Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Neither national, nor a curriculum

📥  Comment, New Publications

It was a pleasure to read Robin Alexander's incisive critique of Mr Gove's attempts at curriculum reform: pleasing, but oh so disappointing that such a riposte should prove necessary.  Here's the Abstract to Alexander's Forum paper for a flavour of both critique and prose.

This article examines the government's view, as revealed in its June 2012 National Curriculum proposals, of the purposes and character of the primary curriculum as a whole. The proposals are found to be deficient in a number of respects: in their naive, selective and inflated use of international evidence; in their treatment of aims as no more than cosmetic; in their impoverished take on culture, knowledge and values; in their reduction of educational standards to test performance in the 3Rs; in their perpetuation of the damaging Victorian legacy of a two-tier curriculum; and in their characterisation of spoken language, despite what has long been known about its vital role in development, learning and teaching, as little more than 'idle chatter'. In sum, the proposals are judged to betray contempt for other than politically-compliant evidence and to fall seriously short of what a national curriculum minimally entails.

Alexander's argument that it is deeply undemocratic only to think of curriculum Aims once content has been safely decided (by ministers) is so obvious, that it is a wonder it needs stating.  That it has to be said illustrates the paucity of thinking and understanding at senior government levels.  It is like thinking about nutrition only after a year's meals have been decided upon.

Alexander asks whether any thought was given to making the curriculum fit for the 21st century, and finds little evidence it was, at least by anyone who matters in government.  Although there is understandably no mention of sustainability, per se, in this critique, the paper focuses strongly on the cultural context wherein it has its significance.  Anyone who needs a quick intro to contemporary curriculum issues would do much worse than starting here.  Too much to hope that anyone in the DfE is reading ...

Alexander R  (2012)  Neither National nor a Curriculum  Forum 54(3)  369-383


UN observance days – or should that be daze?

📥  News and Updates

The UN has a long list of "observance days", and weeks, and years.  It is mesmerising.  In addition to International Mother Earth Day, the International Day for Biological Diversity, World Refugee Day, World Habitat Day, and World Oceans Day, which seem ok, sort of, we have the International Jazz Day, World Teachers' Day (take a stand for teachers), World Post Day, and World Tourism Day, which somehow seem oddd.  The next one is on Sunday (4th): World Cancer day.

Curiously, some days are 'day-free', whilst others have multiple 'days': there are 5 on the 21st March, for example.

The longest day is the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, and the shortest is the Day of Vesak.  Whilst there are so many missing 'days', the most obvious is the UN Day of UN Days.  My birthday is currently free.  Go on, ...


Let's look at probability rather than proof

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

A recent Economist ran a piece on Hurricane Sandy, and the costs to come from it.  It was typically thoughtful (if you like the Economist's thinking on economics and society, as I tend to do.  If you don't, it will just be provocative).  I thought it made sage comments on climate change, and what Americans might begin to do about that – or about the likelihood of it.  Basically, it's to wake up to increasing probabilities.  The article said, ...

Many scientists and journalists are cautious in listing climate change as a causal factor behind a storm like Sandy. Understandably so: weather emerges as part of a complex system, and it would be impossible to say whether a storm would or would not have materialised without global warming. But scientists are becoming ever less shy [ this is a Scientific American link ] in drawing a line between a higher frequency of "extreme" weather events and a warming climate. Climate shifts the probability distribution of such events, and so global warming may not have "caused" Sandy, but it makes Sandy-like storms more probable. As the ever-less-funny joke goes, 500-year weather events seem to pop up every one or two years these days. Frequency and intensity of storms aside, future hurricanes that hit the east coast will do so atop rising sea levels. Contemplate the images of seawater rushing over Manhattan streets and into subway and highway tunnels. Then consider that sea levels are rising. And then reflect on the fact that New York is very much like a typical megacity in being located on the water; tracing a finger around America's coastlines leads one past most of the country's largest and richest cities.

Americans may absorb all of this and decide that the smart choice continues to be a course of inaction. They may continue to believe that the storms—and droughts and heat waves and blizzards and floods—to come will be manageable because they'll be richer and well-equipped to adapt. Hopefully, there will at least be a better sense of what that is likely to mean and the trade-offs [sic] it will involve. Adaptation will be an ongoing, costly slog, with a side order of substantial human suffering. It will be one American icon after another threatened. Adaptation is not going to be easy. Hopefully Americans will ask themselves whether it's so much worse than the alternatives—high carbon taxes or large public investments or both—after all.

