Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: December 2012

Just don’t mention the other C word

📥  Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

An email yesterday from the SDE Network in Scotland, announcing a new year conference.  It said:

We are delighted to formally invite you to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development Conference jointly hosted by the Scottish Government and the SDE Network.  This year’s theme is

‘Collaboration – Not Competition’.

Our guest speakers will explore the cultural idea that economic competition is the way to increase standards of living/quality of life.  We will be asking if this thinking holds up to scrutiny or if there is now evidence that economic co-operating might be the better, more productive route.  Whilst practical workshops and seminars will explore these themes further and provide you with practical tools to take back to your workplace.

Another example (?) I wondered, of how collectivist the Scotland mindset is determined to be.  Why wasn’t this called “Collaboration and Competition”, I muttered half-aloud?  Then I thought back to the book that Stephen Gough and I wrote in 2003, which explored all this.  At the end of Chapter 7, referring to a number of case studies in the book, we wrote this …

In Chapter 5 we noted O’Riordan’s (1989) distinction between two world views, the one conservative and nurturing, the other radical and manipulative.  All four of our examples, and most others we could have chosen, exhibit predominantly the former.  In Chapter 1 we drew attention to cultural theory and its identification of four competing, but also mutually interdependent rationalities: the hierarchical; the egalitarian; the individualistic and the fatalistic.  A glance at both the social ambitions and the pedagogies of our examples reveal that they are overwhelmingly inclined towards an egalitarian view, in which things make sense if they are fair and just.  In many ways this does great credit to everyone involved in their design.

However, the following passage, focusing on the environmental management of land degradation, illustrates some of the difficulties at a practical, rather than a purely conceptual level.

"A reader ideologically inclined to the left may put forward the notion that under ‘real’ socialism, even if that could be defined an agreed upon, the necessary co-operation between producers themselves, and between them and a democratic and representative state, would be easier to obtain.  However, in all societies there will continue to be conflicts between private and collective interests, between local and national priorities in land use and management." (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987, 83).

The problem in our examples (which we chose because they are the best available in the English language) is that other worldviews and rationalities are missing or, at least, insufficiently explicit.  A sustainable world will not only be a world of justice and collaboration because no such world is possible.  For example, when the UNESCO multimedia programme says of ‘sustainability’ that “it will be shaped at the local level by the mosaic of cultures that surround the globe and which contribute to the decisions that each country, community, household and individual makes”, it overlooks the fact that the very essence of many cultures has been formed in opposition to others, and that good decisions at the level of a country, for example, may be bad ones for particular households or individuals.  Similarly, when Forum for the Future’s eighth ‘feature of a sustainable society’ requires that: “The structures and institutions of society promote stewardship of natural resources and development of people”, it is hard to see how this can be done without losers being created who are, whatever the curriculum tells them, unlikely to be pleased about it.  Other than in our imagined Utopias (Berlin, 1990), these are issues which cannot be wished, legislated, or educated away, no matter how some might want to.

Of course, this is not to dismiss our examples.  They make a real contribution to sustainable development through learning: but they are not complete.  Whatever sustainable development ultimately looks like it will need to have room for human ingenuity and inventiveness in manipulating the environment, competition for environmental and economic assets, rule-making, rule-breaking, and the self-interest of individuals and groups.  It will even need to accommodate a disillusioned (and one would hope one day small) minority who think sustainable development is a plot, a trick, or a bore; alongside generosity, justice and equity.  If we could remove from the picture complexity, uncertainty, risk and necessity it might all be different.  But we cannot. The greatest irony here is that even institutions which unequivocally advocate egalitarian values and collaborative practices have no choice but to compete among themselves and with others.

Indeed, as evidence from all around us (including from Scotland) confirms.


