Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: December 2015

What should the purpose of school education (in England) be?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The House of Commons Education Select Committee has launched an inquiry into the purpose and quality of education in England, with a call for written evidence [ deadline 25 January ] addressing the following points:

* What the purpose of education for children of all ages in England should be
* What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education against this purpose
* How well the current education system performs against these measures

Alongside the call for evidence, there's a new online forum on the Committee website encouraging people to comment on the inquiry and submit their views.  A short video has been produced to start the discussion, and you can also join the conversation on Twitter by using #EduPurpose.

This can wait until the New Year.  Meanwhile – Happy Christmas.



Office for Students

📥  Comment, News and Updates

If you've not been following the discussions around the future regulation of higher education in England, maybe spending too much time in Paris, for example, you may have missed the controversy over HEFCE's consultation about quality assurance, and whether (or not) the nose of the new Minister for HE has been put out of joint. If so, then last week's THE offers a catch up.

If things go one way, it could mean the much-merited demise of the un-loved QAA; or even of HEFCE itself – who would shed tears, the THE asks.  The price to pay, however, would be the advent of the OfS – the Office for Students.

This sounds far too Orwellian for my liking, but others may well just think it's an advert for Microsoft.


The Paris Agreement – no one thought much about education

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There are four references to education in the Paris Agreement

[1]. Page 11 – In Section #83 of the Adoption section of the Agreement:

"Calls upon all Parties to ensure that education, training and public awareness, as reflected in Article 6 of the Convention and in Article 12 of the Agreement are adequately considered in their contribution to capacity-building."

NB, there is also a reference to training in #84 and #86.

[2]. Page 20 – In the preface to the Agreement (oddly called the Annex)

"The parties to the agreement, ... affirming the importance of education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and cooperation at all levels on the matters addressed in this Agreement, ... have agreed as follows ..."

[3]. Pages 26/27 – Article 11 of the Agreement

"Capacity-building under this Agreement should enhance the capacity and ability of developing country Parties, in particular countries with the least capacity, such as the least developed countries, and those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, such as small island developing States, to take effective climate change action, including, inter alia, to implement adaptation and mitigation actions, and should facilitate technology development, dissemination and deployment, access to climate finance, relevant aspects of education, training and public awareness, and the transparent, timely and accurate communication of information."

[4]. Page 28 – Article 12 of the Agreement

"Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognizing the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement."

And there is one reference to learning:

[5]. Page 24 – Article 7 of the Agreement

"Each Party shall, as appropriate, engage in adaptation planning processes and the implementation of actions, including the development or enhancement of relevant plans, policies and/or contributions, which may include: 


(d) Monitoring and evaluating and learning from adaptation plans, policies, programmes and actions; ..."

There is no mention of ESD.


So, what to make of all this?  I'm tempted to say, 'not a lot' for the following reasons:

In [1] – and in [2] which is really just a repetition of [1] – education and training are just cited as means to the end of capacity-building "to take effective climate change action", and so must be seen as instrumental rather than anything else.

[3] refers just to "developing countries" and their capacity building.

[4] is not about education, per se, but about climate change education.  

[5] is similarly narrowly focused.

We should not have expected much more, I guess, as this Agreement is all about Climate Change, and the UN decided not to muddy the waters by taking an holistic view.  As David Oldroyd noted in a comment to me on an earlier post:

"Focusing the mind on 2 or 1.5 degrees is not to be sneezed at, but there are so many other neglected foci that need curricular attention and are equally if not more difficult to reduce to a simple number. I offer here a few:

Natural World Stressors

1. Climate disruption; sea level rise
2. Pollution of air, water and land
3. Depletion - fossil energy and minerals
4. Depletion - fisheries, forests, soils, water
5. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses (the planet’s 6th Great Extinction.)
6. Global epidemics of disease

‘Machine’ World Stressors

7. Global debt-based financial system instability
8. Increasing inequality in wealth & poverty (recently represented as the 1% and the 99%)
9. Illegal migration; criminal global trafficking
10. Regional ethnic, resource; religious conflicts
11. Nuclear weapon proliferation
12. Terrorism
13. Urbanization; mega-cities (31 cities with over 10 million population)
14. Cyber-warfare and internet fragility
15. Uncontrolled artificial intelligence (AI)


Actually, David's "few" is one of the better lists I have seen – more so than my last effort, I recall, and the division into 'natural' and 'machine' world stressors I think many may find helpful.