All this applies here as well, so what a pity the UK government hasn't a clear and coherent policy on all this.  See this link for a reflection on how hard all this can be in relation to, say, the energy market).

I wonder if our schools give enough time to this probability argument.  I suspect I know the answer.


Another World Sustainable Development Teach-In Day

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Personally, I’d rather hoped that one might be enough, but it seems not.  Friday, 8th February is the day, and details can be seen here.

This year's event has the theme "Sustainable Development: towards local solutions to a global challenge" and the Teach-In will display the papers presented at the World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities, held in Rio last June, bringing, according to the symposium convenor, Walter Leal,

“an impressive body of know-how and expertise on matters related to sustainability in higher education, to a world audience.”

It’s easy to join in.  Just visit the web site, register, and then log-in. You can then download the papers and "use them in your lectures".  Simples!

The benefit of this, apparently, is that ...

“university lecturers from, say, Canada, may be able to show a presentation to students on sustainability at universities in Australia.  To the same measures, lecturers at a university in Australia may choose and make a presentation on sustainability initiatives at universities in Chile.  Or perhaps ask students to discuss how the activities undertaken at their home universities compare with universities elsewhere.  Either way, both teaching staff and university students have an unique opportunity to interact on a topic which is global in scope, but local on its implementation.”

In characteristically modest style, Walter says,

"There are seldom such occasions when the world sustainability community may come together, at no cost to anyone, and may learn from one another in a truly international and interdisciplinary way".

Inspiring – or what?


A Sustainable Higher Education Academy? Not quite yet

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Higher Education Academy [HEA] has an advisory group on ESD of which I am a member.  The Academy also has a new Strategic Plan (2012–2016).  Sadly, this is not all it might be.  It begins ...

This is a dynamic strategy that we will regularly review so that we remain flexible and proactive in meeting the needs of the higher education community, and in developing new business at home and internationally.  As champions of excellence in learning and teaching, and as a national body for enhancing learning and teaching in higher education throughout the UK, our strategic priorities directly reflect that sentiment:

  • to inspire and support effective practice in learning and teaching;
  • to recognise, reward and accredit excellent teaching;
  • to influence policy, future thinking and change.
Good stuff, obviously; a bit florid perhaps, but, ... .
The HEA's Priority 1 is to inspire and support effective practice in learning and teaching.   In the addressing challenges section of this, the Plan says this:

... supporting the higher education community to rise to contemporary challenges such as satisfying greater expectations with less resource, flexible delivery, equality and diversity, assessment and feedback, education for sustainable development, reward and recognition, employability and internationalisation.

So, despite its Advisory Group's best efforts, the HEA sees ESD just as it does assessment and feedback, employability, or reward and recognition, as a "contemporary challenge".   Whilst it may be politically useful to be in (rather than not in) such a list, it is changing our reckless global economic system which is the contemporary challenge which both HEA and the wider society faces, not ESD.  ESD is one response to this very existential predicament, just as there are policy and practice responses to the need for better feedback to students within, and greater equality of access by students to, HE.

Is this just a careless category error, or a more disturbing confusion of ends and means?  Well, the list is such a conflation of ideas and issues that it's hard to know – and difficult to believe too much thought went into its compilation.

The HEA's Priority 4 is to develop an effective, sustainable organisation that is relevant to and valued by higher education.  In the securing financial sustainability section of this, it says:

... we will seek to secure new sources of revenue, for instance by providing services to international institutions or agencies and expanding our subscription base.

This everyday use of sustainable and sustainability is understandable, as almost everyone else does this, but it's a curse for those who'd encourage greater clarity of thinking and language.  Understandable, maybe, but is it forgivable?  I'm left wondering whether the ESD Advisory Group is just not very effective — or whether the HEA is just intent on not listening.  And now that the senior manager inside the Academy who championed ESD is off to further enhance quality at Abertay, I fear the worst.


Unfolding the Power of ESD: lessons learnt and ways forward?

