Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Learning today with tomorrow in mind

~ Thinking about sustainable schools

This conference was held in November 2007. It looked at the educational challenges presented by sustainable development and climate change:

  • one year in to the national framework for sustainable schools,
  • at the start of the Year of Food and Farming 2007-8.

The conference included sessions on:

Workshops shared creative work by teachers on global sustainability themes


Introductory session

Opening the day, Scott Sinclair, Director of Tide~, talked of the need to provide space for practitioners to come together, plan, think and find optimistic ways of moving forward in the context of sustainable development and climate change.

As a profession, this especially meant space to think about the educational challenges. In the rush to be doing things about burning issues like climate change, we were perhaps not taking enough time for this.

All this was taking place in the current context of the DCSF Sustainable Schools Framework, but curriculum change was ongoing, and there was also a need to “be aspiring towards the next generation of support for schools.”

The sustainable schools framework, one year on

What have we been learning? What do we still need to learn?
Ceri Bowen and Marian White, Rookery Primary School, Birmingham

These members of the Developing a sustainable school group shared their experiences of starting work in response to the framework, and questions which had arisen for them.

rookery school

They had taken the global dimension as an appropriate starting point for their inner-city school, working in partnership with a school in New Delhi to explore three main themes: global warming, food and water.

Finding out that children in another country were concerned about similar issues was empowering for some children: “if children all over the world are doing things about this, we really can make a difference.”

Children in the partner school had also offered some challenges to learners at Rookery: “is it true that you have never planted a tree before?”

As Business Manager at the school, Marian found that children were able to initiate practical changes to the school’s practices which had previously proved difficult: “I am really confident that with children behind me, leading in many ways, we can make changes.”

In fact, one of the challenges for the school was how the pace of change could keep up with children’s high expectations. Working more effectively together on this, as a whole school, would be key to the next stage on the school’s journey.

For a copy of Ceri and Marian’s Powerpoint, including supporting notes, click here

Responding to climate change
Rukhsana Bentley, Chandos Primary School, Birmingham

Rukhsana welcomed the new Tide~ discussion paper Climate change ~ the educational implications, as both a teacher involved in the climate change seminar programme, and a member of the Climate X-change project.

Welcoming the paper, and drawing on her own school’s experiences, she spoke of the need to put children at the heart of learning about climate change, and of developing a school ethos where children “can feel they can talk about issues openly, about things in their daily lives, in their own homes, in the wider world.”

Finding space for talk also meant space for children to offer their different perspectives on the world, and to start coming to terms with some of its difficulties: “while it may be important at times to break it down, and show that children can do something about even the biggest issues, this is not just something where you can simply tick a box.”

Developing work on climate change themes had proved the start of a professional learning journey, an inspiration to take risks and run with children’s ideas more freely: “children have little power, but this is a real issue and they will face real issues in their lives … we need to build on what is important in children’s lives and let them take us on a journey with them.”


pdf Download paper

Christina Walker and Aman Doggar, Let’s Talk climate change group

As young people involved in the Management Committee of this project, Christina and Aman shared something of their group’s thinking and activities, and once again affirmed that “Young people want to understand issues, and not just do things: they want to think about why as well as what.”

This included “valuing each other’s perspectives, despite different backgrounds, and gaining confidence by debating hot topics.”

For Christina and Aman’s PowerPoint presentation, click here


The Year of Food and Farming: contributing to the challenge
Bill Graham, Director, Farming and Countryside Education

“When all is said and done, there is more that is said than done”

Offering this saying as food for thought, Bill outlined the aspirations of the 2007-8 year of Food and Farming, including the proposal that all young people have an entitlement to some key experiences:

  • to see where food is grown;
  • to have the opportunity to grow food themselves;
  • to learn cooking as a life skill.

He outlined how food and farming issues offer opportunities for schools; for an understanding of local and global sustainable development and of the wider world. For example, questions about climate change or biofuel production connect to burning issues about food production and food security.

logo For more on the Year of Food and Farming, click here

The Bill Scott Learning as sustainable development challenge

“Sustainable development, if it is going to happen, is going to be a learning process. It certainly won’t be about 'rolling out' a set of pre-determined behaviours.”

