Can education change its climate in time?

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Jane Reed highlights the urgent need to put environmental concerns at the heart of education and professional development.

In early January this year I was fortunate to walk in the Waitakere Ranges, an area of outstanding beauty just outside Auckland. The colleagues I was with and I stopped of at the Arataki Visitors Centre to try to find the best places to walk and orientate ourselves to the area. At the entrance was a message for visitors, attention was drawn to it by a series of large footprints marked on the ground:

“These footprints represent our growth, our future and our constant need for expanding our knowledge and wisdom. We invite you to follow these footsteps on Arataki’s pathway to learning.”

Phrased slightly differently, this message could have been the introduction to an edition of Professional Development Today, except that Arataki’s learning pathway didn’t take us into the written word or exhortations to grow a few more professional inches, it took us into the heart of New Zealand’s bush. It took us on a journey of spiralling trails through wildness, flora and fauna that refreshed and uplifted us with its beauty and birdsong and absence of too much that was human, even for New Zealand!

Nature as antidote

We found ourselves discussing how we resent not being able to walk more regularly in our over busy working schedules, how important it was to each of us to have time in the natural world at home, cultivating our small gardens, on allotments, walking dogs by the sea or in the nearest open spaces. We also reflected how little we discuss this love, which we suspect most other colleagues share, at work. This is what Edward Wilson (1984) over 20 years ago described as ‘Biophilia’, the natural tendency that humans have to bond with other species and habitats. How human centric the workplace is we said and how this must increasingly contribute to stress and anxiety of various kinds. How good it was even to be able to eat a sandwich in the nearest London square at lunchtime!

We noted too how much more attention is paid now to school play spaces and the welcome move  to more gardening,  and  a move  against the great 20th century need to put tarmac down as much as possible to create the  schoolyard. These local efforts  to  cultivate more natural  surroundings,  particularly  in  city  schools,  are really  important  in  the  face  of Richard  Louv’s  (2005) research findings that lack of exposure to nature is likely to be in part responsible for a range of reactive and stress disorders in our young people. Louv’s adult participants reported how central to their early spiritual development their early contact was with wild spaces, animals, plants; their own presence to nature and hers to them. It is hardly any time since the majority of people were raised on the land, worked on it and then were buried in it too. It is only a very short time in human history that we have lived without daily deep connection with the natural world.

Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life – these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives” (Louv 2005).

Part of our current challenge as educators may be to bring our love of nature more to work, to continue to foster the connection we want for ourselves and our children with the natural world in our day to day working lives, so our students can experience for themselves the creativity and centredness that can come from a relationship that involves greater immersion in their natural environment.

We should perhaps worry more about the negative effect of the environment on the health and wellbeing of our children and that the poorest communities in our country live in the most challenging environmental conditions along with their fellow communities around the globe.

The period of economic development and prosperity many of us have grown up in the West has been achieved at cost to both the environment and human well being and may well turn out to be short lived.

Call for sustainable development in education

Richard Louv’s study wakes us up to an imbalance in how we are living. On the one hand, being a student at school has often encouraged a relationship to nature, a love of the outdoors the study of living processes, the importance of caring for the environment. This masks though the fact that humanity at  large and western  society  in particular is very  ignorant  about  ecology  and  the  science of  living systems. We have lost sight of not just our delight in, but also our dependence, on the biosphere and its own limits in relation to our needs. At this period in our history the mild and partial environmentalism of most western school systems has an insufficiency about it.
In March 2005 the government asked all departments to apply sustainable development principles to policy making.  The then DFES published its own action plan and four reports have come out recently in relation to education that can assist a wake up call to our collective environmental challenges and realising our crucial role as educators.

The latest curriculum thinking from QCA in their ‘Futures in Action Project’ stresses the importance of planning the whole curriculum so our pupils can play a fuller part in maintaining and improving the environment and take account of present and future generations in the choices they make (QCA 2007). This goal is about to be no longer confined to studying the subjects of geography or science alone.

The extended schools agenda also holds greater possibilities for implementing the government’s agenda for sustainable schools. Te publication entitled “Every
Child’s Future Matters” (DCSF 2007) is well worth reading and brings a welcome environmental perspective into the social and economic dimensions of the children’s agenda, which it argues should be a major vehicle for championing sustainable development. The report discusses how sustainable development can enhance the delivery of ECM. Schools are encouraged to become involved in local regeneration and environmental improvement projects and recommend action on behalf of children in relation to traffic, green space and climate change.

Leading schools to model sustainable practice

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and the National College for School  Leadership have both published  reports with  the title ‘Leading  Sustainable Schools’  (NCSL 2007;  SSAT  2008) both of them considering what attention to environmental sustainability means  for models  and  approaches  to  the  leadership of schools. The SSAT is encouraging schools to:  become models of sustainable best practice; enhance teaching and learning through approaches to education for sustainability and equip young people with the drive and capability to safeguard the future. (SSAT 2007:1) Te report reinforces the role that schools have in modelling an alternative future by raising awareness and generating knowledge amongst students about the issues facing us.

