Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: June 2012

German survey on hopes and challenges beyond 2014

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Earlier this year, a conference in Bonn, Education for Sustainable Development – international workshop ‘Horizon 2015’, organized by the German UNESCO Commission, asked around 50 participants to identify obstacles and resources (barriers and drivers) that could hinder or further the agreed vision for ESD, resulting in a commendably modest list of issues.  These have emerged as a survey for wider comment.

The SurveyMonkey link is here.

I completed it yesterday.  You have to rank the issues in order of importance, and the software leads you a merry dance until you get used to it; then it's rather good.  What you can’t do, however, is miss one out, or say ‘This is rubbish, it shouldn’t be in the list at all’; that’s the penalty of reacting to other people’s lists, of course, and e-systems.

At the end, you do get to compare your own thoughts with those of the crowd.  Two things stood out for me:

  • whilst I thought that “lessons learned on ESD implementation are being captured” ought to be significant as a driver, very few others did.  Maybe it’s the researcher in me ...
  • almost 25% of respondents put “increased commitment of education ministries” at the bottom of their driver rankings.  I had it at the top of mine.  Just old fashioned, I guess.


EE still trumps ESD – but keep quiet about Tbilisi

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Page 18 of the full version of the new UNESCO report on the DESD contains a figure [2] showing Google hits on websites representing various adjectival educations (EE / ESD / ...).  Sadly, I'm not techie enough to copy it here.  However, this is the accompanying text (my emphasis):

If the number of ‘hits’ or websites generated during a Google search is any indicator of a social phenomenon, and if continuous growth in these hits indicates its growing presence in society, then consider the following: on 29 March 2005 – the first year of the DESD – a Google search for ‘education for sustainable development’ yielded 89,000 websites. On 29 January 2009 – almost four years into the DESD – the same search yielded 215,000 websites. On 28 January 2012, this search yielded 1,550,000 hits – over 7 times the number of 2009 hits and over 17 times the number of 2005 hits on ESD. Of course, this rapid growth is also a result of the on-going digitalization of communication. Other educational fields related to ESD show a similar growth pattern, but none of those listed in Figure 2 grew as fast as ESD (except for CCE, but Google hits for CCE were not logged in 2005 and 2009).

Figure 2 also demonstrates that the much older and more widely established field of EE has a similar growth pattern – but while in January 2009 it received more than 16 times more hits (3.5 million websites) than ESD, in January 2012 it yielded 7,9 million hits – ‘only’ 5 times more than ESD. It should be noted that in absolute terms, EE is still by far the highest-ranking adjectival education in terms of Google hits. This suggests that this traditional field still has very significant global presence.

How odd, then, that there is no mention of the seminal Tbilisi meeting in 1977 in the history of ESD set out in the abridged version (pages 10/11).  It seems nothing significant happened between the 1972, Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment, and the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

It's convenient, of course, to re-write history like this, as you then get to say:

The roots of ESD and the DESD can be traced back to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

Quite shameless ...


New UNESCO reports on the DESD

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

The UNESCO website has two reports on progress in the Decade.   There is a full version, and an abridged one.  Oddly, the latter is almost as long as the former, but it has much less text and a lot of pics: the coffee table version, I guess.

I'd say it's quite a risk to produce two versions like this.  For example, in the full version, the Exec summary is 2.5 pages long; in the other it's not even 1 page.  It seems inevitable that some simplification must have resulted.  Mixed messages, anyone?


QAA and ESD – a serious case of conceptual clarity disorder

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I've been reading the QAA's UK Quality Code for Higher Education, and commenting through its consultation process on Chapter B3: Learning and Teaching.   This followed a request to SHED-SHARE members:

The new UK Quality Code is a revision of the previous academic infrastructure that guides institutional teaching and learning policy as well as programme level curriculum development.  For the first time, the Code has a learning and teaching chapter which includes cross-cutting themes.  It is therefore important to take time to articulate the need and value of ESD becoming part of the sector level educational discourse and to communicate that this can make a difference to the student experience.

I noted the present instructional tense and responded.  Here's the gist of what I wrote:

I think B3 is an admirable document – in a timeless sort of way – and I certainly wish all this had been in place when I was an undergraduate.  Its timelessness seems a problem, however.

What is striking is the absence of any wider context.  The notion, for example, that the world faces a range of severe challenges (existential, many say) which threaten the quality of lives, the resilience of economies, the integrity of the biosphere, etc., and that UK HE has both responsibilities and agency here, is completely missing.  UK HE is presented as a bubble, and teaching and learning as an enclosed space within that, responsible unto itself – and the QAA.