Finally, here is a link to what Graham Petersen has to say about all this in an Education International blog post.  He seems to take a more positive view than do I, and makes noteworthy points about how the text changed during the negotiations.








HE, ESD and the development of soft skills

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Times Higher has a story this week on the effect that universities have on the development of, so-called, soft skills: citizenship, innovation, developing personal values, etc.  The answer, in short is not a lot compared to the development of so-called, hard skills: independent learning, and critical and analytical thinking skills.

The THE says that the Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey (based on North America’s National Survey of Student Engagement) draws on the responses of more than 24,000 UK undergraduates, and is the first nationwide attempt to measure “learning gain” in British universities.  Unsurprisingly (given degree contents), in general terms, students studying STEM-based subjects reported significantly higher gains in hard skills than in soft skills, while those following arts and humanities courses perceived significantly lower levels of hard skill development than their counterparts in other subject areas.  "Significantly", the THE notes,

"... although the responses of students in different years indicated progressive development of hard skills over the course of a three-year degree, no such pattern was evident in soft skills: the responses of third-year students were almost identical to those of first years in most subject areas."

The devil is, of course, in the fine detail.

All this may well come as an initial disappointment to supporters of the ESD movement which has long seen the acquisition of such skills at the heart of its claims to effectiveness.  However, as post-1992 institutions, where most of the emphasis on ESD will be found, seem to be better than pre-1992 institutions at soft-skill development, this holds out the tantalising hope that it's the focus on ESD that makes the difference.

Whilst I hear that Paddy Power is offering long odd against this, I'll be interested to see what NUS has to say about this in the light of its own surveys of students over the last 5 years.

Meanwhile, there's a worry about this hard-soft duality and whether it holds much water.  There's a chart on the THE webpage – sadly, I lack the (hard-ish?) skill to copy it here – that calls into question just how soft some of these soft-skills really are; not to mention how effectively students are able to differentiate at all reliably between their degree course experience, and their "overall" experience of university life.  Methodologically, speaking, I worry more about the first than the second.




More on John Loughhead

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

I wrote a few weeks ago about a seminar at Bath given by Professor John Loughhead, chief scientific advisor to DECC.  His powerpoint slides are now available on the I-SEE website.  In what I wrote, I singled out a particular graph, and here it is – although with much lower resolution that I'd have liked:


This is the most sobering graph I have seen for a while.  It shows the UK's September 2015 electricity generation data (x-axis is days; y-axis is power).

The day/night fluctuation is clear; as is the weekend lull.  You can see that the baseload is over 50% of the peak demand, and that the vast majority of this is provided by nuclear (blue), coal (red) and gas (green).

Given that we (unlike the supposedly virtuous Germans) are rapidly phasing out coal, and not replacing our ageing nuclear plants any time soon, it's clear that the baseload will be mostly gas in the immediate future.  But how are we to meet our carbon targets while doing this?  How indeed?

Does anyone at DECC know?

Ofsted tries to find some backbone at the DfE

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Here are two recent letters written by the Ofsted Chief to the DfE Secretary of State about the problem of unregistered schools: November 10th and December 11th.  They do not make good reading either in terms of the problems reported, or the willingness of the DfE and LEAs to address them.

At one Birmingham unregistered school, Ofsted Inspectors found:

  •   squalid conditions, including three single mattresses covered in filthy sheets in one room and no running water in the toilet areas
  •   lesson timetables demonstrating that provision was made for at least 20 hours a week
  •   clear evidence of segregation, with separate classrooms for boys and girls
  •   no evidence of appropriate vetting checks being carried out on staff
  •   pupils being taught a narrow curriculum that was failing to prepare them for life in modern Britain

The inspectors were so concerned by what they had witnessed that the Ofsted Regional Director requested an emergency meeting with senior officers from Birmingham City Council, which, while recognising the urgency of the situation and the need to gain access to the premises, advised Ofsted that it did not have the automatic powers of entry commensurate with its duty to safeguard children.

Happily, Ofsted has these powers under section 97 of the 2008 Education and Skills Act, and they turned up with the police just to be sure.   Sadly, this tale is even murkier than outlined here – details in the letters.

One thing's sure – these benighted, exploited children were not learning anything about COP21 and climate change is these so-called schools.