Professor Bill Scott, University of Bath

Ben Ballin, Tide~ global learning

Introducing the challenge and the ideas behind it, Ben outlined Professor Bill Scott’s description of two complementary approaches to education for sustainable development: ESD1 and ESD2.

  • ESD1 involves promoting informed, skilled behaviours and ways of thinking, “where the need for this is clearly identified and agreed.”
  • ESD2 ~ could be described as Learning as sustainable development and involves building learners’ capacity to think critically, test ideas, explore contradictions and “make sound choices in the face of the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the future.”

Ben argued that it is tempting to see ESD1 as having more substance, but “durable and long-lasting change will only come about because people can think for themselves about the problems and opportunities the future will bring.”

In that context, and bearing in mind the future needs of those learning now, “questions about sustainable development are unlikely to go away.” The Bill Scott challenge offers an opportunity to anticipate those needs, and to begin to think through their implications for schools and for policy.

For Ben’s PowerPoint presentation summarizing the challenge, click here

For Bill’s presentation at the Autumn 2006 Tide~ conference, click here

Responding to the challenge

An invited panel offered some thoughts on the Bill Scott challenge, and the discussion was then opened up to the conference as a whole.

“There needs to be a balance between telling young people how to ‘be sustainable’ in order to begin to make changes in our communities, and engaging them in the thinking that will enable them to make sound decisions for themselves. He [Bill Scott] suggests that ‘our long-term future will depend less on our compliance in being trained to do the ‘right’ thing now, and more on our capability to analyse, to question alternatives and to make our own decisions when we need to.”

Becky Link, in Primary Geographer Magazine

Anne Finlayson, Education Commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission talked of the need for a “fresh attitude to the idea that people can make a step change towards sustainable development,” which draws on the “values systems, diversity and ability to learn how to learn that schools have.”

ESD1 raised questions for Anne about how much we really do know. For example, when we add together all the 'environmentally friendly' actions which are commonly advocated, do they make a big difference? Do we know what impact an increase in recycling rates would have on climate change? Or are these really acts of faith more than understanding?


She expressed reservations about 'hearts and minds' approaches, which often assume that those setting the agenda know best, and that people do [or should] all share the same values.

Perhaps it was not so much ‘fresh thinking’ as a ‘fresh attitude’ that was most needed: “valuing diversity, with people developing their own practice: respecting people, their rules and attitudes … More than anything, absolutely believing that most people would – with goodwill and the opportunity to do so – start to develop do-able actions and solutions that they personally can live with, and that their communities can live with.”

In this, Anne pointed out that there is much that civil society can learn from schools, not least their “emphasis on value systems, diversity and the ability to learn how to learn … and their attitude that you do not always need to wait for a policymaker in order to do the things which matter.”

Becky Link [Schools Education Manager, Severn Trent Water], talked about her ‘quest’ with others on the West Midlands Sustainable Development Liaison Group to “support and enable schools and communities to debate the issues and make sustainable development meaningful in their own settings.”

This meant “a balance of ESD1 [because children need to see their actions can have a positive effect, in order to feel motivated] and longer-term learning which puts learners at the heart of decision-making now, and values the contribution of young people to decisions which will have to be made in the future.”


Working with others at a regional level had reminded her that “we are more powerful together than individually.”

As a teacher at Chandos Primary School, Birmingham Rukhsana Bentley stressed the need for children to talk through issues together, and to develop a sense of respect.

“Children are not always talking about these things at home. Schools need to prepare them, especially through working as groups with other children. It is hard for them to go into complex issues without building on what they themselves know and think, and expressing those ideas in a way which their children will understand. As schools, we need to push on children speaking and listening with each other. This might involve things as simple as looking at the news together every day, and talking about it.”

“Respect for the environment has a link to how children respect each other and adults. Teachers’ relationships with children also need respect and open-ness, rather than being about pushing answers. That experience will stay with children throughout their lives, and help them: it is not an easy world.”

Bill Graham, Director, Farming and Countryside Education, wondered if the language of sustainable development, and even the term itself, were a barrier for ourselves and young people. “How do we articulate things in the first place?”

