Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: March 2016

Will the UK meet all the SDGs any time soon?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Well, maybe not according to a UN paper that's currently out for comment.  Mind you, as ever, it will depend on what the questions are, crucially, on where the pass-mark is, and, probably, on who gets to set both of these.  As with school exams, who gets the glory and the ignominy depends to some extent on the examiners as well as the lucky/ luckless candidate.

Anyway, thanks to Alan Reid for alerting the EER Mailbase to the consultation on a country-level SDG Index and Dashboard that sets out to measure SDG achievement across the 17 goals using data available today.  A  Green  Amber  Red  traffic light system is proposed.  Comments can be submitted online until today.  During the consultation authors would be particularly grateful for advice on how to fill major data gaps in the preliminary scoring.  For example, what do you think of the initial indicators that relate to SDG4, Quality of Education:

  • Expected years of schooling:  >15 [Green]  12 to 15 [Amber]  <12 [Red]
  • % population aged 25-64 with tertiary education:  >25 [Green]  15 to 25 [Amber]  <15 [Red]
  • PISA score:  >493 [Green]  400 to 493 [Amber]  < 400 [Red]

Proposed indicators for other SDGs are also included in the draft, as is a global ranking and score by country and aggregation method.  You can find out more, and how to comment, here.

As for the UK (at present), we do reasonably well on many counts as you can see in the paper's Table 7: Dashboard for OECD countries using indicators of the OECD SDG Index, and only Sweden, New Zealand and France have fewer red lights that we do.  But we only manage 4 Greens (out of 17), whereas the the tiresome Scandinavians (and New Zealand) tend to have a lot more.

The two UK Red lights are for Goal 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all) and Goal 8 (Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all), and only Norway gets Greens for both these.

Not everyone will like the way that economic growth is tied to sustainable development, but, either way, making it "sustained, inclusive and sustainable" will be a neat trick.  What a good job those Norwegians have had all that oil to play with.


From Kropotkin to Mao – and back

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was part of a creative small group at the West Midlands Sustainable Schools network before Easter.  We were asked for our views on what we might do in relation to supporting the work of the network.

This is what our group said – well, it's what I noted down:

  • There is a lot of sustainable development goals [SDG]-related activity going on across England, although not all of it is (yet) SDG-focused.
  • This involves local authorities, businesses, charities, social enterprises, and ad hoc groups of many kinds; they work with schools, early-years providers, universities and colleges, and the general public in all its forms; some of those involved are groups representative of other groups.
  • Some of this is very local, some regional, some national, and some is part of international structures.
  • Some of this is largely invisible, whilst much is connected to other work; as such, the word overlapping is a better description than disparate.
  • In all this, central government is often completely absent, and much is owed to ground-up, self-organisation in the best English traditions over many years.
  • It relies heavily on voluntary activity. Whilst it is, arguably, all the better for this, some groups clearly lack the funding both to be more effective, and to work with others.
  • There is a lot of tacit knowledge and understanding within these groups, although the confidence to express this is not always seen. For example, not everyone needs to be told (yet again) that being outdoors is good for you.
  • There is much potential for work to be done with similar group(ings) that are working on other issues (e.g., health improvement and well-being more generally) as the notional differences between them mask great similarities of interest and operation.
  • Those groups that enjoy most success are likely, one way to another, to model resilient ecosystems.
  • If this metaphor has substance, the challenge is not to count or categorise the plants, but to nurture them and the “thousand flowers” they represent – but only in a non-Maoist sense.



Notes from a presentation

📥  Comment, New Publications

The other day, I posted the text of my talk to the Education 21 seminar in Zürich.  Here are a couple of notes that I might have added to the post.  The first is about the Enlightenment (or enlightenments?); the second about muddling through.

1. Anyone wanting more detail on enlightenment(s) could do much worse than read AC Grayling's new bookThe Age of Genius: the seventeenth century and the making of the modern mind [Bloomsbury].  But if you do, you might also have a look at Malcolm Gaskill's review in a Weekend FT for a critical appreciation and a more nuanced historical perspective.  This is how it ends:

"This is an entertaining, erudite book, written with verve and a steely self-confidence.  It is, however, tendentious, and less free-thinking than its 17th-century subjects.  Their confidence was based not on certainty – that was the old dogma – but rather on the inspired hope that through hypothesis and observation, experiment and debate, human beings might understand the mysteries of God's universe."