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Unfolding the Power of ESD – Lessons Learned and Ways Forward reports on the conference The Power of ESD – Exploring Evidence & Promise, which took place in Gotland, Sweden, in October 2012.  The conference was organized by the Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development (SWEDESD) and Gotland University, and brought together 120 ESD policy, research and practice experts from 35 countries.

Some familiar faces on the conference trail

Some familiar faces on the conference trail

The report aims to inspire and inform international, national and local efforts to elaborate and accelerate ESD around the world.  Its authors, Jeppe Læssøe and Frans Lenglet, write:

“The world needs to permeate ESD, while ESD needs to permeate the world.  In the coming  years ESD should go transboundary in order to unfold, to enhance its traction, to extend its influence and to become more inclusive.”

The report makes four main recommendations:

  • Involve ESD

ESD can facilitate dialogue and learning on critical sustainable development issues.  ESD should be conducted in more open and inclusive ways.  Transboundary partnerships and governance structures are necessary to give ESD more traction.

  • Expand ESD

Link ESD to the Convention on Biological Diversity.  ESD should address the global health risks.  Efforts to promote green skills through Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) should be acknowledged and integrated into ESD.  Early Childhood ESD should be part of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Use ESD to reorient education

ESD addresses the quality dimension of the Education for All (EFA) agenda.  UNESCO should enhance the dialogue and concrete connections between the Education for All (EFA) initiative and ESD.  Ministries of Education and other authorities should use ESD to strengthen the quality of edu­cational programs and strategies.  There is a strong need for following up official national SD and ESD policies, in order to help scaling up and spreading innovative practices.

  • Make ESD policy context-sensitive

A process of mediation is needed to translate and adapt general aims and principles to meaningful and supportive policy at the local level.

I was invited to this meeting but couldn't go.  So, I'm now wondering what I missed.  Judging by the recommendations, not very much, as they seem derivative, at best.  But then, I wasn't there.  So, I probably missed nuances and insights, and was certainly denied the wisdom of the late-night bar.  Nor, of course, was I able to contribute.  But I note the usual problem of reification: writing (and hence thinking) about ESD as if it were an end in itself ("The world needs to permeate ESD"); thinking that it's ESD than needs to change, as opposed to education, and thinking about education.  I note that there were policy folk there, so maybe their thinking was stimulated, and actions provoked once they were safely home.  Shall we ever know, I wonder?


Jeff Forshaw on science and politicians

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

A good article in the Observer last week from Jeff Forshaw.  He's a mate of Brian Cox – Oh, and a professor of physics and astronomy at Manchester.  It begins:

In an editorial for the New Statesman, my colleague at the University of Manchester Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince wrote that "politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science." They cited climate change, saying that it has become "controversial for primarily non-scientific reasons", with the result that confidence in the very idea of science is undermined. This echoes the sentiments of David Nutt, the sacked government adviser on drugs, who was presumably letting off some steam when he said of ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith that she, "like most politicians, has the delusion that whatever they think is right.  They lack all humility".

Well, accusations that scientists are arrogant or, according to journalist Simon Jenkins, in the business of making a religion out of science, are not uncommon.  For journalist Brendan O'Neill, the scientific panel of "know it all" experts surrounding government is "little different to the Guardian Council in Iran".  The key criticism appears to concern the issue of democracy and the notion of choice.  In O'Neill's words, people should be "fully free to make a choice, unencumbered by the hectorings of do-gooders".  It is the removal of this choice by a scientific "priesthood" that Jenkins and O'Neill seem to find so repulsive.

It ends ...

Curiosity about how things work leads directly to better understanding and that is not really a matter of opinion.  In other words, scientific experts know better than anyone how nature works and we should be prepared either to develop sufficient expertise to engage in a scientific dialogue or defer to their better understanding.  In a democratic world, there is a temptation to allow everyone to air their ideas and on complicated matters of social policy that may (or may not) be appropriate.  However, the scientific evidence – the data, the models, their predictions and the associated uncertainties – should never be viewed as a mere matter of opinion. There is no suggestion here that scientists should dictate government policy, only that the scientific evidence should serve as valuable input to the political decision-making process and that those making the decisions should make it their business to understand it.

Indeed.  For once, I read the comments at the foot of the piece, and so discovered a Patrick Stokes piece on opinion in The Conversation:

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’  Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close.  Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true.  You are not entitled to your opinion.  You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.  The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned.  It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.  And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Quite so; this is widespread I'm sorry to say.


