Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

I take full responsibility for the contents of this blog

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Of course, I know that this is as good an example of the *******' obvious as you'd wish to find; however, as there is now a fashion for making risible statements about responsibility, I thought I'd join in, least anyone thought I wasn't – being responsible, that is.  I hope that's clear.  Now, moving forward, ...


At last, some sense about change

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A kind colleague, someone better read than me, pointed me to a recent Thinkpiece by Lancaster’s Paul Trowler.  In it, are the points he made in a talk to leaders involved in a sustainable university initiative.  He set out some tools for thinking and acting in ways which help increase the chances of effective and sustained curriculum change with a focus on strategic, large-scale changes in teaching and learning, and the curriculum.

Trowler began by arguing that common experiences of those set on change in universities include the following:

  • internal embedded practices act and interact to erode reform
  • structural processes are slow and internally contradictory: there is no institutional learning architecture and so structures are not fully joined-up
  • decision-making, review and accountability processes are also non-aligned
  • there is patchiness in delivery of core activities
  • prioritisation doesn’t happen, so that goals are multiple, unrealistic and frequently changing
  • there are unformed, inappropriate and changing implementation strategies and tactics
  • there is lots of talk, but little action, lots of strategic discussion, but business as usual
  • there is often defence of ‘turf’ and fear of change

These are all, in effect, barriers to change.  How refreshing, then, to find such an in-depth, and thoughtful analysis.  I usually have two tests of such statements:

1. Is it generic?

2. Does it have validity – particularly ecological validity?

And you hope that the answers are No – Yes.  In other words, [1] could it apply to anything, anywhere?  For example you often find the following cited as barriers: “There isn’t time.  Anyway, we haven’t been trained”.  These are often true, but utterly irrelevant as there’s no evidence that the offer of more time and training would make any difference.  And [2] Is it obviously about the context being discussed and does it reflect “real life conditions”?

The mere text of Trowler’s analysis doesn’t lead, for me, to an unequivocal No – Yes response.  However, 30+ years in HE, much of it change-focused, suggests that this is a valid analysis, and one that those engaged in sustainability-focused change might well heed.

Paul Trowler goes on to argue that, for leaders of change, all this can lead to some very common experiences:

  • only the ‘usual suspects’ are engaged with the reform, others quietly withdraw or actively oppose change
  • there is slow acceleration to a plateau and then entropy sets in
  • turf wars and other squabbles result in stalled initiatives
  • there are difficulties in scaling up and the short-termism of ‘projectitis’: reform stopping as funding ends

Sadly, all this rings horribly true.  To learn what Trowler thinks are appropriate "tools for thinking and acting" follow from all this, the Thinkpiece is only a click away.


When is ESD not ESD? That is the question

📥  Comment

Well, that might not always be the question, but when curriculum audits are in the offing, it certainly is an important one.

This issue cropped up (again) last week at the HEA sustainable development advisory group, and in a separate conversation with an experienced academic, interested in ESD, who’d been asked by a Deputy Vice Chancellor to audit their institution’s curriculum in order to identify ESD practice.  I was asked for my advice.

I did what I always do whenever I am put on this particularly tricky spot, I asked him about framing.  I asked whether he wanted to use a tight conceptual frame where it is made pretty clear to respondents what is to count as ESD (and, hence, what is not), and where there is an attempt to restrict respondents’ leeway for interpretation – or whether a looser conceptual frame would do where the guidance to respondents is less conceptually tight, and where interpretation is more possible.

The potential advantages of a loose framing are that:

[i]  you get more responses, and

[ii] how individuals and groups view their own work on ESD is validated.

However, this is not necessarily always a win-win outcome.

The potential advantage of a tight frame is that any responses you get might have more validity.  I say “might” because a tight frame doesn’t necessarily mean a conceptually valid one.  However,  I’d say that the more conceptually valid a frame is, the tighter it will prove to be, although the converse doesn’t apply.  But then, who's to say, definitively, what's a conceptually valid frame of sustainability - which takes us back to loose(r) frames.