2. As for muddling through, that most human of social strategies, do read Still Muddling, Not Yet Through by Charles Lindblom, published in 1979 in Public Administration Review 39[6].  You can download it here.


What the poor need now are transgressive pedagogies

📥  Comment, New Publications

Thanks to the Transformative Learning blog for alerting me to the "cutting edge" special issue of Current Opinions of Environmental Sustainability, which focuses on new requisites to [sic] universities in the 21st century.

The (open access) special issue features ten case studies (from no fewer than five continents) illustrating "the changing relationship of learning, research and practice in universities".  Here are the main points from one of the papers:

  • Pedagogies are required that are not constrained by current use of limited concepts, or by disciplinary decadence.
  • Concepts such as resilience are problematic if they hold unsustainable systems and patterns in place.
  • Disruptive capacity building and transgressive pedagogies are needed for a more sustainable world.
  • Transformative, transgressive forms of learning requires co-learning in multi-voiced and multi-actor formations.
  • Higher education should provide possibilities for engaged, lived experience of transformative praxis for students.

No prizes for Plain English, any time soon.



Another landmark for Semington A

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I recorded, back in July 2011, the fact that the power station on our roof, which I term, Semington A, had reached the giddy total output of 1 MW.  It took 60 days, and as I noted back then, it takes a big coal burner about 20 seconds to do the same.

This morning, we reached 20 MW, and this has taken just under 5 years, at a steady rate of about 4.1 MW/year.

Although this is small beer, viewed nationally, things are looking up.  In 2015, UK solar PV capacity increased by 62% to 8.7 GW by the end of December 2015, and DECC says that there are now 842,000 PV installations in the country.  If only we had more sun, things would be even better, and getting it to shine at night would be great – but that's what storage batteries are for.



A Sustainable West Midlands?

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

I went to a well organised West Midlands Sustainable Schools network yesterday.  We met on the top floor of the CUBE and its over-hanging, vertiginous heights reminded me of the mercifully brief time I spent at Ocean City; sadly, in Birmingham, there wasn't a boardwalk to be seen, and no Drifters music to sooth the giddy experience.  Here's the input I made to the meeting:


There is no scope for trying to persuade government to change the 2002 education act as it has other schools priorities. That goes for the national curriculum as well as this is becoming increasingly irrelevant given the increasing number of schools that are independent and hence out of its reach. DfE has slimmed down the national curriculum in order, it says, to enable schools to be more responsive to local contexts and needs.


DfID is still supporting global learning in schools in collaboration with Pearson and a range of charities and the like. The future possibilities of this is not something I have a view on.


ESD seems pretty much a failure, no matter what level you look at.  In the battle within UNESCO between it and Education for all, EFA won, and you only have to look at SDG 4 to see the evidence of this.  Being one of the many adjectival educations was always going to prove a handicap for ESD as those who matter in education knew that it could be safely ignored because it was not part of the mainstream.

The SDGs

The goals would seem to be a useful framing of sustainable development as they make it more concrete. As one activist said to me: “These internationally-agreed goals give focus to the often sprawling nature of sustainable development.”  There is evidence that some groups recognise this capability:

  • Universities understand that they can be used to bring together disparate activities: teaching, learning, research, student activism, campus management, social responsibility, entrepreneurship, and community activity.
  • The UN Global Compact has produced a SDG Compass which is being used to focus the attention of business on the goals.
  • The Global Goals Curriculum is the focus of a conference for schools in Berlin in May.  This is part of the Schools on the Move initiative.


Forget ESD; relate what you do to the Goals, and persuade schools to do the same.



A Global Goals Curriculum

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There is a conference [*] coming up in May in Berlin to explore the idea of a curriculum based around the sustainable development goals [SDGs].

One of the inputs [ Towards a new teaching and school culture ] will be by Margret Rasfeld, who will argue that new ways of teaching and cooperation are necessary in order to enable future leaders of society to act and to implement the sustainable development goals.  Rasfeld is principal at the Evangelical School Berlin, and founder of the Schools on the Move initiative ("Schule im Aufbruch"); she is the initiator and host of the conference's Global Goals Curriculum.  You can she her on YouTube, in German, and also see the school.

