Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: April 2013

After Sustainability: denial, hope, retrieval

📥  Talks and Presentations

This is the title of today's I-SEE seminar at Bath.  It marks John Foster's welcome return to the university after too long an absence.

Here's the abstract of his talk:John_Foster.JPG_1216070717

Why don’t we admit that dangerous climate change is coming? It has been clear since Copenhagen that the political will to make adequate cuts in global CO2 emissions isn’t there, and isn’t likely to be generated in any foreseeable future. The international attempt to shift the world by agreement onto a sustainable trajectory has failed – indeed, it never really got started. Shouldn’t environmentalists stop pretending otherwise?

But denial is not confined to those who refuse to see the serious environmental damage we are doing; it extends equally to those who refuse to see that we have missed our chance to stop it. The ‘sustainable development’ paradigm facilitates both forms of denial, since neither the grip of putative claims on us from the future, nor the predictability of specific long-term harms, is robust enough to act as a genuine constraint on what we want to do or believe now.

The roots of such embedded denial lie in progressivism, which underlies the whole environmental problematic. Material consumerism is the form in which this mindset has caused environmental damage in the first place; latterly, it has manifested itself as wilfully self-blinded technological optimism. Many environmentally-concerned people, however, do already suspect the inadmissible: that it is now too late for ‘sustainability’ as conventionally projected. In this talk I explore where coming out of denial could take us.

Environmentalism needs to be recognised as addressed to what is wrong in our present orientation to the natural, both externally and within ourselves, and not only to what might as a consequence go wrong for the future. If what is wrong is progressivism, and this has provided the impetus for genuine advances in material welfare, our environmental situation is tragic in the full sense – major damage ensuing from and expressing destructive weaknesses structurally inherent in important strengths. Tragedy thus conceived entails losses which can’t be mitigated or compensated, but it can also reveal us to ourselves in ways from which we may be able to learn.

We can’t really predict what will happen on the ground as global economic and ecological systems unravel, having at best a reasonable idea of where the survival of something recognisable as civilisation is most probable. We must therefore arm ourselves with insight and flexibility rather than with plans, and I offer no “blueprint for retrieval”, but rather some relevant illustrations of what may be possible politically, educationally and economically, if we approach what is coming with a realism grounded in genuinely non-optimistic life-hope.

For me, this promises to be the absolute highlight of a busy week.  Expect reports ...


Higher education, sustainability, and London buses

📥  New Publications

Just when you've getting tired of waiting for a half-decent book about higher education and sustainability to come along, like London buses, two of them arrive; and, just like London buses, they're from the same company.

Routledge (Abingdon) has released The Sustainable university: progress and prospects; and Routledge (New York) has published Higher Education for Sustainability: cases, challenges and opportunities from across the curriculum. I don't suppose that either sets of editors knew of the other's work.  Indeed, I wonder whether the two arms of the publishers did.  Whilst it would be good to think that this was a co-ordinated, cross-Atlantic effort, I have my doubts.

Here's the web-blurb for the UK book (edited by Stephen Sterling, Larch Maxey and Heather Luna):

The direction of higher education is at a crossroads against a background of mounting sustainability-related issues and uncertainties. This book seeks to inspire positive change in higher education by exploring the rich notion of the sustainable university and illustrating pathways through which its potential can be realised. Based on the experience of leading higher education institutions in the UK, the book outlines progress in the realisation of the concept of the ‘sustainable university’ appropriate to the socioeconomic and ecological conditions facing society and graduates.

Written by leading exponents of sustainability and sustainability education, this book brings together examples, insight, reflection and strategies from the experience of ten universities, widely recognised as leaders in developing sustainability in higher education. The book thus draws on a wealth of experience to provide reflective critical analysis of barriers, achievements, strategies and potential. It critically reviews the theory and practice involved in developing the sustainable university in a systemic and whole institutional manner, including the role of organisational learning.