Berlin I (1990) The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West.  In I Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. London: Fontana

Blaikie P & Brookfield H (1987) Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen

O’Riordan T (1989) The challenge for environmentalism.  In: R Peet and N Thrift (eds), New Models in Geography. London: Unwin Hyman

Scott WAH & Gough SR (2003) Sustainable development and learning: framing the issues. London: Routledge


China embraces the circular economy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Recent reports, in New Scientist amongst other sources, say that the Chinese are adapting to circular economy ideas.  Here is a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation itself, including this link to ChinaDaily which reports ...

The park includes three "recycling circles".  One is a clean production circle in every plant to maximize the use of resources.  Another is a re-use circle among different plants to realize the efficient interchange of materials.  The last is the information circle, which offers timely information about recycling.

In essence, all the plants in the park form an integrated network where the wastes of factory A become the materials of factory B.  Through the smooth operation of the three circles, in Jilin Chemical Engineering Circular Economy Park, there are more than 100 products. Over 60 of them are produced on a large scale, and have certain quotas in domestic markets. The provincial government approved the park in Jilin city in October 2008. Its goal was to exploit to the fullest the city's existing industrial advantage by forming a scaled petrochemical plant base, thereby promoting the economic development of Northeast China as a whole.

At present, 238 companies, including Jilin Petrochemical Company under PetrolChina, Jilin Fuel Ethanol Co Ltd and Jilin Chemical Fiber Group Co, have settled in the park.  Meanwhile, eight industrial chains have been formed, covering oil refining, refined chemical, bio-chemical fields, and offer 115 kinds of refining products.  These abundant and varied chemical products guarantee the sustained development of the whole industry in Jilin province.

Evidence of an idea catching on, it would seem.  I trust that China can resist siren calls for ECE  [Education for a Circular Economy], but do wonder whether there are any educational policy changes afoot to go along with this industrial strategy.


Southampton's Sustainability Videos

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

I spent an enjoyable hour on Friday afternoon last week watching a dozen or so student videos that Simon Kemp kindly alerted the SHED network to.

Simon wrote ...

I would like to alert you to our ‘Sustainability Film Festival’ we are running today.  We asked all our students to make a 5 minute film on any sustainability issue, and … it’s amazing to see what students can do these days using just a mobile phone and some basic editing software.

Well, it is, ... and some of these were smartly put together as well as telling.  I particularly liked the critique of Apple in iSustainability, thinking it well-designed, punchy and rather witty.  It was made on an iPhone 5, for irony, and I watched it on a Mac for authenticity.  I thought the film on the Day after Tomorrow's Food was compelling.

Well done all.


Managing the Sustainable Schools Alliance

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I wrote a while ago about the re-birth of the Sustainable Schools Alliance.   A proposed management board for the Alliance met two weeks ago.  It was a good turn out with a good mix of organisations around the table, including:

Anglian Water,   British Gas,   Sustrans,   NUS,   Learning through Landscapes,   Bluewave Shift,   Modeshift,  NAEE,  Blue Marble,

the South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition,  NAFSO,   Korueducation,   SevernWyeEnergy,   IAPS,   SWEA,

the Untidy Britain Group (and Eco-schools),   Norfolk County Council,   Peterborough LA

The value of a management board for the Alliance is that it will bring like-minded organisations together to try to make a system-level difference through the increased influence that collective size and a breadth of interest brings; and to do what otherwise could not be done.  It also brings some modest income together for that collective endeavour.  There is much to be said for all of this.

It seems to me that the management board might be better termed a policy board. This would make it clear that its role was to set and review Alliance policy, and receive reports on activity at regular intervals, with SEEd co-ordinating / enacting activity.  A policy board designation offers a cleaner separation of functions than does a "management" board, especially as the board wouldn't obviously be managing anything, as it seems that it will be SEEd that continues to provide both secretariat and executive function for the Alliance.

Whatever it's called, it urgently needs an independent chair.

