Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: September 2012

The miller's tale – I998

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As referenced earlier, 14 years ago, and again the other day, I had a conversation with a miller in the small caucasus mountains in Georgia that was more than merely thought-provoking.  I wrote it up as part of my field report for the evaluation of WWF's global education work that John Fien directed.   Here's what Stephen Gough and I wrote about it in our 2003 book: Sustainable Development and Learning: framing the issues.

'The Miller’s Tale’, which is a reflection by one of the WWF evaluation team on a field visit to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park in Georgia in October 1998, drawing additionally on ideas from Lusigi (1994).  The thinking behind the challenging questions raised in this extract about the purposes of education in conservation and sustainable development has been, and continues to be productive for the organisation and its work.  It is consistent with the implications of ... distinguish[ing] information from communication and mediation as approaches to learning, and sets them in a context of influential external factors.  It is also consistent with ... the notion of environmental meta-learning across institutions, practices and literacies.

The Miller’s Tale:  Reflections on the miller, his two cows and the distant pasture: false consciousness, or

competing rationalities,and the ends of sustainable development education.

In the context of the development of the new national park in Borjomi it is clear that in many people’s minds the purpose of (environmental) education associated with this programme is to persuade the recipients of the educational intervention (villagers, farmers, herders) that the authority’s plan to implement the national park is rational and therefore the only sensible possible development.  The proponents of this case (teachers, NGO officials, politicians, bureaucrats) believe in the rationality of the national park programme – even though it means that village people in certain areas will no longer have the possibility of cutting and/or gathering wood, or grazing their cattle in traditional areas.  The supporters of this argument believe this because of the higher conservation goal (a ‘natural’ forest containing newly regenerated land) and its contribution to maintaining biodiversity across the Caucasus.  Taxed with the claims of the traditional users, they argue these higher goals and point to alternatives which have been built into the plan (in this case grazing which is at some inconvenient distance from the traditional areas).  They believe in the rationality of their case and see education, or perhaps more accurately, information, as the means of either persuading (where successful) or justifying (where unsuccessful) this higher conservation goal.  These people are (to various degrees) educated, eloquent, confident, literate – sets of status which bolster their conviction about the plan (and park’s) rationality.  They probably also believe that theirs is, and can be, the only possible rationality – especially since it is shared by so many other people in powerful and influential positions.  The argument of the villagers (who are about to be dispossessed of traditional access and benefits) must seem like an aberration, a special pleading, a disposition which is only possible because of ignorance of the facts and of the value of the wider goal.

However, from the villagers’ perspective, one might surmise that their own case is just as rational.  Here are traditional rights, enjoyed by generations, which survived the rigours and arbitrariness of collectivisation, which emerged intact into a more democratic future, which are now to be taken away or abridged at any rate by that newly democratic state, aided by the West’s most prestigious NGOs and richer governments – and for what: the promise of something in the future and a rather vague conservation ideal (sustainable development).  So, when the local miller asks ‘why can’t this huge national park cope with my two cows?’ he doesn’t get an answer because it has been decided that the question need not be taken seriously; rather, the question is to be argued away by a process of re-education which, if successful, will resolve the problem; if unsuccessful, it will at least explain the subsequent exercise of state power.

The point here is that it is patronising not to see the Miller’s question and the disposition from which it stems as one which in his terms, on his ground, in his time, is quite as rational as the other.

Perhaps there needs to be two kinds of sustainable development education: one form directed at addressing the conservation issues; one form focused at the power groups who sponsor the first.  The aim of these two, complementary approaches might be to seek compromise, to find plausible alternatives, to allow everyone to ‘win’.  The NGOs have a vital role in this.  Their unique position can be used to broker a solution, rather than being part of imposing one.  Thus the end of environmental education needs to lead to compromise and alternative paths, not coercion to a superior point of view.  The error, perhaps, from this perspective, which the powerful groups make is to believe that their own form of rationality lies dormant, untapped, unrealised, within the other – lying masked by feelings, thoughts, passions and convictions which are to be overcome, and that the role of education is to help those individuals see the error of their ways and release them from their false view of the problems and hence the world.  And if education fails in this task, well then, compulsion in the name of the higher rationality, is its own form of schooling.


