Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

BBC nature programmes on TV are good for you

📥  Comment, News and Updates

So says a less than critical article on the Mother Nature Network [MNN].

Well, to be picky, it actually says that "Watching nature documentaries boosts happiness.  Anxiety and fear give way to joy and awe when we tune into scenes of the natural world", but given that the study was commissioned by the BBC, it amounts to much the same thing.  The article starts:

"Need a mood boost, but don't have time to hit the great outdoors? Try the next best thing and turn on a nature documentary.  A recent study has found that tuning into nature documentaries can have an immediate impact on increasing happiness and reducing overall stress. The study was commissioned by the BBC to mark the launch of its new critically-acclaimed nature series "Planet Earth II."

There you are.  Could it be that it's the happier people who tend to watch nature programmes?  MNN goes on:

"Using special facial recognition software fed by webcams, the research team analyzed the expressions in real-time of 7,500 participants from the U.S., UK, South Africa and Australia.  Before and after watching clips from the series, the volunteers were also asked to complete short surveys on their emotional well-being.  According to the study results, those engaged in watching nature programming had significant increases in feelings of awe, amazement, wonder; curiosity, interest and wanting to explore.  Conversely, feelings of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and low energy were significantly lowered."

You can read the report all this is based on here.  I wonder if people get the same reaction from watching those meerkat TV adverts.

Remembering Henry Hobhouse

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I mentioned Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: The 6 plants that transformed mankind the other day.  I read this many years ago now, along with his  Seeds of Wealth: 5 plants that made men rich.  I read his Forces of Change: an unorthodox view of history relatively recently.

It was my desire to be sure of the full wording of these titles that led me to the Guardian obituary (April 2016) and to the knowledge of his death.  Given that Hobhouse was a conservative economic historian (with no academic training), the Guardian obit was generous:

"Where Hobhouse succeeded lay in inventing the form and mixing meticulous research with the brio of a feature writer on deadline. He was no botanist, economist or academic, but he had a voluminous capacity for facts, loved an argument, knew instinctively what was interesting and, above all, how to tell a dramatic story.

So it was that he unearthed arresting facts such as the practice of giving coca leaves every 45 minutes to the impoverished workers in Bolivian tin mines, not only to ward off altitude sickness but also to reduce the appetite. He discovered how the Jesuits exploited the antimalarial properties of quinine, that HMS Victory was made largely from American wood and that the British drank more wine in the middle ages than they do today. These and a thousand other observations made for intensely readable history and gained the respect of academic historians."

At his funeral, Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

"Once people read it, they saw history in a new way.  He discovered relationships that nobody else had thought about, but once he had they were stunned that they had not managed to think of them before.”

I think that's spot on.  My favourite insight is his notion that the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century CE meant that much intellectual talent was released into secular life to the significant and lasting benefit of civil society.  Rather obvious when you think about it.  I hadn't but Hothouse had.  His are three of the best books I have ever read; as they are all about the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of globalisation, they remain pertinent today.

If you read them, you will likely be informed, astonished and (if you're a Guardian reader) probably annoyed every 6 pages.  This will be good for you.


Who needs satire any more?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A few years ago, The Onion ran a story about the growth of teen suicides in the USA.  They reported that the large numbers involved were seen as less of a problem than the evidence of (il)literacy in their suicide notes.  Judging by a recent 'Staff Editorial' in the Wellesley College Student Newspaper (essential reading), the literacy problem has not gone away.

Here's the editorial ...

Many members of our community, including students, alumnae and faculty, have criticized the Wellesley community for becoming an environment where free speech is not allowed or is a violated right. Many outside sources have painted us as a bunch of hot house flowers who cannot exist in the real world. However, we fundamentally disagree with that characterization, and we disagree with the idea that free speech is infringed upon at Wellesley. Rather, our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.

Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech. Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. The founding fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government. The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.

This being said, the tone surrounding the current discourse is becoming increasingly hostile. Wellesley College is an institution whose aim is to educate. Students who come to Wellesley hail from a variety of diverse backgrounds. With this diversity comes previously-held biases that are in part the products of home environments. Wellesley forces us to both recognize and grow from these beliefs, as is the mark of a good college education. However, as students, it is important to recognize that this process does not occur without bumps along the way. It is inevitable that there will be moments in this growth process where mistakes will happen and controversial statements will be said. However, we argue that these questionable claims should be mitigated by education as opposed to personal attacks.

We have all said problematic claims, the origins of which were ingrained in us by our discriminatory and biased society. Luckily, most of us have been taught by our peers and mentors at Wellesley in a productive way. It is vital that we encourage people to correct and learn from their mistakes rather than berate them for a lack of education they could not control.  While it is expected that these lessons will be difficult and often personal, holding difficult conversations for the sake of educating is very different from shaming on the basis of ignorance.