A train wreck of an energy policy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have been watching the run-away train that is the government's new energy bill as it careers towards us.  I've thought all along, as I have listened to rumour and leaks, that, surely, no one could be so stupid as to believe that the world price of gas will be falling in the next decades when existing trends and common sense about increasing global demand argue the reverse.  Not a great time for the Chancellor to dash for gas, you'd have thought, especially when it seems mostly to be located in locations with dodgy politics.

But there's all that brand new UK shale gas (actually, mostly in England, so huzzar!).  That'll bring the prices down and keep the supply up , won't it?  Well, to believe this, you have to think that the shale gas will be both abundant and readily available for a prolonged period, and that it will be insulated from world price effects.  The first seems unlikely (but see the Telegraph today for a splash on all this); the second seems impossible.

As Damian Carrington argues, building just enough gas power stations as an adequate back up to renewable provision, and as an insurance against the lights really going out, is one thing, but to go beyond this and build as an alternative to (and therefore acting to squeeze out) renewables is quite another.  Madness.  Where is the courage to face down vested interests?

Where are the voices from the future?


Can we please have an environmental education that takes economics seriously?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

One of the problems of trying to be an environmental educator is how do you take the need for social and economic change seriously when you're addressing the environment.

It seems axiomatic that this has to be done, one way or another, as all environmental problems are socio-economic ones, and so the ultimate solution to all environmental problems lies in socio-economic (i.e., political) strategies, that is in economics – as everything is economics – isn't it.  Economics has never been the forte of E. Educators; many just ignore it, whilst others pretend they can re-write its laws to suit their arguments.  Economics isn't really part of EE / ESD / EfS / etc,  these days, of course (and vice versa), but if we are to address the causes of our problems, and the causes of the causes, then its role seems impossible to sideline.

This seems to be the logic of Brent Blackwelder's post for the Daly News which I commend if nothing more than as a provocation.


Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability: Strategic Approaches to Quality Enhancement

📥  Comment, New Publications

The report of the Hefce project Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability: Strategic Approaches to Quality Enhancement has emerged.  Judging by the mail message announcing this, its writers are pleased with it.  It will, of course, be a "great success" and make a "vital contribution".  That much is clear.  After all, if you prise over £200k out of Hefce, involve HEA and QAA senior management in what you do, and have a clutch of VCs and a DBE on your advisory group, then no one can afford for this to be seen as anything else.

The language of the announcement is not inviting, however.  Take this ...

"The QAA has played a critical role in the project, helping to shape the project outcomes at sector level and taking specific actions to progress the agenda. ... This level of interest in the initiative has signalled that there is now support at senior level for ESD to move into mainstream education discussion in HE, and in relation to the increasingly diverse range of HE providers."

No Plain English Award this year, I fear.

And ...

"This participatory approach should help to progress the broader agenda and the systemic change impulse of ESD, to generate multi-level supports for further institutional change and curriculum innovation."

Just forgetting "help to progress ... the agenda" for a moment, had I written "the systemic change impulse of ESD", I'd have reported myself to Pseud's Corner at once.

And as for this ...

"We hope that colleagues will engage positively with the ripples that have been initiated by the HEFCE LGM project over the next 12 months and would value feedback on the online Guide."

... its shockingly mis-related clause would surely have been marked down even at the de-based GCSE.

Given that most academics in the UK don't know much (if anything) about ESD, and actually care less, I'd have expected greater clarity about how messages were expressed.  There will be more on all this once I pluck up the courage to read on ...

This is the announcement:

This HEFCE LGM funded project which sought to introduce ESD concerns into education quality agendas has now concluded, and we would like to share the key outcomes with you.

1. Online Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in HE:

We are pleased to announce that the core output, the online Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in HE, is now live at: The Guide contains video clips, insights, tips and adaptable tools for institutions to take and use, to help in the development of strategic approaches to EfS as a cross-cutting curriculum enhancement agenda. The Guide combines lessons from the five institutional pilot projects with a sector-wide view of how ESD connects with quality assurance and enhancement in HE. It draws on the perspective gained from key partner agencies in the project, such as QAA and HEA, as well as the project’s expert advisers and critical friends. The aim in creating this resource was to share practice and insights from this initiative about how to bring ESD to life in systemic ways within loosely-coupled, complex HE institutions, including consideration of some of the academic and leadership issues involved.

