30 Sep 2011

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), where are you?

Something which Stephen Martin and me have argued for some time (see “Educating Earth-literate Leaders” or “World Wise: Can universities be models for ethical and sustainable communities?”), becomes more and more urgent by the day. It is the question about both the effectiveness of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and its most important target audience.

In 40 years of Environmental Education and Development Education and well over fifteen years of ESD the focus has been on turning pupils and students into human beings fully equipped with the competencies to cope with the challenges of a world which the present and the last generation have turned into anything but paradise. In other words, the target audience has always been the next generations which is disingenuous on two counts: first we expect those who aren’t responsible for the mess we’re in to clean it up and second, it is an implicit but stark admission on our part that we are not capable of cleaning it up ourselves. All we can do, so we signal, is hope that our successors will turn out to be a notch cleverer than we are.

To come back to the audience question, this means that those who really need to be educated, who need ESD, who clearly lack the competencies to deal with our sustainability crisis, are the current political and economic and spiritual leaders. If Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, wants to take the lead in tackling Climate Change in Europe and at the same time makes every effort to exempt German car manufacturers from more stringent (but still wholly inadequate) new CO2 emission limits, if Doris Leuthard, member of the Swiss Government, says that tackling Climate Change cannot mean less economic growth, one is sadly reminded of George ‘the older’ Bush’s punch line for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992: ‘The American Way of Life is not negotiable’.

In reality, statements (and the ensuing politics) like the above mean that these leaders have not even grasped the most basic fundamentals of sustainable development. For the industrialised Euro-American societies of this planet, there are 3 of these basic laws:


  1. There is no unlimited growth in a materially non-growing system like planet Earth.
  2. If you have taken over many years, if not centuries, more than your fair share, it’s time to give back and make do with (much) less.
  3. If your way of life, taken as a role model and emulated by the rest of humankind, is a sure recipe for destroying the life-support system Earth, it’s time to abolish it, deter anybody from copying it and to establish pretty fast a new one that is sustainable (i.e. one-planet living).
As soon as you hear points like these uttered by leading politicians and economic leaders, you know that ESD has started to work and you can safely turn your attention towards pupils and students (but not before!). Rolf Jucker, 30/9/2011

25 Sep 2011

Some thoughts on Universities and Sustainability: And graduate, fiscal and soil moisture deficits!

In itself sustainable development is not new. According to Genesis, Creation was launched with a statement of sustainable development policy; man was set in the garden “to work it and take care of it”.

But whilst man has responded impressively to the first part of this commission, he has taken much longer to grasp the implications of the second. Indeed it is only within the last decade or so that the complexity of sustainability has become better understood. As I talk to people who grasp some of the urgency surrounding the impact of our current un- sustainable lifestyles, I am constantly reminded that there is still scope for scientific and public disagreement about probabilities, timescales, and detailed causation and response. And yet the cataclysmic effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc on our” global garden” (see: The Climate Reality Project; 24hourly reports on climate change from numerous locations around the world -http://climaterealityproject.org/the-event/ )

In my own backyard in the Vale of Evesham we have had the lowest rainfall this year since 1910. In March and April this amounted to a miserable 14mm; eight of the past 11 years have seen less than average rainfall. This area is the “salad bowl” of the UK with thousands of acres devoted to lettuces, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, all of which require vast quantities of water from rivers, ground water wells and reservoirs. All of these are becoming more and more limited in meeting the needs of local growers; many of the ground water wells were dry in June and still dry in September. According to the Environment Agency soil moisture levels are at an all time low, meaning that unless the deficit is made up in September and October, our salad bowl might look a little sparse next year. So whilst our politicians continue to hammer home the need for fiscal deficit reduction we in the Vale are more focused on another form of deficit reduction-the soil moisture deficit!

So our attempts at caring for the “garden” are becoming fundamentally more difficult, complex and uncertain. Can we in the university sector help our graduates take better care of the “garden?” Any attempt at defining a role for our universities is beset with controversial assumptions and yet I think a university’s treatment of sustainability is increasingly being seen by prospective students and employers as an essential element of a” good” university education.

