I was pleased to be asked to make a keynote presentation to the second of this series of four conferences organised by SEEd. This was in Preston on Monday. Here's what I said: international-and-uk-contexts-for-learning
Teachers and schools are well practised in helping young people develop a wide range of awareness, understanding and skills. This is, after all, their core purpose. They obviously achieve these goals through what they teach, but they also do it through how they teach, seeking effective ways of interesting, motivating and engaging young people. In addition to this, how the school is organised is important because this is also an effective way of helping young people learn key social skills and attitudes where the workings of the school mirror the values that it would like the young people to develop: for example, around inter-personal, democratic and citizenship skills, a focus on issues of care, respect and tolerance, and an encouragement of critical thinking and questioning attitudes.
Because of all this, and because of the official fixation with behaviour change as the prime social vector leading to sustainability, there has been considerable interest recently around the idea that what children learn about sustainability issues in schools can be readily transferred to parents and the wider community and bring about behaviour change. The idea that schools are key to resolving environmental issues is not new, and neither is the idea that families might be influenced as well – for example, through changing practice in the home around energy, water and waste in consumer choices around food, trade and transport, and in putting pressure on business, commerce and local authorities to change practices – and, if young people really can influence what families do, then schools are an obvious place from which to start. Whilst there is probably something in this, especially around the more straightforward issues such as energy saving, research on such processes shows that opportunities for such learning are not always straightforward.
The attached, [school-to-home-learning], summarises the position as we see it. It was developed from research carried out for the British Gas Generation Green programme, and from research done by Elsa Lee as part of the University's MA in Environmental Education degree.
I'm very grateful to Ben Ballin, of Tide~, for drawing to my attention a significant piece of text from the Cambridge Primary Review: children, their world, their education. As I noted in an earlier posting, there is some controversy as to whether focusing on climate change, ecological problems, poverty, etc, causes young people to be apprehensive / anxious / depressed / turned off / apathetic / suicidal / etc, or whether it is a set of issues which, handled with care and skill, can stimulate what is best in humanity: ie, that, if we act together, something positive can be done (an example of meliorism, in fact and action).
Unsurprisingly, it is the "handled with care and skill" that seems to be the key point here. The review says:
"... children who were most confident that climate change might not overwhelm them were those whose schools had decided to replace unfocussed fear by factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability. Similarly, the teachers who were least worried by national initiatives were those who responded to them with robust criticism rather than resentful compliance, and asserted their professional right to go their own way. There is a lesson from such empowerment for government as well as schools. Of course, not even the most enterprising school can reverse some of the social trends which worried many of our witnesses. That being so, these Community Soundings have implications for social and economic policy more generally, and for public attitudes and values, not merely for DCSF and the schools."
"The soundings programme as a whole was pervaded by a sense of deep pessimism about the future, to which children themselves were not immune. Many expressed concern about climate change, global warming and pollution, and optimists were balanced by those who felt that governments were not doing enough to respond to the urgency and magnitude of the challenges. Some children also deplored the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. In the words of one child: ‘America consumes, Africa wants’. There was also unease about terrorism. The children were no less anxious about those local issues which directly affected their sense of security – traffic, the lack of safe play areas, rubbish, graffiti, gangs of older children, knives, guns. Some were also worried by the gloomy tenor of ‘what you hear on the news’ or by a generalised fear of strangers, burglars and street violence. Inevitably, perhaps, these fears were most prominent in the inner-city communities.
Yet where schools had started engaging children with global and local realities as aspects of their education they were noticeably more upbeat. In several schools children were involved in environmental and energy-saving projects and the sense that ‘we can do something about it’ seemed to make all the difference. This more positive outlook was most evident in the school whose environmental activism was spearheaded by an ‘Eco-action’ group with representatives from each year.
The potentially uneasy relationship between school and what lies outside its gates was manifested nearly everywhere by levels of security which would have been inconceivable at the time of the Plowden enquiry, forty years ago. Yet once inside the building there was nothing gloomy about school life as we observed it. Whatever is happening in the wider world, and whatever their anxieties about the future, these children spent their school days in communities-within-communities which unfailingly sought to celebrate the positive. Inevitably, children talked about new technologies. Their response ranged from the classic futurology of robot teachers and hologram libraries to a more considered awareness that new technologies gave them access to information unavailable to previous generations but that people should guard against excessive reliance on computers: ‘Use your brain, otherwise you will get lazy and obese’, warned one. Elsewhere children emphasised the advantage of the practical over the virtual. Children who worked out of doors (as in the Forest School which featured prominently in the Devon leg of the south-west sounding) were enthusiastic about the opportunity to ‘actually go out and do things’; others contrasted going on school trips with looking at a picture in a book or on the web, ‘because you’re seeing things, feeling things, real things.’ ... In light of the above, children’s views of educational priorities highlighted the development of generic capacities for managing life in a changing world: learning how to learn, preparing for life, developing relationships, handling responsibility, citizenship, life skills, financial management and generally ‘thinking about the future’."
Both quotes are taken from primary_review_community_soundings_report_final
The DCSF's use of the doorway metaphor has meant that the language of its sustainable schools framework was already familiar to school leaders because it mapped squarely onto many recent policy foci; for example, healthy eating / citizenship / well-being / transport / energy / and social inclusion. DCSF hoped that schools would see in the framework something of what they were already doing, and be encouraged to develop it further. And the evidence (anecdotal at least) seems to be that this strategy has been effective in enabling schools to enter into thinking about sustainability and learning, sometimes for the first time.