2. QAA actions and the UK Quality Code for HE:

The QAA has played a critical role in the project, helping to shape the project outcomes at sector level and taking specific actions to progress the agenda. These actions emerged through the involvement of the QAA and collaborative work with its Research, Development and Partnerships Unit.  This level of interest in the initiative has signalled that there is now support at senior level for ESD to move into mainstream education discussion in HE, and in relation to the increasingly diverse range of HE providers.

QAA has taken two significant steps to advance thinking around ESD in relation to its own work, which also provide platforms and legitimisation for broader engagement:

i)  Including ESD in the UK Quality Code for HE, which gives ESD its first point of entry into mainstream quality assurance frameworks at sector level. This positions ESD in the strategic approach to learning and teaching that is expected of all institutions and underpins the sector’s approach to institutional review to ensure the quality of academic programmes.

ii) Commissioning the development of a QAA stakeholder-led guidance briefing on ESD, which will support and extend the inclusion of ESD in the UK Quality Code for HE. This document will be an important tool to improve sector-wide understanding and engagement around ESD, addressing key issues of definition, purpose and reach for a range of staff. The potential users of this national guidance include future subject benchmarking committees, professional bodies, external examiners, directors of learning and teaching, and collaborative partners.

3. Inter-agency collaboration on ESD:

Through the project work at sector level, connections have been forged with key forums and agencies connected with the curriculum, leadership, student perspectives and professional practice.  Several actions will follow, to take the next steps in engaging relevant stakeholders with ESD in relation to their core areas of work and to ensure that the project legacy continues.

These national agencies and funding councils plan to engage collaboratively on ESD to continue this line of work, with the intention to hold a sector-wide event in 2013. This participatory approach should help to progress the broader agenda and the systemic change impulse of ESD, to generate multi-level supports for further institutional change and curriculum innovation.

We hope that colleagues will engage positively with the ripples that have been initiated by the HEFCE LGM project over the next 12 months and would value feedback on the online Guide.



Are England’s PISA test scores really “plummeting”?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Browsing the Guardian, I came across John Jerrim's 2011 (but suddenly very topical) report for the Institute of Education: England’s “plummeting” PISA test scores between 2000 and 2009: Is the performance of our secondary school pupils really in relative decline? Here’s the Abstract.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are two highly respected cross-national studies of pupil achievement.  These have been specifically designed to study how different countries’ educational systems are performing against one another, and how this is changing over time.  These are, however, politically sensitive issues, where different surveys can produce markedly different results.  This is shown via a case study for England, where apparent decline in PISA test performance has caused policymakers much concern.  Results suggest that England’s drop in the PISA international ranking is not replicated in TIMSS, and that this contrast may well be due to data limitations in both surveys.  Consequently, I argue that the current coalition government should not base educational policies on the assumption that the performance of England’s secondary school pupils has declined (relative to that of its international competitors) over the past decade.

Mr Gove's rhetoric and policies owe much to this apparent decline, as Peter Wilby reminds us.  Wilby also reported the recent Pearson Economist Intelligence Unit study, which I commented on last month, that seems to show the UK (mostly England, of course) doing much better than expected which, as I noted, is awkward for Gove.  However, if you look at the EIU data, you find an odd thing.  Whilst the UK comes a creditable 6th overall [out of 40] in this ranking of cognitive skills and educational attainment, there is not an evenness of success across each category.  We're a disastrous 12th for cognitive, and a triumphant 2nd for attainment – even above those irritating Fins.