He raised questions about “the relationship between child development and an understanding of our world, and about how values about the world start … including at the very early stages of childhood.”

He felt that the eight Sustainable Schools doorways were a 'backward step' in comparison to the Holland Report’s original seven Key Concepts, and asked “did we work hard enough to develop what those concepts meant in real contexts, such as food and water?”

Jo Flynn [Deputy Director, Science Learning Centre, Keele] made a strong case for the new KS3 Science Curriculum as a vehicle for sustainability education and critical thinking skills.

She reminded us that there is a “real debate taking place about what Science offers, and what it means to have a more scientifically literate society, which is able to deal with the complexity of the future.”


Jo had adapted Bill Scott’s words to cross-refer to the new curriculum, and suggested that both ESD2 and Science education involve “building learners’ capacity:

  • to think critically about what experts say;
  • to test [sustainable development] ideas;
  • to explore the contradictions inherent in [sustainable] living
  • and to make sound choices in the face of the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the future.”

As part of the debate about Science, educators were “now having to confront the reality that Science is not a fixed body of knowledge. We’ve always known that secretly, but not necessarily shared this in schools. We are now having to say to young people that there are questions which Science can’t answer, or even begin to address.”

Responses from the conference

What opportunities might there be for …

arrow creativity about Year 6/7 transition? [ie the sustainability of a learner’s experience]
arrow Primary and Secondary children and teachers working together and learning from each other?
arrow cross-departmental working?
arrow building on existing curricula and level descriptors? Especially in key subject areas such as Science, Geography and Citizenship?
arrow making connections to new curricular developments, especially the KS3 review?

What are the implications for the culture, leadership, scale and structure of schools?

What sort of assessment would be 'fit for purpose' in this context?

How do we view the new Ofsted SEF questions on sustainable development and sustainable schools?

Might we need some new key concepts for sustainable development? … or global learning?

How can we demonstrate the value of critical thinking approaches for teaching and learning? [Especially to DCSF, as part of preparing citizens for the future].

Moving forward:

arrow Are we talking about contradictions … or conflicts?
arrow Is this a good time for this debate?
arrow Is the Bill Scott Challenge a good idea?
arrow Is this really just about good education?

Workshops ~ responding to the Bill Scott challenge

Afternoon workshops picked up on challenges and discussions from the previous session, in the context of specific themes and areas of interest.

They explored:

- how the kind of ideas we had been talking about might translate into practical priorities;

- what our work was offering to these challenges;

- what these challenges were offering us.

There were five workshops, focusing on Science, Geography, the whole school, the outdoor classroom and food & farming.


Facilitated by Graham Jackson, Association for Science Education

Key points:

It is important to give children the tools to learn themselves.
Where possible, critical thinking and problem solving skills [relating to ESD2 could be facilitated by group work rather than whole class work, which can be more directive and focussed on `the answer.’ Less engaged students are often more focussed when in small groups, working on problem solving activities. They also tend to be more communicative with each other and with adults in these contexts
a There are great opportunities for planned and resourced use of the outdoor learning environment. For example, school grounds and playgrounds can be designed to help learning about sustainability.
a Role of emotion – children need to see that teachers care about the issues.
a There is a role for special events – teachers can feel less constrained by the syllabus, and input from outside the school can be provided.
a We need to work with what we have. There are some settings and classes in which achieving learning is in itself a challenge, let alone stretching the envelope of that learning.


Facilitated by Steve Rogers, School Improvement Advisor, Shropshire

Key points:

a The concept of “sustainable development literacy” seems helpful.
a There is a need for the co-ordination of the sustainability agenda across a school [this is especially the case with Secondary Schools]. For example, teaching in Geography needs to complement not replicate themes in Science, Technology, History etc, Citizenship Programmes of Study … and to be co-ordinated with any programmes such as Eco-Schools, Healthy Schools etc.
a Issues like climate change and alternative technologies need a co-ordinated cross-curricular approach, eg between Geography and Citizenship.
a Does ESD1 need to include “learning about sustainable development”? Geography does contain such a body of knowledge [eg investigating climate change requires an understanding about the greenhouse effect].
a The revised level descriptors at levels 4 and 5 make little reference to sustainability: we need to be wary of this implying that only more able and older children are capable of dealing with sustainable development.

