Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: March 2012

DfID rediscovers its interest in schools – and a pot of gold

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Think Global reports today on DFID plans to fund a Global Learning Programme for England which will

“increase and improve the teaching and learning, at Key Stages 2 and 3, of issues related to global poverty”.

The programme will run, initially, for 5 years, it seems, with an eye-popping budget of some £17-20m.  The windfall, I presume, is to count as overseas development, with the usual sub-text that this is actually money to buy popular support for DfID policies.  Imagine if the MoD did this. [1]

No details are available yet on what this education for global poverty will comprise, but a couple of questions are in order:

1. will broader issues of sustainability have to be included to warrant funding?

2. is the TDA on board, given that a lot of this money must be going into teacher training?

3. when it says, "terms of reference have been developed in consultation with the Department for Education", what does this actually mean?

More on all this, no doubt.

[1] Actually I did this a while back, though all the quotes are from DfID.


That presumption in favour of sustainable development ...

📥  News and Updates

It seems that the government's National Planning Policy Framework now has sustainable development's being seen in terms of a (local) collective interest.  This is a quote from the Telegraph's on-line reporting of the 5 principles of reform:

They establish a presumption in favour of sustainable development that means that "development is not held up unless to approve it would be against our collective interest

... which is all rather negative, but encouraging, perhaps, such that a well used green space conveying considerable community benefit over time, might have more protection than before.

Clearly it does not mean development is not approved  unless it's in the collective interest.  Now that would be quite a step.


Local green innovators

📥  News and Updates

The Wiltshire Times is reporting the success of a local primary school [ Sutton Veny ] in reaching the national finals of the 'Climate Week Challenge'.   The school’s entry was designed is based on an idea for a Friendly Cow Oxygenator to process methane produced by cattle.  It is one of 4 entries in the 7-9 group reaching the finals from over 12000 applicants.

The Times reports the pupils’ class teacher, Charlotte White, as saying:

“Being shortlisted has been a wonderful surprise for the whole school.  The challenge provided an inspiring learning experience.  The children were very engaged, motivated and excited to be inventors of the future and make a difference to the environment.”

Sounds if the teachers were on the ball as well – and not just at Sutton Veny, judging by the shortlist.  Nice to have some good news to report!


"... as a rule he was curiously uncritical about his own ideas"

📥  Comment

It is said that Cambridge astrophysicist, Arthur Eddington thought that, in the early 1920s, there were only two people who really understood relativity: Einstein – and Arthur Eddington.  He held the Plumian Chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy for over 30 years, yet Einstein was doubtful about some of Eddington's own scholarly abilities, and commented in a letter in 1949 to Ilse Rosenthal-Schneider:

"I find that as a rule he was curiously uncritical about his own ideas."

He is not alone.  Far too many people lack this curiosity today – and, sadly, I do not exclude myself from that long list.  Eddington was capable of both profound and wacky thought (he's not alone there either); here's one of the former sort, from New Pathways in Science (1935):

"I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put over-much confidence in the observervational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory"

Quite so.


EAUC endorses Rio+20 initiative

📥  Comment, News and Updates

EAUC has endorsed the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative for Rio+20, and is clearly pleased at being asked:

The EAUC is delighted to announce that it has joined a number of other international organisations to officially endorse the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative for Rio+20.  As part of Rio+20, leaders of the international academic community are being called upon to commit to the development of sustainable practices for Higher Education Institutions.  In line with the EAUC's rising international profile and as a result of our continued international collaboration with other tertiary education sector bodies around the world, the EAUC was invited and has agreed to officially endorse the declaration below

“As Chancellors, Presidents, Rectors, Deans and Leaders of Higher Education Institutions and related organizations, we acknowledge the responsibility that we bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development.  On the occasion of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro from 20-22 June 2012, we agree to support the following actions:

  1. Teach sustainable development concepts …
  2. Encourage research on sustainable development issues …
  3. Green our campuses
  4. Support sustainability efforts …
  5. Engage with and share results through international frameworks …

I posted the whole thing last week and noted that there were many things listed which universities already do – and ought to do, for example,  [2], [3], [4] and [5].  But I thought that [1] was quite another matter entirely.  This is its full version

1] Teach sustainable development concepts, ensuring that they form a part of the core curriculum across all disciplines so that future higher education graduates develop skills necessary to enter sustainable development workforces and have an explicit understanding of how to achieve a society that values people, the planet and profits in a manner that respects the finite resource boundaries of the earth. Higher Education Institutions are also encouraged to provide sustainability training to professionals and practitioners;