There is no contradiction here as these two aspects measure quite different things.  The indicators used in the Index are:

  • Cognitive Skills:  a combination of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS scores in Reading, Maths and Science in school (up to 16)
  • Educational Attainment: a combination of literacy and graduation rates (post-16)

The weighting algorithms (to which controversy inevitably attaches) can be summarised:

The overall index score is the weighted sum of the underlying two category scores. Likewise, the category scores are the weighted sum of the underlying indicator scores. The default weighting for the Index is two-thirds to cognitive skills and one-third to educational attainment. Within the cognitive skills category, the Grade 8 tests’ score accounts for 60% while the Grade 4 tests’ score accounts for 40% (Reading, Maths and Science all account for equal weights). Within the educational attainment category, the literacy rate and graduation rates account for equal weights.

Clearly the UK score is boosted significantly by our strong literacy and graduation rates.  Whilst the latter is obvious, the report never quite explains how 'literacy rates' are arrived at.  This is not about reading, as that is in the cognitive measure; it's a broader quality and relates to post-16 education in schools and universities.

Well, whatever this is, we do it well, though not as well as those pesky South Koreans.  Overall though, it does look as if the UK's post-16 education system is rescuing its pre-16 sibling.  So Mr Gove has a point after all ... .


LSIS's lingering death finally confirmed; Long live the FE Guild

📥  Comment, News and Updates

DBIS has announced that its funding the the Learning and Skills Improvement service will come to an end in August 2013.  This is the last of a series of cuts in recent years.  LSIS has confirmed that it will cease delivering courses, training conferences and other support, including the provision of grants direct to providers, on a phased basis between March and August 2013.  LSIS posted this today.

What the post doesn't say is what FE Week reported last month, that BIS was going to fund a new body, the FE Guild.  The report said:

Last month, FE Minister Matthew Hancock announced that the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) had won government approval to “take forward” proposals for the guild – a single body to set professional standards and codes of behaviour, as well as develop qualifications. ...  A spokesperson for AELP and AoC said: “We have been charged with working with partners to establish an FE Guild.  That process will begin with a comprehensive consultation of the sector to define the role of the guild.  The results of that consultation will inform implications for other sector bodies.”  ...  It would then be up to the sector to decide on the “best” employer-led contribution the guild could make to the “continued improvement of teaching, learning and governance”.  David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, was this month appointed as chair of a steering group for the new guild.

Umm.  Looks like a coup to me.


Learning for Sustainability in times of accelerating change: a review

📥  Comment, New Publications

I have been reading Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change, a new book edited by Arjen Wals & Peter Corcoran, and published by Wageningen Academic Publishers.   Here's my review ...

This is an ambitious book, and is weighty in every sense.  Its 31 chapters are set out in three sections: [1] Re-Orientating Science and Society (in light of unsustainability) – 10 chapters; [2] Re-Connecting People and Planet – 8 chapters; and [3] Re-Imagining Education and Learning – 13 chapters.  There is an Introduction by the editors and a Foreword and Afterword by Juliet Schor and Stephen Sterling, respectively.  Its 550 pages also include editor / author biographies.

All told, there are 74 authors, although two of the chapters account for 20 of these.  The book draws ideas from across continents, but it will surely have been a disappointment to the editors that the USA, UK and Canada, between them, contribute ~50% of the authors.  However, it is surely a merit of the book that its construction was an “organic”, rather than a pre-determined, process: a call using networks and social media for abstracts (80 resulted), a sifting of these and the commissioning of (50) chapters, a review of (~40) drafts received, resulting in the 31 final chapters.  You only have to look across the contents and authors to see how successful this strategy was in attracting a range of people, disciplines and ideas.  For sure, there is the odd, lurking, usual suspect re-writing (yet again) their well-nursed ideas – you will easily spot them – but let them be, and look carefully instead for the different voices and new insights that have emerged through this process.

