Thinking about Tbilisi

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

I've just written an article for NAEE's latest journal which will shortly appear – Vol 114.  It looks back to 1979 and the impact of the Tbilisi declaration on environmental education in England.  Here it is:

40 Years on from Tbilisi

Later this year, it will be the 40th anniversary of the Tbilisi conference and Declaration which offered environmental educators everywhere such hope and promise for the future. Now that the future is here, and the promise unfulfilled, a number of groups have plans to mark the 40 years in some way. What follows is a small contribution to this.

The Tbilisi Declaration was taken note of in the UK, as the December 1979 edition of Environmental Education [Volume 11] illustrated. This carried a 5-page article about a recent HMI paper: Curriculum 11-16: supplementary working papers which, as the title implied, were commentaries to sit alongside its existing work on the 11-16 curriculum. The paper focused on environmental education, outdoor education, physical education, and music, and drew on Tbilisi.  Such a report is unthinkable today, which is one illustration of the gulf in attitudes and priorities since Tbilisi. It is, however, important not to over-egg the status of what the HMI wrote. This was its first page disclaimer:

“This publication is intended to stimulate professional discussion. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Inspectorate as a whole or of the Department for Education and Science. Nothing said is to be construed as implying Government commitment to the provision of additional resources.”

Reading the HMI paper again, I am struck just how pertinent it feels. The document begins by stating that environmental education …

“is to be regarded as a function of the whole curriculum, formal and informal. It is furthered both through established subjects and by courses in environmental science and environmental studies which in varying degree are interdisciplinary. There is a common purpose in these to foster an understanding of the processes and complex relationships which effect environmental patterns, together with a sensitivity to environmental quality and a concern for the wise and equitable management of the earth's resources."

HMI say that “it is desirable to identify a set of overall aims for guidance in syllabus and curriculum construction”. It then cites the Tbilisi goals:

i.     to foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas;

ii.    to provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment;

iii.   to create new patterns of behaviour of individuals, groups and society as a whole towards the environment.

The paper then asks how a school is to translate such goals into realistic objectives for 11-16 pupils. It outlines a “possible framework” focused around:

awareness            competence        understanding        concern

These reflect the five Tbilisi categories of environmental education objectives, which are to help social groups and individuals:

  • acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems
  • gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems
  • acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection
  • acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems
  • provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems

The focus on the social as well as on individuals is striking, and HMI develop their own ideas from it that are relevant today, stating:

“There is an implicit progression from learning which is mainly directed towards personal development to learning which increasingly takes into account the needs of society.”

HMI then set out a range of topics that the informed citizen could be said to need a degree of knowledge and understanding of, arguing there is good reason to try to provide as wide a range of insights as possible. They go on to say something which seems to be of the utmost importance, and which, these 40 years on, is now seen by many as far too demanding:

“What is perhaps most important is to convey the realisation that environmental systems are complex and environmental problems not easily resolved.  This cannot readily be done solely through the medium of individual subjects or without taking a synoptic view from time to time.  The proper study of environmental issues requires cooperative teaching approaches and automatically entails cross-disciplinary reference”.

This kind of orientation was notable by its absence from the Blair government’s Sustainable Schools initiative, which not only played down complexity and interconnected-ness, but actually failed to identify ecology or biodiversity as issues to be studied or cared about. The need for balance demands that I make it clear that things have not got any better in the 10 years following this.  HMI made it clear that they see that environmental education relates well to all the eight areas of experience that they identified in their publication Curriculum 11-16:

ethical                   scientific       linguistic      mathematical         physical        aesthetic     social / political      spiritual

These were a notable contribution to debates around what a broad and balanced curriculum might sensibly mean. It is clear that environmental education is seen by HMI as having something to contribute to all these areas, and that a school has something to gain across them all by having an environment focus.

I said, above, that Tbilisi was noted in the UK.  It is equally right to say that the UK’s work on EE was noted at Tbilisi.  It is clear that the 8-strong delegation we sent to the conference represented a large body of curriculum thinking and innovation across the whole of the UK. NAEE’s own 1976 statement of aims were explicitly referenced by HMI, as were influential UK documents by the Schools Council, and by authors such as Keith Wheeler and Sean Carson.   So, will remembering Tbilist be a celebration of what’s been achieved, or a wake full of regret for missed opportunities.  Whilst I lean towards the latter view, I do look forward to raising a glass to what, 40 years ago, was momentous in every sense. And either way, there is still a job for NAEE to do.


The Tbilisi Declaration can be downloaded at:  You have to negotiate a lot of turgid UN-speak before you get to the core of the issues.

There’s a 5 minute YouTube video of the conference at:  This is much better with the music and Russian commentary turned off.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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