British social attitudes towards sustainability issues

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Thanks to Jamie Agombar and the NUS team for alerting me to an analysis of British Social Attitudes survey data carried out by NatCen which found that those with a degree were [i] more likely to feel that they understood the causes of environmental problems and [ii] to disagree that we worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about prices and jobs today.

Here is some finer detail:

  • 55% of those with a degree selected a number at the top of the answer scale when asked how much they felt they know about the causes of environmental problems, compared with 34% of those with A-level qualifications or below degree level HE/FE qualifications, 25% of those with GCSE qualifications and 20% of those without qualifications.
  • Levels of concern about environmental issues were highest among those with a degree (70%) and lowest amongst those in the GCSE group (45%).
  • The majority of those with a degree level qualification disagreed or disagreed strongly (60%) that we worry too much about the environment, compared to around two-fifths of those with A-levels (41%) and those with below degree level HE/FE qualifications (38%). Around a quarter of those with GCSEs (24%) and 15% of those in the no qualifications group, felt that we worry too much about the environment at the expense of prices and jobs.
  • Considering the statement ‘The price of a plane ticket should reflect the environmental damage that flying causes, even if this makes air travel much more expensive’, agreement was highest among those with a degree (56 %) followed by those with A-levels (45%), then those with GCSEs/ below degree level HE/FE qualifications (39 and 38% respectively) and was lowest among those without qualifications (35%).
  • Considering the statement ‘For the sake of the environment everyone should reduce how much they use their cars’, levels of agreement were highest among those with degree level qualifications (72%), followed by the A-level group (67%). Those with GCSEs (rather than the no qualification group) showed the lowest levels of agreement at 51%.
  • Considering the statement ‘There is no point in reducing my car use to help the environment unless others do the same’, 39% of those with a degree level qualification disagreed or disagreed strongly that there was no point reducing their own car use unless others did the same, compared to 17% of those without qualifications and 16% of those with GCSEs.

What to make of this?  Maybe it's fairly simple: That is, awareness, interest, concern, etc tend to correlate with education level – a greater ability to think rationally about issues, to analyse, and to synthesise – and a greater tendency to understand and care about such matters tends to increase with maturity.

Promises, promises, ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A great new deal, or just a fraud and a fake, as Jim Hansen says?   As I've noted already in a post-COP21 script to an earlier post, the new target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is more political than scientific.  And it's not just Hansen who's gloomy; here's George Monbiot:

"Progressive as the outcome is by comparison to all that has gone before, it leaves us with an almost comically lopsided agreement.  While negotiations on almost all other global hazards seek to address both ends of the problem, the UN climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production."

But maybe all that's a bit overstated.  Is this really a triumph for the oil and coal cartels – another triumph, that is – they certainly tried hard to make it so.  Or does it add weight to the notion that they are all on borrowed time?

Paris was a success.  I watched a series of French politicians saying  – prior to its unveiling – how great the deal was, without ever saying what the deal actually was: fittingly, what was something of an anticlimax came later.  But in fairness to the drive and determination of the French, it's hard to see how there could ever have been a London Agreement on all this – we've just not that needy, or perhaps caring.  Anyway: France 1 – 0 Denmark.

So what about the deal?  If you were teaching about this tomorrow, what would you want to get across?  For me,  these are the key points:

  • This is clearly not nothing, and is more than many feared.  It marks a global political recognition of the risks of climate change.  And yet, it doesn't quite feel like something – it's more like an indicator of something than the real thing.  What countries now do will be that something, and we will have to wait for a few years to see how substantive it really is.
  • On the positive side, there is an explicit and ambitious goal of having as much greenhouse gas coming out of the atmosphere as going into it in the second half of this century.  On the negative, the world is nearly 1°C warmer than it was in the 18th century, and existing national pledges on climate action are more in line with a warming of 3°C than 1.5°C.
  • The agreement requires countries to act, but it says nothing concrete about what or how much anyone has to do.  Whilst the UN cannot mandate countries to act in specific ways, their citizens can – time for some pressure, perhaps; time for a plan.
  • The Paris agreement requires $100bn a year to move from economically-developed countries to developing countries by 2020, with the amount to be reviewed in 2025.  This obligation also bears (morally, at least) on rich developing countries as well: India, China, etc.  The Economist noted that it was that all nations are to make contributions on an increasingly equal basis that justified Hollande’s terming the agreement 'universal'.
  • That said, it remains to be seen how well all that money will be spent, and I cannot be the only one to worry that some of this will be squandered or sequested in personal bank accounts.
  • The Paris Agreement embodies an economic transition away from the age of fossil fuels.  Inevitably, this will be more drawn out that most of us would wish – or the Earth needs – but maybe this morning, as the Economist also noted, the the idea of investing in coal and oil will seem more risky than it did yesterday.
  • It is real concern about the climate, public opinion, and wide-ranging international pressure that has got us this far, and it similar bottom-up processes, rather than unenforceable UN mandates, that will drive up the level of action in decades to come.  As I said, time for some action; time for some pressure.