I do not think that many people will read this text from cover to cover as you might a good novel, or, indeed, an authored text; I expect that the editors would be surprised if anyone tried, as it has not been designed in that way, despite its three section themes.  Its origins militate against this anyway as its organic construction means that it is harder to construct a coherent flow of ideas than it is with an authored book, or with a book whose contributors have been lined up (inorganically) to try to achieve such an outcome.  Anyway, the editors encourage readers to “weave their own journey” which is a suggestion that links to the visual metaphor employed to effect on the book’s cover.  They end their editors’ Introduction in this way:

“… the cover captures much of what this book is about – change, learning and the weaving together of stories that may provide clues for creating the wisdom we need to move towards a more sustainable world.”

Well, up to a point.

I think the Introduction is only partially successful in its task of helping the reader decide where to begin their “weaving”.  Although space is devoted to each of the book’s three sections, this comprises fewer than 3 pages, out of 10, with the rest devoted to background context.  As such, the Introduction is more about the idea of the book than its contents; indeed, as far as I can see, only 3 chapters out of the 31 warrant any mention at all, which makes me wonder what the editors think of how (or if) this “dynamic landscape” coheres.  I wanted the help of the editors to identify what they thought each of the chapters were contributing, so I turned to the Epilogue to see if this offered an evaluative overview, but to no avail.  The Afterword successfully draws threads together – though not really those woven throughout the book.

A strength of the book is its broad conception of where learning occurs, and the way that a range of contexts are exemplified.  The blurb on the back of the book tells us that it “explores the possibilities of designing and facilitating learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability” which is reasonably clear; as is for whom the book is deemed “essential reading”, with a lengthy list (again on the back): “educators, educational designers, change agents, researchers, students, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike”.  Actually: “all those who are concerned about the well-being of the planet and convinced of our ability to do better”.  Where, I briefly asked myself are the economists in this list, and I wondered which entrepreneurs the editors had in mind.  More significantly, however, is the wishful thinking implicit in such a list.  Just considering England, for a moment, I wondered how many of its 20,000-odd school head teachers will read it; how many of its 100+ university vice chancellors; how many exam board CEOs; how many senior civil servants and ministers in the Department of Education; how many … .  You get the picture, and know the answers as well as I do; this book will only be read by those at the education and sustainability nexus: all those engaged in EfS, ESD, ESE, LfS, EE, SDE, EL, LSD, etc.  As Juliet Schor put it in her Foreword:

“If you are reading these words, you are probably familiar with the grim data on the built-up of carbon in the atmosphere, the decline of biodiversity, growing water shortages, eco-system degredation and global poverty and hunger”.

I fear this will be the case, and what a pity it is as there is material here that others would surely benefit from reading.  The likely narrow audience is, in part, because those who are most convinced that education is relevant to “the well-being of the planet” in the sense it is used here, are thin on the ground; and also, in part, because of the insider language many chapters are written in.  You and I will read it because we like this sort of reading and writing; we’re good at it, in fact; it’s how we ply our trade, and make our livings.  It is probably not going too far to suggest that authors know all this, and for whom they are writing.  But is it going to help anyone be more effective on the political stage?  Well, just maybe, but they will need to read selectively.

So, what would I select?  What would I inter-weave?  In section one (Re-orienting science and society), perhaps I’d begin with Chapter 10 (Getting Active at the Interface) which is about social learning processes that involve real people and communities (the authors patronisingly call these “non-academic participants” – you see what I mean about the insider language).  Absorbing stuff, but how much more so had there been a parallel chapter written by these benighted, non-academic types.  Then there’s Chapter 8 (Building Resilient Communities) which argues that ...

“… resilient communities can be engendered by unleashing and strengthening their adaptive potential, through creating awareness of and space for emergent behaviour and, by laying an enabling foundation for competent collective behaviour.”

Just so, I thought, but looked in vain for local voices talking about how they were putting all their adaptive potential to use.

