Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

NUS to go 100% Fair-trade for cotton

📥  Comment, News and Updates

At the recent NUS Services Convention, its member students’ unions unanimously approved a resolution for NUS to become 100% Fairtrade for the cotton products it sells.  This year, about 18% of the ~£4m of cotton clothing NUS sold to and through students’ unions was Fairtrade.  The new target is that this will be 100% by the time NUS turns 100 years old in 2022.

NUS says that forced labour of students is a real issue in Uzbekistan, as is child labour in Pakistan, and it knows that much of the cotton in its non-Fairtrade products originates from Pakistan, with, possibly, some from Uzbekistan.  It says that Fairtrade is the only guaranteed way to track cotton back to the exact the field in which it was grown, and that this also gives it certainty that people have not been exploited in the growing and harvesting of it.

Inspired leadership.

Voting for cake in Schleswig-Holstein

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Cheering news that a kindergarten in Schleswig-Holstein is giving toddlers a say over things such as what games to play and which food to have for lunch.  The Times quotes Kristin Alheit, the Social Democratic Party social affairs minister of Schleswig-Holstein:

“Young people can and should learn about democracy.  When kids take part and are taken seriously, that shapes them for life.”

Indeed.  In our jargon, this is student voice at work, except that these children don't talk about their preferences.  Rather, glass beads are used for the votes.  When deciding on which flavour of cake to have they are asked to place their bead on a table next to an apple, piece of chocolate or a lemon.  They can also decide on wider school issues such as a new piece of playground equipment by delegating two class representatives who serve on the school kindergarten council.

Heike Schlüter, the deputy head of the school said that the children can differentiate between, and deal with, various situations very well.  But she added that there were clear limits on what the children could decide for themselves and they would not be able to vote against items in the school constitution.  Nor, presumably, in favour of changing the constitution.

The children had taken up their voting rights enthusiastically, Ms Schlüter said.  The main stumbling block to a democratic kindergarten, she said, were the adults who were used to retaining all the power and were reluctant to adapt to the majority view.  As accepting the tyranny of the majority is a key democratic principle, cake seems a good place to start.


Nature, Nurture and Environment

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I read an article on parenting the other day as it's never too late to learn.  It only really contains this piece of advice:

“… it should be enough for us to remember that our children are human beings, worthy of the same ethical treatment we give to our friends, other relatives, and even to strangers.  So protect your children, provide for them, be good to them, and make memories with them.  Apart from that, don’t expect to have very much say in how they turn out."

Sound advice, it seems to me, even though the last sentence may well shock many people.  The article’s focus is the age-old issue of nature v nurture;  heredity v environment, and has a lot to say about twin studies – which I intend to ignore in what follows; just as I'm staying away from the vexed question of intelligence.

Reading the article took me back to 197something and a debate at the Cambridge Union where the US genetics & IQ guru, Arthur Jensen, was sub-heroically trying to argue that intelligence was X% inherited and Y% influenced by environment (ie parenting and other socialisation).  I forget the exact figures, although X > Y, of course.  It was a one-sided affair as there were six people opposing Jensen.  One was Stephen Rose; another was a bloke from the USA called Jerry Something.

I had already read enough to know that Jensen's certainties were certainly misleading, as was his spurious precision, but it was Jerry S who made the main point for me.  He said that it was obvious that intelligence was 100% inherited and 100% influenced by environment.  In other words, genetics set a limit, and parenting decided how close you got to it in your life.   This appealed to me at a common sense level.  Looking back on it, however, the very notion of a limit was far too deterministic and, well, limiting.

I held to this 100 – 100 view until a conference that I've already written about where Richard Lewontin's keynote changed this view of human intelligence and inheritance. Lewontin qualified the idea of environment to include not just parental and societal influence, but also all the influences that apply before these can begin.  These are [i] the unpredictable and varying biochemical inundation that a foetus experiences whilst in the womb; and [ii] the random, quantum-level decisions that are made, particularly in the developing brain, during development (both pre- and post-natal).  These are described in the article in this way:

"... the environment matters, but not just the environment that the child experiences in the home.  The environment in this sense is far more nebulous and hard to nail down — behavioural geneticists call it the ‘non-shared’ environment and it includes anything that causes two siblings to be different from each other.  And I really mean anything.  The psychologist Steven Pinker puts it this way: ‘A cosmic ray mutates a stretch of DNA, a neurotransmitter zigs instead of zags, the growth cone of an axon goes left instead of right, and one identical twin’s brain might gel into a slightly different configuration from the other’s.’  In other words, we should not presume that random chance plays a vanishingly small role in making us the people that we are today."

