Monthly Archives: February 2013
I spend a small part of Sunday morning reading an extended and informed Internet discussion about (so called) Junk DNA and the rival claims made by research groups about the idea of junk, and each other. You can find, and follow, it here.
The Observer article begins:
It was the scientific surprise of 2012. Researchers announced they had found that long stretches of human DNA – previously dismissed as "junk" – were in fact crucial to the working of our bodies. The assumption that our cells are controlled by only a few genes was wrong. Scientists on the Encode project – an international public consortium researching the human genome – argued that most of our DNA has a part to play. But this idea is now the subject of an astonishingly vitriolic attack from other scientists, who say that Encode's "absurd" ideas are the work of people who know nothing about evolutionary biology. "News concerning the death of junk DNA has been greatly exaggerated," they insist. The row divides scientists over the most fundamental of questions – is most of our DNA devoid of purpose or does it play a major role in our cells? The debate has been triggered by a critique in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal that is striking for its strident language.
I'm normally wary of reading the long discussion threads that follow such articles as too frequently they descend into I'll-informed opinion ( ie, prejudice ) and abuse. I'd recommend the Wiltshire Times if this is to your taste. However, I'm pleased I persevered with the junk story as it was not only informative in its own right, it illustrated methodological and practical issues inherent in this sort of research and critique. It was also a good example of how the Internet has enabled these rich discussions. I wish 'our field' (if that is what it is) had more of them, on SHED-SHARE, for example.
In the end, of course, although I was slightly better informed, I really wasn't much the wiser. Ah well, ... . Still time for an alternative career?
One of the characteristics of the HEA's SHED SHARE mailbase is that hardly anyone uses it for discussion. Most often it's used for self-promotion or just to announce stuff, and discussion rarely gets beyond three contributions. I understand from those who say they know, that we are all just supposed to agree with each other. The rationale for this is the need for a united front against ESD unbelievers, blasphemers and heretics. As an academic, I find that impossible to accept. So it was good to see Kerry Shephard from Otago contributing last week, fanning the embers of what seemed fated to be another non-discussion about QA[A] and [E]SD. Specifically, Kerry was responding to a comment of mine that was based on this blog. I should note that a number of contributions followed this intervention; sadly, however, many of these were as self-promoting and uncritical as ever.
Here are Kerry's thoughtful views ...
This is a follow up to Bill Scott’s last post, primarily about quality assurance; itself triggered by the Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability project report. I have been thinking a lot about developing better links between ES/ESD and educational quality in my own institution recently so I guess that I could contribute some ideas. My concern is that we (in the SHED) may be in danger of polarising viewpoints around these important educational matters, especially QA. Are we ‘for it’ or ‘against it’?
Clearly the Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability project is broadly positive about applying some quality assurance principles to ES/ESD (It had a specific strategic intention, to connect EfS with systems for Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Enhancement (QE)…http://efsandquality.glos.ac.uk/project_overview.htm ). Bill’s post to the SHED is far less positive ("given that what goes on at the moment is much more education for unsustainability, than EfS, it has to be a problem that the current emphasis on quality doesn’t push universities towards being more sustainability-focused in terms of vision, purposes and operation".)
My aim is to explore some middle ground and perhaps make reference to both ends of this continuum.
It seems self-evident to me that quality assurance, as currently operational in higher education, is not particularly fit to create the change in HE that many anticipate or hope for. A particular problem may be that there is not one model of a quality educational system that encompasses the views even of those who read the SHED mail-list, let alone the larger number of university teachers who do not. Whether the focus of QA is on outcomes, or on process, we are likely to have different views on what ‘quality’ is. (I have read the LCC report, though not watched the videos, and it is apparent to me that there is no blueprint of a QA system within it; probably a good thing considering the diversity of our aspirations). And we need to be open about academia's aversion to some QA, with its undertones of accountability. More of the same may not help us.
But it also seems unreasonable to me that the ES/ESD movement would anticipate change in the QA processes that might benefit our cause without some soul searching about the nature of ES/ESD itself and how we conceptualise the quality educational provision that we seek.
So, first I must be positive about the potential for QA to lead to change. At a pragmatic level, I wonder what changes have occurred in higher education in recent years and what processes have contributed to change? Whatever our personal views on outcome-oriented higher education and the role of the Intended Learning Outcome, few in the SHED will argue about the magnitude of these changes in recent years. Just a few years ago a list of topics was enough for many of us as we described courses that we were about to teach. Nowadays we are obliged to describe the learning that we hope students will achieve and align this with our assessments. I say nothing here about the desirability of this change; just that it has occurred. And I suggest that the broad quality movement has been greatly involved in this change. Like it or not, in many parts of the world the ability of academics to describe the impact that they hope to have on their students has been packaged (along with other parameters) in a broad description of educational quality. So I see the argument that quality assurance does not necessarily simply maintain the status quo. It may be one of the better tools for change that we have.