Higher Education Funding for 2013-14

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Every January, the Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE] receives a letter from whichever government department currently holding the parcel labelled “Responsibility for Higher Education”.  This sets out what government expects the Council to do for its (taxpayers’) money in the coming year, and sometimes over a year or three.  Expectations can range from serious political / policy matters, to the passing ministerial fancy.

It would be wrong, of course, to see these letters as in any sense ex cathedra. They are the result of negotiations between the Department and the Funding Council: the Council might want to bring pressure to bear on universities in relation to X, and so asks the Department to include this in the letter.  Indeed, (some) universities may well have asked the Council for pressure on X in the first place.  This is a curious dance which offers some insight into how regulators function, caught as they are between institutions and government: between vice chancellors and ministers.

But it’s not just universities that pressurise the Council; other organisations with an interest in higher education do so as well.  The National Union of Students is one example, the Higher Education Academy, another; and it’s hard to believe that the professions and business are far behind in this.  When HEFCE had its sustainable development steering group, this was used as a conduit for ideas on how a focus on sustainable development in the sector might be encouraged, and I recall the significance of funding letters in this.

The 2013 funding letter says this:

#28. We thank the Council for its activity which has contributed to the HE sector’s good progress on sustainable development.  In particular, by developing strategies and using the Revolving Green Fund to provide recoverable grants to help HEIs in England reduce emissions the Council has supported the sector to reduce carbon emissions.  We look forward to the development of a new sustainable development framework that should seek to build on the achievements of universities and colleges and the enthusiasm of students and continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability.

The phrase, “the enthusiasm of students” is a reference to evidence from NUS / HEA surveys, and is something that HEFCE takes seriously.  This is the first time that there has been this reference to students (with its implicit acknowledgement that their learning is important).

Here are the relevant parts of recent Letters:


#22. The HE sector has made good progress in recent years on environmental issues. You should continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability.


#25. We welcome the positive engagement of the sector over recent years in environmental sustainability.  Even in fiscally challenging times, we remain committed to achieving the targets for carbon reduction and making progress on the wider sustainable development agenda.  We hope you will continue to support the sector in its efforts here.


#9. I welcome the work the Council and the sector have done over the past year to ensure the development of carbon management strategies for all higher education institutions.  I hope universities and colleges will show leadership in this area, both in reducing their own emissions, and in seeking to include sustainability in their teaching and research.

These might seem brief, but they have been building on something quite substantive from 2008 / 2009:


#18. When I announced your capital budgets, I noted that among other things this would allow you to commit resources to your proposed Green Development Fund.  I warmly welcome this initiative, and your plans to work in partnership with Salix to deliver it.  I know that institutions will help develop responses to the problems we face, and I am pleased the Council is providing leadership in this area.  More generally, while higher education institutions have made some progress in reducing their carbon emissions, more needs to be done if the 2050 commitment to reduce emissions by 60% is to be achieved.  I expect HEFCE to work with the sector to ensure these targets are met.  Over the spending review, all institutions in receipt of capital funding should have plans to reduce carbon emissions, and performance against these plans should be a factor in future capital allocations.  I would be grateful for a report on your plans for taking this forward by September 2008.


#2. … Other themes that will certainly be relevant to that framework, and where I hope the Council will continue to focus during 2009-10, include engaging with business; widening access to higher education; supporting quality in HE; enhancing employability; sustaining world class research; and responding to climate change.

#19. Last year, I set out our ambition that capital funding for institutions should be linked to performance in reducing emissions.  Following your advice to me, I am now confirming that such links should be in place for 2011-12.  In May 2008 I asked you to finalise during 2008- 09 a strategy for sustainable development in HE, with a realistic target for carbon reductions that would reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent against 1990 levels by 2050 and at least 26 per cent by 2020.  This former target should now be upgraded to 80 per cent, in line with Parliament’s decisions in passing the Climate Change Act 2008.  I hope that some of the capital expenditure I have asked you to bring forward into 2009-10 will support strategic, long-term action to tackle climate change, but institution-wide strategies to reduce carbon emissions are also needed.

The 2013 letter calls for “the development of a new sustainable development framework” which seems like good (if overdue) news – provided it is one that takes both carbon and learning seriously.