For me, that randomness might explain a lot more than why twins can be different, and is why I like this idea a lot.  It also gives something of the lie to Philip Larkin's pessimism for one thing.

Is this the end of the nature / environment debate?  I doubt it, but it's enough for me for the times being.


Wasting Indian minds


📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Economist, last week, had an editorial on the poor state of India's schools.  It begins:

"In 1931 Mahatma Gandhi ridiculed the idea that India might have universal primary education “inside of a century”.  He was too pessimistic.  Since 1980 the share of Indian teenagers who have had no schooling has fallen from about half to less than one in ten.  That is a big, if belated, success for the country with more school-age children, 260m, than any other.

Yet India has failed these children.  Many learn precious little at school.  India may be famous for its elite doctors and engineers, but half of its nine-year-olds cannot do a sum as simple as eight plus nine.  Half of ten-year-old Indians cannot read a paragraph meant for seven-year-olds.  At 15, pupils in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh are five years behind their (better-off) peers in Shanghai.  The average 15-year-old from these states would be in the bottom 2% of an American class.  With few old people and a falling birth rate, India has a youth bulge: 13% of its inhabitants are teenagers, compared with 8% in China and 7% in Europe.  But if its schools remain lousy, that demographic dividend will be wasted. ..."

If you think these stats are bleak, you probably shouldn't read any more as the story gets worse when teachers are considered.  In fact, there seemed no positive news at all, which probably explains a drift to cheap private schools.  When it comes to a quality education, getting children to school in the first place can be a huge challenge; India shows that deciding what to do once they are there can be equally problematic.


Ofsted's curriculum enquiry

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have heard back from Ofsted's Seam Hartford about its forthcoming curriculum review, and about whether the public could take part.  His letter said:

"The current phase of this work is focused on gathering evidence about the curriculum on the ground.  We are conducting visits around the country to build our understanding of what is happening in primary and secondary schools, and colleges.  We are drawing on research evidence and expertise to help us frame this work.  At this stage, however, our questions are for schools, rather than the public.  This is why we are not yet inviting comment through our website.  Once we have evidence to share, we will be publishing it and inviting comment from anyone who is interested in this area of work."

No timescale was suggested, and so those "interested" will just have to keep looking at the website.  It's worth reminding ourselves that it's not just a question of being interested in the curiosity sense, as we all have an interest, ie, a stake, in what is taught (and not taught) and why.  I suppose I am a bit surprised that special visits have to be made to "build understanding" of curriculum, but I guess that's a reflection of what a neglected area it all is these days.


The People and Planet University League

📥  Comment, News and Updates

People & Planet will publish its latest University League in November this year. The rankings will include 150 UK universities that receive public funding and have degree awarding powers.  All such universities will automatically be included in the table.

  • 50% or more of the data will be taken directly from the Higher Education Statistics Agency's latest Estates Management Record - published on 11 May 2017.
  • 50% from information made public on the university website.

Reporting will be under these 13 headings:

1. Environmental Sustainability; Policy and Strategy
2. Human Resources for Sustainability
3. Environmental Auditing & Management Systems 2016
4. Ethical Investment 2016
5. Carbon Management
6. Workers Rights
7. Sustainable Food
8. Staff and Student Engagement
9. Education for Sustainable Development
10. Energy Sources 2016
11. Waste and Recycling
12. Carbon Reduction
13. Water Reduction

The data on section 9 comes from websites and so what gets reported depends on how well the institution flags it up – and how it is described.  Happily, P&P offers consultancies to universities to help them maximise their returns.  This isn't quite how P&P puts it.  They say ...

"... People & Planet offer consultancy to students, student unions, universities and colleges; this includes workshops/trainings as well as attending university staff meetings/sustainability events/ sustainability boards.  People & Planet work on the University League for 6 months of the year and during this period are able to provide support to universities in the form of a University League package - this might include data, artworks, media support or bespoke consultancy by phone and email.

So there's no excuse any more for coming bottom – no matter how bad you are at sustainability.


UK achieves solar power record – momentarily

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The BBC reported that the UK achieved a new high for solar electricity being transmitted through the grid: 8.7 GW (24.3% of power) –  on Friday May 26th.  It wasn't clear from the reporting whether this was an average figure or one at a particular time.  Given that the Grid tweeted about the record around 1300 on the day, I guess it was the latter.  I wonder what the % was averaged out across the whole day.  Less than 24.3%, of course.

In a statement of the blindingly obvious, a Grid spokesperson said:

"The record level of solar power was achieved largely because of to the clear and sunny weather on Friday."

She added, just in case we'd not quite grasped the significance of this:

"It would have been significantly harder to reach if it had been cloudy."