The whole school

Facilitated by Sue Fitzjohn, former head, St John’s CE First School, Kidderminster

Key points:

a The importance of the headteacher & senior managers valuing ESD, recognising its worth; being proactive and exploring ways with colleagues to ensure that space is made within the curriculum.
a In large secondary schools it may be useful to make someone responsible for getting to know all colleagues; developing a register of people’s strengths, capabilities and interests; enable cross-departmental links to be extended.
a Teachers and/or other staff are needed to champion ESD; to challenge their peers [eg those who say no time, no room in curriculum]; to work with colleagues to develop a common challenge across subject boundaries eg: a cross-curricular theme around water, food and drink.
a Whole school working could be at the heart of the community; schools sharing experiences and reconnecting parents and other members of the community with the learning process inherent in sustainable living.
a We need to look to developing a whole school culture where it is recognised that the learning process throughout life is for everyone; pupils and adults continually learning along side each other in this ever-changing world.
a We need to recognise that pupils are empowered through ESD. Pupils are often aware of and passionate about new developments; adults learn alongside pupils. Teachers do not know everything, there is uncertainty; we should involve experts to deliver information and challenge.

The outdoor classroom

Facilitated by Andrew Simons, Centre of the Earth, Birmingham

Key points:

The value of outdoor learning includes but goes beyond ESD – it offers ‘non metronomic learning’, powerful experiences, opportunities to develop life skills and take managed risks, scope for kinaesthetic learning.

How do we

a create the space in school?
a make accessible spaces and sensory experiences?
a design and manage it sustainably?
a allow children to manage and control it?
a encourage cross curricular links [eg by creating things through a range of subjects, and using the space at a variety of levels … including relaxation and reflection]?
a enable its use for hands-on experience?

There is useful support from Learning through landscapes

Food and farming

Facilitated by Malcolm Smith, Food for Life Partnership, Garden Organic

“Is children’s rational choice always sustainable?”

How might we make good use of this learning challenge?

a In our schools/our roles within education? To enable the ESD2 approach, teachers need to encourage inquisitiveness and enquiry approaches to learning, which lead to research. Activities need to be open-ended to encourage critical thinking. Group work, discussion and debate are crucial. The key to ESD2 is critical thinking. If parents and the wider community take this approach too, it is likely to be much more successful.

As a network? ICT could be useful in inter-agency cooperation. NGOs are often working on similar initiatives but separately. An e-group or blog could be established to encourage sharing between these organisations which teachers would find useful, and it would be good if teachers had time to put resources and experiences on a shared area which could be used by others.

ESD2 approaches could encourage links between primary and secondary schools, and it would be good to mix urban and rural schools through the subject of food and farming.


As part of current work rather than an additional burden? For ESD2 to become embedded in children’s approach, it will need to be used regularly across subjects throughout a school. Teachers need to see the connection between what they are doing and the ESD1/2 framework.

Subjects need to be pitched at young people’s own level, in order to gain their interest. These should generally be related to real experiences, and food is a good place to start. By using this approach a subject can be widened, and then young people can begin to make informed decisions and choices.


Morning workshops shared creative work by teachers on global sustainability themes

Climate X-change – children using ICT to share ideas

Stephanie Davies, West Midland Broadband Network and Sabera Miah, Starbank Primary School


Consumption and waste – a global approach

Rob Bowden, Tide~ Centre and kNOw trash/Eden project group


Water issues ~ as a starting point for awareness of global sustainability

Becky Link, Severn Trent Water and Sarah Adams, Barston Education Centre

For details of Tide~/Severn Trent Water pack on Water issues click here

See also

Enabling whole school change - in response to “sustainable schools.”

Sam Bernardini, Ladygrove Primary School, Ceri Bowen and Marian White, Rookery Primary school

For Ceri and Marian’s presentation to the conference click here

Carbon trading in the classroom – sharing a new creative online tool for schools across Europe to explore carbon trading

Davina Allen, BRIDGES Centre and Hugh Wright, Epping Forest Field Studies Centre