The first part of this is reasonable enough:

“Teach sustainable development concepts, ensuring that they form a part of the core curriculum across all disciplines so that future higher education graduates develop skills necessary to enter sustainable development workforces …”

... though I did wonder what a sustainable development workforce was – those working in a green economy, perhaps – and the so that seems a bit instrumental.  However, it’s the next few words that are the real problem:

“… and have an explicit understanding of how to achieve a society that values people, the planet and profits in a manner that respects the finite resource boundaries of the earth. …”

Given that [i] no one has this understanding (though many have a political theory or two that they think helps), and [ii] not everyone would see it as the job of a university to do this sort of thing anyway, it's hard to see the sense of putting this in text that Vice Chancellors are expected to sign up to.  It’s been suggested to me that all this is just poorly drafted, but I’m not convinced.  Rather, I think it’s probably rather carefully written and represents wishful thinking.

Question is: what should it say?  But that's for another day.


State of the Union 2011

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Sustainable Development in the European Union is the 2011 monitoring report on the EU's sustainable development Strategy (EU SDS).  This is the fourth report charting progress in the implementation of the 2006 strategy which describes how the EU will more effectively meet the challenge of sustainable development.  The report assesses progress towards sustainable development by comparing an evaluation of 11 headline indicators with that of the previous, 2009 report.

The indicators are

real GDP per capita               resource productivity               risk of poverty or social exclusion

employment rate of older workers              life expectancy and healthy life years               greenhouse gas emissions

consumption of renewables              energy consumption of transport relative to GDP               abundance of common birds

conservation of fish stock               official development assistance.

The report argues that

"a direct comparison with the last report is difficult because of the disruptive effect of the economic and financial crisis since 2007 and in order to compensate for the differences, the evaluations of the previous report were revised in line with the datasets and methodologies used in the current report."

However, it seems that the situation has become less favourable for real GDP per capita and the employment of older workers but more favourable for greenhouse gas emissions and official development assistance.  Umm.

As I have already spent too much of my life thinking about indicators, I'm loath to continue now, so I'll content myself with noting the continuing difficulty of settling on an indicator set that seems at all congruent with the idea of sustainable development; and the absence of anything to do with human skills, capabilities, etc. that bear on the other indicators.


So, What are universities for?

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

Stefan Collini seems to be wherever you look; well, his book reviews are: THE, the Observer, and the Economist – which goes to show something of my narrow reading these days.  But for someone like me, who is a part-time student of the idea of the university in practice, a book which asks What are universities (now) for cannot be wholly ignored.

Collini, who’s professor of English literature and intellectual history at Cambridge, says that universities provide a home for attempts to extend and deepen human understanding in ways which are, simultaneously, disciplined and illimitable.  The Economist review quotes Newman's "silky prose"

“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society.  ... It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”

... because it reckons that Collini understood what Newman was about.

I listened on-line to Collini's recent RSA lecture the other week with great expectation and was rather underwhelmed.  I expected a liberal tour d'horizon, a setting out of the ways in which the modern university can exercise its historic mission to save us from ourselves.  But all I remember was his plea for a graduate tax to replace the emerging arrangements.

Stephen Gough and I discussed this "mission" like this at the start of Chapter 21 of our 2007 bookHigher Education and Sustainable Development: paradox and possibility ...

We might summarise the argument so far as follows.  Universities are open systems.  They are discrete entities, capable of planning their actions and coordinating their internal component parts.  At the same time, they have fluid and permeable boundaries, across which they interact with a wide range of external agencies and groups.

Most of these interactions can be classified as teaching, research or administration.  A particular tension exists across all three of these domains (in administration because it must service the other two).  We might think of this as a tension between stability and change, and between certainty and speculation.  It is fuelled by, on the one hand, the imperative to archive, protect, apply and bequeath existing knowledge; and, on the other hand, the imperative to challenge that knowledge, to break through into unexplored territory, to go beyond problem-solving into comprehensive problem-redefinition.  The ‘breakthrough’ has always been the gold standard of research.  It is breakthroughs that win Nobel Prizes and shift paradigms.  In the present, however, and as we have seen, there is an expectation that everyone will face new, presently unimaginable circumstances in their lifetimes with which, in one way or another and for better or worse, they will learn to deal.  This means that the tension between the known and the unknown is just as strong in teaching – particularly university teaching – as it is in research.  We have sought to capture this tension with our rough-and-ready distinction between the Real World and Ivory Tower views of what a university is for.  Particular people, at particular times and places, may want the answer to be one or the other: but it is inescapably both.