Dear me!  NB, I suspect the puzzling "of to the" phrase was down to the BBC's grammar police trying to change "due to" to "because of", and getting distracted.

The BBC added that, "alongside the contribution from solar, 23% of power came from nuclear sources, 30% from natural gas and just 1.4% from coal.  Wind, hydro power and biomass were also used."  It's surprising, perhaps, that there was any coal used at all, but this could have been because there wasn't quite enough wind.  You can follow the ups and downs of all this here and watch the demise of old king coal in almost real time.


And then, at 1300 on June 7th, renewable energy resources set record figure of 18.7 gigawatts (~51% of demand).  This is a report in the Independent saying that gas usage was lower than any renewable source, but the numbers are confusing.  There is still a lot of nuclear in there, but that didn't get a mention.

Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education

📥  Comment, New Publications

Palgrave MacMillan has announced a new edited book by Jickling and Sterling.  Its title is:

Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education Remaking Education for the Future (although I think there should be a colon somewhere here).

The publishers say:

This book provides a critique of over two decades of sustained effort to infuse educational systems with education for sustainable development. Taking to heart the idea that deconstruction is a prelude to reconstruction, this critique leads to discussions about how education can be remade, and respond to the educational imperatives of our time, particularly as they relate to ecological crises and human-nature relationships. The book might, thus, serve as an introductory reader for remaking 21st Century education. It will be of great interest to students and researchers of sociology, education, philosophy and environmental issues.

This is what pre-publication reviewers have had to say:

  • 'Raises necessary radical answers to questions emerging from the Community of Life: How can we correct the suicidal path of the neoliberal cultural ethos?'
  • 'Pushes us to consider the future of education.'
  • 'An essential book for those seeking to transgress and disrupt the structures and forces pushing us all towards extinction.'
  • 'Reaffirms what can be gained when we reconnect our educational practices to our deepest purposes and principles.'
  • 'Encourages us to develop education models that awaken a more sensitive and caring human spirit, and guide us to look back at the essence of life.'

I think some scepticism is due.



A greener Gove?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Politics aside, as a blogger I'm very pleased to see Mr Gove back in government; it's been dull without his wit 'n' wisdom to entertain 'n' enlighten us.  That he's gone to Defra add spice to the mix.  I see that the first outcome of all this shuffling is a rebuttal of accusations about Mr G, climate change and the national curriculum.  This is what the Times said yesterday:

"Michael Gove’s first act as environment secretary was to issue a denial yesterday that he had ever intended to remove climate change from the national curriculum.  The Green Party had said he was “entirely unfit” for the brief because of his “attempt to wipe the subject from our children’s curriculum”.  This was a reference to claims in 2013 that Mr Gove, when education secretary, had removed climate change from a draft of the updated geography syllabus.  Mr Gove authorised officials to point yesterday to a strongly worded rebuttal issued by the Department for Education at the time."

And this is what the Guardian said 3 years ago:

"Climate change will stay on geography syllabus after lobbying from energy secretary Ed Davey.  Michael Gove, the education secretary, wanted to remove climate change as part of a drive to slim down the national curriculum.  Michael Gove has abandoned plans to drop climate change from the geography national curriculum.  The education secretary's decision represents a victory for Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary, who has waged a sustained battle in Whitehall to ensure the topic's retention.  The move to omit it from the new curriculum took on a symbolic status.  Gove insisted it was part of his drive to slim an unwieldy curriculum down, to give teachers greater freedom to show their initiative.  It was claimed that climate change would appear under science.  But environmentalists and science teachers claimed the omission would downgrade the topic and make its existence a matter of greater dispute."

As I said: never a dull moment.


Coal and the Arctic

📥  Comment, News and Updates

There seems little doubt that, were there coal deposits in the Arctic, the bucaneering White House would be issuing executive orders allowing their exploitation.  This would be timely, of course, as the Arctic is increasingly ice-free.  And why is it becoming ice-free?  Would that have anything to do with burning coal do you suppose?   (and oil / gas / peat / wood / biomass / ...?).  Not if you're a climate change denier, of course.  For the record, offshore drilling in the USA's Arctic region was (more or less) totally banned in December 2016 to protect ecosystems, and western Oil companies have been withdrawing from exploration because of high costs and potentially low returns.

There's an article in a recent Economist which seems required reading for those of a denier mentality – as well as for educators looking for up-to-date info.  It here and its title is: "Skating on thin ice; the thawing Arctic threatens an environmental catastrophe".

There's a related article on how all this affects the weather.  This is of particular interest to those of us in the UK who're on the receiving end of the Atlantic's antics on a daily basis.