This being said, if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted. If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others, then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions. It is important to note that our preference for education over beration regards students who may have not been given the chance to learn. Rather, we are not referring to those who have already had the incentive to learn and should have taken the opportunities to do so. Paid professional lecturers and politicians are among those who should know better.

We at The Wellesley News, are not interested in any type of tone policing. The emotional labor required to educate people is immense and is additional weight that is put on those who are already forced to defend their human rights. There is no denying that problematic opinions need to be addressed in order to stop Wellesley from becoming a place where hate speech and casual discrimination is okay. However, as a community we need to make an effort to have this dialogue in a constructive and educational way in order to build our community up. Talk-back, protest videos and personal correspondences are also ways to have a constructive dialogue. Let us first bridge the gap between students in our community before we resort to personal attacks. Our student body is not only smart, it is also kind. Let us demonstrate that through productive dialogue.

The context of all this is the denial of platforms at the college to those whom the student elite disapprove of because of their opinions, and it was the sentence: "Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech" that got commentators excited – along with muddled thinking about what the Founding Fathers were up to when the constitution was constructed.

Maybe it (the editorial, that is) was all written in a hurry ...



Keeping sugar producers sweet

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Economist has a lengthy article on the economics of sugar production – as controlled by the EU's complex set of regulations and rules.  It's worth a read for an insight into how complicated the production of a simple product (with a terrible history) is.  Both cane producers and beet producers seem unhappy, and both are looking to Brexit to make life better for them.  Their ideal outcome, of course, is for consumers to eat more of the poisonous stuff – a result that will mean more NHS resources being spooned into combatting its effects.  The article ends:

"The EU’s cane refiners—which, according to the European Commission, are based in nine member states—will find their margins squeezed as white-sugar prices fall but imported raw-sugar costs stay high. Tate & Lyle Sugars ran a €25m loss in the year to September 2015, for which it blames import restrictions. This is why the company came out in favour of a British departure from the EU: Mr Mason views Brexit as a “golden opportunity” to establish rules that treat cane and beet as equals in the British market. Beet producers have a different notion of fairness: for them, a level playing-field is one that takes into account the state support other producers receive. Precisely how the British government will keep both sides sweet is anyone’s guess."

There is a chapter on Sugar in the late Henry Hobhouse's magisterial Seeds of Change: The 6 plants that transformed mankind.  Read it for the detail of how much human misery has been bound up with the white stuff over many years.


Babble or something worse?

📥  Comment, New Publications

I got this the other day about a special issue of EER: New Materialisms and Environmental Education

This is part of what it said:

In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency & Politics, Coole and Frost (2010) argue that contemporary environmental, economic, geopolitical, and technological developments require novel articulations of nature, agency, and social and political relationships, and that means of inquiry that privilege consciousness and subjectivity are not sufficient for the task.

New materialisms, a term that covers diverse theories, generally posit that the social sciences in the last several decades have paid particular attention to subjectivity at the expense of considering matter due to a perceived inaccessibility of the material world.  New materialist theories attempt to take up the ostensibly neglected philosophy of matter by finding new means to express the ways in which the world relates to itself.  New materialisms, for example, ask questions about what agency is and where it is located; the relationship between matter and discourse; the axiomatic distinctions between what is ‘natural’ and what is human or human derived; as well as the possibilities of expanding the concept of ‘life’ beyond the solely organic, as in Jane Bennett’s (2009) vibrant materialism and materially informed contemporary animism (Harvey, 2013).

The notion of troubling established dualisms, particularly nature/culture, will appear familiar to environmental education theorists.  For instance, there may be a general troubling of the concepts that are often taken, ontologically, as relatively stable in developing policy, theory and research approaches.  However, new materialisms attempt to move past negative critique of dualisms, essentialism and transcendence to posit new ways of envisioning reality and matter, often as vibrant, animate, creative, immanent and connectable and conceivable in new ways.  This move often calls for attention to metaphysics, with theorists articulating forms of protean monism, speculative and agential realisms and ontologies of becoming (e.g. Barad, 2007; Bryant, Srnicek & Harman, 2011; Connolly, 2013).

However, the taking up of new materialisms is not merely a retreat into obscure philosophy. The diverse and divergent theoretical approaches that may be called new materialist often seek to explore the political effects of problematising the matter of fact ways in which we think of the world; troubling our pregiven ontologies. This process of critically considering established assumptions, modes of thought and methods of inquiry against ‘new’ theory has been characterized as an essential task in the face of driving ethical imperatives related to social and environmental justice and the commodification of research methods (St Pierre, Jackson & Mazzei, 2016).