Question is: is this just another adjectival education, or something quite radical – a curriculum that really embodies the SDGs?  It is, quite feasible to have such a curriculum (in the proper sense, and not just in terms of schemes of work, etc), and I can see the arguments for and against.  In a way, it is evangelical in both spirit and nature, and a worry has to be whether too much of a focus on the goals will run counter to all those other (often prosaic) goals that schools have these days.  I'm not putting any money on its catching on as an idea, but I shall be watching.  It would certainly be good to hear from those immersed in global learning whether this is what they think they are doing anyway.


[*] The conference has 13 keynotes over 3 days – that's an awful lot of listening.


WEEC in the head

📥  Comment, New Publications

Sadly, there is now an EESD manifesto for Europe.  I think it comes from our friends at WEEC.  The email alert says:

Environmental education towards sustainable development (EESD) is a necessity.  There’s a wide acknowledgement about that on several European and International papers.  Recently, the Paris Agreement resulting from the CoP21 dedicates its conclusions on the World Wide View global debate, which involved 10,000 people from 76 countries and places education at the first level action against the climate challenge!

The Manifesto "Educate towards environment and sustainable development", at which contributedmore than 150 participants, associations and institutions involved in EESD from different Europeancountries, assumes that the commitments made by Member States, as well as by the European Union, are still not enough significant.

In order to realize an ambitious EESD in Europe, the Manifesto brings together 20 proposals that seek school sector, non-formal education, higher education, the labor sector, professionalism and evaluation of the EESD, and finally, an effective integration of EESD in the heart of European policies.

The Manifesto  is destined to MEPs, to the European Commission, the Economic and SocialCommittee, the Committee of Regions and all citizens.  To maximize its reach, we invite you to support this Manifesto,  through your organization and individually, and to spread it widely into your networks.

Read the Manifesto!

Whilst it reads better in French, it's still completely baffling as to why anyone would think such a badly-thought out idea is a sensible thing to do.  There are 20 proposals in all; my favourite is No. 15:

Ensure compliance with the recommendations / obligations that aim to a systematic inclusion of EESD dimension (awareness, information, education, training, participation, governance) in all environmental policies and sustainable development (water, air, biodiversity, climate, waste, agriculture, energy, landscape, health, transport). Give in particular attention to EESD Check in occasion of the COP 21/ Paris 2015.

Sort of compelling, don't you think?


Education 21

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Education-21 event in Zürich the other week.  Anyone familiar with my work will recognise the background to the arguments. What may be less familiar are my comments about the potential offered by the sustainable development goals for bringing educational arguments together into a more coherent way than is usually possible. I'll be writing more about all this in the coming weeks, and making an input about it at a West Midlands Sustainable Schools event on Wednesday.

Here's the Zürich input:

Education and Social Transformation

I have been asked to say something about sustainability and learning, about competences, and about teacher education, and I’m going to do this with social transformation in mind.  Such transformation has been urged upon us by the United Nations as a means of resolving the huge range of problems the world faces today.  It was a key idea within the Secretary-General’s recent synthesis report about sustainable development up to 2030.  Here’s the report’s title, which shows the challenge:

The road to dignity by 2030: ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet.

Let me risk being provocative by saying that I think that these ideas are in the wrong order.  I’d have put it like this:

The road to dignity by 2030: protecting the planet, transforming all lives and ending poverty

That’s because, unless we protect the biosphere from the damage we are doing to it, there’s no chance of ending poverty.  Indeed, it will increase.  I also think that we’re more likely to end poverty by transforming lives – rather than the other way round.

This is an extract from the Secretary-General’s report:

“Transformation is our aim.  We must ...

  • transform our economies, our environment and our societies.  
  • change old mindsets, behaviours and destructive patterns.  
  • build cohesive societies, in pursuit of international peace and stability.  …"

It went on to say that such a future is possible if we collectively mobilize political will and the necessary resources, and if we work together.  But the gulf between this vision, and where we are now, seems to be getting wider week by week.  So, how are we to do, what seems like a hugely difficult task?

For many, this will seem like a call for nothing less that the development of new worldviews to address, what some call, the sustainability problématique.

