Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: July 2015

Hedge Schools

📥  Comment, New Publications

A hedge school is not some finishing academy for fund managers sponsored by the Titans of Wall Street, or an arcane off-shoot of the forest school movement; rather, it's the name given to an educational practice in 18th and 19th century Ireland, so called because of its rural, illicit nature.  Though such schools rarely actually took place behind hedges; metaphorically they did, hidden away from the prying eyes of the English oppressor, and those of their Irish fellow-travellers.

The schools began in the wake of 17th century legislation known as the penal laws which persecuted Irish Catholics and Ulster Presbyterians.  These laws restricted the religious, political and economic liberties of Catholics and Dissenters and education was effectively denied to the majority of the Irish population who clung to their traditional language and religion, especially 'beyond the Pale', the area around Dublin.  Many middle class Catholics, and the Catholic gentry, went to France to be educated, while this underground network of hedge schools was set up to educate those who could not afford to travel.

In these, local educated men began an oral tradition of teaching the community.  Most schools met in private houses and barns rather than in the open as 'hedge' suggests.  Unlike today's forest schools, they were emancipatory in nature, and in time came to be tolerated, and the spirit of this tradition is kept alive in modern hedge schools which are usually even farther from a hedge than were the original ones.

I explored this history from a reference in Robert Wyse Jackson's wonderful little book 'Dublin', published by the Eland Press.


'Ahelo 'Ahelo!

📥  Comment, News and Updates

No, this is not about some dyslectic verison of the BBC's brilliant French farce of (almost) the same name, but the tale is Gallic in one respect.

The term, Ahelo, is the acronym for 'Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes' which is the Paris-based OECD's attempts to extend its PISA tentacles into higher education.  The OECD has been quietly developing a way to test students across different institutions and countries, with the aim of discovering how much they have learned.  Their expectation is this will lead (of course) to more international league tables.  Joy unbounded.  You can read more about this on the Diverse blog, and there's a UK perspective on the Guardian.

As sensible commentators in the UK have noted, this is a deranged idea.  The Guardian article quotes Alison Wolf:

“It is basically impossible to create complex language-based test items which are comparable in difficulty when translated into a whole lot of different languages.  And that is before you even start on whether a given set of items can possibly be equally appropriate regardless of the subject studied or the very different nature of higher education courses in different countries, or the level of similarity between OECD question formats and those used for assessment in the system concerned.”

Wolf says that an OECD-style multi-country test is not the answer, but she adds:

I do, however, think that the question of how much people actually learn on degree courses is a major one, long overdue for serious attention.”

Such comments are no doubt music to the ears of those in HEA / QAA / HEFCE / Offa / BIS / Cabinet Office / etc who always want more opportunities to hold universities to account – and don't be fooled; this is as much about the effectiveness of institutions as it is about student learning.

As such, it's no surprise that there are new efforts to explore 'learning gain', with HEFCE being about to announce around a dozen pilot projects to look at ways to measure the skills and knowledge students develop in higher education.  This is what schools know as 'added value'.  The Guardian says that these projects will

"... range from surveying students at the beginning of their courses and then in years two and three to test how ready they are for employment, to asking them at the beginning and then again at the end of their university studies to write essays to test their ability to analyse, synthesise and think critically."

Clearly, students will be queuing down the street and round the corner to write these essays.

"To test how ready they are for employment" is the key idea here.  Given that no one has the faintest idea what this means, it's going to be a tough ask.  Employers hire potential, trusting themselves to do the rest.  Possession of a (good) degree is part of that potential in a new graduate, and what an added value score will add to this is not clear.  I think it's a nonsense, and shall keep well away from it.

What (the prestigious) institutions are concerned about, of course, is that there may not be much correlation between 'learning gain' and 'student satisfaction' scores.  Now, wouldn't that be awkward ...







What educational price a Brexit – or should that be Brexodus?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The THE recently carried quite a careful article on whether UK universities would be better off in / out of the EU.  Or, it might have been about whether UK university research would be better off in / out of the EU – I could never quite make up my mind.  These are not quite the same thing of course.

