Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

A balanced view of balance

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Balance / balanced is one of those ideas that everyone seems to understand, and the word can conjure up an image: maybe of a seesaw, or a pair of weighing scales.  In one sense, it's obvious how these work, but that's only because we have an understanding of Newton's gravitational theory; this understanding may be intuitive or conceptually-based.

However, this is not the sort of balance that we mean when we speak of a "broad and balanced curriculum" as the 2002 Education Act does in England.

The idea of a balanced diet is nearer to the 2002 use of balance because understanding the idea of a balanced diet requires a theory of nutrition that allows you to know what to include in a diet, and in what proportion.  Without such a theory there's a risk that you will consume a range of things that will not do you any good.  It seems that a lot of us do this nowadays.

And thus it is that, without a theory of curriculum, there's a risk that you will study and learn things that will not do you much good.  Thus, when the Head of Ofsted talks about 'deep' and 'rich' but does not mention 'balance', alarm bells should ring.

I have written to Ofsted and to the DfE to ask what's going on.



Paul Kingsnorth argues for a defence of loved things

📥  Comment, New Publications

I've been reading a piece by Paul Kingsnorth in The Guardian.  It's a reflection on environmentalism in an age of globalisation, and begins thus:

"Last June, I voted to leave the European Union. I wasn’t an anti-EU fanatic but I was, despite my advancing years, still something of a green idealist. I had always believed that small was beautiful, that people should govern themselves and that power should be reclaimed and localised whenever possible. I didn’t think that throwing the people of Greece, Spain and Ireland to the wolves in order to keep bankers happy looked like the kind of right-on progressive justice that some of the EU’s supporters were claiming it represented. ... .

Some people, when I told them that I’d voted to leave, looked at me as if I’d just owned up to a criminal record. Why would I do that? Was I a racist? A fascist? Did I hate foreigners? Did I hate Europe? I must hate something. Did I know how irresponsible I had just been? Had I changed my mind yet? I needed to go away and check my privilege.

The eruption of anger that followed the vote, on all sides, was surprising enough. But what was also surprising to me was the uniformity of opinion among people I had thought I shared a worldview with. Most people in the leftish, green-tinged world in which I had spent probably too much time over the years seemed to be lining up behind the EU.  The public intellectuals, the Green party, the big NGOs: all these people, from a tradition founded on localisation, degrowth, bioregionalism and a fierce critique of industrial capitalism, were on board with a multinational trading bloc backed by the world’s banks, corporations and neoliberal politicians.  Something smelt fishy. ..."

I have also noted all this for some time, and have put it down to solidarity with people (the toiling downtrodden masses across the globe) trumping – to coin a phrase – solidarity with the rest of nature – some of which also increasingly toils.  Sustainability is supposed to mean that such things cannot be separated.

So, when Kingnorth wrote this:

"Green spokespeople and activists rarely come from the classes of people who have been hit hardest by globalisation.  The greens have shifted firmly into the camp of the globalist left.  Now, as the blowback gathers steam, they find themselves on the wrong side of the divide."

... he is spot on.  This is how his (surprisingly hopeful) article ends as he draws culture back to centre stage where environmentalism is waiting:

"... any attempt to protect nature from the worst human depredation has to speak to people where they are. It has to make us all feel that the natural world, the non-human realm, is not an obstacle in the way of our progress but a part of our community that we should nurture; a part of our birthright. In other words, we need to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity.

In the age of drones and robots, this notion might sound airy or even ridiculous, but it has been the default way of seeing for most indigenous cultures throughout history. In the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline, recently given the go-ahead by Trump, where the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of supporters continue to resist the construction of an oil pipeline across Native American land, we perhaps see some indication of what this fusing of human and non-human belonging could look like today; a defence of both territory and culture, in the name of nature, rooted in love.