But then I need to make a case for the ES/ESD movement itself embracing change. I think that to make good progress we shall need to. Here is just one important example. Perhaps it's a personal concern of mine, but when I read about institutional commitment to ‘Foster Environmental Literacy For All’ (one of the statements in the Talloires Declaration that many of our institutions have signed), I want to ask… how’s it going? After all these years of fostering, is it having an effect? Similar urges result from the HEFCE vision, 2005 (that the HE sector in England will be recognised as a major contributor to society's efforts to achieve sustainability). Well, if I had written that I would want to ask, periodically, how is that recognition developing? And what of some of the hopes and expectations expressed by individual higher education institutions about the achievements of undergraduate students? As I read lists of ‘aspirational’ or ‘holistic’ statements of graduate attributes (many of which relate to social good in general or to sustainability in particular) I admit to feeling embarrassed on behalf of higher education. If it's that important to us, to our students, to their future employers, and to society in general, surely these attributes should be more than aspirational? The phrase ‘show me the money’ comes to mind as I struggle to put to one side my need for some evidence that we are actually having some of these desirable impacts. It may be unfashionable to look to QA to provide this evidence, but the alternative (to my mind) is to become more circumspect in what we promise. I worry that academics nowadays are finding themselves making all sorts of commitments that may be collectively difficult to keep and that, perhaps, our professions and institutions have little intention of appraising. With an eye on making QA work for us, perhaps if we focus on aspirations that we have some chance of monitoring, appraising or evaluating we might anticipate more generous support from our academic colleagues.
And then there is the methodological dilemma of how to assure ourselves, and others, that we are having some sort of positive impact. Perhaps our aspirations are simply too complex at present to describe in detail, and make judgements about ‘how’s it going?’. QA also comes to our assistance in this area. While mainstream higher education has immersed itself in assessing the learning outcomes, and judging the achievements, of individual students, QA has taken a different route. Quite reasonably (it could be argued) and for example, we tend to ask our students what they think of the learning-support they receive while studying at our institutions, using anonymous surveys. Experience suggests that if students are confident that their response cannot be attributed to them they are more likely to offer honest and potentially helpful feedback. Academics argue about the usefulness of this data but few I suspect would totally discount it as without use. The key features of this form of enquiry is that it is cohort-based rather than individually-focused, and anonymous. We would not wish to know individual’s perspectives on their experiences and achievements but it's quite useful to know cohorts’ perspectives. If we are interested in whether we are having an impact on the sustainability attributes of our students perhaps we could look to QA to guide us. Simply asking identified or identifiable individuals whether or not they have a global perspective, or a sustainability-minded attitude, is not an option for us. (If you thought that your degree, and future, depended in some way on you giving the ‘correct’ answer, what would your answer be?). Some of these attributes may not be accessible to individual assessment but may be open to cohort evaluation using a range of research/evaluation instruments available (or still to be developed that do far more than simply canvas opinion). If, on balance, and following cohort evaluation, we are not having the sorts of impacts on our students that we expect to have, I hope that we would be able to either change our aspirations, or our educational approaches, or both. The QA movement has taught us a thing or two about cohort evaluation.
Of course much depends on what individuals regard as quality, quality assurance, evaluation and assessment; and how we individually interpret our roles in ES/ESD. Increasingly I think that if university teachers cannot find reasonable means to evaluate the extent to which our aspirations are being realised, they may be the wrong aspirations.
I would, of course, like to hear some counter arguments. I am aware (even from this side of the world) that this Shed-share mail-list is less used now than it was a few years ago… but it still represents one of the best ways for its many readers to communicate informally and in a low-stakes manner. So please do challenge my ideas or send us details of where your institution is evaluating students’ attainment of sustainability attributes, graduate attributes and other aspirational outcomes. Even if you have not contributed to SHED before, it would be good to hear some new thoughts on where HE is heading.
Oh that we has more posts like this: engaging in both senses ...
This is how the draft national curriculum specification for geography begins:
A high-quality geography education should inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Teaching should equip pupils with knowledge about diverse places, people, resources and environments, together with a deep understanding of the Earth’s key physical and human processes. As pupils progress, their growing knowledge about the world helps them to deepen their understanding of the interaction between physical and human processes, and of the formation of landscapes and environments. Geographical knowledge provides the tools and approaches that explain how the Earth’s features at different scales are shaped, interconnected and change over time.