I thought too much of the writing was rather overly-assertive and self-regarding.  I didn’t agree with the author that “… ecology and environmentalisms need to consider ‘queerness’ as an alternative to the ideology of organic wholeness” (Chapter 7) in order to explore nature’s uncertainties, given the methodological choices available.  Nor did I think that “Deciding what is ‘right’, and then teaching others about that ‘rightness’” had much to do with education (Chapter 6).  Far too evangelical for me, and I wondered, in a chapter focused on ethics, why the views of the subject of a critical commentary were only mediated by an interviewer.  Was any thought given to rendering this a jointly-authored chapter, I wondered, given that the subject was, himself, an environmental educator?

On balance, I thought the other two sections were stronger.  In section two (Re-connecting people and planet), there are explorations of: using catastrophes for environmental learning; a dialogue about art, learning and sustainability; the use of practical outdoor tasks to build relationships; learning from indigenous American cultures; learning from traditional knowledge in China; lessons on relatedness from Grandmother Bear; the spirited practice of transformative education; and how reflective practice can enhance learning (for sustainability).  In section three (re-imagining education and learning), there are explorations of: how to handle knowledge uncertainty; using controversy to enhance learning; mental models in public perceptions of climate change; designing and developing learning systems for managing systemic change in a climate change world; building capacity for mitigating and adapting to climate change; living systems and institutional change; a dialogue around a frameworks-based education programme; Swiss failure to implement ESD; science education in Africa; the possibilities of organisational learning-based change; global storylines as transformative ecological learning; engaging youth in developing urban plans; and learning about energy and sustainability.

To illustrate something of the richness of the book, let me focus on two chapters, one in each of sections two and three.  These focus on congruent themes and, curiously, are written in a similar way to each other, but quite differently from other contributors.  They examine non-linear ideas and practice through writing dialogues.  Both chapters are about design, and about social transition to something more sustainable, or less unsustainable, perhaps.  Both, in their very different ways, emphasise “positive mental pictures of the future that feeds the transformative process … .”, though one of these is exploratory in nature, whilst the other sets out to be much more than this.  One is rather utopian; the other rejects this idea(l).  Both have significant things to say about education, and about sustainability – and about education and sustainability. [Note 1]

Chapter 12, by “academic, artist practitioners” Natalia Eernstman, Jan van Boeckel, Shelley Sacks and Misha Myers, is a dialogue with a focus on art, learning and sustainability.  The authors argue that, in order ...

“to effectively grasp and address sustainability challenges, … we need to expand our predominantly logocentric and linear ways of knowing with more presentational, embodied and sensory means.”

Their conversations focus on the following questions:

“From the position of a citizen, artist and educator, what are the key elements in a (learning) process that facilitates transitions towards sustainability in today’s society?  How do we understand art and what is the role of art within such processes?  And what does this mean for the way we shape and conduct learning?”

Although the actual dialogues took place between one author (Eernstman) with the others, separately, they have been written up as “an imaginal account … as if they had happened concurrently”, and the reader is invited to take a seat and listen in.  This works in an effective way and brought out, for me, issues that were as much a commentary on education and on sustainability, as on art:

“If a process isn’t open-ended enough it immediately shuts itself down, and people don’t engage with it.  If you impose too many restrictions, or ask questions that contain prescribed answers or directions, those things will immediately close off communication – you will know because people become disinterested.”

Although I know very little about their academic (and practitioner) worlds, I was drawn into their conversation, and inevitably, perhaps, wanted to join in.  Theirs is a scholarly take on the issues though not one I am used too; all the more valuable for that, of course.

Chapter 25, by Ken Webster and Paul Vare, is an abridged version of an extended dialogue between the authors in which each explores the other’s ideas about the other’s ideas: Vare begins by critiquing an aspect of the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation where Webster is Head of Innovation; Webster responds, Vare has another go, and then so does Webster.  Vare has the last word, for now; as with the discussion in Chapter 12, none of this is quite finished.  All this works very well, and is valuable because the ideas under critique seem rather important.  Webster sets out the thinking behind the Foundation’s circular economy ideas, based on Lakoff & Johnson’s arguments that all thinking involves frameworks:

“All choices depend on the frameworks we use, furthermore these frameworks are mostly unconscious and not infinitely varied; the commonality comes from the use of shared metaphors and groups of metaphors in humans which are based on our physicality.  In this model of how we think there is no meaningful learning without its framework or context … .”

