Higher Education for Sustainable Development – an interview

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

A while back, I had an "interview" by questionnaire.  An odd process; whilst it certainly gave me a lot of time to consider and shape my responses, there no time to interact with the interviewer.  I sent a few papers (not all mine) along with my responses.  Here are the questions and answers:

My name is ****. I'm a Postgraduate student in **** University.  This interview is for my dissertation which is about Educational for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Higher Educational Institutions.  Thank you for your time and participation in this interview.  This interview has 9 questions, including 5 main questions and 4 sub-questions. In-depth/detailed responses are appreciated.  Please read the 'in detail' hints before you answer the questions, to help save time.  Also, specific names are not necessary in the examples you provide.  If you have any questions, please email me and I will answer immediately.  Thank you again for your participation!

1.  Could you please briefly introduce yourself? (Gender, work experience, years of involvement with ESD, institutional affiliations)

I am William Scott (male), an emeritus professor at the University of Bath having recently retired from there as Director of the Centre for Research in Education and the Environment.  I am Chair of the community interest company South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition, a Trustee of the Forest of Avon Trust, vice-chair of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and President of the National Association of Environmental Education.  My research has focused on the role of learning in sustainable development, on the contributions that education (viewed broadly) can make to this, and on the problems of researching the effectiveness of such activities.  I have a particular interest in the idea and practice of sustainable schools and universities, and have written extensively about these.  In particular, Ihope that schools, colleges and universities will take sustainability seriously through what they teach and how the operate as institutions, but not to the extent of disempowering people by telling them how to live their lives and what values to hold.  I blog on issues to do with sustainability and learning at: http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/edswahs

2.  At present, the popularity of ESD is quite high in the UK, and government apparently plays an important role. Could you share your views on the government activities?

In detail: How does the government promote/prevent the development of ESD?  Do you have any suggestions for improvement?

I do not agree with your view that ESD is popular in the UK, or that the UK government plays an important role in it.  My first point about government is that there are 4 governments to take into account; the UK one, and the three devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Please see Paper 1 which sets out my view on ESD and the policy context across the UK.  You will find that it is only the Scottish administration that seems to take ESD at all seriously.

My second point is that, from the policy perspective, there are quite different positions on ESD (viewed broadly) depending whether it is schools, FE or HE that you are talking about.  In the main, it is universities that are most encouraged by government and its agencies to address sustainability and ESD (compared to schools and FE colleges).  The higher education funding council for England [Hefce] has long been a champion of sustainable development, and of the importance of learning to this.  It has never espoused ESD with the same enthusiasm.  The Higher Education Academy [HEA] has done this, however, through projects and dedicated officers, and the Quality Assurance Agency [QAA] is now taking an interest – working with the HEA to generate ‘materials’.   Paper 2 sets out a recent analysis of how learning and sustainability plays out across schools / FE / HE.

This situation will only improve when there is greater coherence across government (and governments) in relation to seeing how all departments face up to sustainable development, and how learning is seen as integral to this.  There is no sign of this happening.

2.1  What about Non-government organisations (NGOs)?

In detail: How do the NGOs promote/prevent the development of ESD?  How might NGOs engage more effectively with government?

NGOs have been hugely influential on the development of ESD, and before this, EE and DE.  This has often involved both work on the ground with teachers and institutions, as well as influence on government.  This is probably more common with schools than other education sectors.  At the end of the day, however, NGOs are not disinterested; they have agenda and interests of their own, and this should be taken into account when looking at what they do.  I’ll give one example, Eco-Schools is interested in signing up schools to its award scheme.  Because of this, it cannot afford to make the accreditation process too exacting – otherwise schools would not sign up or get their green flags. This directly inhibits schools’ development.

3.  Higher Educational Institutions have the capability to influence the future direction of the country. Do you have any opinions on the current practices (regarding ESD) of universities?

In detail: Do you have any examples of good practice? (What it is about? How it is done? What is the result of it?).  Does your good practice example have any specific limitations?

You should look to the literature for these examples of practice; these are increasing, as is the number of journals that cater for such articles.  But what is “good”?  How are we to establish the criteria by which “good’ can be identified?  The last survey of practice in England was in 2008 (attached).  This raised a lot of issues around how “good” might be conceptualised – and how difficult this was to agree upon.  My personal view is that such practice would need to enable students critically to engage with how their discipline and ideas around sustainable development intersect.  The outcomes of this would involve deeper thinking about both the discipline and sustainable development.

3.1  ESD awareness of university staff is the top priority. However, awareness does not mean good practice. ESD cannot be achieved by awareness solely. Do you have any examples of this problem?

In detail: Why are some faculty members and academic disciplines seemingly reluctant to engage with ESD?  What can be done about it?

I do not agree that “ESD awareness of university staff is the top priority”.  My priority would be that HE staff come to understand that their teaching (and hence student learning) would be more effective (and hence useful to the student) were it to have a naturalistic focus on sustainability.  I seem to see this almost entirely opposite to the way you do.  I am not at all interested in spreading / encouraging / enabling / etc ESD.  I am interested in helping staff see the potential that sustainability has for enhancing the student experience and the effectiveness of their degree experience.  These are entirely different.  You seem to have swallowed the crackpot idea that ESD is real.  It’s not.  It’s engineering / chemistry / philosophy / sociology / etc that are real.

As to why “some faculty members … [are] seemingly reluctant to engage with ESD”, well, maybe they don’t see what’s in it for them.  There are too many people going about saying you should do this because it’s good for the planet / the future / the poor / etc.  The attached paper 3 goes into this in more detail.

As to what can be done, I’d engage HE staff on their own terms – in relation to what’s important to them – rather than trying to tell them that ESD is important.  As John Kennedy almost said: Ask not what you can do for sustainable development, but what sustainable development can do for you.

4.  Obviously, the success of ESD cannot be achieved without teachers, pedagogy, and students. So, from your perspective, what teaching/learning  experience has challenged you the most?

In detail: Can you tell me the reasons? (teaching method/ experience/student just cannot accept knowledge about SD at that particular period/other)

I used to think that working with student teachers was really crucial (Unesco said it was the priority of priorities).  Through seeing how such new teachers struggled to make any impact in schools, I came to the view that working with school leaders was much more important.

4.1 What about your most successful teaching/learning experience? Please explain an describe.

My most rewarding teaching experience was a group of sceptical, but interested, Masters students who knew very little about sustainable development at the start.  I was positively challenged at every turn.  It was wonderful.

5. What teaching method(s) do you think are most effective? Please give reasons and explain context.

Whilst it is fashionable to say that ESD demands certain pedagogies, I have never been convinced by this, thinking that you should select your pedagogy according to the nature of the subject matter, your students, the context, and what you are trying to achieve.  That said, pedagogies that engage the learner in their own learning seem important – but I would always say that.

5.1 What methods of assessment you think is the most effective? Please give reasons with examples

I do not think that ESD should be assessed.  Rather, it is student learning that needs to be assessed from within the discipline in question.  Just as sustainability needs to be an aspect of that disciplinary teaching / learning, so it needs to be an aspect of the assessment.  It’s validity rests on its authenticity.

Thank you for your responses ! If you would like to found out the finding of this research, please send me an email.

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