A good example of the difficulty can be found in the 2007/8 benchmarking exercise that was carried out for HEFCE where an attempt at a tight framing ran into trouble.  Here's a comment on the framing used in that work.  In a more contemporary context, this is a pertinent, but perhaps unresolvable, issue for the development of the new LiFE's evaluation frameworks, in the development of which I have a walk-on part.


One of the most challenging conclusions for HEFCE ...

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... or for anybody else, come to that.

In 2007, HEFCE commissioned the Policy Studies Institute, PA Consulting Group and the University of Bath to undertake a strategic review of sustainable development in higher education in England.  This review was one of the key actions contained in Hefce’s sustainable development strategy (HEFCE 2005/28).  The aims of the review were to:

  • establish a baseline of sustainable development in the sector, against which to measure progress and publicise what the sector is already doing
  • learn from institutions' experience about the conditions for embedding sustainable development, including barriers and drivers
  • identify key issues which present opportunities and challenges for the sector and investigate possible policy responses
  • evaluate Hefce’s approach and refine its priorities
  • raise the profile of sustainable development in the sector.

In its published summary of the review, Hefce notes the following:

The review covers ground which is novel, wide-ranging and challenging and we are grateful to the consultant team.  The views expressed in the document are those of the authors and, in line with our normal practice for research that we commission, do not represent Council policy.  It may be the case that some of the views expressed will be contested.  Such debate would be welcomed by both the authors and ourselves, particularly if it leads to greater understanding and engagement. ...

I was not part of the research team, and thought the report to be particularly thought-provoking.  A crucial issue was what is to count, for survey purposes, as "activity related to sustainable development" [ie, for teaching purposes, ESD].  The report's executive summary said:

Probably the most important finding of the review is that SD activity is very disparate in the HEI sector: it is very widely dispersed within different HEIs; it varies widely across HEIs, with some engaging in multiple, coordinated institution-wide SD activities involving hundreds of staff, some having only a few active individuals, and some no identified activities at all.  Moreover, different HEIs have different perceptions of what SD is and how it should be appropriately pursued (if at all) within the institution.

It went on:

For the purpose of this review, activity related to sustainable development was defined as activity that contained ‘a significant element related to either or both of the natural environment and natural resources, PLUS a significant element related to either or both of economic or social issues’.

This was a particularly tight conceptual framing, much more so, as I recall, than that adopted by the STAUNCH review system in Wales for a similar survey – and is one that not everyone will agree with.  Indeed, the report for Hefce also noted:

Although this definition was widely accepted by HEIs, it emerged very early on in the review that SD lacks an adequate and consistent definition in the sector.  Moreover, it is clear that there is currently no single definition of SD which would command consensus across the sector, making it difficult for HEFCE to adopt a generic approach to SD.  However, it is clear that it will need to do this if it wishes to generate a definitive and comprehensive baseline for SD activity in HEIs.  This is one of the most challenging conclusions for HEFCE of this Review.

In other words, it was impossible to maintain the conceptual tightness of the framing whilst collecting the data that institutions wanted collecting.  I doubt very much that this has changed given the breadth of possible conceptual interpretations around sustainability and/or sustainable development, and has implications for anyone wanting to know about what is happening across the sector in relation to academic activity focused on sustainable development.  Caveat emptor, then.  Further thoughts on the problems of framing can be found here.


Faith, Hope and something untranslatable, but probably a heady but ineffable mix of Love, Charity, ...

📥  Talks and Presentations

To Liverpool last week for a first visit to Liverpool Hope University.

In the morning, I gave a conference keynote on Learning in a Sustainable School – exploring educational and social benefits, and then ran a workshop on Knowing how effectively the development of a sustainable school is progressing? In the afternoon, I gave a seminar to University academics (and a very welcome, but lone, sustainability manager).  This turned into a long conversation about sustainability in HE institutions, with a particular focus on Hope's own strongly ethical foundation and what that might mean for their own development.  All very enjoyable, especially as there was a good mix of interests and specialisms present.

We were in a new building with a fine stained glass panel in the atrium that embodied the institution's crest and motto.  This was in ancient Greek and I was told it means – roughly:

Faith, Hope and something untranslatable, but probably a heady but ineffable mix of Love, Charity, ... .