While remaining mindful of the challenges of the current climate, The Sustainable University maps out new directions and lines of research as well as offering practical advice for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of management, leadership, organisational change, strategy and curriculum development who wish to take this work further.

And this is the same for the USA one (edited by Lucas F Johnston):

Student and employer demand, high-level institutional commitment, and faculty interest are inspiring the integration of sustainability oriented themes into higher education curricula and research agendas. Moving toward sustainability calls for shifts in practice such as interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships for engaged learning. This timely edited collection provides a glimpse at the ways colleges and universities have integrated sustainability across the curriculum. The research-based chapters provide empirical studies of both traditional and innovative degree programs as well as case studies from professional schools. Chapter authors illustrate some of the inclusive and deliberative community and political processes that can lead to sustainable learning outcomes in higher education. Exploring the range of approaches campuses are making to successfully integrate sustainability into the curricula, this much-needed resource provides inspiration, guidance, and instruction for others seeking to take education for sustainability to the next level.

When London buses pitch up in tandem, one tends to be fuller than the other, so I'm already wondering whether this will hold true here.  I'll have to find out, as I am reviewing them both (together) for EER.  More later ...


Finns come bottom of an educational league table at last

📥  Comment, New Publications

After tireless investigation, Department for Education apparatchiks have at last found an educational league table that those bothersome Finns come bottom in.   It's in a recent report from Unicef: Child well-being in rich countries: a comparative overview; Innocenti Report Card 11.

Fig 3.1a (page 17) shows comparative pre-school enrolment rates, and Finland props up the table at ~73%.  The UK is at 96%, vaguely near the top.  Huzzar!   How pleased Mr Gove must have been when he was told all this.  Awkwardly, however, the UK is a dismal bottom of Fig 3.1b: participation in further education.  It also does not do well in Fig 3.2 (educational achievement by age 15) where it is placed only 11th, with guess who at the top: those ****** Finns again.

All is not what it seems, of course, and Box 2 in the report [The Finland Paradox] is worth quoting in full to show the methodological issues:

The fact that Finland has the lowest rate of preschool enrolment (Figure 3.1a) and the highest level of educational achievement (Figure 3.2) might seem to contradict the idea that preschool education is important to success at school.  But it is perhaps better interpreted as a warning of the care needed in making cross-national comparisons.

First, compulsory schooling in Finland does not begin until a child is seven years old, which means that the age group on which the preschool enrolment rate is based is the child population between the ages of four and seven (in many other countries it is the child population between the ages of four and five).  If the preschool enrolment rate were to be re-defined as ‘the percentage of children enrolled in preschool education in the year before compulsory schooling begins’ then Finland would rank near the top of the table with an enrolment rate approaching 100%.

Second, preschool enrolment rates say nothing about the quality of the education received.  If it were possible to measure quality, then it is likely that Finland would again be found towards the top of the table.  This prediction is based on the fact that Finland spends considerably more than the OECD average on early years care and education, has exceptionally high minimum qualification requirements for preschool teaching staff, and the highest standards of staff-to-child ratios of any advanced economy (1:4 for children under three years old, and 1:7 for children between 4 and 6).

Most commentators on Finland’s outstanding record of educational achievement cite the quality of the country’s early years education.

Indeed.  Judging by recent comments, Ofsted understands this.   I whiled away a train journey reading this report; highly recommended – and not just for civil servants looking for better news for their masters.


The hidden curriculum at Plymouth

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

On the train last week for Debby Cotton's inaugural lecture, rounding off Plymouth's 2013 PedRIO research day.   I like Inaugurals; such grand occasions when newly-minted professors have the challenge of explaining what gets them up in the morning to, potentially, the broadest of audiences.  It's quite hard to do it well.

I've been to a few over the years.  I recall the bloke, dressed in most superior splendour, who decided it would be good to use the lecture to criticise his university in front of its panjandrums.  Frost descended, and, like Steve Biko, no degree of besuitedness could help him.  He never recovered.  And then there was the colleague who began ...

