Earth Education UK

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

"Outdoor Learning for Sustainability" the Real World Learning Model

Real World Learning and Earth Education.
I have been privileged to attend all three of the International Conferences of the Real World Learning Network in 2013 and 2014. I was able to give presentations on earth education and give participants experience of earthwalks and magic spots at two of these Conferences. Bruce Johnson, IEE International Programme Coordinator was a keynote speaker at the  second conference in 2013 on Science and Sustainability Through Outdoor Learning at Planica in Slovenia. At their final recent conference in England in November 2014, the Real World Learning Group, drawn from organisations in 7 countries, unveiled their model of Outdoor Learning for Sustainability.
It provides a way of evaluating our provision and learning programmes against a set of criteria that the group have identified as the characteristics of good Outdoor Learning for Sustainability.
Based on a hand print the thumb represents Values and poses the question “Are self transcendent values promoted”?  It was refreshing to see that this was regarded as perhaps the most important element. In the past, earth education has been criticised and misunderstood for promoting the values of:
1.       respect for nature and the state of the planet
2.       equal opportunities for all people to shape their lives.
3.       respect for future generations
Yet these are the values that have now been recognised as being the most important and the most fundamental in learning for sustainability. Respect for nature and concern for the planet is at the absolute heart of all earth education programmes grounded as they are in the principles of deep ecology. The other values are I believe implicit throughout the programmes and embedded in the values of every earth educator that I know! In “Earth Education a New Beginning” which Steve Van Matre wrote back in 1990 there are numerous references to values and written at a time when values were not in the vocabulary of most environmental educators. He even lists 10 green values which encompass all those identified by the RWL model and more besides. Should we seek to address them more explicitly in our programmes?

The index finger represents Empowerment and the question “are learners empowered to shape a sustainable future?” is posed. This is the main aim of an earth education programme but I believe activities such as identifying “environmental bad habits” only do part of the job and are not always given the time or attention by programme leaders that is really needed, despite the “ crafting of more harmonious life-styles” being the most important learning outcome of the Sunship Earth programme. Sunship III, our programme for 13-14 year olds does give significant time to this and culminates in a map and challenge to visit and learn from local individuals and organisations that provide role models and inspiration for sustainable living. Empowerment is achieved not just through  individual activities no matter how well-crafted but over a long period of time, and through the processes of giving learners responsibilities, taking ownership of their own learning and giving them the space and opportunity to be reflective and critical thinkers, not easy within the confines of a short programme. Probably best addressed by teachers as part of the follow through but it is always a challenge for teachers to give sufficient time to this. Much of the empowerment will of course come through the ways in which participants are treated and the programme delivered. One of the learning objectives is to “enable learners to become conscious of inter-connectedness – you, me and the world around”. This of course is right on the money as far as earth education is concerned. Not only do our concept teaching activities such as “Great Specktackle” place ourselves at the heart of the cycles of nature but this is built into most other conceptual encounters. Immersing activities and magic spots further serve to make these connections.
The middle finger addresses Experience with the question “Do learners get in touch with outdoor settings” and even mentions the objective “involve learners with head, heart and hand” a familiar mantra to all earth educators over the past 40 years. In earth education we perhaps take for granted that the most powerful learning experiences take place outdoors in the natural world where they directly relate the experience to the way the planet works. It is encouraging that so many influential environmental education organisations around Europe are recognising the importance of these real world experiences which earth educators have always used.
The ring finger deals with Transferability and asks “are different areas of life included?” The learning objectives include:
1.       Encourage active transfer during and after the experience
2.       Relate to the non-natural environment
3.       Relate to learners communities
4.       Relate to the natural environment
5.       Relate to the learners themselves
6.       Relate to global society
Clearly our concept learning activities embody 1. And 4.  Objectives 2,3 and 5 are addressed at crucial stages of earth education programmes while 6. Is often addressed by looking at “earth our place in space” though I feel that much more can be done in all forms of environmental education to build these global links. Indeed as an Eco-Schools Assessor I often find that the global dimension is the aspect that schools struggle with most. How we ensure that these global links can be fully explored in earth education is an area of discussion worthy of its own blog, discussion group and even a conference or seminar!
Finally we come to the little finger representing Understanding. Again one gets the feeling that those who created the model have either based their work on the principles of earth education or, perhaps even more reassuringly, have arrived at similar conclusions by different routes. For a long time earth educators have been banging on about big picture understandings and emphasising the four main over-arching concepts which address how all life on earth works. We build our programmes around the concepts of Cycles, Change, Interrelationships and Energy Flow.  The “Big Science Principles” of the RWL model are Cycles, Change, Stability and Energy Flow. They describe “stability” as the concept of dynamic balance i.e. interrelationships!
I do not believe that the RWL model should be used as a template for designing outdoor learning for sustainability. It is an attempt to distil 4 years work by several working parties, each comprising members from 8 organisations and 7 different countries and cultures. It does however provide a touchstone for centres, organisations and individuals to evaluate and question their own practice. I believe that earth education and our model programmes measure up very well in this process, at least in the design and intent. It would be a helpful exercise for earth educators to examine their own work and delivery against the RWL model. I think many of us will find that this reflection will help us to refine our actual delivery of earth education programmes. I believe it will also remind us how well-crafted these programmes are and help us to identify the importance of those elements of the programmes that might get overlooked or omitted due to pressures of time or because we do not always realise how important all the elements are to the holistic learning experience. It should also provide encouragement to re-read “Earth Education a New beginning” by Steve van Matre and see how much of what is in the RWL  model was already being encouraged for those of us seeking to design our own programmes.