Perhaps I overstate this?   There are, after all, 5 "themes which cross subject and discipline boundaries":

graduate attributes  / education for sustainability  /  civic responsibility / internationalization / enterprise and entrepreneurship

A few exploratory points, then:

1.  This list is such a grab-bag of curiosities that it's hard to think that much effort has gone into its compilation.  The list lacks coherence – conceptual or otherwise.  For example,

[i] what is "graduate attributes" doing in the same list as "civic responsibility"?  Indeed, what is graduate attributes doing there as a theme at all?

[ii] "civic responsibility" is an outcome and a value (and a component of most lists of graduate attributes), whereas "internationalisation" is a socio-cultural phenomenon that affects (and affected by) what universities do.

I could go on, ... .

2. For me, logically, the theme isn't "education for sustainability"; rather it has to be sustainable development as it is the need for this which provides the external stimulus / imperative for a response by HE.

3. Achieving the status of a cross-curricular theme is no great triumph, no matter how much it is talked up.  The point of being consigned to a C-CT is that it can be safely ignored – ask a generation of school environmental educators.

4. The text that accompanies the themes also seems a problem.  It says:

Higher education providers engage with a number of themes that cross subject and discipline boundaries and inform the design of learning and teaching activities and the currency of the curriculum.

But, "themes that ... inform the design of learning and teaching activities and [inform] the currency of the curriculum", seems inadequate phrasing.  I think this needs to refer to the "focus of the curriculum".  As, for example:

Higher education providers engage with a number of significant world issues that cross subject and discipline boundaries and which inform the focus of the curriculum, teaching design, and learning outcomes.

... and if the theme were sustainable development, then all this would make sense – conceptually and in curriculum terms.  There is still the small matter that it’s only a theme, however.

5. All this might be summarized as follows (apologies for some duplication):

There will be those who will ...

a. see this a welcome foot in the QAA door (a Trojan mouse)

b. find it hard to see why these themes are even there, given that the code is about quality not curriculum

c.  think that, if there are to be themes, then the logic is to see sustainable development as the theme, as it is the imperative of this that universities are urged to respond to.  Education for sustainability is one of several possible responses to that imperative.  To think otherwise is seriously to confuse means and ends.

d. deplore the insignificance of sustainability's being a mere "theme", especially as the theme list lacks coherence, and looks a bit of an add-on.

e. say that the idea of themes is a distraction, and that the important achievement would be an acknowledgement by QAA that the world now faces a range of severe challenges which threaten the quality of lives, the resilience of economies, the integrity of the biosphere, etc., and that UK HE has both responsibilities and agency here.

These are not mutually exclusive.  [a] might tend to foreclose debate.  I think [c] is right, but [d] / [e] is where I stand.

6. It's not clear where best to make the over-arching point [e], though Section C of the Code, which sets out Indicators of Sound Practice, seems a likely place.  Here, Indicator 1 says:

Higher education providers publish information that describes their mission, values and overall strategy

But Section C is not currently subject to consultation.  A pity.

Bath slips in the green league – despite grade inflation

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

It's green league table time again.  This year, the University of Bath has slipped in the table from 31st to 57th position and lost its 1st class honours rating as a result.  I could find no publicity about this on its main web pages.  Commendably, however, it was the same last year when it got its 1st.  The university takes the issues seriously, but knows its Kipling.

This year, an astonishing 45 institutions got a 1st.  This is up from 36 last year (it was 26 in 2010).  I wrote on green grade inflation last year, and it looks as if things have got worse.  It might be simpler just to give everyone a coconut and not bother measuring anything.   Validity might even improve.  The euphoria at yet another People & Planet triumph is palpable, and the celebrations (I'm told) were more glitzy than ever.  Well, we all need cheering up.  But, is any of this doing anyone's reputation any good?

It would certainly be well were somebody whose opinion matters to read a recent report by Beth Foley and Harvey Goldstein for the British Academy.  A THE report, Measuring Success: league tables in the public sector, is here.  The BA webpage says:

Measuring Success examines the use of league tables in education and policing, and reviews the available evidence to determine the benefits and the problems associated with their use. The report concludes that good evidence about league tables is in short supply, which has only helped fuel their controversy; it also highlights the limitations of league tables and recommends that wherever they are produced they should be accompanied by prominent 'health warnings'.  Furthermore, the authors suggest that some of the negative side effects of league tables could be reduced if they are used only as an internal tool to improve performance by the institutions involved and not published or made publicly available.

That's something to look forward to ...


Last word on Rio – promise

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was planning an extensive final comment on the substantive Rio issues (as opposed to the education ones), but I read Paul Vallely in the Observer this morning who said everything I wanted to (and more) in what I felt was a nicely balanced way.