As ever, there are academics with good stories to tell – mostly about the excellence of collaboration – and ones with not-so-good stories – mostly about the EU's awful bureaucracy and decision-making processes.  As it happens, I can tell both kinds of story with exactly these features.  I am now safely out of the system, of course, and need no longer be apprehensive about the EU's decision-making which always seemed whimsical, at best, and quite cynical at its worst.  The collaboration was always excellent.

From a Brexodus perspective (my preferred term because of its appropriately Old Testament overtones), the issue is whether we'd be prevented from collaboration.  This is the same sort of question as: would the Germans stop selling us cars?  Well, it's not quite the same question.

Meanwhile, UK universities still seem to manage to get big EU grants to study dodgy topics like the benefits of ESD.  Maybe a Brexodus would end these?  A price worth paying perhaps; now, where did I put that UKIP membership form ...


That dull green sheen

📥  Comment, News and Updates

That Dull Green Sheen

"Government pulls plug on funding for Green Deal Finance Company after only 10,000 homes sign up to energy household efficiency programme."

Farewell then, to the Green Deal,

That revolution in upgrading Britain’s

Old and draughty housing stock.

It was so faithfully promised, but it

Turned out to be a "total flop",

Say ministers blaming others;

Not enough insulating; and

Too much ripping off of people,

Rather than old boilers from their walls.


So, no more loans for dodgy deals;

And no more cash-back grants which were

Far too popular, say the money men.

Just cold and draughty houses

Ready for another Winter.

Welcome to UK, where we've

Extra CO2 for everyone to share.






Access to Routledge journal output about the MDGs

📥  Comment, News and Updates

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] were formed to galvanise efforts to meet the needs of the world's poorest.  Eight goals were defined and 21 targets were set to be completed by 2015.  To mark the final year of this programme, Taylor & Francis are offering free access to selected research related to each of the Goals.

If you go to the T&F MDG page, you can follow the links to see what they have published and get free access to a range of publications.  Whilst this seems quite an offer, what strikes you is how few T&F journals focused on EE / ESD / LSD / EfS / SDE / etc / etc, have ventured into this arena.  This one is an exception:

Free-choice learning suited to women’s participation needs in environmental decision-making processes

Environmental Education Research 18(1), 2012 – Skanavis & Sakellari

All this begins to look like a missed opportunity.


WEEC 8 was a success – it's now official

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Phew!  What a relief; I was beginning to wonder ... .  Actually, it was a "big success", according to a co-chair of the congress – that's how these international evaluations tend to go.  You can read the full detail on the Transformative Learning blog.

As I read the report, this caught my eye:

"I was privileged to give a keynote during the opening session.  In my talk ... I referred to this increased public unrest about climate change, micro-plastics in oceans and bodies, etc. but also to the hijacking of identity and colonisation of the mind for business interests (don’t accept those cookies, or check that ‘I agree’ box too quickly), the increased yearning for meaning over consumption, and the need for educating and learning for a transition towards a healthier, more equitable, ecologically viable, morally defensible and peaceful world. ..."

Just so, I thought.  But, as I got to the end of the piece, I saw that Transformative Learning is now carrying adverts.  As St Matthew (7:1-5) noted a while back, there's surely an issue here of motes and beams here.


2015 – the year of 3 key conferences

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There are 3 UN conference this year; two of these you know all about:

  1. the September meeting to agree the SDGs and
  2. the December meeting to try to sort out what to do about climate change.

The first is likely to be an easier ride than the second, though given the bloated nature of what's on the table, it might not be too successful in the long run.  We shall see.

The third conference was held last week in Addis Ababa, and focused on what is the best balance for an economically developing country between taxes, borrowing, and aid.

The Economist discussed these issues last week in a leader: Beyond Aid which shows you where it stands.  It notes:

"Aid has its uses.  But it makes countries less accountable for spending decisions and, in the long run, undermines good governance."

