The concrete and the abstract

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In 1905, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the American horticulturist and botanist, wrote that "The term environmental education is imprecise, theoretical, pompous and will always need to be explained.  How right he has proven to be.  I lost count a long time ago of the number of times I've had to explain what it was and wasn't.

Bailey's point endures.  The term environmental education has proved to be a huge barrier to explaining the complex web of the biosphere, humanity's utter dependency on it, and the imperilled nature of our inter-relationships.  And so it continues.

The phrase has proved a particular barrier to getting government education departments (such as the DfE) to take environmental issues seriously in the curriculum, and it was John Smyth who noted a good few years ago that the adjective "environmental" was always getting in the way of, and distracting from, the core focus that should be education and learning.  If only we'd spent the last 50 years talking about concrete curriculum issues instead of the abstract concept of environmental education we might have have gotten somewhere.

All this came to mind when I was reading the website of Teach the Future.  Here, their key goals are:

–  a government commissioned review into how the whole of the English formal education system is preparing students for the climate emergency and ecological crisis

–  inclusion of the climate emergency and ecological crisis in English teacher standards

–  an English Climate Emergency Education Act

–  a national climate emergency youth voice grant fund

–  a national Youth Climate Endowment Fund

–  all new state-funded educational buildings should be net-zero from 2020; all existing state-funded educational buildings net-zero by 2030.

If you click here, you will find the detailed thinking behind each of these goals.
How refreshing to see the phrase "the climate emergency and ecological crisis" used in this way.  If you replace it by "environmental education", you lose the power of the concrete in the confusing vagueness of the abstract.  Using concrete terms [ the climate emergency and ecological crisis ], even though they are only place-holders for a more complex curriculum content that puts flesh on these bare bones, must mean that parents might understand what is being called for and support it.
There must also be a chance that DfE will take Teach the Future seriously because of this much clearer focus – and also, it has to be said, because it is coming from young people and not from old folk like me who've struggled over so many years at getting messages across.

Here's to Teach the Future.  Let's hope we do.

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