Research report citation: WWF  (1999b)  Education & Conservation: an evaluation of the contributions of education programmes to conservation within the WWF Network [Reference Volume to the Final Report]. Gland & Washington: WWF International & WWF-US p. 40

Lusigi W. (1994), Socioeconomic and ecological prospects for multiple use of protected areas in Africa, in: M. Munasinghe and J. A. McNeely (eds.), Protected Area Economics and Policy: linking conservation and sustainable development, Washington DC, World Bank/IUCN. Ellis, F. (1993), Peasant Economics: Farm Households and Agrarian Development, second edition, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).


Foundational pop-up resources

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The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has released a set of school-focused resources based around circular economy ideas.  Their web pages say:

Enriching the curriculum and enhancing young people’s skills and critical and creative thinking will be key to their future prospects in a changing world.  ...  We have worked with teachers, subject associations and education professionals to bring you a wide range of free downloadable teaching resources focused on the circular economy.

There is far too much here to do justice to in one post, and so I'll just point to their pop-up book How we Make Stuff, which you can buy, or explore on-line.  This raises timeless questions of the sort:

  • Where do burgers come from?
  • What are rubber ducks made of?
  • Who invented factories?
  • What does disposable mean?

Essential reading ...


Another day; another journal

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So, welcome to the International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education (IJECEE) which is to be published by NAAEE which, I am told, is bearing all publication costs (except reviewing).

Its blurb say it will

publish scholarly written work, anonymously and expertly reviewed by peers, that focuses on book reviews, educational approaches, evaluation models, program descriptions, research investigations, and theoretical perspectives pertinent to the education of all young children (birth to eight years).  The young children’s caregivers and the communities, institutions and systems, in which the children live, too, are a focus of importance.  The content of the publication addresses all aspects of environmental education as well as all reciprocal associations and impacts embedded within the environmental education experience. Implications for policy at the local, state, regional, national, and international levels are sought.

Age eight seems rather arbitrary; as does birth in a way.  What about ante-natal and parenting classes.  What about a quasi-experimental, longitudinal study of the effects of reading, say, Silent Spring, UNESCO reports or IPCC position papers to parents and foetuses?  The possibilities are endless: Is a Harold Hungerford monograph really any better than Wordsworth's Prelude at stimulating a love of EE?

Ethics clearance may be demanding.


Tbilisi redux

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Thinking again of T+35, and that video nasty, I recalled my only trip to Tbilisi.  I went for a week in 1998 as part of the evaluation of WWF's global environmental education programme which John Fien directed.

Indelible memories still jostle about: a chained bear outside a cafe on the Silk Road, staying in the house of Stalin's favourite film director that was still stuffed with photographs, memorabilia  and antiques, the Ministry of the Environment's execreble toilets, being in fear of my life on a high-speed road littered with crashed cars,  a village feast high in the Small Caucasus mountains where only our driver wasn't drinking to excess as the silver-cased ram's horn circulated, the most fabulous vegetables and best bread ever, meeting a miller outside his mill who asked why the new national park had no room for his two cows (no answer), spa water that made Bath's seems perfumed, primary school teachers trained at Jordanhill in Glasgow at WWF's considerable expense, but to no great effect, the preposterous Andropov's Ears sculpture in Tbilisi, a breathless programme of visits and interviews – in Georgian – and the chance to see much environmental education in challenging circumstances.  It all was wonderful, made possible by the splendid Luc Delars from WWF International, and by the Head of the Georgia WWF programme.

Wonderful, but utterly exhausting.  I remember sitting in Tbilisi airport's departure lounge in a dazed state clutching my lengthy field notes, and that most wonderful of things: a BA boarding pass that said London.

I'd not have missed it for anything.


Badgers, cattle and the rural economy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This autumn, trials will go ahead in the South West of England to test the suitability of controlled shooting as a method of culling badgers in an effort to combat the problem of bovine TB (bTB) in England, to test its practicality and cost.

Inevitably, we are encouraged to take sides: do you support badgers or cows and farmers?  However, in all this, it is possible to support badgers, cattle and the rural economy, and I have written about this to my MP, all 'my' MEPs (some make this quite hard), and signed Brian May's petition.   The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has a clear view on TB in cattle / badgers.  Here's the gist ...

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust is very conscious of the hardship that bTB causes in the farming community. Indeed, the Trust itself is a farmer and has lost 11 cattle to bTB, 5 of those just last week (18 September 2012). The need to find the right mechanisms to control the disease is vital.