Whether you think aid is just a moral duty, something sadly necessary whilst countries get on their feet, a waste of money because of corruption, or just another lingering colonial toe-hold that should be cut away, there is much in this article to think about – if you in the business of thinking.  The Economist piece ends:

"Developing countries’ biggest financing need is for infrastructure.  But the match between their huge unmet demand and sources of private capital needs to be improved.  To encourage a bigger market for infrastructure bonds, governments at Addis should urge development banks (such as the World Bank) to offer a wider, more standardised menu of credit guarantees.  Western agencies also ought to develop new financing mechanisms to help municipalities in emerging markets tap capital markets.  Given the rate of urbanisation in Africa and Asia, the difference between good and bad development will be largely determined by cities.  If the Addis conference can shift the spotlight away from aid and on to these questions, it will be a Cinderella that outshines its Ugly Sisters in Paris and New York."

According to the UN, the event was a success, as all such UN fests tend to be.  You can see the detail here.


Something Fishy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It was news to me that fish don't metabolise those fabled fish oils — DHA and EPA — themselves; rather, these come via the food that the fish eat.  The oils are made by single-celled algae which then pass through the food chain before being consumed by salmon, etc.

Thus it is that farmed salmon have to be fed on smaller fish such as anchovies if they are to work their nutritional magic on us.  About 10% of all fish caught is used for this fish food.

But now there seems to be a way to avoid having to do this, and to avoid all those heavy metals that unfortunately lurk in these smaller fish. The problem is that the alternative feedstock is a GMO.  A recent Economist carries the details of this development.

So, is this a no-brainier, or a no-hoper?  It's certainly another test for those crusading folk who wake up each morning knowing they're agin GM in all circumstances and at all costs, and go to bed at night even more convinced.  If they bother to think about it, they'll find they're caught on the horns of a trilemma.


Extreme poverty eases for a billion people, says UN

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Guardian reports that although Ban Ki-moon has hailed the achievements of the millennium development goals, he has warned that the world is still riven by inequality.  The paper begins its report:

The millennium development goals (MDGs) have driven “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history” and brought more than a billion people out of extreme penury, but their achievements have been mixed and the world remains deeply riven by inequality, the UN’s final report on the goals has concluded.  Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said that while the 15-year push to meet the eight goals – on poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, disease, the environment and global partnership – had yielded some astonishing results, it had left too many people behind.

All this is worth a read, especially as there are good graphics on the pages.  The piece ends:

Ban said that lessons had to be learned from the MDGs as the world prepares to agree their successors, the sustainable development goals, which will set the agenda for the next 15 years.   "We need to tackle root causes and do more to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development,” he said.  “Reflecting on the MDGs and looking ahead to the next 15 years, there is no question that we can deliver on our shared responsibility to end poverty, leave no one behind and create a world of dignity for all.

Well.  Maybe.  I suppose if you're the UN DG, you feel compelled to say stuff like this.

I've written a few times recently about the SDG mess that the UN has created.  The grab-bag nature of many of the outcomes is well illustrated by one of the goal 4 (education) targets:

“by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

What the Guardian sais here is worth comparing with the study from The Copenhagen Consensus Centre that asked economists and researchers to look at issues covered by the SDGs to see which might be the most cost-effective.  The Centre found that 18 of the 169 would pay back $15 or more for every $1 spent.

Is this an important focusing of scarce resources, or just more neo-liberalism?  You choose.





What Jonathon Porritt didn't say at UWE

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

I've just watched JP's recent lecture at the University of the West of England (Bristol) UWE – you can access it via this NAEE blog post.  Whilst what he said was of interest, especially the sooth-saying element of his talk: 4 things to watch for in the coming years, it was what he didn't say that drew my attention.   Inevitably, of course, in 30 minutes he didn't say quite a lot – for example, he never once mentioned FIFA and its future contribution to sustainability.  This would not have taken long.

More significantly, he didn't mention education, and its future contribution to sustainability.  This is less understandable, especially as he was talking in a university.  And, let it be said, not just any old university, as UWE has embraced sustainability as an organisation, and has even gone out of its way to incorporate the outcomes of the HEA / QAA guidelines on ESD into how it operates.

What a faux pas, you might think.  What an omission!  But Jonathon Porritt doesn't do omissions.  If he didn't single out education as something to watch, it's because he thought it wasn't worth a mention.  Quite sobering.

PS, whatever did happen to those QAA / HEA guidelines that we going to transform higher education?