Subsequently, new materialist theory has been identified as an emerging ‘route’ for environmental education. In Environmental Education Research, for instance Van Poeck and Lysgaard (2016, p.314) articulate how, amongst other approaches, claims of new materialists to operate beyond the strictly discursive may ‘offer relevant and inspiring ideas, concepts, frameworks and findings to ESE policy research as well as the broader field of educational research’.  Concurrently the new materialisms have been characterised as a new ‘movement of thought’ for outdoor environmental education research (Gough, 2016) as well as a theoretical area that might hold potential for interrogating various ‘absences and silences’ within environmental education research (Payne, 2016).

We see an emerging focus on the new materialisms in environmental education scholarship, putting diverse theory to work in consideration of prevailing educational practices and research (e.g.: Adsit-Morris, 2017; Clarke, 2017; Clarke & Mcphie, 2014, 2016; Gannon, 2017; Lynch & Mannion, 2016; Lysgaard & Fjeldsted, 2015; Malone, 2016; Mannion, Fenwick & Lynch, 2013; Mcphie & Clarke, 2015; McKenzie & Bieler, 2016; Rautio, 2014; Ross & Mannion, 2012; Sonu & Snaza, 2015). This Special Issue will take up some of the themes explored by these authors and encourage new work that focuses on the potential of new materialisms and materially informed research approaches for contributing to discussions of theory and research in environmental education.

We are aware of the broad perspectives within the new materialisms and see this Special Issue as appealing to diverse approaches and theory. It provides an opportunity to discuss the relevance of new materialisms to environmental education research and practice and to begin to articulate what environmental education inquiry and theory may in turn contribute to materially concerned thought in broader educational fields and beyond. Thus through this Special Issue, we hope to encourage engagement with these stimulating theories and that the SI acts as a confluence and catalyst for discussion and the further seeking of critical and ethical approaches to research and practice in environmental education.

[ there's a lot more like this ... ]


There's no question that this is babble, but is it more (ie, worse) than that?  The "the taking up of new materialisms is not merely a retreat into obscure philosophy" point suggests that the editors understand the problems of communicating these ideas, even if they can do nothing about it.


Is it time for Tom Harwood?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I see that a reasonably normal person is standing for NUS President.  That's Tom Harwood.  You can see him here.

Tom says that "Together we can make the NUS more inclusive, moderate, and credible".  You can see more at:

If I had one, he'd have my vote – probably – although I have a long-held and deep scepticism of anyone who stands for NUS office.


Geography for geographers

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Last year, the Commission on Geographical Education (CGE) published an International  Charter on Geographical Education.  This imposing tome fails the real-world test at the first hurdle.  Despite this being a 2016 publication, there is only one reference to the SDGs.  This is in a section saying that the Charter is "supportive of the principles" set out in:

  •  the Charter of the United Nations
  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • the Constitution of UNESCO
  • the UNESCO Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Cooperation and Peace
  • the Declaration on the Rights of the Child
  •  the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and
  • many national curricula and statements on geographical education.

There are affirmations and proclamations galore, and an action plan, but just one mention of the SDGs.  To me, this illustrates the un-worldliness of the thing: written by international geographers for international geographers.  How are we supposed to take this seriously when it’s clearly about geography, rather than the state of the world?  Try looking up “poverty” or “justice” and see what you get. I’ll spare you the trouble: one mention and zero mentions, respectively.

Wake up geographers; there's a whole world out there not waiting for you to see your relevance to it.

The shocking state of nature

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It is being said that the UK has one of the worst records for protecting native wildlife, and intensive farming is largely to blame.  56% of the 8,000 species assessed have declined in the past four decades with almost 1,200 species at risk of extinction, the 2016 State of Nature report says.  This has been disputed by farmers' organisations who've accused the 53 wildlife groups that compiled the report of exaggerating the impact of agriculture and understating the effect of other factors such as urbanisation and failure to control predators.

Sir David Attenborough, who launched the report at the Royal Society said:

“Escalating pressures, such as climate change and modern land management, mean that we continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and wellbeing of those who live in the UK.”

The report says that the UK comes 189th out of 218 countries according to the abundance of “originally present species”.  All other large European countries have performed better than Britain.  Some depressingly eye-catching stats include:

  •  53% of species declining between 2002 and 2013
  • the number of hedgehogs halving in rural areas since 2000 and down by a third in urban areas
  • water voles declining by 90% since the 1970s
  • wildflower meadows declining in area by 97% since 1945

The report says that various factors have contributed but notes that changes in agricultural practices have had the biggest impact. Specifically, it blames increased use of pesticides and fertilisers, habitat destruction, the loss of mixed farms, and changes to sowing patterns.

The report has an eye on Brexit, of course, and the battle over land use policy and subsidy.  Farming interests have a similar perspective, and there is a lot at stake.