How can we all live well, without compromising the planet’s continuing ability to enable us all to live well.  

The need to do this, and its urgency, may well be common ground amongst all of us here.  We might differ, however, perhaps widely, on what the outcomes of such transformation ought to be.  We also might differ on how it’s to be achieved.  And differ, as well, on the role of education within it.  The UN report says how important it is that this happens …

 “young people receive relevant skills and high-quality education and life-long learning, from early childhood development to post-primary schooling, including life skills and vocational education and training.”

Of course, this is just to restate the 4th Sustainable Development Goal.  You’ll note that it says nothing about ESD, global learning, environmental education, and similar approaches.

Clearly, many educators think that education is the key to transformation, and this idea was a strong theme of some COP21 meetings in Paris, although not of the Paris Agreement itself.  You may well agree with this.  I can’t see it, myself, as I’ll now try to explain.  I’ll focus on the West, because it’s what I know about, although I recognize that there are other points of view, and other stories to be told – all with, perhaps, just as much validity.

In 1989, the biologist, Mary Clark, argued that in Western history there have only been two major periods of conscious social change and transformation.  In these, societies deliberately critiqued themselves and created new worldviews.  The first, she says, occurred in the Greek city states in the time of Pericles – between 500 and 400 BCE – where old ways of thinking became suspect and the first schools emerged.  Here, philosophers asked questions through public dialogues, and new lines of thought and social action emerged.  The result was a new status quo whose ideas and practices spread.

The second time, Clark said, was through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  In these, Western culture, through its natural and social philosophers, subjected itself to critical thought and renewal.  The result was the modern worldview that the West more or less retains today, and which many believe is implicated in the sustainability problems that affect us.  I think of Chet Bowers’ work on the mechanistic metaphors we live by, as a key idea here, though he is not alone.  The irony is, of course, that the Enlightenment also brought new values and political and social freedoms that many – and not just in the West – both try to live by, and would wish to defend.

Mary Clark argued that we need to

collectively create a new worldview that curbs ecological and social exploitation, and recreates social meaning

... and this sounds rather like what the UN is saying.  Clark saw that this process needed to be a society-wide, citizenly, phenomenon involving everyone – not just political, business, social, religious or cultural elites.  It’s clear that such processes now need to be global in scale and scope, given the global nature of the issues we face.

Many may well see evidence of this happening in such things as the Paris Agreement, and the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals.  A few optimists will also view UNESCO’s Global Action Plan and Roadmap in this light.  Some are also are likely to see it in ground-up social action such as the Divestment and Transition movements, and perhaps also in Occupy and Anonymous.  Though it seems clear that few will view Pegida, Golden Dawn, the Soldiers of Odin, and similar groups, in the same way.  Such activities might well be seen as attempts to address the sustainability problématique.

In the sustainability problématique, it’s the small words that are the difficult ones.  For example, what does  “well”  mean?  This is yet another thing we might disagree about.  Personally, I take my cue from Amartya Sen who talked of the point of development as being the ability to live a life that one has reason to value.  I imagine this is something everyone here is trying to do.  But just to say this is to illustrate its difficulty, and how far the world has to shift if we are to take that other small word  “all”  seriously.

Mary Clark saw such transformational endeavours as educational in the widest sense, but she understood that the process could not just be left to formal educational institutions and teachers.  She made a clear distinction between two processes.  The first of which is about fitting in with the status quo and its received norms and wisdoms.

  1. Moulding through cultural transmission
  2. Social renewal through a critique of beliefs and assumptions

The second, Clark said, can ease transformative change and create new ways of thinking and being.  Of course, cultural transmission, is one of the core purpose of schooling almost everywhere, and tends to be instrumental rather than transformative.  But social renewal is another purpose of schooling, and these two ideas can be said to represent continuity and change.  We might see them as conservative versus transformative.  Some would say, conservative versus democratic.  Importantly, a focus on personal growth and human fulfillment has also been a feature of many visions of education, particularly socially-liberal ones.

Tensions between such purposes have existed right from the beginning of schooling, and it’s always a balancing act to boost effectiveness, and minimize friction.  Such tensions are accentuated when existential socio-political issues arise, for example in times of war, or economic collapse, or, perhaps now, climate change.