Time to put some pressure on HEFCE … .


Implementing improved educational and school standards in Wales

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have commented before on the problems Welsh schools have in achieving decent standards for their students, and of how ESDGC seems irrelevant to this, despite research evidence to the contrary, and the high-profile focus on sustainable development as a policy goal within the Principality.  So, it's no surprise that there's to be a Welsh Policy Forum devoted to improving standards – and even less of a surprise that there's no mention of ESDGC in this.

The blurb for the event goes:

We are delighted that Ann Keane HMIC, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales, Estyn; Julie Morgan AM, Member, Children and Young People Committee, National Assembly for Wales and Professor David Reynolds, Professor of Education, University of Southampton have agreed to deliver keynote addresses at this seminar.

Further speakers include: Steve Beswick, Director of Education, Microsoft UK; Anna Brychan, Director, NAHT Cymru; Ian Budd, Chairman, Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW) and Director of Lifelong Learning, Flintshire County Council; Darren Evans, Wales Reporter, TES; Eifion Evans, Director, Education and Community Services, Ceredigion County Council; Owen Hathway, Wales Policy Officer, NUT; Janet Hayward, Headteacher, Cadoxton Primary School, Barry and Chair, Digital Classroom Teaching Task and Finish Group; Michael Imperato, Solicitor, New Law Solicitors; Greg Morgan, Associate School Improvement Officer, Carmarthenshire County Council; Jane Morris, Director, Governors Wales and Dr Brett Pugh, Head, School Standards Unit, Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Welsh Government.

All this in 4 hours, so the Forum's preferred pedagogy is clear.  You pays your £190 and sits and listens – but it is CPD accredited!

Anyway, I don't really see how you can "implement" improved standards.  Surely, standards will be improved by an intervention or change process.  Implementing suggests that you sort the standards out, and then implement them.

So, poor English or muddled thinking?  A sympton of the wider problem, perhaps.  Maybe it makes more sense in Welsh.


Ireland's the place to be for ESD

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was alerted the other day to the Ireland International Conference on Education (IICE-2013), April 15-17, 2013, in Dublin.  The mail said:

IICE is an international refereed conference dedicated 
to the advancement of the theory and practices in education. 
The IICE promotes collaborative excellence between academicians 
and professionals from Education. 
The aim of IICE is to provide an opportunity for academicians 
and professionals from various educational fields with 
cross-disciplinary interests to bridge the knowledge gap, promote 
research esteem and the evolution of pedagogy. The IICE 2013 invites 
research papers that encompass conceptual analysis, design implementation and performance evaluation. All the accepted papers 
will appear in the proceedings and modified version of selected 
papers will be published in special issues peer reviewed journals.

The topics in IICE-2013 include the 

*Academic Advising and Counselling 
*Art Education 
*Adult Education 
*APD/Listening and Acoustics in Education Environment 
*Business Education 
*Counsellor Education 
*Curriculum, Research and Development 
*Competitive Skills 
*Continuing Education 
*Distance Education 
*Early Childhood Education 
*Educational Administration 
*Educational Foundations 
*Educational Psychology 
*Educational Technology 
*Education Policy and Leadership 
*Elementary Education 
*Geographical Education 
*Geographic information systems 
*Health Education 
*Higher Education 
*Home Education 
*Human Computer Interaction 
*Human Resource Development 
*Indigenous Education 
*ICT Education 
*Internet technologies 
*Imaginative Education 
*Kinesiology & Leisure Science 
*Language Education 
*Mathematics Education 
*Mobile Applications 
*Multi-Virtual Environment 
*Music Education 
*Physical Education (PE) 
*Reading Education 
*Writing Education 
*Religion and Education Studies 
*Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 
*Rural Education 
*Science Education 
*Secondary Education 
*Second life Educators 
*Social Studies Education 
*Special Education 
*Student Affairs 
*Teacher Education 
*Cross-disciplinary areas of Education 
*Ubiquitous Computing 
*Virtual Reality 
*Wireless applications

I looked in vain for ESD / EfS / EE / Etc.  No sign.  Was this an oversight, I wondered?  Ignorance?  Disdain?  Then the answer came to me: education in Ireland must have so absorbed the sustainability message that it doesn't need mentioning any more; it's just is in everything they do.

Cheers to that.