The word ‘inescapable’ is appropriate here because this tension is also characteristic of societies.  One might question whether this is necessarily true of all societies, but we would suggest that it is certainly true of societies that have universities.  In fact, it is to universities that societies delegate a large part of the responsibility for informing their management of the problem of, as Diamond (2005) puts it in the title of his book, ‘choosing to fail or survive’.  As his historical analysis well illustrates, this choice involves, crucially, knowing at any time which knowledge to revere and which to abandon.  However, we should note that the importance of ideas has been understood for a very long time, and was apparent even in the modern era long before anyone began a discussion about sustainable development.

That's why Collini so disappointed me.

22nd March Update

I see that Simon Jenkins has weighed into the argument.  I do wonder how 'Guardian readers' put up with him.


Speaking in Inverness – sort of

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

Perhaps oddly, I gave my first talk via Skype the other day.  To Inverness, virtually, then, at a conference on Educating for a Low Carbon Future organised by the University of Highlands and Islands, SEAM Centre at Inverness College, CIFAL Scotland, United Nations Institute of Training and Research, in partnership with the Scottish Government.  Ideally, I'd have gone there and then set off for Torridon, but it was not to be.

I didn't think the technology was much good, but was told it was ok most of the time.  It was certainly an odd experience; I missed eye contact, of course, and had no idea how well (or if) my jokes went down, or how my poking of Eco-Schools with a stick was received.  Indeed, they turned the video off half-way through.  So, I didn't feel that the trade-off between convenience and quality was all that good.

I spoke (15 minutes) on the influence of the Decade.  Here's what I said:

My first point is that it’s difficult to say anything about ESD across the UK because of the devolved responsibilities for education of every sort.  I’ll comment, however, on the policy contexts of Scotland, Wales and England, and on the school, university and FE sectors, and end with a few comments about achievements and tensions.

These 5 points about the difficulty of data collection and analysis around ESD are significant:

  1. Not everything that takes place in educational settings (viewed broadly) that focuses on sustainability / sustainable development is referenced as ESD
  2. Not all developments that are classed as ESD are either congruent with UNESCO’s vision or coherent amongst themselves
  3. There is no consensus as to what is to count (or not count) as ESD – that is, as an education focusing on sustainability – and little agreement as to whether this is a problem.
  4. It is always difficult to separate out the contribution to learning of targeted interventions, from other influences on the learner such as media, family, peers, commerce, etc
  5. It will be impossible to identify the precise influence of the Decade on learning, on changes to educational provision, and on policy.

Although all this makes surveying activity difficult and demanding, it's a reminder that ESD is a broad church that has its share of dogmas, arcane practices, clerical disputes and schisms – as well as attempts at ecumenical harmony.  Quite clearly, however, those interested in ESD can have widely differing interests and assumptions about both purpose and process, and all have something to contribute to learning about improving the human condition and our relationship with nature.  It’s also important to remember that ESD is still only a small fraction of all that takes place under the banner of education – and, to remember that the point is to change mainstream practice, rather than just influence a minority.


In UK policy terms, whilst the rhetoric about the importance of sustainability remains reasonably strong, there are a number of indicators that suggest less enthusiasm – or conviction, perhaps.  Thus, the picture now is not as positive as it was 2 years ago.  Whilst the world-leading carbon-reduction policies and targets are still in place, the delivery strategy lacks a coherent vision.

Wales pursued a principled line on sustainable development, enshrining its pursuit in statute, and espousing what it termed ESDGC – that is ESD which emphasizes citizenship – as it surely should.

The Scottish Government says that sustainable development is integral to its overall purpose, but it also calls for sustainable economic growth.  Similarly, when the UK government, which, as you know, is the greenest government ever, redefines sustainable development as development which promotes economic growth, you’re entitled to be sceptical.  This easy slippage from sustainable development to sustainable economic growth seems increasingly common and adds to the policy uncertainty within which educators operate

Looking across sectors

Higher education seems the sector with the keenest developments ‘on the ground’.  There seems a lot of informed enthusiasm from individuals, encouraged and supported by institutions as well as by the NUS, HEA and others.  Funding councils have provided a little research and development funding, and the HEA is trying to be a champion of ESD.  Its green academy development programme is stimulating institutional change whilst demanding that senior managers and students are centrally involved.  However, whilst there is evidence of some institutional leadership in terms of sustainability, there are no convincing examples of a university’s taking a successful whole-institution approach – let alone a transformative one – to sustainability.  Apart, perhaps, from Aberdeen with its recent curriculum commission with its focus on graduate attribute, though even here, the emphasis on sustainability seems muted.