Similarly the NCSL (2007) published its research into leadership for sustainability. This review suggests that school leaders need to place sustainability at the heart of their school rather than on the periphery of concern.

They need to develop a more outward stance if they are to give sustainability more than a tokenistic place in their educational endeavours. Childhood experiences in nature were a key influence on why leaders taking part in the research project prioritised sustainable development in their schools.  97% of respondents to the survey that was part of the NCSL study said that the environment was of key concern to them personally.

Challenging complacency

If that is the case why is education for sustainability of such marginal interest to most of the school system in England? Our Welsh colleagues are well ahead of the game with their own framework for sustainability and global citizenship. As David Orr,a radical American geographer and environmental designer has pointed out (1992) our educational system has been designed to equip us as human beings with the necessary skills to conquer rather than to protect the planet. Education, we have to face it, is part of the problem and it has fallen to us to change it from one based culturally on an outdated industrial and extractive model to one that is life sustaining and ecological. We have actually known this was a priority for at least 30 years and the response has been at best tardy.
In a recent conversation I had with David Orr, he suggested that there isn’t time now for a slow walk through the woods of educational sustainability. Time is of the essence, especially if we can face up to the chilling picture of the likely impact of climate change if we fail to act. The new edition of Lester Brown’s (2008) book ‘Plan B’ should really be compulsory reading for all educators. Brown has been analysing the relationship between environmental and human activity for 40 years and the news is not that great. He writes:
“The challenge for our generation is to build a new economy, one that is powered largely by renewable resources of energy, that has a highly diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. And to do it with unprecedented speed.”

The generation of students in school right now are likely to face enormous environmental challenges while they are in their adult years and need tools, knowledge and mastery from their education that we don’t give them sufficiently at the moment.

The professional development “wake up” call

So what can we do? Professional development in education has always been an optimistic craft, full of creativity and inventiveness and up for challenge. Te wake up call of climate change is asking for a different response to that of the past. We need to put environmental concerns far more centre stage and develop the necessary skills and understanding for us all to become environmental educators not just environmental  connoisseurs in our spare time.

The literature review that was undertaken as part of the NCSL research (Reed and Morgan 2007) mentioned earlier suggests that the shift in educational climate requires the following.  (From which we can begin to put some new thinking on our professional development “To Do” list):
“This review, and our reflections during the process of putting it together, have led us to see that the challenge of the next decade will be to take environmental sustainability from its current partial status in schools to being embedded, from the personal commitment of a few to being the responsibility of everyone, from being an additional priority to being a fundamental way that a school thinks and acts,
from  it  being  part  of  some  people’s  personal  beliefs  to becoming a set of collective properties, from looking inward to looking outward and lastly from a set of doorways to a whole school approach.” (Reed and Morgan 2007:5).

There are some important implications here for professional development. OFSTED (2008) has just reported that despite some good examples, in the majority of schools practice towards sustainability is still very undeveloped and marginal. We need to think through not just what it means to be a professional for social justice but also how we build an education system that includes environmental sustainability much more centrally in all that we do. We need to put a stronger environmental focus through all the other subjects of the curriculum and be prepared to become much more ecologically literate as a profession by studying and discussing together. We need to develop an environmental ethic in our codes of practice, aims and accountabilities.

The challenge is this (and it is also a call to adventure for us who find ourselves, whether we like it or not, with this great task). Can we change the climate of education in time?   Matthew Fox (2006) the catholic theologian excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his radical views passionately believes education holds the clues to our evolution into a more life sustaining society. He writes:
“..Our species is at a crossroads. Time is running out. We must reinvent the way we are living on earth. Education and learning are a deep and essential part of this change.”

Will we look back in thirty years time having brought our love of nature more actively into our professional lives and those of our students and be able to say that we were among those that helped the Great Turning (1) in education that contributed to an assured future for the generations to some and a planet fit for them to live on?

Note: (1) ‘The Great Turning’ is the term used by Buddhist and systems scholar Joanna Macy to describe the shift from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining one.

Jane Reed is currently the Head of The International Network for School Improvement at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning based in the Institute of Education, London. Her current research interest is in the learning processes that free schools for social and environmental responsiveness. In the 1990s she set up the first ecoliteracy project in the UK, inspired by the work of Fritjof Capra. In 2007 she led a research review in partnership with WWF on  the  greening  of  school  leadership  for The National College for School Leadership and is currently working in partnership with Forum for the Future on the sustainable schools project also for NCSL. 

Taken from Professional Development Today

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