Despite this imprecission, there are worse ideas, I thought.


NAS / UWT reverts to type

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The papers today have what I thought might have been be a universally-welcomed good news story about the government's reducing some of the Health & Saftey red tape around out of school activties with a cutting of the "guidance" from 150 pages to 8.  But I'd reckoned without the recidivist miserabilists in the NAS / UWT who have long had a down on school trips.  Step forward Patrick Roach, the union's deputy general secretary, who is reported as explaining the situation in this way:

Our concern is that the coalition Government has been wedded to an agenda of cutting back on red tape and bureaucracy, as it describes it, in a very cavalier fashion - and in this instance, cutting back on bureaucracy which actually is quite beneficial to schools.  The original guidelines were developed by teachers for teachers. Cutting them back could reduce parents’ confidence and make teachers more nervous about school trips.

Magnificent!  It makes me wonder if Mr Roach has ever seen the rigmarole that teachers have to comply with for a simple off-site visit.  Sunday's Independent quotes the DfE saying that its revised guidance:

* Summarises the legal duties of head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities on health and safety, and covers activities that take place on and off school premises;

* Makes clear that a written risk assessment does not need to be carried out every time a school takes pupils on a regular, routine local visit, for example to a swimming pool or museum;

* Tackles myths and teachers' fears about being prosecuted by making the law clearer;

* Clarifies that parental consent is not necessary for pupils to take part in the majority of off-site activities organised by a school, as most of these activities take place during school hours and are a normal part of a child's education

The last point is particularly interesting as it relates to, and restates, the breadth of in loco parentis responsibilities.   All this has been raised by the Health & Saftey Executive.   The Independent again:

"Excessive and unnecessary application of restrictions on unfounded health and safety grounds threatens to spoil children's experience of growing up", said [the HSE's Chair] Judith Hackitt.  "The creeping culture of risk-aversion and fear of litigation ... puts at risk our children's education and preparation for adult life.  Children today are denied - often on spurious health and safety grounds - many of the formative experiences that shaped my generation.  Playgrounds have become joyless, for fear of a few cuts and bruises.  Science in the classroom is becoming sterile and uninspiring.  In many cases the people behind unreasonable rulings were well-meaning but misguided jobsworths who have the public interest at heart but go too far."  Ms Hackett added: "A trend of far more concern to me is the use of health and safety as a convenient excuse by employers and other organisations cynically looking for a way to disguise their real motives."

She couldn't mean the teacher unions could she?  Meanwhile, I keep looking at the LOTC website for a comment.  So far, an eloquent silence.

Like the poor, will the Fafferati always be with us

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A new neologism (tautology, perhaps) this morning.  Catching up with Simon Carr over breakfast, I came upon his coining of " fafferati " which he defines as that

"wide conspiracy of over-educated, self-soaping professionals who don't know what to do telling people who do know what to do what to do".

Carr acknowledges the contribution of Lord Maurice Glasman to this like of thinking, and had the inaptly named, but appropriately shamed, Quality Care Commission in mind, but candidates for this dubious accolade seem all around us, and education is not immune.


School Food Mistrust

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The taxpayer, generous to a fault, has just wished £4.3m on the non-departmental public body the School Food Trust [SFT] for its work in 2011/12.  The detailed remit letter from Mr Gove is worth a read, especially if you were thinking that the government was being careful with your cash, or was in danger of actually running out of it.  Far from it, it seems.  Rather staggeringly, to my democratic mind, this £4.3m includes £800,000 to aid the SFT's transition to a private sector company which will no doubt continue to receive funding from the taxpayer even when this shift has taken place. The SFT must think that this is a great deal which ever way they look at it.

£1.2m of the money is for ...

"keeping the department up to date on key issues related to the nutrition of children of school age, highlighting any emerging evidence that should be considered in terms of feeding children well.  This will include advice on policy issues and nutrition for Parliamentary questions, letters and briefings".

They must be expecting an eye-watering number of questions.

