Learning to care for the environment, but not the newspapers

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

As I noted yesterday, I signed a letter that the Sunday Times published on 14th April.  In association with this, I was contacted by the Sunday Times last Thursday evening.  They said:

"We also want to publish a news story to go with the letter and I would be very grateful if you could either provide a brief written statement by email or call me with a short quote about why you think it is wrong to make these changes."

Naively, as it turned out, I took the idea of a "news story" seriously.  This, together with a couple of research reports, is what I sent:

Thoughts for the Sunday Times

The point about curriculum is that it says what’s important to a society.  It identifies those core issues and values that young people should be exposed to for their own sake, and for the benefit of everyone; now and in the future.

It is widely accepted that young people need to learn about the natural world, about its importance to humanity and to every living thing; about how the biosphere makes life and human society not only possible but also wonderful and fulfilling.  They need to be helped to respect, care for, and protect the natural world both for its own sake, and because we need it for our sakes.

Happily, young people find learning about nature, the environment, and sustainability both enjoyable and motivating, and there is research evidence that shows that all this can raise educational standards.

A further benefit is that if you are to study the natural world effectively, you really do have to get out there and learn in it.  This means fresh air, exercise and the stimulus of being somewhere both different and often attractive and enjoyable.  Again, all this is motivating and hugely beneficial for mental and physical health, and for well-being generally.

None of this can come too soon.  The idea that young people have to wait until they’re somehow old enough to deal with these issues properly is nonsense.  50+ years of environmental education have generated effective ways of introducing ideas about nature to young people, and shown how to build on these, year on year, so that knowledge, understanding, values, skills, and a sense of care and stewardship are thoroughly developed.  Anyway, young people first come to school wanting to be outside doing things, and all the evidence points to this being very good for them, and for all their learning.

It’s all very well to argue that schools need to take responsibility for deciding what and how to teach, and that curriculum is only a guide to core issues.  Many agree with that.  It’s another thing altogether to abandon responsibility completely for setting out what’s important.  What curriculum documents say and don’t say send messages to schools.  These either encourage or discourage particular foci and kinds of practice.  Indeed, that’s what curriculum documents are for.

We know that many teachers and schools will, rightly, carry on with what they know is important for their students, and for society.  For them, what the curriculum says offers a justification and further encouragement of what they do.  For other teachers, who may be less certain, or working in more difficult circumstances, for a curriculum to require a focus on particular issues can be a huge benefit because it legitimates what they think important and want to do.  It’s a piece of paper they can wave and say: look what this says …

I rather hope that Mr Gove’s cabinet colleagues, particularly in DEFRA and in DECC, will urge some collective responsibility, and remind him of the many benefits that an education that takes the natural world and sustainability seriously has for what they, and the government more widely, want to achieve.  There is, after all, a need not just to care for and protect nature, but to do that for all human futures as well.

I was quite pleased with how this summary came out.  Sheer hubris.  It was ignored completely.

In the end, I thought their "news story" was pathetic.  It was vanishingly short, with ~80% of the space taken up by a photo of a rhino posing with David Attenborough (the most high-profile signature on the letter).  The headline was worse.  It referred to climate which the letter never mentioned.  Rather, it was about something much more fundamental and important than that: our relationship with the natural world.   Did anyone actually read the letter, I wondered?   Was it ignorance or cynicism?  Mercifully, I did not spend good money on finding all this out.

Things got worse this morning when a piece in the Guardian repeated the claim that the letter was about the climate.

Leading environmental figures, including the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and the mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, have condemned government plans to drop debate about climate change from the national curriculum for children under 14 as "unfathomable and unacceptable".

What a shambles.  Sadly, it all makes Mr Gove's next task (carrying on with his cunning plan) all that easier.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications, News and Updates


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