"The last time I gave this talk was in New York, where I was ...".

Jaws dropped; nothing in my life could give me the confidence (a kind word) to do that, but it was just right for someone who'd been professing all over the place for years.  Sadly, the rest of the talk was less memorable.

So, I looked forward to my day out in Plymouth, and it was worth the trip.  Debby spoke well about the hidden curriculum talking in detail about a number of examples from her research.

Hidden from whom, always seems a pertinent question.  I first read about the phenomenon in Jackson & Marsden's Education and the Working Class (1962), a copy of which I still have, although I'd probably learnt a lot through it (the hidden curriculum that is), at my "good" grammar school.  It seems to me that, when you get down to it, the hidden curriculum is (always) about value gaps.  Most times, it is an exposure of underlying, core values, and the only way it can be minimised is when an institution aligns its actions with those values.  Where these are always fully aligned (impossible, mostly, of course), then there is no hidden curriculum – and maybe nothing else to learn.


Developing the sustainable school: thinking the issues through

📥  Comment, New Publications

Developing the sustainable school: thinking the issues through is the title of a paper that I have just been published by The Curriculum Journal.    You can access it here.

This is the Abstract:

This paper reports on a study that was a response to a call from the UK government's Department of Children, Schools and Families for research into the link between the work of schools that address sustainability and the UK's national sustainable development indicators.  This was part of the government's sustainable schools initiative, developed as a contribution to the UN's Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.  The paper uses the four capitals model of Herman Daly and Donella Meadows to critically examine, firstly, how a school might make such a contribution to sustainable development, and, then, how we might come to know how effectively this is progressing.  In doing this, the paper builds on Webster's work about the stages that a sustainable school might go through in its development, and the result is three sets of process descriptors to guide a school's thinking about what it might do.  These are presented in the sense of an embryonic and sketchy map to the terrain, rather than as a set of instructions or a detailed plan to follow

Although you're not supposed to think such things, but I was quite pleased at how it all turned out ...


NUS to save the planet and the world

📥  Comment, New Publications

I've been watching the new promotional video from the NUS green (ethics & environment) team.  It's here,  and was well received at  the recent EUAC conference.  It's RSA-Animate in style, but more breathless (and Welsh).

Now, like Hefce (but for different reasons), I'm a fan of the NUS, thinking that it does innovative and very necessary things around sustainability in HE and FE institutions across the UK, and mostly for the right reasons.  What gets done tends to be rather ESD1, but there are a lot of things that need changing; anyway, NUS doesn't actually run universities and colleges, and what they do do is usually carried out in partnership with management.  But you'd not know this from the video which gives the impression that it's student unions and the NUS that are the agents of change, with universities and colleges themselves, and their staff, having little to do with it.

Perhaps NUS knows more ...


ESD in England – less briefly ...

📥  Comment, New Publications

As I wrote last month, I have been involved in some work for the UK UNESCO National Commission, part of a good team [Note 1], ably led by Steve Martin, writing an ESD Brief [Note 2] covering the UK which ...

"sets out some of the characteristics of best practice which has emerged in the wide range of learning contexts across the UK as well as an analysis of future opportunities for enhancing the core role of education and learning in the pursuit of a more sustainable future."

This brings together insights from the four UK jurisdictions.  I drafted the England part.  In sharing texts, I was struck by the differences between England and the devolved administrations; in the latter, much of what goes on is mediated or strongly influenced by government; In England, now, following the 2010 UK election, and because there is no devolved national or regional administration, or local influence, very little is.  This has obvious weaknesses, but probably some positives as well it should be said.

Inevitably, in bringing four texts together, whilst adding conclusions and recommendations, it's not always possible to include all the points made – unless you adopt a rather cavalier attitude to word limits which I tried, but wasn't allowed, quite rightly, to get away with.  So I am pleased to say that a longer, and more literature-grounded, version of the report has been published in Sustainability. Here's the link.  This has an extended section on the position in England.