I've just read through all this again, and it makes me sound more positive than I intended to be.  It would be nice to think that is justified.

Teaching about the idea of a 2 degree limit

📥  Comment, News and Updates

If you have ever wondered why there is so much attention paid to the touchstone idea of a 2 degree Celsius limit on the temperature rise above pre-industrial times, the Economist has the answer:

It was born in the 1970s, in papers written by William Nordhaus, now an economics professor at Yale.  Back then, few had heard of the idea of global warming, and fewer cared.  Mr Nordhaus, who had the foresight to realise something important might be happening, suggested that a reasonable precaution would be to stop temperatures exceeding their upper bound during the past 100,000 years — the period for which ice-core data are available and for which the correlation between temperatures and other environmental effects can thus be seen reasonably clearly.  The cores suggested this upper bound was 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Mr Nordhaus himself agreed this estimate was “deeply unsatisfactory”.  It was based merely on the observation that it did not push the climate into unknown territory, whose safety could not be assessed.  So little was known about the impacts of warming at that stage, he wrote later, that his target was “a substitute” for balancing costs and damages.


The Economist says that, now, the idea of a 2 degree limit is more a political target than a scientific one, and as usual, the paper's coverage of this issue is nuanced.  It ends:

Despite its questionable past, the 2°C limit does have merits.  By boiling the vast complexities of the climate system down into a single, comprehensible number it gives politicians something simple to aim at, and against which they can measure the success of their endeavours.

But some worry that it is not simple enough, for taking the world’s temperature is not as easy as it sounds. Different parts of the planet warm at different rates, as do different layers of the atmosphere, so all sorts of corrections have to be applied to arrive at a single number.  A truly simple, and arguably better, approach would be to use concentrations of greenhouse gases — the cause of the warming—as putative maxima.  These gases mix rapidly into the atmosphere, so are easily sampled in ways that brook little dissent.

Others think the idea of a single-number limit is itself flawed.  They would try to create some sort of index out of greenhouse-gas concentrations, measures of soot (which absorbs heat), sulphate pollution (which reflects it) and the heat content of the oceans.  Such arguments, however, rather miss the point. To quote Bismarck again, “politics is not an exact science”.  The 2°C limit is certainly not perfect, and will almost certainly be breached. But its existence focuses minds.  And, when the disparate interests of 190-odd countries have to be reconciled, a little mind-focusing is, perhaps, not such a bad thing.

If you have to teach about such things (and nowhere near enough people do this), then the Economist's coverage seems essential reading.  If you go to the 'coverage' link you'll also find coverage of carbon pricingadaptation, and related issues.

Post-COP21 script ... If the idea of a 2 degree limit is more political than scientific, then the target emerging from Paris of a 1.5 limit must be even more political.  And of course it is: no matter how improbably in outcome, it is surely in place to give those island states where high tides are getting higher, something of a victory to shout about when they go home.

The pseudo, the profound and the pseudo-profound

📥  Comment, New Publications

Whilst it's relatively easy to come across bullshit these days as there's so much of it around, do you find there's a worry in the back of the mind that there might sometimes be something to it?  If so, then a recent paper in Judgement and Decision Making, may be just what you've been waiting for: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.  The very title makes you wary, however in case it might be bullshit in disguise.

The authors claim that although bullshit is common in everyday life, even attracting attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not been subject to empirical investigation.  In the paper they focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, that is seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.  They found that the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables. and conclude that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

The point of all this, perhaps, is to renew the call to bolster the values and skills of skepticism at every turn.  Meanwhile, read on ...

Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler and Jonathan A. Fugelsang  (2015) On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgement and Decision Making. 10:6 549-563