John Rhymer December 2015 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Children, their world, their education

Children, their World, their Education
I went to this seminar in Birmingham last week.
The stimulating and inspiring presentations by Professor Robin Alexander of the Cambridge Primary Review and Cathryn Gathercole, Director of Tide gave me much food for thought.

I was asked to feed back my impressions at the seminar and my notes are being published as a “Think Piece” by Tide.
Here is my “Think Piece”.
Many of us have spent the past 15 - 25 years lobbying, cajoling and entreating national government of all political hues to regard education for sustainability and global citizenship as being essential for our young people in the 21st Century.
Faced with inaction from national governments around the world to the impending and growing crises of climate change, conflicts over oil, land and religion and global inequalities who do we turn to in order to ensure that our children, the citizens of the future receive the education that  need in order to face the challenges of the future.
As National Governments are not fit for purpose, who might our allies be?  Who should we be engaging with?
The media?  All too often the understanding of journalists, broadcasters and their editors is superficial and their interest short-lived. The BBC in their concern for balance, give equal airtime to Climate Change deniers as they do to reputable scientists.
Industry and commerce? Traditionally regarded as the antithesis of a sustainable future, some leading Industries are starting to recognise and acknowledge the importance of environmental and social sustainability as well as economic sustainability and some far-sighted CEOs realise that the future may not lie in continued growth and globalisation. 
Local communities? Local groups such as Transition Towns can support schools in developing the 30% of their curriculum that should be locally relevant and arguably gives young people their best chance of becoming active and empowered global citizens.
Meanwhile, teachers can provide role models for their pupils not only by living sustainably themselves but by modelling the practices of a sustainable and just society in the way they teach, in the ways they interact with their pupils and in the ways in which schools conduct themselves. The General Teaching Council for Scotland have embedded Learning for Sustainability throughout the professional Standards for Teachers to support teachers in actively embracing and promoting principles and practices of sustainability in all aspects of their work. Now we have no English GTC teachers in England will need to give themselves permission to adopt the same principles as their colleagues in Scotland for no one else will!  Perhaps time to re-visit the Schumacher briefing paper of 2001 by Stephen Sterling “Sustainable Education – Re-visioning learning and change”.
Some of what Robin Alexander said, gave me hope that earth education still has much to offer schools despite a lacklustre National Curriculum.

 Excerpts from Robin Alexander's presentation. 
• Human influence on the climate system is clear. Recent greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have already had widespread human and natural impact.
• Continuing greenhouse gas emissions will increase likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and systems.
• Climate change threatens sustainable development.
• Limiting climate change will require substantial reductions in emissions which, together with adaptations, can limit climate change risks.
• Adaptation and mitigation are key and complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change.
• No single option is sufficient by itself. What is required is policies and co-operation across multiple scales: international, regional, national and local
‘Educated citizens have a greater ability to make informed decisions on how to use resources and preserve ecosystems.’

“Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt they had the power to act. The children who were most confident that climate change would not overwhelm them were those whose schools had replaced unfocussed fear by factual information and practical strategies for sustainability.”

Children, their World, their Education: final report of the Cambridge Primary Review

John Rhymer

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Young Voices - Research from COIN.

Research from COIN will be of interest to earth educators. Do check this out and let us know how you think we can respond to these findings through our programmes and activities. In particular, i can see some opportunities within programmes such as SSIII to use the COIN "Narrative Workshops".
Today COIN releases ‘Young Voices’, a major new report looking at young people’s attitudes to climate change.
Supported by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, this is the first British study to ask young people themselves for their advice on how to engage their peers more effectively, and to propose and test new climate change narratives specifically designed to engage 18-25 year olds.