I thought this point particularly significant:

The problem is this: the agreements at the 1992 summit were based on a compact in which poor countries said they would green their economies if the rich countries paid for it.  Poor nations would create jobs without creating more of the belching coal-fired smokestacks with which the rich nations had got the planet to such a precarious position in the first place.  But the simple polarity of rich and poor nations no longer applies.  Some developing countries have become emerging economies.  Countries such as China now want to clean up their environments and change their development models on their own terms.  And while really poor nations still need foreign aid to adopt green technologies, rich countries aren't feeling rich enough now to stump up the required $30bn a year to fund the transition to sustainability.

Indeed.  Like Vallely, I am enthused by the idea of sustainable development goals [SDGs] and hope they can be focused on things that really matter and not on peripherals.  Quite a challenge to make them meaningful and capable of being put into operation, of course, but what more urgent challenge is there?  Did someone mention indicators ...?

The post ends:

"We may now need a ... bottom-up mass movement of individuals to get real progress on saving the planet."

I think I've read that somewhere before ... .   Enough.  I can see blue skies approaching from out of the west ...


The Rio+20 Education text

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I have finally gotten hold of the Rio+20 final text via the UN.  Whilst there are numerous references to education / training / capacity building in a wide range of contexts, there's also a section on Education as one of an eclectic range of thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues.  It come after Mining (and Mountains), but before Gender equality and women's empowerment.

It's all good stuff, no doubt, but is it innovative or Earth-changingly new?  Hardly.  Even extending the DESD had been widely trailed.   As to verbs (the weakness of which have been extensively noted by many commentators), I counted one "commit" (and a "reaffirm", and an implicit recommit) and that was about universal access to primary education.  Inevitably, there was more use of "encourage" as in – We strongly encourage educational institutions to consider adopting good practises in sustainability management ... .  And this is the point about the UNESCO, this is all it can do, most of the time.  Whilst it would be well, perhaps, not to over-egg the "achievements" pudding, there is much to do now that we have all this behind us (in both senses).

This is what the specific Education section says:

229. We reaffirm our commitments to the right to education and in this regard, we commit to strengthen international cooperation to achieve universal access to primary education, particularly for developing countries. We further reaffirm that full access to quality education at all levels is an essential condition for achieving sustainable development, poverty eradication, gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as human development, for the attainment of the internationally agreed development goals including the Millennium Development Goals, as well as for the full participation of both women and men, in particular young people. In this regard, we stress the need for ensuring equal access to education for persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, local communities, ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas.

230. We recognize that the younger generations are the custodians of the future, as well as the need for better quality and access to education beyond the primary level. We therefore resolve to improve the capacity of our education systems to prepare people to pursue sustainable development, including through enhanced teacher training, the development of curricula around sustainability, the development of training programmes that prepare students for careers in fields related to sustainability, and more effective use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning outcomes. We call for enhanced cooperation among schools, communities and authorities in efforts to promote access to quality education at all levels.

231. We encourage Member States to promote Sustainable Development awareness among youth, inter alia, by promoting programmes for non-formal education in accordance with the goals of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

232. We emphasize the importance of greater international cooperation to improve access to education including through building and strengthening education infrastructure, increasing investment in education particularly investment to improve the quality of education for all in developing countries. We encourage international educational exchanges and partnerships, including the creation of fellowships and scholarships to help achieve global education goals.

233. We resolve to promote Education for Sustainable Development and to integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).

234. We strongly encourage educational institutions to consider adopting good practises in sustainability management on their campuses and in their communities with the active participation of inter alia students, teachers, and local partners, and teaching sustainable development as an integrated component across disciplines.

235. We underscore the importance of supporting educational institutions, especially higher educational institutions in developing countries, to carry out research and innovation for sustainable development, including in the field of education, to develop quality and innovative programmes, including entrepreneurship and business skills training, professional, technical, vocational training and lifelong learning, geared to bridging skills gaps for advancing national sustainable development objectives.


Is Tom Lehrer advising Gloucestershire?

📥  News and Updates

The University of Gloucestershire has adopted an innovative approach to reorienting its senior management team, grounding this more firmly on a consideration of systems and cycles in the biosphere.  Currently it is advertising for an Associate Director of Sustainability (Carbon).  A spokesperson confirmed that further periodic appointments will include an Associate Director of Sustainability (Nitrogen), and an Associate Director of Sustainability (Phosphorus).  Success candidates will play an important role in creating new opportunities for modelling sustainability across the University’s campuses and support staff in meeting the corporate targets in these areas.