The National Curriculum for geography aims to ensure that all pupils:
- develop knowledge of the location of places of global significance, their defining physical and human characteristics and how they relate to one another; this place knowledge should provide a sound context for understanding geographical processes
- understand the processes that give rise to key physical and human geographical features of the world, how these are interdependent and how they bring about spatial variation and change over time
- are competent in the geographical skills needed to:
- collect, analyse and communicate with a range of data gathered through experiences of fieldwork that deepen their understanding of geographical processes
- interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including maps, globes, aerial photographs and Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
- communicate geographical information in a variety of ways, including through maps and writing at length
Whilst all this sounds reassuringly familiar, whatever became of geography's position in the vanguard of exploring sustainability? Maybe it's in the subject content? Well, no it isn't. Maybe it will be at GCSE? Well, let's hope so, but that's rather late, particularly for those not taking GCSE geography.
Enthusiastic teachers will squeeze sustainability in, of course, but that's not the point. Whither leadership from the top? What about encouragement? Where's the mandate to explore and empower? Was the GA consulted at all? GIS aside, it's not just the geography content that makes all this feel like the 1950s. In fact it's all so timeless that it reminds me of the Sabre-toothed curriculum. Indeed, the whole national curriculum revision looks that way, and the cynic in me has pushed his way to the fore and suggests that this is all a cunning Govian plan to push schools towards Academy status where, of course, none of this matters, as I noted last week. There was a report in the Independent a week or so ago suggesting that other "incentives" [my word] were being put in place by the DfE to ease reluctant schools into the Brave New Academy World which is, of course, good for them, if only they knew it. Shades of false consciousness here.
Whilst I've just about given up on the national curriculum, what the English education system is for may well be something worth talking about.
DECC has now moved its content to gov.uk/decc
Current content from the old DECC website has been transferred and organised into the following policy priorities, with supporting pages:
- Helping households to cut their energy bills Includes: Green Deal, Warm Home Discount scheme, Warm Front scheme, Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) and the smart meters programme.
- Maintaining UK energy security Includes: UK Promote, implementing the EU Security of Gas supply regulation in the UK, working internationally to maintain UK energy security, future electricity networks and Electricity Market Reform (EMR).
- Managing the use and disposal of radioactive and nuclear substances and waste Includes: Providing policy for the safe and secure disposal of radioactive waste, providing, monitoring and reviewing the regulatory system for the storage, use and transport of radioactive substances, providing a system to identify and remediate radioactive contaminated land, making justification decisions on applications to use ionising radiation and managing spent fuel, reprocessing and nuclear materials.
- Increasing the use of low carbon technologies Includes: the Renewables Obligation (RO), new nuclear power stations, Feed-in Tariffs scheme, bioenergy, Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), offshore wind, geothermal energy, heat networks, marine energy, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and onshore wind.
- Using evidence and analysis to inform energy and climate change policies Includes: modelling and analytical projections, policy appraisal, monitoring and evaluation and research (economic, technical, social and trials).
- Reducing demand for energy from industry, businesses and the public sector Includes: CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme, combined heat and power (CHP), Climate Change Agreements (CCAs), electricity demand reduction project and Enhanced Capital Allowances (ECAs)
- Reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 Includes: carbon budgets, EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture
- Providing regulation and licensing of energy industries and infrastructure Includes: environmental regulation of offshore oil, gas and carbon dioxide storage activities, oil and gas licensing, gas market regulation and licensing, planning and consents for national energy infrastructure, providing oil and gas exploration and production data and safety at UK civil nuclear sites.
- Taking international action to mitigate climate change Includes: the International Climate Fund (ICF), reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), scientific evidence to help us understand climate change, leading the diplomatic effort to mitigate climate change, encouraging the EU to demonstrate leadership on climate change and negotiating for a comprehensive global climate change agreement
Well, it might be all change, but I do wonder what difference it will it make. However, that's probably much too gloomy a thought for a Friday morning.
The latest South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition seminar was held on February 14th in Totnes. The topic was Learning in Transition. Appropriately, we met in the Totnes Transition Network meeting room.
Ben Brangwyn opened the seminar with some background to the Transition movement, and he then talked about the idea and practice of Transition, which morphed into a focus on Transition as learning. Ben’s input focused on Transition as a means of our coming to terms with the very different socio-economic issues we shall be facing as resources and energy become scarcer and more expensive. His point was that we are running out of technological fixes – something not everyone there agreed with, at least for the short-to-medium term. For Ben, Transition answers the question of how to reduce atmospheric CO2, whilst increasing social resilience and human happiness. It represents a model of working and coming together, increasing connectivity around local business and enterprise, with much of this invisible to the casual observer, which was, I thought, a well-made point. All this was engaging for the audience and it stimulated much discussion; around, for example, the value base of ‘resilience’ as viewed from the Transition viewpoint.