1. Stephen Martin (University of the West of England), James Dillon (University of Ulster), Peter Higgins (University of Edinburgh), Carl Peters (University of Wales), and me

2. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in the UK: Current status, best practice and opportunities for the future (published by the UK National Commission for UNESCO in March 2013)


Learning to care for the environment, but not the newspapers

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

As I noted yesterday, I signed a letter that the Sunday Times published on 14th April.  In association with this, I was contacted by the Sunday Times last Thursday evening.  They said:

"We also want to publish a news story to go with the letter and I would be very grateful if you could either provide a brief written statement by email or call me with a short quote about why you think it is wrong to make these changes."

Naively, as it turned out, I took the idea of a "news story" seriously.  This, together with a couple of research reports, is what I sent:

Thoughts for the Sunday Times

The point about curriculum is that it says what’s important to a society.  It identifies those core issues and values that young people should be exposed to for their own sake, and for the benefit of everyone; now and in the future.

It is widely accepted that young people need to learn about the natural world, about its importance to humanity and to every living thing; about how the biosphere makes life and human society not only possible but also wonderful and fulfilling.  They need to be helped to respect, care for, and protect the natural world both for its own sake, and because we need it for our sakes.

Happily, young people find learning about nature, the environment, and sustainability both enjoyable and motivating, and there is research evidence that shows that all this can raise educational standards.

A further benefit is that if you are to study the natural world effectively, you really do have to get out there and learn in it.  This means fresh air, exercise and the stimulus of being somewhere both different and often attractive and enjoyable.  Again, all this is motivating and hugely beneficial for mental and physical health, and for well-being generally.

None of this can come too soon.  The idea that young people have to wait until they’re somehow old enough to deal with these issues properly is nonsense.  50+ years of environmental education have generated effective ways of introducing ideas about nature to young people, and shown how to build on these, year on year, so that knowledge, understanding, values, skills, and a sense of care and stewardship are thoroughly developed.  Anyway, young people first come to school wanting to be outside doing things, and all the evidence points to this being very good for them, and for all their learning.

It’s all very well to argue that schools need to take responsibility for deciding what and how to teach, and that curriculum is only a guide to core issues.  Many agree with that.  It’s another thing altogether to abandon responsibility completely for setting out what’s important.  What curriculum documents say and don’t say send messages to schools.  These either encourage or discourage particular foci and kinds of practice.  Indeed, that’s what curriculum documents are for.

We know that many teachers and schools will, rightly, carry on with what they know is important for their students, and for society.  For them, what the curriculum says offers a justification and further encouragement of what they do.  For other teachers, who may be less certain, or working in more difficult circumstances, for a curriculum to require a focus on particular issues can be a huge benefit because it legitimates what they think important and want to do.  It’s a piece of paper they can wave and say: look what this says …

I rather hope that Mr Gove’s cabinet colleagues, particularly in DEFRA and in DECC, will urge some collective responsibility, and remind him of the many benefits that an education that takes the natural world and sustainability seriously has for what they, and the government more widely, want to achieve.  There is, after all, a need not just to care for and protect nature, but to do that for all human futures as well.

I was quite pleased with how this summary came out.  Sheer hubris.  It was ignored completely.

In the end, I thought their "news story" was pathetic.  It was vanishingly short, with ~80% of the space taken up by a photo of a rhino posing with David Attenborough (the most high-profile signature on the letter).  The headline was worse.  It referred to climate which the letter never mentioned.  Rather, it was about something much more fundamental and important than that: our relationship with the natural world.   Did anyone actually read the letter, I wondered?   Was it ignorance or cynicism?  Mercifully, I did not spend good money on finding all this out.

Things got worse this morning when a piece in the Guardian repeated the claim that the letter was about the climate.

Leading environmental figures, including the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, have condemned government plans to drop debate about climate change from the national curriculum for children under 14 as "unfathomable and unacceptable".