Not rocking down to Rio

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I guess if you're going to be at Rio, you've already arrived and are enjoying the sunshine, beach, traffic – and that frisson of excitement of being there when history is made – and, of course, the sheer fun of all those people's conference meetings!  But is it historic?  The portents are not great, judging from what I read a few thousand miles away.  Gloom seems to have been packed into suitcases, ready have its creases hung out and worn for all to see.  It does seem, as Michael McCarthy noted in the Independent, a summit looking for a purpose.

BBC Breakfast had what I felt was a surprisingly good discussion about it yesterday morning with two UK sustainability types who, like me, had chosen to remain here.  Their message was pretty clear: what matters is what we do here (and others do in their countries) – the we being government, business, civil society institutions, and you and me.  It was significant, however, that what you and I were urged to do, was not all those usual (and easy) things (recycling / woolly jumpers / lower speeds / walking / composting / more salads / etc / etc) which more of us are doing more of anyway, more of the time.  Rather it was the more citizenly stuff: getting involved with others, doing something – and pressuring government / business (and civil society institutions!) to bring about necessary changes that individuals cannot.  All that action competence stuff – any schools listening I wonder?

So, respect to all those academics and fellow travellers (in both senses) who've saved up the carbon in their travel budgets, and stamina in their reserves, to make it to Rio; I hope it's fun.  Just don't expect that what you will do will make a difference to anything.  You'll have to wait till you're back home for that.


Charters, charters, everywhere, ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Whilst I was away recently, I missed a strongly worded exchange on SHED-SHARE about the latest wheeze from the increasingly febrile Copernicus Alliance This is yet another document that universities are expected to sign up to, and is more evidence that all the (20+) previous ones haven't had much effect, despite their self-important positionings.  You certainly don't have to be overly cynical to see the natural history of such declarations as being mostly of this form:

University presidents sign up   –   there is modest publicity but little communication  –   everyone then gets on with business as usual

So is the latest attempt, which is being produced in the run up to Rio, any different?  Well, this time around it's got a pretentious title: it's a treaty:

A People's Sustainabilty Treaty on Higher Education towards Sustainable Development

It has an ambitious timescale beyond 2026, and its preamble says this:

The Treaty has been drafted by representatives from twenty five higher education agencies, organisations, associations and student groups rooted in different parts of the world.  The cross-cultural dialogue and development process underpinning this document has served to build collaborative links and ownership.  It has paved the way for a new consolidated platform for cooperation beyond the Rio+20 event in June 2012.  It is envisaged that the document could lead to joint implementation projects and the sharing of best practices as well as modalities that are less bureaucratic.

We're told there are 8 principles – though principles of what isn't clear (or that they are, in fact, principles) – and there are 19 action points.   Here's the first, which is to be implemented by "no later than" mid-2013:

Transforming the paradigms that underpin current higher education practice.  We will draw lessons from previous successes and shortcomings, to redefine the higher education system with a new vision and purpose.  Those committing to this treaty will engage in reviewing their organisational ambitions and action plans to ensure there is alignment with this action.

All in 12 months.  Complete nonsense, of course, as commentators on SHED-SHARE pointed out.  For example, ...

It seems misplaced to expect a transformation of paradigm as a short term action – it won't happen.  What should be required is an in-depth discussion of the purposes of HE in the kind of times and conditions we now inhabit.

Exactly right, though rather open ended for a people's treaty.

What really get's to you, however, as you read through the deadly, but very earnest prose, is the lack of argumentation and any conceptual framing to what's proposed – and there's on sense that any of this might actually be rather difficult.  Dear, oh Dear!

Here's a flavour of the comments:

* I am ... concerned that graduates have no specific roles in the document, especially in terms of being valued and considered for what they can/could contribute.

* ... it needs to state something about the responsibility of HE to provide graduates with the competencies and dispositions that they will need to cope with, shape and manage in a rapidly changing world.  (The word 'graduate' doesn't appear anywhere in the document).

* The vision and clarity of purpose section might benefit by incorporating a bottom up acknowledgment of being responsive to graduate needs, such as life skills - some of which are innovative and others where transferable elements/flexibility need to be made more transparent

* This document sounds shrill in it's urgency and while I might personally recognise the imperative for early change I fear that many traditional institutions / colleagues with high regard for academic freedom might find it impossible to sign up to

* Transformation is fine, and important, but I think there is insufficient guidance/clarity about 'from what to what'.

* Arguably, in organisational learning terms, an institution would normally go through a reformative stage first whereby assumptions and values begin to be questioned.

As Dr Johnson said: the wonder is not that it is done badly, but that it is done at all.  What is the point?