The afternoon saw Isabel Carlisle talk about Schools in Transition and issues around evaluating effectiveness. Isabel talked about her work with three schools, two of which, the Crispin Academy, in Street, and KEviCC, in Totnes, are in the region. The third, Wellington College, is in farthest Berkshire. The emphasis in all this, it seems, is that “a school in Transition is on a journey to resilience.” Maybe. It also has to be on a journey to greater sustainability across campus, curriculum and community, and I was struck (again) by the challenge of evaluating all this. It’s a bigger problem than this, of course: setting appropriate(ly challenging) goals and targets is much more demanding than mere measurement.
Of course, schools cannot, in and of themselves, be resilient, just as a family cannot. Unless, of course, resilience implies mutual interdependence, as I think it must. If this is so, a town cannot be resilient either, which seems to me to be the fault line running though the idea of a Transition Town. If it were up to me, I’d drop the “Town” – not to mention the local money side-show.
All told, it was a very enjoyable day: a stimulating meeting, good conversation, excellent non-chain coffee, a horse-free Devon Pasty, and easy train travel through Glorious Devon, and Flooded Somerset. I also came away from the meeting with a list of books that other people clearly thought I needed to read. That’s never a bad outcome.
The Oak and Furrows wildlife rescue centre is a charity based in Gloucestershire. Its aim is to
"provide care for wild animals in need so that they can be returned to the wild fit and healthy for a second chance.”
They are busy; in 2010 they dealt with nearly 3500 animals. These patients (for that's what they call them) ranged across toads , little egrets , woodcock , goldfinches , jackdaws , badgers , collared doves , rabbits , seagulls , feral pigeons , swans , ducks , and hedgehogs .
Also included was  mink. I hope that wasn't returned "fit and healthy" to the wild for a "second chance" to wreak havoc on native species.
I've been reading the green learning blog, a new output from the education, schools and families team at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. For a Trustee, with a particular interest in environmental learning, this kind of communication is a great way to get quick insights into what's going on, though I could wish it was more prominently positioned on the website so that more casual browsers can more readily access it. That said, the blog is engagingly written and informative, giving a picture across the range of the team's important activities.
I particularly liked the story of the lad who's on "alternative provision" from a secondary school, and who has a Monday placement for the rest of the year:
The student is full of enthusiasm and ideas for our reserves, commenting on such things as signage, access, family use, how we can increase our income and other ways to develop our reserves. He is taking a keen interest in identifying tree species by their bark, buds and catkins. At Ravensroost, by using bark colour and texture alone, he correctly identified birch, ash, oak and hazel, which was followed by “This is helping my confidence.” Brilliant.
Indeed it is. More of this please – and keep the posts coming.
The Quality Assurance Agency [QAA] has a new resource out for consultation: Enterprise and entrepreneurship education: guidance for UK higher education providers. QAA says that this ...
"has been developed by representatives drawn from, and acting on behalf of, the enterprise education community, with support from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). It is intended to be of practical help to those working with students in higher education to foster their skills in enterprise and entrepreneurship."
This positioning of the document as coming from the "enterprise education community" (see Appendix 1 for details) looks like a neat trick designed to avoid the impression that this is the QAA marching onto the HEA's professional development turf. Nice try, but ...
The document goes on ...
"QAA publishes the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (the Quality Code), which covers a range of matters to do with the design and delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate provision and the management of students' academic experiences. The Quality Code sets out the expectations that all providers of UK higher education are required to meet. This guidance is intended to complement the Quality Code but it does not form part of it."
Just so. Equally clearly, this is the QAA's Trojan mouse of choice, so we can expect more of these to exemplify QAA's ideas about "themes that cross subject boundaries" ; education for sustainability, next, perhaps. There is certainly no shortage of ready cash in the quality industry.
 Chapter 3 of the QAA Quality Code says:
In addition to subject-specific content, higher education providers consider the way their strategic approach reflects themes that cross subject boundaries. These themes reflect topics which may be considered to have a broad relevance to the purposes of higher education and its wider context in society. Where the themes are embedded within the curriculum and form an integral part of a programme of study, learning and teaching activities are designed to take them into account. These themes may include:
academic and digital literacies appropriate to the academic level of the student education for sustainability citizenship enterprise and entrepreneurship internationalisation ethical behaviour
Michael Gove, England's Secretary of State for Education, has lovingly crafted his perfect (national) curriculum based on what every English boy and girl should know about the country's history, culture, achievements, values, etc, whilst re-designing the English education system so that schools are encouraged to opt out of following that same curriculum.
I'm confused by this. Is he?