Six days with Mrs M

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I spend 6 days with Mrs M last week; well not with her exactly, but being in Germany amounts to much the same thing, the degree of social conformity you're faced with.  The sight of grown men (and women) standing at a road crossing waiting for the red pedestrian light to turn green, even though there's not a vehicle in sight on a straight road, is chilling.  They stand there, of course, not just to obey the rules, but because they are concerned to be seen to obey the rules.  Then, of course, there's the fear of being shouted at, or worse being given on-the-spot fines for social deviance by the conformity wardens that roam the streets to keep order amongst pedestrians, dogs, children, cars, and litter.  All this is said to be good citizenship, but that seems unlikely to someone who lives in England.  No wonder Mrs M is called Mutti; what will they do without her, you wonder.

Cynics say that the reason the pedestrian lights take so long to change is because they are in tune with Mrs M's her style of politics,i.e., endlessly deliberating before reaching a solution to which she claims there is no alternative.  We stood waiting with the Germans, of course.  Partly this was in solidarity (a favourite theme here), but also it was in fear of being dragged in chains to Berlin to Mrs M's Social Conformity Star Chamber.  As we waited, we were exposed to the countries high NOx levels from all the passing diesel BMWs, Mercs, Audis and VWs.  If we'd not known what a problem German cities have with air pollution before we went, we would now.

We ate some expensive but rather good asparagus – the white sort.  The Germans are crazy over this vegetable and the shops cash in.  We went to a farm shop where we had the choice of Class I, Class II, Class II and unclassified asparagus all picked from the fields.  All very formal; I was surprised there was no asparagus with a PhD.  Not a patch on Evesham grass, of course.

There are regional (länder) elections coming up and the streets are full of posters with the smiling (sort of) faces of the would be elected.  There are also posters with simplistic slogans such as: "More police; less criminality".  My favourite was: "More teachers; better education".  Actually, it was "better Bildung", but "education" will have to do as an approximation.  It's the sort of crude equation that the NUT could have come up with in the UK, but in Germany, it was the Conservatives (Mrs M's happy CDU family) that were saying this.  It can be a very odd place.

We went to the Netherlands to meet old friends – by efficient trains (which contrary to urban myth, do run late quite often; ours began late, but Mrs M sorted it out in time to make our connection).  She was a busy woman that morning as the two policemen on the train had to call her to check the paperwork of three young (but non-German) lads on the train.  They were turfed off (politely but firmly) before they got to the Dutch border as they didn't have the necessary permissions to leave the country.  There are limits to free movement, it seems.

The Dutch hotel we had lunch in had AD Mirrors in the toilets.  Have you seen these?  You stand there in all innocence combing your hair or adjusting your make-up (I do neither of these, of course) and suddenly, up pops an advert from within the mirror because a movement sensor has detected you.  If you shift position, to avoid the image, it pops up again in front of you.  It's said that advertising policy wonks swoon (or worse) about these oh-so-perfect things.  If I ever go back, I'll be carrying a can of spray foam.


I should end on a happy note – the bread.  Whatever you say about the Germans (and as Michael Flanders noted 50 years ago, who doesn't?), they know how to make bread.  Just as we can now teach them about beer (and we do), they have a lot to teach us about the stuff of life.

Despite all these Liberal complaints, we shall be back as it's an endlessly fascinating and friendly place, and we have off-spring there.


Needed: a sensible curriculum framing

📥  Comment, News and Updates

In 1980, in A View of the Curriculum; HMI Series: Matters for Discussion No. 11, HMI said this:

The curriculum, whether for a school as a whole or for individual pupils, has to be presented as more than a series of subjects and lessons in the timetable.  When schools come to plan their detailed programme of work, they need to be able to measure the adequacy of those programmes by reference to more specific objectives, some checklist of important knowledge or skills to be acquired, or of essential areas of understanding and experience to which all pupils need access, within their capacities. Both the HMI primary survey [1] and the curriculum 11 to 16 working papers [2] used this last approach to curriculum analysis, though with somewhat different formulations. That used in the primary survey was as follows:

  • language and literacy
  • mathematics
  • science
  • aesthetics, including physical education
  • social abilities, including religious education.

Such categories are useful also as indicators of the range of work to be done, over a week or within a term, though obviously they need careful interpretation to suit the ages and abilities of the children. Curriculum 11 - 16, the appendices of which contain detailed checklists relating to a wide range of subjects, categorised the experience and understanding to be sought through the curriculum as:

  • aesthetic and creative
  • ethical
  • linguistic
  • mathematical
  • scientific
  • physical
  • social and political
  • spiritual

It will be clear, therefore that the content that I set out on March 15th [A broad but unbalanced curriculum] was not as random as it might have at first appeared.



[1] Primary education in England: A survey by HM Inspectors of Schools. HMSO, 1978

[2] Curriculum 11 - 16 Working papers by HM Inspectorate. DES, 1977.