So I particularly welcome the Higher Education Academy’s ambitious but relatively small scale pilot with 8 universities called the Green Academy – A Curriculum for Tomorrow, which aims to promote new approaches to the curriculum. It is fundamentally aimed at achieving what are described as “Graduate Attributes for the 21 Century” after a radical curriculum restructuring programme carried out by the University of Melbourne- which became known as the Melbourne Model. Harvard, Hong Kong and Yale have undergone similar reforms along with a small number of universities in the UK: Aberdeen, Manchester and Southampton.

The Melbourne Model is based on 6 well defined graduate attributes: Academic Excellence; Knowledge across Disciplines; Leadership in Communities; Attuned to Cultural Diversity; and Active Global Citizenship. Two of these attributes directly focus on international learning experiences. Graduates of the University are expected to have an understanding of and respect for social and cultural diversity and value different cultures. And I’m really impressed that graduates are expected to accept social and civic responsibilities and be advocates for improving the sustainability of their environment. On top of which they must have a broad global understanding coupled with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics. Whatever your perspective, these are stretching and ambitious objectives for any university.

But all of this is small scale, relatively limited to a few academic staff and institutions. Can it be ramped up? Is it realistically possible to embed graduate attributes of the kind pioneered by Melbourne University into a wholesale curriculum change process? Unfortunately, our institutional structural processes are slow and internally contradictory and some commentators argue that like many other large organisations there is no institutional learning architecture to allow joined up thinking and practice. There is lots of a talk, but relatively little action, a lot of strategic discussion, but mainly its business as usual. We need a clarion call for action from the academic community to accelerate and scale up the change processes that are being pioneered in a few of our universities and as an immediate priority we need to avoid the short termism of projectitis that currently prevails.

Steve Martin  25/09/2011

19 Sep 2011

TEDx London: the education revolution

I'm just back from TEDx London: the education revolution, at the Roundhouse in London. A spectacular event aimed at building on Sir Ken Robinson's famous talk on creativity. One after another, enthusiastic sincere people pushed their messages across with stirring words and fancy graphics. The revolution has begun! Or has it? During the breaks unedited tweets were flashed up on a big screen and one read 'Typical TED, smug and empty'. I detected a thread of something a bit more sinister than 'emptiness' though.

Clearly we do need an education revolution, because the current education system is preparing students to further an unsustainable industrial civilisation rather than preparing for what comes next. However, a thread within TEDx seemed to be saying that we need a revolution because current education isn’t effective enough in furthering industrial civilisation - that we need more creativity, improvisation and innovation for students to become more ‘successful’ (in the conventional, and suicidal, way that current society defines success). And, what's more, to achieve success, students need more technology. By technology, they don't mean clever reed-bed filtration systems; they mean high-spec PCs, tablets, gadgets and mobile phones. New media can, of course, be used to resist the structures of an unsustainable society (as this Blog attempts to do). But there’s a danger that just letting them go and be creative and construct knowledge for themselves in the world of new media is delivering them straight into the hands of big corporations.

To take a specific example. The mission of one of the presenters, from the company Tribal, was described on the programme as "embracing the power of web2.0, Social Media and Open Source Solutions to help to make learning work better for all - with a particular focus on hard to reach, excluded or disadvantaged learners."  He described how 1.2 million learners were using their educational materials, with a picture of African school children learning from mobile phones because there were no books. A little investigation reveals, however, that among Tribal’s biggest clients are McDonalds, KFC and the US Department of Defence (see http://www.tribalgroup.com/global/Documents/PO%20-%20AB%20-%20e-Learning.pdf). This potentially gives these organisations influence on 1.2 million people’s education – perhaps not directly, but can Tribal’s educational materials be honest about US war crimes, or the ecological, social and cultural impact of the fast food industry if these are their major clients?

Of course, not all presentations had the uncomfortable combination of technology, cult-like persuasion tactics and big corporations hovering in the background. Dougald Hine, for instance, gave a thought provoking presentation on the University Project - a project which is genuinely radical and is working towards an achievable alternative to conventional education (see http://univproject.pbworks.com/w/page/45692087/The%20University%20Project).

To conclude I’ll just say that before being let loose to construct their knowledge in cyberspace students need critical awareness of the forces that shape information in the new media and a desire to work towards a different kind of society, otherwise the danger is that they’ll end up ‘successful’ in all the wrong ways.