, whilst "we should continue to push for all those changes in education systems that we rightly deem necessary" (Jucker),  it does suggest that other activities are as /more important as well.

4. As a result of [3], the impact on society on formal schooling must always exceed that of schools on society.  However, experimentation in schools is possible where curriculum framing, parental and community support, teacher interest and school leadership allow, and this offers the possibility that [i] insights into appropriate future curricula and pedagogy can emerge, and [ii] students (and others) might learn something socially (as well as personally) valuable.

5. Liberal societies, because of their legacy of freedom, trust, scepticism, innovation, and plurality are in the best position to enable, and benefit from, such experimentation through explicit encouragement, monitoring and evaluation.

These are, of course, are not quite the same points as the four made by Jucker, but there is some overlap and complementariness between them.  However, they seem (to me at any rate), to be offer greater ecological validity in relation to society as we find it.  They also refrain from the reification of ESD, preferring to focus on the need to change education itself in a co-evolutionary way with society — as does Jucker himself in the paper, when he remembers.

But his messages are muddled, there is much wishful thinking, and some absolutist views.  Take the following:

"... only if what we do most of the day contributes directly to a sustainable future, are we engaging in meaningful ESD"

"... the entire educational process should be a collaborative process to bring sustainability into existence"

"If the tutors do not change themselves to become role models for the students and their communities — akin to the function of elders in indigenous societies — there will be no transformation"

"... ensuing change in society should not serve the powerful political and economic elites, but rather the resilience of the biosphere and a just and equitable society on Earth"

... and so on.  My immediate reaction to all this is to ask "How could this happen?"  Indeed, this is the most significant question that the Opinion Piece has left me with — with lacunae not addressed by any of the examples of supposed good practice set out in the piece (and not discussed here).  Others, not as immersed in the theology and mysticism of ESD, as JESD's readers may well be, might just be asking "Why?"


The rumours of my death were ...

📥  News and Updates

It was a distinctly odd moment when I discovered today that there were Australian conference rumours that I had died, and I was relieved to discover that it wasn't true –  another Prof Scott, it seems: Phil from Leeds.

When I heard the rumour from colleagues, I felt a surge of well-being, as though I'd had a narrow escape: as I said, distinctly odd.

Schools that take food seriously: growing, cooking, eating – and composting

📥  Comment

To Norwich the other day to visit schools that take food seriously: growing, cooking, eating – and composting.  A bus journey to begin the day; 15 miles with a grandstand view of wild flowers on verges and banks, around field margins, and on so called waste ground — biodiversity repositories more like.  Although I am a member of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and a supporter (and, of course, reverer) of its nature reserves, I have something of an heretical view: what really matters is the wildlife around you and what you can do to nurture this through how you live.


Bad Day for Badgers but a great controversial Issue

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Sadly, but inevitably perhaps, Defra seems to have sided with the views of farmers over the interpretation of scientific evidence in relation to bovine TB.  Whilst proposing to cull badgers gives the public the impression of decisive action (unless you've been paying attention, that is), let's not think that this will solve any problems.  A good teaching case study though — carefully handled.  Here's one source of ideas – and gory pics.


UK Border Agency on lookout for old man with long beard

📥  Comment

As I said I would, I've been reading the latest missive from UNECE on educator competences.  The last time normative instruction of this portentousness came down from on high it was on a mountain in Sinai and there was an old man, a long beard, thunder, lightning, the clash of cymbals, and the  harumph of trumpets — well, if Hollywood is to be believed. Fortunately, UNECE's resources only run to a web ink and a PDF, and their purchase in UK education policy circles is near nugatory, so we'll probably hear little more of this damp squib.   However, if you decide to read it, and marvel, you might also remember what Boswell reports Dr Johnson as saying about women preaching:

Boswell: I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach.

Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Quite so; and, as a bonus, a masterful use of the gerund.