That's what good doorways do, of course: they allow you to enter, but that's all they do. Once you're inside, you don't usually then spend time looking back at the doorway. So why do so many schools seem to be doing just that: reifying these 8 areas and building work around them? This is not to argue that the doorway themes don’t matter, they do, but If you get the point about sustainability then the doorways have done their job. This is not something that DCSF seems fully to appreciate, given how much advice and guidance is couched in doorway terms.
For example: "The Sustainable Schools strategy is made up of eight sustainability ‘doorways’. Each plays a role in the curriculum and campus, but can also have a big impact on the whole community." And: "Each doorway may be approached individually, though schools will find that many of the doorways are actually interconnected."
It seems to me that one of those seminal moments is approaching, when we shall have to decide whether sustainability in schools is to be seen and treated as just another initiative, a bit like environmental education or global citizenship have been; that’s to say as interesting and even sometimes innovative in a take it or leave it sort of way, but set firm within our existing, conservative curriculum framing that’s been essentially economy-oriented for 150 years. Or is to be seen and used as a means of changing that framing into something more oriented around ecological integrity and social justice?
A slightly different way of thinking about this question is to ask this: Is it enough for a school to address sustainability (creatively and effectively) through its teaching of young people and the opportunities for learning that this generates – or does a school have to live out sustainably – to be sustainable, in the widest sense, as an institution that’s an integral part of its community?
The rhetoric of the sustainable schools initiative leads us to the second of these with 2020 as a target date, and Ken Webster adds some substance to what this might mean with his description of a sustainable school as eco-restorative with positive contributions being made both socially and environmentally, as well as through student learning and the development of capability. This is an exacting target which will not be met.
But there's a choice to be made here, which will determine strategy. It's an issue of how radical we want to be – of how radical we feel that we need to be. Which way shall we leap, I wonder?
For three days at the end of March, 900+ people assembled in Bonn for the mid-Decade review. This brief comment is partial - in at least two senses.
1. EFA and ESD
If you log onto the UNESCO Education homepage you will see that UNESCO's top priority is “Education for All (EFA) by 2015”, and that there’s no mention of ESD. This mantra was repeated in Bonn, with EFA seen as a precondition for sustainable development. This is puzzling, assuming that climate scientists’ data interpretation is correct, unless UNESCO doesn’t really think that ESD can make a difference. With 75 million children not getting a primary education and with 800 million illiterate adults, EFA is crucial, but why can’t ESD be an equal priority? Stressing both EFA and ESD, and linking them as twin priorities, makes sense (to me at least), but I’m not caught up in UNESCO education turf wars.
2. The conference organizers went on about their need for feedback on reports and documents, but then provided very small amounts of discussion time. I was left with a sense of unfulfilled possibility, and a feeling that so little had been achieved by so many. Given all the work being done across the world in the name of ESD, it is a great pity that delegates were not helped to come to more of a critical understanding of what was being achieved.
3. Two issues were stressed that seem worth reiterating:
If it is to be useful, ESD has to be contextually sensitive and contingent, with any tendency to universalise it being resisted – and whilst ESD will have different drivers and emphases depending on socio-economic and environmental priorities, it seems inescapable that this must apply within countries as well as between them. For me, this also means that the question ‘what has the ESD that we’re doing, here and now, contributing to sustainable development?’ needs to be asked continually.
Whilst movements and activities such as development education and environmental education can have a key and continuing part to play within that matrix of activity we call ESD, this is no good reason to invent new ones: climate change education springs to mind.
Last November, the THE's Devil's Advocate column focused on Stanley Fish, the Milton scholar. I was reminded of the piece as I sat in the back of a primary school classroom the other day watching what was going on. In terms of what does go on in such places, Fish argues, "The line of virtue is very clear: are you asking academic questions or are you trying to nudge your students in some ideological partisan direction?" Actually, Fish was thinking of Higher Education when he wrote this, but when it comes to issues like sustainability and development, the arguments seems to apply with considerable force in schools as well. In this primary school, I watched as the teacher, following an exploration of people's lives in Ghana, coaxed her 8 & 9 year olds to agree with her that we should all pay more for chocolate in order to be fairer to them, and to make their lives a bit better. In the end, they all agreed. But I didn't, and thought of Stanley Fish and of how much there is still to do.
I see that the University has slipped (again) in the Green League table – 56th this time – only getting a 2:2. What's worse, we're not only behind the usual stalwarts at Gloucestershire and Plymouth, but also trailing in the wake of UWE, and well behind Exeter and Bristol who've both surged up the rankings. And then there's the LSE who've managed to do well in this and the RAE! Swots. Still, we're comfortably ahead of Bath Spa which is always a blessing. I note that we had a 0 for Carbon Emissions, but sadly that's our score, not how much we emit. We got top marks for Fair trade, though – and for the contribution of the Students' Union (which is good to see). So, "Could do better"; but will we? – next year, the classifications take account of car use and car parking.
Another engaging meeting with TIDE in Birmingham on Thursday: What on earth are we thinking? This drew a large audience from schools, local authorities, NGOs, government offices, community and religious groups, FE and HE, and museums from across the west midlands. Presentations and workshops included:
- Planning for whole school change
- Pupil voice and climate change
- Thinking about consumerism and quality of life
- Using art to think through issues
- Global learning through school gardens
- Exploring food and farming issues in a Special School [KS3/4]
- The challenge of sustainability, citizenship and climate change for ITE
- Using school partnerships to explore issues
- Creative approaches to Science and Technology
Monday 15th June; 1930 Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution
The Idea of a Sustainable School: dreams, hopes and realities
Thursday 18th June TIDE conference, Millennium Point, Birmingham
What on Earth are we thinking? sustainable development and global learning