It gets a bit better, however, as only  £400,000 is to be provided for building the capacity of parents, families and communities to influence the quality and standards of food children are given in school.  Mr Gove notes that

"I expect that support will probably take the form of providing simple information on what good school food should comprise and the benefits to children of consuming a balanced diet; along with advice on how to set up a local parent group empowered to negotiate with caterers and schools to feed their children well".

Well, indeed!  Rather curious, some might think, that there remains so much ignorance about "the benefits to children of consuming a balanced diet".   Could this have anything to do with the way that nutritional understanding has either been sidelined in the curriculum or suborned to commercial interests by successive governments over many years?

I searched this document in vain for any hint that what children are taught in schools might have any bearing on "the benefits ... of consuming a balanced diet", but could not find any.  Odd, perhaps, that a Department of Education should forget that what children learn in schools matters, and that there might be a link between what is taught in schools about food growing and consumption, and actual food consumption.  I can only conclude that the SFT supporters within the DfE have not read all the national curriculum submissions that have made this rather elementary 'joined up' point.  I should declare an interest, here, as I had a small role in making one of these arguments.  I also searched for any indication of how all this was contributing to the DfE's being part of the "greenest government ever".  Another no show, I fear, which is odd given the Department's historic and continuing interests in sustainability in schools (and not just in the curriculum), and the key role of food growing and consumption to this.


Discussion Groups in the Neolithic

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As I noted in the last post, during my couple of days on the Isle of Wight last week, there was some discussion of ARUP's 10 Winning strategies for the ecological age.  These were written to stimulate a consideration of future human-human and human-earth relations in the present day, but one of our group suggested that they they are probably quite descriptive of how Neolithic societies actually functioned.   Whilst being somewhat agnostic on this point (did they really go around saying: Optimise not Maximise), I found myself wondering whether, when Neolithic groups actually met up (as they surely did), whilst some were off having a céilidh and a pint of whatever it was at the time, some earnest types would sit around and consider the pressures on their way of living (too many henges cluttering the landscape, maybe), whether society needed improvement (better boats for all that rock, no doubt), and whether the curriculum needed revising (more timeless facts and less revisionist opinion, perhaps).

Sadly, I don't know enough about any of this for this fantasy to go much further, other than to say that Michael Flanders did write a satire about troubles in Neolithic times that did imply some conversation: "A henge?  What's a henge?"  Indeed; a timeless question.

Lets hear it for Edgy Co-existence

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Another stimulating couple of days with the Ellen MacArthur team on the Isle of Wight working with a richly diverse group of people from across interests, disciplines and sectors, all of whom are working with the Foundation on the idea of the Circular Economy, one way or another.   We did one exercise that focused on 10 Winning strategies for the ecological age that had been worked up by ARUP’s Peter Head based around Janine Benyus' Biomimicry [ See her TED talk ], with a strap line of smart responsive simplicity.  The 10 strategies are:

1   Use waste as a resource

2   Diversify and co-operate

3   Gather and use energy efficiently

4   Optimise not maximise

5   Use materials sparingly

6   Clean up, not pollute

7   Do not draw down resources

8   Remain in balance with the biosphere

9   Run on information

10 Shop locally

Some of these seems self-evident at the common sense level, others much less so.  The 2nd,  "Diversify and co-operate" stimulated a lively discussion about whatever happened to the idea of competition, particularly as this is often more visible than co-operation in the everyday natural world that inspires this list.

It boils down to a question of preferred metaphors, of course, with nature red in tooth and claw often being seen to be too redolent of markets, competition and capitalism to be dwelt on by sensitive souls who don’t think that these can have much of a role in a sustainable future – and don't want them to have any such a role.  Nature as warmly collaborative and nurturing is a much nicer template for a preferred human future, especially if your tastes run to the more local, the simpler, and to a stepping back to a better time (though when this was is a puzzle).  Nature might be socially constructed, but that doesn't mean you can construct is any old how.

The reason that we have two metaphors is because these collaborative and competitive tendencies are both full on, all the time, resulting in a very edgy co-existence – and giving the natural world its resilience and diversity.  To pretend otherwise seems dishonest.