Globalism is the rootless ideology of the fossil fuel age, and it will fade with it. But the angry nationalisms that currently challenge it offer us no better answers about how to live well with a natural world that we have made into an enemy.  Our oldest identity is one that stills holds us in its grip, whether we know it or not. Like the fox in the garden or the bird in the tree, we are all animals in a place.  If we have a future, cultural or ecological – and they are the same thing, in the end – it will begin with a quality of attention and a defence of loved things.  All else is for the birds, and the foxes too."

There is undoubtedly something in this.


Kingsnorth’s new book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, is published by Faber which days this about the book:

Paul Kingsnorth was once an activist, an ardent environmentalist. He fought against rampant development and the depredations of a corporate world that seemed hell-bent on ignoring a looming climate crisis in its relentless pursuit of profit. But as the environmental movement began to focus on 'sustainability' rather than the defence of wild places for their own sake and as global conditions worsened, he grew disenchanted with the movement that he once embraced. He gave up what he saw as the false hope that residents of the First World would ever make the kind of sacrifices that might avert the severe consequences of climate change.

Full of grief and fury as well as passionate, lyrical evocations of nature and the wild, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist gathers the wave-making essays that have charted the change in Kingsnorth’s thinking. In them he articulates a new vision that he calls 'dark ecology,' which stands firmly in opposition to the belief that technology can save us, and he argues for a renewed balance between the human and nonhuman worlds.

Provocative and urgent, iconoclastic and fearless, this ultimately hopeful book poses hard questions about how we have lived and should live.

Blue Space

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Debra has funded two new projects:

1. Barriers to children visiting green spaces (Childhood Gateway Project)

There is a substantial and growing body of evidence regarding the benefits of spending time in and connecting to nature.  However, the evidence also suggests that a substantial minority of children do not spend any time in nature, with recent MENE data suggesting 1 in 9 may not have visited green/blue spaces in the last year.  Defra has therefore commissioned the Childhood Gateway Project to explore why some children are not spending any time in natural environments, and what could be done in practice to change this.  The project team is keen to review evidence relevant to these questions.  In particular, evidence is sought on:

· Audience - Who are the children who are not spending time in and connecting with nature?

· Barriers - What are the reasons why this audience are not spending time in and connecting with nature?

· Competition - What are they doing instead?

· Interventions - What approaches are being used (and by whom) to try to get this audience to spend time in nature, and what can be learned from these interventions?

· Trends - How have patterns of children spending time in and connecting with nature changed over time, and why?

The project is not seeking to review evidence on the benefits of spending time in and connecting with nature.  The project started at the end of February and will be completed in the middle of May.  It would be very helpful if you could send any relevant evidence to the Childwise-led research team - Jenny Ehren ( and Simon Christmas ( - by this Friday.


2. What works briefing on natural environment and health interventions

The aim of the project is to identify what works regarding the use of the natural environment as a setting or resource in health promotion, focusing on three topics:

· Urban people’s use of urban greenspaces

· Deprived and marginalised groups’ health related use of natural environments

· Children and young people’s natural environment based physical activity

Through a rapid review of evidence and current practice the project aims to assess:

· The effectiveness of interventions  - in terms of either improving health, wellbeing, quality of life or health behaviours (e.g. physical activity), or increasing health related access to or use of natural environments

· The facilitators, barriers and challenges to successful delivery

The project began at the beginning of February and will be completed in the middle of April.  It is being undertaken by Becca Lovell at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School.  It would be helpful if you could send details of relevant evidence and current practice to Becca - focusing especially on project reports, case studies etc. that may be harder for her to get hold of - by Friday 24th March.


You've only got 3 days to do all this.  I'd be helping, if only I knew what "blue space" was:  "... MENE data suggesting 1 in 9 may not have visited green/blue spaces in the last year."

I should say that I think these MENE data are nonsense.  It suggests that 11% of children never leave the house.  There are clearly, as I've commented before, definitional issues here.



One for sorrow, Two for joy, ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

... Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret Never to be told, Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten for a bird You must not miss.