There is certainly no shared view as to how ESD in universities does or should contribute to graduate attributes.  However, in comparative terms, I’d say its HE where the most innovative work is taking place – and, it’s HE that understands that workplaces have fundamentally changed because of the policy focus on sustainability.

FE – briefly

By and large, the tensions between present and future skills needs are greatest in colleges.  For example, the 2010 Unesco survey of ESD across the UK, noted that the active learning styles that are seen as integral to learning and sustainability tend to be difficult to link to FE’s usual approaches to teaching.

Despite considerable effort, and some prominent practice, particularly in Scotland, FE remains the Cinderella sector for ESD.  It’s a real pity that the sustainability agenda has not been seized upon by FE policy makers and leaders as a means of raising the status of what it, and its graduates, do.


Whilst there are some outstanding examples of practice, schools seem far too reliant on outside help from NGOs – particularly Eco-schools.  NGOs tend to have their own takes on sustainability and on ESD – and all pursue their own agendas and interests.  The Scottish government sees Eco-schools as a vector for its policies and has encouraged schools to sign up.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that 98% of local authority schools in Scotland have done so, or that 40% already have green flags.  But, in the absence of valid data on what young people are learning – and doing as a result – you’d be naive to believe that all this necessarily means very much.  Whilst Eco-schools offers a structured way into a consideration of issues, it’s only a way in, and such means should not be confused with desired learning ends.

Whilst the ESDGC brand is retained in Wales, it seems marginal to resolving the well-publicised problems facing the Welsh school system as exposed by the OECD’s PISA studies – and no one seems to believe that ESDGC has anything much to contribute to resolving these difficulties – which is a shame.

Scotland remains the most consistent in its espousal of ESD-like initiatives and is where our schools do best in PISA-type evaluations, but whether these are linked, however, is not at all clear.  For those who’re tempted to think that ESD shouldn’t have anything to do with globalised studies like PISA, I'd just say two things: First, deliberatively excluding ourselves from mainstream educational interests seems risky, and secondly, that PISA studies do seek to measure the sort of critical thinking and analytical skills that ESD is supposed to foster.

There certainly seems no shared view across schools as to how ESD can contribute progressively across age groups, and primary schools still tend to be much more enthusiastic and engaged than secondary ones.  Indeed, it’s hard to see how secondary schools will ever take ESD to heart whilst examinations at 16 capture attention, constrict curriculum, and stifle imagination.  And, though there have been some commendable interventions around school leadership, these have hardly been systemic – or even systematic – initiatives.  A positive note, however, is NUS data which shows that students entering HE from schools are positive and motivated about sustainability.  So somebody’s doing something right.

Looking back across the Decade – and ahead

I’d say that the number of individuals and groups that are interested and active has grown considerably, particularly, as I‘ve noted, young people.  Despite this, and the increasingly favourable national and international context – that’s to say the greater prominence of the problems we all face – I’d say that their effect on institutional practice remains marginal.

A particular tension now exists across all of education.  This is a tension between stability and change – and between certainty and speculation.  There’s an historic obligation to safeguard, apply and pass on existing knowledge – and also to challenge it.  This is true today as never before.

ESD is best seen as a responsive social learning process which is both a part of, and a preparation for, informed, active, open-minded, social engagement with the key issues of the day.  It follows, therefore, that institutions, need to establish learning goals that are critically focused on sustainable living and working.  Doing so, will guide the formal and informal work that they do with students and their communities in order to better reflect the existential realities and choices we all face.  Clearly, education policies need to be reviewed in order to ensure this is stimulated.

I’d say that practitioners need to focus on their conceptual and pedagogical strengths, and on collaborating with each other, in order to make student experience more than the sum of its parts.  Practitioners have always done the first of these, of course, but rarely the second.  In part, this is because of institutional and curriculum structures, but not entirely.  It’s also because of their training.

In the 2010 UNESCO ESD survey across the UK, a number of challenges to embedding ESD across sectors were identified.  These included:

  • tensions between campaigning and helping people learn
  • the need to avoid a narrow focus              and
  • the need for better professional development and training

The balance between an open-minded approach to learning and the learner, as opposed to the promotion of particular behaviours or ideas, is important – and evidence suggests that we still tend to have too much of the latter at the expense of the former.  How Fairtrade is approached is a good example of this.