In relation to what we’re interested in, this raises important questions.  For example, can schools strongly promote a commitment to the idea of a just and sustainable future for all, and still include the idea of personal growth and fulfilment?   Why not, we might say, as many national curricula now promote values connected with human rights and democracy, and this is often uncontroversial.  But it seems to me that schools now have so many social goals to fulfill that their ability to play a leading role in any such transformation is fatally compromised.  This is especially the case in an era of global comparative testing through processes such as PISA. This reveals the core paradox; that to change society, education and schools would themselves first need to be changed by that society.  For all these reasons, it seems to me that schools will struggle to play a leading transformative role.

For others, it’s not education, per se, but education for sustainable development – ESD – that has this transformative potential.  This is because ESD is a global idea that can bring together a wide variety of educational groups, and strategies, aimed at addressing our problems.  UNESCO has encouraged this view:

 “ESD, in the broadest sense is education for social transformation with the goal of creating more sustainable societies."

The appeal of ESD is clear as it can claim to bring together learning activities that examine the core elements of the problems facing us.

  1.  how living things depend on each other and on the biosphere,
  2. why there is such a widespread lack of social justice and human fulfillment across the world and what might be done about this, and
  3. how everyone’s quality of life is increasingly imperiled by our current economic models.

These link the quality of people’s lives (now and in the future), the economic and political systems these are embedded in, and the continuing supply of goods and services from the biosphere that underpin and drive such systems.  Thus the potential of ESD is that it might enable such deeply inter-related issues to be addressed together, so that we might come to understand, face up to, and then resolve, our sustainability issues.

This is the rhetoric, and you are familiar with, but what’s the reality?  It seems to me that, despite UN endorsement, UNESCO sponsorship, considerable NGO activity, a lot of individual effort – and much Japanese taxpayer cash – ESD has not fulfilled its promise.  A core difficulty is something we have seen already, albeit in different language.  Stephen Sterling terms it the central paradox of ESD:

 “ESD is seen as critical to any prospect of a more sustainable future, but … it challenges mainstream thinking, policy and practice in much formal education.  … The more transformative and holistic approach that sustainability requires is often difficult to implement, requiring systemic change and organisational learning over time ...”

That is: how do you change mainstream thinking through education when it's that thinking which determines what's to be studied?  Anyway, if education, per se, cannot contribute much directly to transformative change, how could ESD be more successful, when only a small proportion of teachers have even heard of it after 10 years of effort?

An artful response to this question is to advance a co-evolutionary argument: that successful ESD would lead to change in the demands made of education by society.  This would then reinforce the need for more ESD, leading, eventually to a positive transformative cycle.  Thus, the argument goes, those in power would soon come to understand the error of their ways.  This view, however, relies too heavily on appeals to false consciousness to be taken seriously.

Looking back, in 1995, on 30 years of rather ineffective environmental education, John Smyth argued that the adjective environmental had been a significant barrier.  This was because environmental education had become seen as something separate from established disciplines and practice.  Because of this, it was thereby outside mainstream educational activity, and could be safely ignored.  Much the same can be said today of ESD.  Rather than being an influence on education systems and practice, it’s become thought of, and talked about, as an alternative to these, or sometimes seen as equivalent to a subject or discipline.

This is particularly pronounced in higher education where much emphasis has been placed on ‘introducing ESD’, which hardly anyone had heard about.  This ignores the considerable sustainability-focused activity and expertise, that already exists in universities.

The result is that no one who really matters in education systems takes ESD seriously.  Although UNESCO has said that

"the need for ESD [has become] well established in national policy frameworks"

... the evidence for this is weak, if it exists at all.  Because of this, it’s unlikely that ESD will have a leading transformative role.  And as UNESCO points out, helping young people prepare to contribute to society’s deliberations about how to live, is a role for all of education, not ESD:

 ‘To create a world that is more just, peaceful and sustainable, all individuals and societies must be equipped and empowered by knowledge, skills and values as well as be instilled with a heightened awareness to drive such change. This is where education has a critical role to play."

So, is a more positive view possible?  That is, if neither education in general, nor ESD in particular, can play key transformative roles in the Mary Clark and UN sense, what might we look to?