However, the predominant scientific view is that the cull will not work and could make the situation worse.  A sustained programme of biosecurity measures and vaccination should be at the centre of efforts to tackle this terrible disease.  The Trust is keen for the farming community, conservation organisations and the Government to continue to work together to confront bTB through the following measures:

  • Biosecurity:  All possible measures should be pursued to prevent disease transmission on-farm.
  • Badger vaccination:  Support landowners to use the injectable BadgerBCG vaccine.  We also urge Defra to continue development of an oral badger vaccine.
  • Cattle vaccine:  Complete development of a cattle vaccine and secure change to EU legislation; vaccination is currently prohibited because the skin test which tests for bTB in cattle cannot distinguish if cattle are infected with TB or have been vaccinated.  Cattle that test positive for bTB cannot enter the food chain.

The Independent Scientific Group’s (ISG) report on Cattle TB set up by Government (and led by Lord Krebs) to research the effectiveness of culling concluded that culling disrupts badger social groups, resulting in the spread of the disease to cattle in land adjacent to the cull. Over almost a decade of the trail, the ISG showed that one farmer’s gain from culling could result in adjoining farmers’ losses due to the effect of perturbation.  The Group concluded in its final report (2007) that it was “unable to conceive of a system of culling, other than the systematic elimination, or virtual elimination, of badgers over very extensive areas, that would avoid the serious adverse consequences of perturbation”.

Badgers typically live in social groups of four to seven animals with defined territorial boundaries. In a stable badger population, there is limited movement from one area to another. Once most badgers are removed from the cull area, it opens up a new territory, allowing badgers to come in from surrounding areas. Immigrant badgers pick up the infection from abandoned setts and un-culled infected animals. With lower badger numbers they will move around much more than they did before the cull and this then distributes the original infection over a wider area.

There is further, useful (as ever) comment on Learn from Nature.


Tbilisi on You Tube

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I'm grateful, I think, to Alan Reid for the link to a gritty and grainy film of the first (that is, real) Tbilisi conference in 1977.  Shot in black, white, and 50+ shades of grey, this is a Soviet propaganda style output which matches my sense of the gloom that pervaded the 1970s.   From the arrival of the Aeroflot jet, the relieved be-suited delegates emerging into the light, the soviet realist architecture of the conference centre, the serried ranks of attendees listing to UN and other panjandrums explain what they were all going to agree, the ... .  No.  Best watch it yourselves; but be warned, it starts as soon as it appears on the screen.  Best with the sound off I found.

Spot the delegate, is a good game to play, and it was splendid to see Director-General M'Bow in action – the reason (pretext, some say) why the UK left UNESCO in 1985.

Compelling stuff.


Grade corruption in Wales

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It is hard to know which is the more disturbing – a politician ordering an exam board to raise candidates' GCSE grades, or the board meekly saying "Yes sir, of course, sir.  Very happy to oblige."  The latter, probably.  Both have happened in Wales over the last week, and so far there have been no resignations.

1020 students who took the WJEC's English GCSE exam last summer in school exam centres in Wales have had their D grades converted to C; and 598 others have seen their C grade changed to a B.  According to the BBC, a total of 2386 grades were changed (all upwards, of course), so maybe there were even B grades shifted to A.  Predictably, most teacher unions have applauded.  Meanwhile around 84,000 students who took the same exam in school exam centres in England will not have their grades uplifted, and that will include some students who live in Wales.  How a supposedly reputable exam board has gone along with this beggars belief.  Rationality suggests that there will be a flood of English schools withdrawing from the Board's jurisdiction.  Let's hope so.

All this becomes easier to understand (if not condone) when you realise that the exam regulator in Wales is the Welsh government, and that WJEC is owned by the 22 (sic) Welsh local authorities.  All very cosy, cosy.

Not all teacher unions have been pleased.  The Welsh teacher union (UCAC) said it was "regrettable" the qualifications system had become a political football.  Oddly, though, the BBC reported (at around 0800 today) much stronger condemnation from UCAC policy officer Rebecca Williams (something about the need to re-examine exam regulation in Wales, but I did not take notes), but by 0900 this had been withdrawn from the BBC site.  And when you look to the UCAC site for a comment – nothing at all.  Looks as if the union has withdrawn inside the tent – pulled inside, more like.