What a shambles.  Sadly, it all makes Mr Gove's next task (carrying on with his cunning plan) all that easier.


Learning to care for the environment – and for the rest of humanity

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

This is the text of a letter that the Sunday Times published today, April 14th.  It was timed to fit with the approaching deadline for commenting on the government's national curriculum revision proposals.  Specifically, this addressed unnecessary and quite inexplicable changes proposed to the science curriculum.  I was pleased to sign it as President of NAEE – the National Association of Environmental Education.  I was in very good company as you can see from the list of those who also signed.


As the loss of wildlife and habitats continues apace, both in the UK and globally, and as evidence suggests growing numbers of children are missing out on the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature, the place of the natural environment in the national curriculum is more critical than ever.

Indeed, the British Government has committed to nurturing our children’s love and respect for nature under two binding international agreements (the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets).

However, under the Government’s new draft national curriculum for England, education on the environment would start three years later than at present and all existing references to care and protection would be removed.  This is both unfathomable and unacceptable.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s custodians of nature.  Government has a duty to ensure that all pupils have the chance to learn about threats to the natural world, to be inspired to care for it and to explore ways to preserve and restore it.  These proposals not only undermine our children’s understanding and love of nature, but ultimately threaten nature itself, and through it the well-being of young people and all future generations.

Sir David Attenborough, Broadcaster and naturalist

Sir Tim Smit KBE, Chief Executive of Development and Co-founder, The Eden Project

Sir Christian Bonington, Mountaineer

Andy Atkins, Executive Director, Friends of the Earth

Baroness Young of Old Scone, Peer and former Chief Executive of the Environment Agency and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North

Beth Gardner, Chief Executive, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

Camila Batmanghelidjh, CEO, Kids Company

Chris Packham, Naturalist and broadcaster

Dame Vivienne Westwood, Designer

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF UK

Dr Mike Clarke, Chief Executive, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Writer, broadcaster and campaigner

John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace UK

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director, Forum for the Future

Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge

Maggie Williams, Chair, Earth Science Teachers' Association

Neil Sinden, Director of Policy and Campaigns, Campaign to Protect Rural England

Professor William Scott, University of Bath and President of NAEE – the National Association of Environmental Education

Simon King OBE, President of the Wildlife Trusts

Stacey Solomon, Singer, TV presenter

Stanley Johnson, Conservationist and former MEP

Tony Juniper, Environmental advisor and writer

Professor Alex Rogers, Professor in Conservation Biology, University of Oxford

Alistair Gammell OBE, Conservationist

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavillion

Cathy Dean, Director, Save the Rhino International

Ceri Levy, Wildlife filmmaker

Charles Secrett, National Coordinator of the ACT! Alliance

Professor Chris King, Professor of Earth Science Education, Keele University

Professor Cynthia Burek, Professor of Geoconservation, University of Chester

David Bond and Ashley Jones, Project Wild Thing

Dr David Chivers, Reader in Wildlife biology, primate socio-ecology and rain-forest conservation, University of Cambridge

David Lindo, The Urban Birder

Dr David Whitebread, Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Education, University of Cambridge

Deborah Curtis and Gavin Turk, Founders and Directors, House of Fairy Tales

Professor Dianne Edwards CBE FRS, President of the The Linnean Society

Dixe Wills, Author

Dr Duncan Jones, Headteacher, Northleigh Church of England Primary School and EcoSchool, Worcestershire

Professor E J Millner-Gulland, Professor in Conservation Science, Imperial College of Science and Technology

Elisabeth Whitebread, Director, Climate Rush

Elizabeth Rollinson, Executive Secretary, The Linnean Society of London

Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, Authors of Going Wild, Nature's Playground and Make It Wild

George Monbiot, Journalist and writer

Georgina Domberger, Director, Whitley Fund for Nature

Dr Heather Koldewey, Co-founder and Field Conservation Manager, Project Seahorse

Helen Buckland, Director, Sumatran Orangutan Society

Jean Lambert, Green Party MEP for London, former teacher

Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, Director, Business Innovation and Education, WWF International

