EE: practitioners’ perspective 3

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Here are more comments on the part 2 of the King's Report: The Practitioners’ Perspective: Understanding Environmental Education in Secondary Schools building on what I wrote last week.  What follows relates to the roundtable discussions that led to the report.

1 Page 10 raises issues about EE as a subject, and the benefits this might have.  There's an immediate terminological problem here in that the phrase 'environmental education' does not suggest a subject.  After all, no one talks about history education at school, or biology education, music education, etc; rather, these are referred to as history, biology, and music, because they are recognised as subjects.  The process by which something becomes suitable to be regarded as a subject is a fascinating one, and a number of conditions need to be met.  It took years, for example, for geography to be so regarded.  See this.

In this sense, every subject has a history and so it's no use thinking that a label can be attached and all will be well.  That said, it can be argued that many of the conditions may well now in place for a broad view of 'environment' to become a school subject, avoiding the 1970s split between environmental science / studies that was deemed necessary then.  My view of this is that if it is to happen, it will have to be driven from above: universities will need to demand it; learned societies will need to facilitate it; NGOs and subject t associations will need to support the process.  But will they?   There seems no sign of that; nor are there clear views on what would need to be experienced, taught and learned.  However, whatever it's called, it won't be environmental education.

All this would, of course, be opposed, by those representing and promoting existing subjects – think geography / biology – and you already know what the arguments will be.  That's the thing about subject champions, they will always defend the status quo, that is: their hard-won privileges.

Then there's the question of where / how it would fit into the secondary school and who would teach it.  But my brain's already hurting, so enough of this for now ...

 

2 Page 11 sees the attractive idea of schools being agents of change – and so they can be at an individual level (other things being equal which they increasingly aren't).  But agents of change at a society level?  I think not.  Most schools are still the conservative force with an economic purpose they were designed to be in the 19th century, despite the huge efforts of many teachers and managers down the years.  It's a sobering truth that society (ie, government) finds it easier to influence schools than the reverse.   How could this not be given where the money comes from, and where the power of legislation, regulation and inspection lies.

There is, of course, now scope for academies and free schools (like independent schools) to carve out a distinctive curriculum niche for themselves and their communities, but you'd have to say that not enough do so yet with an environmental focus.  However, the idea of a nature school is one to watch.

 

3 The discussion section of the report (page 13 to 14) says:

"Whilst these key questions have no simple answers, it is beyond doubt that the current environmental education offer in secondary schools in England requires reform. Doing nothing is not an option and compromises are required."

Sadly, however, doing nothing is just the thing to do if you are the DfE (which is quite satisfied with the current environmental education offer).  If 'nothing' were replaced by 'not a lot', then this probably also describes the attitude of those gatekeeping geography and biology in schools who have a lot to lose by an improved EE offer.  They won't, of course, say this publicly.

What follows from this optimism by the authors is of greater interest:

"We acknowledge the structural difficulties implicit in calling for environmental education to be located in one curriculum area. We note that the inclusion of environmental education would mean the exclusion of other content areas. Furthermore, we note that environmental education does not fit solely into one discipline. We also note the epistemological differences in the way that environmental education is taught. In science, the focus tends to be on explaining the underlying mechanisms shaping an environmental issue; in geography, a greater focus is placed on examining the environmental impacts of phenomena and discussing human responses; whilst in PSHE, religion, or ethics, environmental topics are discussed through a consideration of rights and responsibilities. Finally, and as discussed above, the location of environmental education may detrimentally affect its delivery to all students through to the age 16."

This seems to get the different subject foci about right, though not everyone will agree that this is how it ought to be.  The oddity in this, however, is the lack of any mention of global learning / development education, which, many would say, has been far more successful in getting schools to focus on the sustainability issues around social justice.  Having a lot of DfID cash helped, of course.  Where's our DEFRA cash?, I hear you say, but that's a long story and I won't repeat any of my many blogs about this.  I'll just say that a comprehensive global learning would fully embrace EE and DfID's preferred model of global learning.  This is the only thing that fully fits with the sustainable development goals.

In all this, the authors opt for a tweaking of the status quo which might be summarised as leaving the two big subject beasts (and PSHE) alone and work within the existing arrangements to change what they do, rather than trying anything too radical (like the establishment of an environment subject.  This is a more pragmatic (and sensible) conclusion than my preferred longer-term subject creation solution.  If this strategy is to succeed, however, maybe it's time to stop calling it environmental education.

 

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