No one gains by this, though maybe those deluded few who think that grade inflation equals a raising of standards will cheer.  And those who think that educational standards can be raised by changing exam systems (as Nick Clegg seems to) will secretly be pleased.  Sadly, none of it will help Welsh students do better in international tests, or fare better in the World.


No child left thinking

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On my more bleak days, I think this is government policy, but all I have to do is to read one of Mr Gove's speeches to be myself again.

Actually, it's the title [ No Child Left Thinking – democracy at risk in American schools ] of a paper by the University of Ottawa's Joel Westheimer.  It begins ...

Imagine you were visiting a school in a totalitarian nation governed by a one-ruling-party dictatorship. Would the educational experiences be markedly different from the ones experienced by your children in your local school? I do not ask this question facetiously. It seems plausible, for example, that a good curriculum used to teach multiplication, fractions, or a foreign language — perhaps with some adjustments for cultural relevance and suitability — would serve equally well in most parts of the world. But if you stepped into a school and asked to ob- serve a lesson related to the country’s political ideals about governance or civic or political participation, would you be able to tell whether you were in a totalitarian nation or a democratic one?

... so you can see where it's going.  It's about north America, of course, but reading it with the question: So what about the UK ...? in your head is instructive.  It draws on

Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal. 41(2), 237-269.

and there is some resonance with sustainability.  The section on three kinds of citizenship says this:

Personally Responsible Citizen

Here, the core assumption is that, in order to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.  For example, they …

  • Act responsibly in their community
  • Work and pay taxes
  • Pick up litter, recycle, and give blood
  • Help those in need, lend a hand during times of crisis
  • Obey laws
  • Contribute food to a food drive

Participatory Citizen

Here, the core assumption is that, in order to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must actively participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.  For example, they …

  • Are active members of community organizations and/or improvement efforts
  • Organize community efforts to care for those in need, promote economic development, or clean up environment
  • Know how government agencies work
  • Know strategies for accomplishing collective tasks
  • Help to organize a food drive

Social-Justice Oriented Citizen

Here, the core assumption is that, in order to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question and change established systems and structures when they reproduce patterns of injustice over time.  For example, they …

  • Critically assesse social, political, and economic structures
  • Explore strategies for change that address root causes of problems
  • Know about social movements and how to effect systemic change
  • Seek out and address areas of injustice
  • Explore why people are hungry and act to solve root causes

There are shifts here that fit into received patterns within environmental & sustainability educations, and within theories of social change ...

  1. from doing what you're asked or expected to do within the status quo,
  2. to being proactive and making a difference – still within the world as it is
  3. to asking why the world can't be different, and trying to act on that

The last of these sounds rather political, but that's the point of citizenship / sustainability – isn't it?

Well, up to a point, perhaps.  I'm just watching pictures of burning buildings and demonstrating citizens across what we're encouraged to call "the muslim world", and wonder if that fits this positive picture of social-justice oriented citizenry, or is violence beyond this stage?  Maybe there's a 4th kind of citizenly action where violent direct action is ok (necessary, maybe), because the greater end justifies it.  And would that extend (a 5th kind) to killing people, I wonder?

Thought not.  But, it goes to show how tricky this citizenship education is.


Thinking inside the box at Oxford

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Limited opportunities at Oxford ...

Head of Environmental Sustainability                  Estates Directorate, The Malthouse, Oxford

Grade 10: £49,689 - £57,581 p.a.

Could you lead the University of Oxford’s mission to carry out its world class outstanding work sustainably?

The University of Oxford is seeking an innovative and dedicated environmental professional with considerable experience of change management for sustainability and an excellent understanding of the sustainability challenges and opportunities facing the higher education sector.  A key position within the University’s Estates team, the postholder will line manage a small team of sustainability specialists working to implement the University’s environmental strategies and targets.  With work plans already in place for waste, water and carbon management, the new postholder will be expected to guide the development of a new biodiversity strategy and implementation of a certified environmental management system for the University.

We are looking for a collaborative and engaging candidate with the ability to think practically as well as strategically, taking the University’s wider mission into account in the setting of Oxford’s environmental priorities.  The closing date for applications is noon on 26 September 2012.

It seems that holistic thinkers need not apply.