For me, there is one credible possibility – the Sustainable Development Goals. The mix of policies and practices necessary to achieve these will involve all kinds of social groups and institutions working together.  These will be public and private, governmental and NGO, large and small, and local, national and international.  If we’re to be successful, we shall need to realize the UN’s transformational aims, which might just be part of a transformative process.

It’s clear that many groups already see the goals as a conceptual frame around which to build their policies, strategies, and evaluation.  For example, the UN Global Compact, with others, has produced a ‘SDG Compass’ to help business maximise its contribution to the Goals.  And many universities are already beginning to use the goals to bring their activities together.  For example, teaching, research, student activitism, work with community groups, a focus on social accountability, and institutional business practices.

As one activist said to me:

these internationally agreed goals give focus to the often sprawling scope of sustainable development.”

The Compass idea could be very helpful here.  All the universities I know well already focus directly on issues represented by the goals.

It’s less easy in schools, of course, but those interested in global learning might say that this is exactly what they have been doing for some time.  The advantage of a focus on the goals is that they make sustainable development more concrete.  After all, unlike ESD, which is, at best, a mysterious process, they are real, and you don’t have to go round persuading people of their merits.

So, what can schools do?  Well, if we’re to think about what schools might do in relation to the goals, it’s important, first, to think about outcomes.  At a basic level, perhaps we have 4 kinds of responsibility as citizens.  The first is to understand that the goals are very important – and why.  The second, is to think about them in relation to our lives and interests.  The third is being effective at discussing possibilities.  The fourth is to get involved and do something.

So what can schools do as a preparation for such a citizenly role?  And what are some practical ways forward?  Perhaps educators also have four kinds of responsibility: First, to help learners understand why the goals ought to be of concern to them.  Second, to help learners gain plural perspectives.  Third, to provide opportunities for an active consideration of issues through appropriate pedagogies, and then, fourth, to encourage learners to come to their own interim views about what to think and do, both individually and socially.  Doing less than this seems neglectful; doing much more runs the risk of indoctrination, because, we need to stimulate without prescribing.  And we need to see conceptual frameworks as scaffolding to build learning around, rather than as cages to restrain ideas and creativity.

This is, of course, a liberal educational view that puts student learning first.  This view says that educational institutions must always prioritise student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change.  It also says that we should make use of any change that’s happening, to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense, it’s fine for a school, college or university to encourage its students to become involved, and and through that involvement, to save energy, create less waste, and promote biodiversity, and, importantly, to enhance social justice through initiatives such as fair trade, provided that all these are developed with student learning in mind.

To do otherwise is to forget why educational institutions exist, as being restorative of social or natural capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of learning.  Thus, a successful liberal education today will be taking these goals seriously in everything it does.  At its heart will be students asking critical questions of society – and of their institution – looking for the need for change, and getting involved.  In this sense, schools are important in nurturing thinking and learning about what might constitute appropriate futures, and in helping students develop skills and competences by doing so.

But there are limits.  Jensen and Schnack make the point with force that the crucial factor must always be what students learn from participating in such activities.

“… it is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society.  Its task is not to improve the world with the help of pupils’ activities. …  The crucial factor must be what students learn from participating in such activities …”

These limits to what we might expect to achieve, takes us, at last, to skills and competences.  Some, such as Andy Stables from the University of Roehampton, say we should be aware that school students are only ever likely to pick up a general and diffuse sense of concern about – and for – the world’s problems.  And, that this concern will be led or reinforced by any involvement they may have in the public discourse.  Stables says that such skills can only really be fully developed through practice in realistic contexts, that is, through life and work.  In this sense, they can never be fully developed because every time you practice them, you have the chance to further develop them.  They are, it might be said, in a constant state of becoming – an idea that is as old as Heraclitus.  It follows, then, that it’s foolish to think of skills and competences ever being fully developed by a particular stage.

And yet we see endless lists of such skills and competences to be developed by school children and university students by the end of a period of study.  For example, take these from the UK’s HEA / QAA :

At the end of the course, you should be able to …

describe the relationships between environmental, social and economic systems, from local to global level.

identify the root causes of unsustainable development, including environmental, social and economic actions, and the links to cultural considerations.

evaluate the impacts and interconnections between the activities of different generations, demographic groups and cultures, recognising that there may be tensions and competing factors between them

Should we not try harder to resist such temptations?