The 2010 ESD report was concerned that an instrumental focus on climate change would be narrow and would detract from the broad sort of approach to sustainability that ESD embodies.  As for professional development, well, I’m old enough to remember when UNESCO used to say that teacher education was the priority of priorities.  No more it seems, and I’d say the Decade has had minimal impact on any of this.

In summary, then, I’d say that the Decade has seen growing interest and activity in sustainability across education sectors.  Apart from NGOs, most of this, however, has come from the grass-roots, from teachers and lecturers, and from students.  And, although its penetration is limited, it’s all to be welcomed.  It would be good, however, to know much more about what’s being learned and what difference it’s making.  Less obvious is how much the Decade has led to transformative change within institutions – and to the thinking of policy-makers themselves.  This takes longer, of course, than merely changing student experience at the margins, and has everything to do with a re-orientation of purpose and values. So it could be that all we have to do is to wait  – but you’d be crassly optimistic to believe this.

I’d say, the next phase of the Decade – or the next Decade, maybe, needs to focus on leadership and institutional transformation if we’re to make a real difference.


The name's Bond – Aaron Bond

📥  Comment, News and Updates

If you'd been lately browsing – essential reading, I find – you'd likely have come across the sad tale of  Devon's King Edward VI College and its expulsion of  14 year old Aaron Bond.  Was AB disruptive?  Was he violent?  A truant?  On cannabis?  Didn't do his homework?  Did he say he preferred Cornwall?  Apparently not.  AB's crime was to hack the College's IT system.  As puts it:

It seems the administration at King Edward VI College in Devon weren’t too keen on Aaron hacking into the school’s systems and editing its newsletter, messing with room bookings, and poring over student and staff data.  Bond’s mother leapt to his aid, saying that he was simply curious “like any school boy would have been.” She went on to say that “the security of the school computer system should be a lot better.”

Actually, geek is rather critical of the lad (and his splendid mother):

Yes, it’s entirely logical to blame the school for your son’s actions, Ms. Bond.  Their laxness clearly pushed him over the edge, and even when he was successful he decided that he’d better do it a few more times just to make absolutely sure that his curiosity was satisfied.

AB is not without talent.  He has already released six mobile apps and runs his own web design company, and it's hard to disagree with geek when it says ...

He’ll probably do just fine whether or not the College reconsiders.

But the humourless College has failed this test, and so AB is now enrolled elsewhere.  I can only hope that this new school appreciates its students' abilities and can put them to good use.


Breaking news ...

📥  News and Updates

Fame at last: a letter published in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley Review.  This is what we [the Mitcheldean 8] wrote:

Dear Sir

Does an environmental/outdoor education centre have a role to play in what various political leaders around the world have declared as the greatest moral challenge of our time and the need for an education revolution? We think so. And we write to you from different parts of the world to express our concern and opposition to the decision to close down and sell the Wilderness Centre at Mitcheldean.

2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. With ‘Think global, act local’, the event challenged the world’s communities to develop their own Local Agenda for environmental sustainability. Across England, councils led the way with action plans and investments in community-based initiatives and resources. Villages and towns tackled issues around waste, biodiversity, the local economy and fair trade – efforts that translated Rio’s lofty goals into practical actions. A key venue for this work in Gloucestershire was the Wilderness Centre in the Forest of Dean.

Where are we now? People still want sustainable economies, vibrant ecosystems and flourishing communities. Talk of ‘transition towns’ and the ‘green economy’ are very much in fashion. Rio won’t go away – in fact, Rio+20 will be held in June.

The return to Rio invites the world to take stock of actions on environment and sustainability since 1992. Education has always been the undisputed lynchpin to the work of Rio, it was required as much then as it is now. In fact, teaching and learning about global and local issues in the classroom are only half the story; our education and experiences in the local environment are equally fundamental. All this education has to happen somewhere, if it is to happen at all. And what better place to start than in a dedicated environmental education centre in the heart of the Forest of Dean?

Closing the Wilderness Centre in 2011 has proven shortsighted. Selling it off in 2012 will only compound matters. It damages not just the green credentials of the county council but sells short the people of Gloucestershire – its current and future generations.

“The agenda at stake is much larger than balancing council budgets.”

Quite so.  Something here about thinking globally and acting locally ...