There is then a clear review of the Foundation’s assumptions about learning.  Vare uses the ESD 1 / ESD 2 conceptual framing as a means of critique of the Foundation’s ideas and activities, attempting to identify which aspects of its work are ESD 1 or ESD 2 [Note 2].  It is a friendly critique, but a pointed one which focuses on what some perceive as the neglect in the Foundation’s work on social justice.  As Vare notes ...

“Attending to resource flows will be of little consequence to most of humanity if we don’t simultaneously address issues of access and equity.  Solving problems in one sphere without heed to the implications elsewhere is unlikely to provide a lasting solution.”

This is all excellent, though perhaps I should not be the one saying it, given that I work closely with both Webster and Vare, and with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and because I’d had a very minor hand in the co-construction of the text, as they are kind enough to acknowledge.

Both these chapters stand out for me because the writers are unafraid to expose their ideas to critique, and it is a pity that more contributions to the book did not adopt a similarly reflexive stance, rather than being content with promoting them.  I have not done justice to the richness of these two chapters in this review, and suspect that each may well need to be read more than once if what they have to offer is to be fully absorbed.  This is not because they are hard to read, but because they are worth reading – and reading together.

As I noted, earlier, Stephen Sterling’s Afterword draws some threads together.  He does this with the help of an Irving Berlin lyric which affords him a teasing metaphor:

There may be trouble ahead, … Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance, Let’s face the music and dance.”

Sterling adopts a positive, though cautionary, tone (balancing what’s possible, with what’s unlikely) as his quote from AtKisson (2011: 21) [Note 3] illustrates:

“… the good news is that this is a transformation already underway.  The bad news comes in the form of a challenge: How fast can we make … beneficial changes happen?”

Although brief, Sterling’s is a broad-ranging text packed with issues and comment: a concentrated distillation of his work and ideas over time, and a pointing forwards, for example, in his discussion of the advantages of an anticipative learning / education approach which represents a “willingness, openness and intention to learn in response to perceived innovation, threat or opportunity.”  This ties in well with a neat metaphor about a car with three drivers heading towards an abyss with the drivers wanting to take heed of, ignore, and deconstruct (respectively) the warning signs.  This is far too familiar for any comfort; in fact, we are all in that car, academics included.  Sterling ends the book like this:

“… while many are like Irving Berlin’s dancers – content to party yet dimly aware the bill is as yet unpaid – we need to demonstrate a much better party is possible, one that can take us through the long night and usher in a new dawn”.

Indeed we do, but my reading of Berlin is not quite Sterling’s.  The song ends:

“Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance
Let's face the music and dance.
Soon we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune and then
There may be teardrops to shed
So while there's moonlight and music and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance.”

I think that Berlin’s dancers are fully aware there’s a bill to be paid, and that they will have to pay it; they are just making the most of what circumstances have to offer before it arrives.  We are not so aware, I think, and therein lies the pathos of it all.  Although there may be glimpses of some slight lightening of the darkness in this book, there are not many.  But, then, it’s unlikely to be our generation who will have to pay the bill, or whose tears will be shed.  A pity, for that might concentrate minds wonderfully.


1. There is a third chapter [#17] that involves separate contributions of a number of authors, and which is written up, in part at least, as a dialogue.  I have not dwelt on it in this review as, to me at least, it does not illustrate the sort of author to author challenge of the other two chapters.

2. The irony of my approval of such insider language is not completely lost on me.  Thanks to SM for reminding me of this!

3. AtKisson A (2011) The Sustainability Transformation: How to accelerate positive change in challenging times. London, UK: Earthscan