Magpies that is. I saw at the weekend that we have two nesting in a larch in the garden for the first time.  I have mixed feelings about these birds; a certain respect is due as they are, after all, a part of nature, but they are a mite (or should that be might) too successful for my liking and are as good as the Maltese are at killing small birds — though not for fun, I suppose. They are also strutting, noisy, brash, and braggartly with a staccato line in communication that is unbirdlike.  If birds had social media, magpies would be tweeting at 5 in the morning.

Does all this remind you of anyone?  Could be a tricky summer.


NB, the original version of the verse I quoted at the start of the blog is said to be ...

One for sorrow, Two for mirth, Three for a wedding, And four for death.

Although you'd have thought that "birth" would have been a happier rhyme in every sense, death might have been a more likely outcome.


The Oxford Comma

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I tend to use a lot of commas; probably using them a bit too frequently.  But there is method in it all, and the use of the so-called serial (or 'Oxford') comma can remove ambiguity.  Here's the Guardian style guide showing why this can be important:

A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea).  Sometimes it is essential: compare

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling


I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

All this has surfaced because of an arcane legal case in Maine about overtime payment.  As the Times put it this morning:

"The state’s law exempts the following activities from the requirement to pay workers overtime: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

It seems clear that State legal drafters may have meant to write: "... for shipment, or distribution.", but they didn't include the comma – and lost the case.  The judge noted:

“the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard”

There you are – a diversion.  And I'd really meant to write about the US draft budget with its proposals to ...

  • cut all funding for climate-change research at Nasa
  • cut all federal financing for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts
  • cut all the $3 billion programme that helps poor Americans to heat their homes will end, and all spending on items such as affordable housing and homelessness schemes
  • cut all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which currently receives $450 million a year
  • cut all payments to the UN Green Climate Fund, part of Washington’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.cut spending on the State Department and the Agency for International Development (US Aid)  by $10 billion, or 28 per cent
  • cut contributions to UN peacekeeping
  • cut payments to the World Bank by $650 million
  • cut funding for the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research, by 18 per cent
  • cut the Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 per cent cut to $5.7 billion

Of course, this is, as yet, just a shopping list which the Senate will have views about.  60% votes are needed for most of this, so we can expect lots of compromise – and commas.

PS, Here's the Economist with an optimistic take (and nice graph)

Five final thoughts – though not from me

📥  Comment, New Publications

Hans Rosling died earlier this year.  He was the statistician who brought world population (and other) data to life, especially through his TED talks and YouTube videos.

He was the co-founder of, which continues his work.  In his final BBC interview, Rosling highlighted five key ways that demographics are shaping the world around us.  You can read about it here.  There are data on...

  • fertility rates from 1917 projected to 2099 when Ghana's rate (1.9) is lower than that of France (2.0).
  • population by continent from 1950 projected to 2100 when Europe will have 6% and Africa 39%.  These were 22% & 9% respectively in 1950.
  • life expectancy from 1917 projected to 2099 when that in the USA (88.9) will only just be longer than that in Bangladesh (87.5)

There are also a lot of ifs and buts, of course, and much discussion.  Hans Rosling: his data live on.


A broad but unbalanced curriculum

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I wrote the other day about the new Head of Ofsted's first unsuccessful foray into curriculum, and in particular about the lack of mention of 'balance' in what she said.  She preferred to focus on 'broad' rather than 'balanced' despite what section 78 of the 2002 Education Act says.

The perils of breadth without balance are obvious.  Here's a broad curriculum:

  1. Society's debt to Surrealist art and fashion
  2. The writings of Shakespeare, Jonson, Rattigan and Pinter
  3. The genesis and genius of Bebop
  4. Moral dilemmas within genetic engineering
  5. Synchronised swimming (depths 1 to 4)
  6. Mandarin Chinese conversation
  7. Fortran programming, probability and the Taylor series
  8. The history and philosophy of science in the Enlightenment
  9. Cooking traditional English pastries, puddings, pasties and pies
  10. Flint snapping theory and practice
  11. The sexual preferences of the kings and queens of England (1066 to 1603)
  12. Contrasting Shia and Sunni approaches to the good life in the 20th Century CE

The above might be a broad curriculum — from flint knapping to Ben Jonson and Cornish pasties to Fortran — but is it balanced?   A much more significant question, of course, is how could we tell?  Balance is usually enshrined in educational aims and Robin Alexander has argued that it is deeply undemocratic only to think of aims once content (like the above) has been decided (usually by expert others).  It is like thinking about nutrition only after a year's meals have been decided upon.


Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A while back, The Economist's Erasmus column carried a feature article on a clutch of Islamic scholars joining the chorus of religious voices calling for the planet to be cooled.  It quotes some apposite verses, and ends with this:

Of course, one of the troubles with religious and inter-religious talk about the environment is that it can easily sound pollyanna-isa.  There is a huge incentive to play down differences and stress commonalities across religions, and between the world of religion and secular environmentalism.  Secular environmentalists often find religious eco-talk too anthropocentric; some secular environmental sceptics probably find it insufficiently anthropocentric, in the sense that it sentimentalises nature.  In any case, is it honest or convincing for people, religious or otherwise, with very different ideas about metaphysical matters to stress how much they agree on the fate of the earth?

In defence of ecumenical greenery, the very nature of environmental challenges gives a certain integrity to eco-religious discussions.  Rising sea levels, melting glaciers and expanding deserts will affect everybody, regardless of what they believe.  The intensity of that effect may vary according to how much money people have to protect themselves from environmental change, but it will not, as far as we know, affect Hindus, Christians, Muslims or atheists in different degrees.  As a verse in the New Testament puts it, rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. To that extent, it surely behoves all schools of religious and non-religious thought to think hard about the fate of the earth and to talk to one another.

One trouble with scripture tends to be the existence of verses saying diametrically opposite things: witness Anglicanism's continuing problems with sexuality and the priesthood.  On low-lying ground, clerical thinkers may well still be arguing about such matters when the waters lap over their feet.


The new Ofsted Chief's unimpressive start

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, having announced a new investigation into the curriculum, gave her first interview last week on BBC radio 4's TWAO.  I didn't find it impressive as her answers were mostly much less precise than the questions posed.  You can listen on iPlayer and form your own judgement.

Her main point, I think, was that there was evidence of a narrowing of the school curriculum to the detriment of young people's general education.  She certainly mentioned 'broad' a lot in the interview; but she also went on about 'deep' and 'rich' as well.  The significant thing about these words is that broad is a key word in curriculum policy in England, but deep and rich are not; wonderful words they may be, but in relation to curriculum terms they have no meaning.  The Ofsted webpage announcing all this quotes this from her speech:

"We know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results.  That is nothing short of a scandal.  Childhood isn’t deferrable; young people get one opportunity to learn in school; and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep."

There was no mention of balance in Spielman's interview.  Section 78 of England's 2002 Education Act begins like this:

78 – General requirements in relation to curriculum

(1) The curriculum for a maintained school or maintained nursery school satisfies the requirements of this section if it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which ...

(a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and

(b) prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

It has to be worrying that Spielman stressed 'rich' and 'deep' and 'broad' but omitted 'balanced' as, if you have breadth without balance, anything goes.


Eunice Foote

📥  Comment, News and Updates

So, the new head of the US EPA doesn't think that CO2 has much of a role in global warming.  What a pity Eunice Foote isn't still around to enlighten him.

It was the American scientist Eunice Foote who first discovered the greenhouse effect in 1856.  She showed that gases in the atmosphere were affected by the Sun’s radiation in different ways, and of all the gases she tested, it was CO2 that trapped the most heat. In 1859, UK physicist John Tyndall independently demonstrated the same effects, and he usually gets the credit for making the link.   This was because he published his results, including data on how the absorption of radiant heat differed from gas to gas.  Foote was ahead of her time.  Although her work was not published, and she wasn’t even allowed to present her findings to fellow scientists as no woman could do that in the USA at the time, it’s reported that she also speculated about whether changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air might lead to a warming of the Earth.