Commenting on the study, Dr Adam Corner, COIN’s Research Director, said:
“Our research suggests that many young people care deeply and passionately about climate change. However, there has been a collective failure to talk to young people about climate change in a way that inspires them. Too many assumptions have been made by communicators, which haven’t been tested. Working directly with young people we have been able to trial a series of narratives about climate change, providing valuable insights for anyone interested in improving communication about climate change with this group.”
The findings revealed that many current climate engagement strategies may be failing to reach young people.
Some of the key findings and recommendations from the report include:

·         For young people, climate change is fundamentally about the ‘here and now’ – describing the effect it will have on future generations, as campaigners and scientists often do, undermines the urgency of the problem.
·         Young people want to hear how climate change relates to (and will affect) those aspects of their everyday lives that they are passionate about - but communicators must take care not to ‘trivialise’ the issue by failing to link the ‘personal’ to the ‘political’.
·         Fighting organised scepticism is mostly seen as a waste of energy by young people – scepticism is relatively uncommon among the young and talking ‘solutions not science’ is a much better approach.
·         Young people often find it hard to talk about climate change with their peers - there was a fear that talking about climate change would set them apart as ‘preachy’ or ‘un-cool’.
·         There is widespread doubt that there is a ‘concerned majority’ among the general public who support action on climate change - communicating a ‘social consensus’ on climate action may be just as important as the scientific consensus.
·         Young people have very little faith in mainstream politicians – so it makes more sense to ask young people to challenge (not support) politicians on climate policies. Campaign messages should clearly set out what needs to be done – who, when, where and what young people can do to make a difference – and which policy prescriptions support this.
·         Climate jargon is unfamiliar and off-putting – phrases like ‘managing climate risks’, ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘2 degrees’ are seen as hollow and vague. People want to hear about specific policies and how these relate to protecting the things people love and are passionate about.
‘Young Voices’ uses COIN’s ‘Narrative Workshops’ method, which explores study participants' values, aspirations and views on climate change before formulating different ‘narratives’ for testing (short pieces of written text that use different language to describe climate change and climate policies). This allows careful attention to be paid to the words and phrases that people respond positively to, and provides a vehicle for building on the core values that underpin public engagement with climate change.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Magic Spots - the most important activity in earth education?

This simple activity is part of all earth education programmes. At Sunship Earth participants have many magic spots including early morning and night-time magic spots. Many youngsters report that the magic spot was their favourite activity. It is certainly a very engaging activity which gives close contact with the natural world. Dr Chris Walton has researched the impact of Magic Spots for his PhD and has collected some very moving reports from young people. Maybe he will share some of these with us?

First hand frequent contact with the natural world is crucial in creating an environmental ethic. Frequent and ongoing magic spots are also, I believe, good for mental and emotional welfare and I suspect also for physical well-being.

I frequently walk in the Wyre Forest, keeping up a brisk pace, sometimes pausing to look at birds through my binoculars. However, this week I realised that though I frequently extol the virtues of magic spots I had not treated myself to one of my own for a long time. So I did. I left the path, found a small tree surrounded by bracken and settled down. An hour passed very quickly!

Please share your own thoughts and experiences of magic spots and any observations that you have of their impact on youngsters.

John Rhymer

Where are they now?

Does anyone still  have contact with people who attended earth education programmes when youngsters? We like to think that an earth education programme has a lasting effect on participants. Research has shown that there is a lasting impact on understandings of ecological processes and on attitudes to helping the environment but such studies usually only follow up for 6 months up to two years after participating in a programme. Children move up through the education system and it is difficult to keep track of participants.

We know from running Wyre Forest Sunship Earth that a number of participants come back as young leaders on the programme and we can see that they love Sunship Earth and are keen to help other young people to have these experiences. Many go on to study environmental related subjects at University and/or train to be teachers. I sometimes  hear from friends whose children have attended the programme and they often report that their children have followed similar career pathways.

We also hear that many youngsters on returning home, pester their parents to adopt more environmentally responsible habits in the home. However this is often short lived! , Once they become teenagers they sometimes rebel against their family environmental good habits (parents who send their children to SSE are often pretty committed to living lightly in the first place). I suspect though that once teenage rebellion has passed, many reclaim their environmental commitments.

Do you know anyone who attended an earth education programme in the past? What are they doing now? Are they working in an environmentally related career? Volunteering? Demonstrate environmental good habits in their lives?  Please post your responses.

John Rhymer