Because of all this, Stables says, the school curriculum should focus on the development of skills of critical thinking, dialogue and discussion / debate.  Through this, he says, young people would be enabled, should they choose, to take an increasing role in society and transformative social change.

In emphasising this role for the school, Stables privileges the development of skills above content.  He also stresses the iterative nature of learning, participation, and decision-making.  But, schools are most successful, perhaps, when they combine these elements, and Paul Vare & I have argued that it’s helpful to think of two complementary approaches, that we termed ESD1 and ESD2:

ESD1 – Providing guidance about behaviours, shifts in habit, and ways of thinking about how we live now. This tends to be heavily content-focused, information-based, and grounded in everyday practice.

ESD2 – Building students’ capacity to think critically and develop abilities to make sound choices in the face of the inherent complexity and uncertainty. This is much more dialogue and debate-oriented, and focused on controversial issues.

We argued that both these approaches are necessary.  Indeed, they’re complementary because people need to have relevant subject matter to debate and critically examine in their own contexts.  In other words, debate and dialogue, although always open-ended, cannot exist in a vacuum.  Neither can the development of the skills of critical thinking.

When Stables says curriculum should focus on the development of these skills he added that sustainability was only one possible theme.  Two implications flow from this.  The first is that such skills can be developed in many different contexts.  The second, is that it makes sense to focus on the skill using the context as a means to develop it.  And this has straightforward implications for teacher training which can be hard to talk about, because it seems to be so different across the world.  One thing is clear, however.  This is that it’s important to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved.  From what I’ve said so far, it follows that we should not be preparing teachers to become conceptual experts in sustainability as that’s in no one’s interests.  Rather, we should focus on preparing teachers to help their students to develop the sort of skills and competences I’ve outlined.  That is, in relation to dialogue, discussion / debate and critical thinking.  We should prepare them to be pedagogical experts in helping young people consider such issues, and begin to develop interest and skills.

In my view, this approach would apply across the curriculum, and to everyone preparing to be a teacher.  It might vary slightly from subject to subject, because different disciplines provide distinct contexts in which to develop such skills.   It will vary depending on the age range being focused on, and probably to some extent from place to place.  Doing this would make a big difference if were to be made a core aspect of all teacher training programmes.

Up to now, I’ve treated this grand narrative of transformative change as if it’s possible – but I really do doubt it.  You’ll remember that UNESCO and the UN say nothing about how it’s to happen, other than pointing to education, which we’ve seen is inadequate to the task.  Mary Clark reminded us that, in previous times, it was philosophers that led the way, but these now offer little help in a public sense.  At a time when social media has democratized public utterances, philosophical points tend to get lost in the babble of communication.  So, it looks as if we’ll just have to muddle through.

But, to be positive again, there is a long tradition of doing this, and we humans are actually quite good at it, so all may not be lost.  Meanwhile, our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to understand how to make themselves heard, and how to make a difference.  Paradoxically, it may well be through such small-scale, on-the-ground, open-minded developments that the potential for transformation may well be enhanced.  This seems a suitably hopeful point on which to end.


It comes from coal and gas, you know!

📥  Comment, News and Updates

That's what a chemical engineer said to me as he caught me plugging my car into the university's electric car charging point the other day.  And indeed (most of) it does.  As I write this, on a cold, sunny day in March, 60% of the UK's electricity (35.8 MW) is coming from gas and coal (in a 3 : 1 ratio).

Happily, the car is currently charing from Semington A's reliable (if naturally intermittent) solar output, but you have to wonder if the UK is getting closer to carbon-free electricity, or farther away as every day passes.

If only targets were strategy.  I say that because the Guardian is reporting that the government intends to legislate for a 100% carbon-free UK.  As the G notes, the UK is already legally bound by the Climate Change Act to reduce emissions 80% by 2050 – although no one knows how this will be done.  This is why it's apparently no problem to go for the full monty.  80%  or 100%?  What's the difference when you've no idea even how to get to 50%.  It's as though achieving the target doesn't really matter when you can write a headline.

The IPCC says there must be net zero emissions by 2070 if we are to avoid dangerous warming.  Fat chance.