John Reynolds, Geoconservation UK

Jon Millington and Julie Holland, Wild Learning and Development Ltd

Jonathan Elphick, Natural History Author

Professor Jonathan Gosling, Professor of Leadership Studies, University of Exeter

Joss Garman, Campaigner

Jules Howard, Zoologist and nature writer

Juliette Daigre, Education Manager, People and Planet

Dr Kirsten Pullen, CEO, British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Lord Judd, Peer

Dr Lucy Gilliam, Director, New Dawn Traders

Lucy McRobert, Director, A Focus on Nature

Professor Malcolm Kirkup, Director, One Planet MBA, University of Exeter

Dr Mark Avery, Naturalist and author

Mark and Mo Constantine, Co-founders, Lush Ltd

Dr Mark Harrison, Managing Director, Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project

Mark Pritchard, CEO, Green Light Trust

Mark Shand, Co-Founder, Elephant Family

Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive, Butterfly Conservation

Matt Williams, Co-Director, UK Youth Climate Coalition

Mike Browne, Chairman, GeoConservation UK

Natalie Bennett, Leader, Green Party of England and Wales

Dr Netta Weinstein, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Essex

Paul West, Primary school teacher

Pete Gamby, Marketing Manager, Opticron

Richard Hawkins, Director, Public Interest Research Centre

Richard Louv, Journalist, author and Founding Chairman of the Children and Nature Network

Dr Rob Lambert, Lecturer in Tourism and the Environment, Nottingham University Business School

Robert Lucas, Chief Executive Officer, Field Studies Council

Ruth Powys, Director, Elephant Family

Ruth Wharrier, PGCE, Teacher, Snape Primary School, Suffolk

Saci Lloyd, Author and teacher

Sam Fanshawe, CEO, Marine Conservation Society

Sam Hewitt, Founder and Director, Sea Urchins magazine

Sara Oldfield, Secretary General, Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Professor Susan Page, Head of Dept of Geography, University of Leicester

Sara Parkin, Founder Director, Forum for the Future

Sue Sheward MBE, Founder and Chairperson, Orangutan Appeal UK

Sharon Johnson, Chief Executive, Trees for Cities

Tamsin Omond, Campaigner

The Woodland Trust

Tim "Mac" McCarthy,            Founder of Embercombe

Tim Appleton MBE, Rutland Water Nature Reserve Manager

Tim Mackrill, Senior Reserve Officer, Rutland Water Nature Reserve

Tom Rippin, CEO, On Purpose

Dr William Bird MBE, General Practitioner, CEO Intelligent Health and Former Strategic Health Advisor, Natural England


Not in the top 100

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was not one of the 100 or so professors (or so) who wrote to the Telegraph the other week taking Mr Gove to task on his curriculum reforms, largely because I wasn't significant enough to be invited.  As such, I avoided being bashed by anti-progressive bloggers and snobby types:

"Surely, Jemima, these cannot all be real universities?"

But would I have signed?  It is, literally, an academic issue, of course, but I might not have been too keen, as the letter is rather an odd confection:

SIR – As academics, we are writing to warn of the dangers posed by Michael Gove’s new National Curriculum, which could severely erode educational standards.

Mr Gove has clearly misunderstood England’s decline in the Programme for International Student Assessment tests. Schools in high-achieving Finland and Massachusetts emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning.

In its volume of detailed instructions, this curriculum betrays a distrust of teachers. Whatever the intention, the proposed curriculum for England will result in a “dumbing down” of teaching and learning.

The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Much of it demands too much, too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

That's it, as far as I can see.  It just doesn't seem finished.  Not even a "your obedient servants" or "cheers".  And far too many hostages to (right-wing) fortune, especially as it can be taken as being against all facts.

I have, however, signed another letter, this time to the Sunday Times (this weekend).  More on this later ...