The educational appeal of vagueness: the case of biodiversity

Environmental Education & Biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity is back on the agenda having faded somewhat during the last 15 years or so with the rise of new urgent issues such as runaway climate change, loss of food security, the rise of micro-toxins in waters and soils, etc. With the renewed attention for biodiversity it might be useful to go back to the nineties when the topic was high on the international policy agenda and some effort was spent on making biodiversity meaningful for ordinary citizens. Two publications that I was involved in back then seem very relevant today.

The first one appeared in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (I believe the only open-access EE journal): Dreyfus, A., Wals, A.E.J. and D. van Weelie (1999). The socio-scientific dispute character of environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 155-176. Download here: Canadian Journal of EE[

The second one is a book commissioned by the Dutch government titled “Environmental Education and Biodiversity” which I recently updated slightly to make it suitable for open-access publication. Full reference: Wals, A.E.J., (Ed.) (1999). Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen, 107 p.Download here: Book Environmental Education & Biodiversity

The book is more elaborate than the article and contains concrete stepping stones for making biodiversity meaningful. Here’s a brief abstract of the book which also applies – in part – to the article.

Despite all the confusion about biodiversity, one thing is clear: there is no one single perspective or definition of biodiversity that accurately describes it in all situations or contexts. Biodiversity can have different meanings depending on the user and the context in which it is used. Even within the scientific arena a great number of biodiversity meanings and interpretations can be distinguished. It is not uncommon to find that scientific, political and symbolic meanings are used interchangeably by the same person. Both the knowledge base and the value base of biodiversity are variable and to a degree unstable and questionable.

Although these characteristics of biodiversity can render the concept useless or reduce it to a rhetorical instrument, they can also add to its strength when handled with care. Certainly from an environmental education perspective, but also from a policy-making perspective, these characteristics offer some worthwhile advantages: 1) Biodiversity brings together different groups in society that are searching for a common language to discuss nature conservation issues in relation to sustainability issues. 2) This dialogue allows the socio-scientific dispute character of “science-in-the-making” to surface. Participation in such a dispute is an excellent opportunity to learn about a highly relevant, controversial, emotionally charged and debatable topic at the crossroads of science, technology and society. 3) Making such a concept meaningful to the lives of citizens requires a procedure that could be utilised when developing educational programmes that focus on similar topics (i.e. education for sustainability).

This book provides a justification and rationale for developing biodiversity as a leading concept for environmental education for human development. Furthermore it proposes a stepping stone procedure that recognises the socio-scientific dispute character of biodiversity and provides a tool for turning biodiversity into a meaningful and existentially relevant issue. The procedure includes the following steps: analysing meanings of biodiversity, determining one or more perspectives based on the general learning goals of environmental education, setting specific learning objectives, selecting (sub)themes for learning, contextualising biodiversity and establishing the value of biodiversity. The procedure is intended to help curriculum developers, teachers, educational support staff and environmental educators give specific meaning to biodiversity and to help learners critically analyse the way biodiversity is used in science, technology and society. The procedure is an intermediate product that offers direction in developing and implementing specific learning activities and materials for various groups of learners.

Abstract of the article in French
Résumé
L’éducation relative à l’environnement dans un monde postmoderne devra être sensible à la nature mal définie des principaux concepts naissants, tels que la biodiversité et la durabilité. Malgré toute la confusion qui entoure ces concepts, une chose est claire : il y a plus d’une façon de considérer ces concepts ou de les définir. En d’autres termes, il n’existe pas une seule perspective ou définition de la biodiversité ou de la durabilité qui les décrive avec exactitude dans toutes les situations ou tous les contextes. Bien que cette définition approximative rende de tels concepts inutiles ou les réduise à un instrument rhétorique d’un point de vue moderne, elle les rend intéressants dans une perspective postmoderne. En reconnaissant la nécessité de respecter le pluralisme (respect des différentes façons de voir, d’évaluer, de comprendre, etc.), la présence constante d’éléments d’ambivalence et d’incertitude dans la prise de décision environnementale et la nécessité d’apprendre dans ce riche contexte, les éducateurs en environnement dans un monde postmoderne trouveront une valeur dans la nature mal définie de ces concepts naissants. En se servant de la biodiversité comme exemple, les auteurs illustrent l’attrait pédagogique de la définition approximative. La biodiversité réunit différents groupes de la société à la recherche d’un langage commun pour discuter de la conservation de la nature en relation avec les enjeux postmodernes de la durabilité. Le seul fait que ces groupes avec des antécédents divergents se concentrent sur un concept commun, bien que la signification du concept varie pour chacun des groupes, ouvre la porte au débat socioscientifique. Ce débat fournit une excellente occasion d’apprentissage sur un thème hautement pertinent, litigieux, émotif et discutable au carrefour des sciences, de la technologie et de la société. Une attention spéciale est accordée au rôle des connaissances scientifiques dans des débats de ce type.

Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN DESD: a review of learning and institutionalization processes” is a paper that was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 62, Pages 1-138, January 2014) as a part of a theme issue on:

“Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Emerging Areas”. This special issue is edited by Maik Adomßent, Daniel Fischer, Jasmin Godemann, Christian Herzig, Insa Otte, Marco Rieckmann and Jana Timm of Leuphana University in Germany.

The paper I contributed is grounded empirically in a review of UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN DESD) I was commissioned to carry out by UNESCO. The review’s section on the learning processes taking place in the higher education arena forms the basis of this article. Particular attention is paid to the role of UNESCO ESD Chairs in advancing sustainability-oriented learning and competences in higher education.

The main conclusion that can be drawn is that Higher Education Institutions are beginning to make more systemic changes towards sustainability by re-orienting their education, research, operations and community outreach activities all simultaneously or, which is more often the case, a subset thereof. They are doing so amidst educational reforms towards efficiency, accountability, privatization, management and control that are not always conducive for such a re-orientation. Some universities see in sustainability a new way of organizing and profiling themselves. The UNESCO ESD Chairs mainly play a role in conceptualizing learning, competence and systems change.

The full reference is: Wals, A.E.J. (2013). Sustainability in higher education in the context of the UN DESD : a review of learning and institutionalization processes, Journal of Cleaner Production (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652613003880). A preview can be found here! SustainabilityinHigherEducationWalsJournalCleanerProduction13

Creating Transdisciplinary Dialogue & Phronesis in Pursuit of Sustainability

TradingZonesCover
This book is the result of a rather interesting writing process initiated by the editors about two years ago when they decided that the focus of the book, transdisciplinary dialogue, should also be its process… In order to realize this they invited about 30 scholars from quite different disciplinary backgrounds who did not know each other (most of them anyway) very well or at all, but all had an interest in trans- and interdisciplinarity and a shared concern about the well-being of people and planet. During a joint ‘thinkshop’ held at Cornell’s Field Station in upstate New York, the participants jointly conceptualized the book and created writing ‘duo’s’. I myself formed a duo with Science Historian Scott Peters and bonded with him around the concepts of phronesis, post-normal science and transformative learning (find a link to our chapter at the end of this post). Author-teams were also asked to include a piece of art in their work that somehow captures the spirit of their joint writing venture. On the publisher’s website the wonderful book that resulted is described as follows:

Environmental educators often adhere to a relatively narrow theoretical paradigm focusing on changing attitudes and knowledge, which are assumed to foster pro-environmental behaviors, which, in turn, leads to better environmental quality. This book takes a different approach to trying to understand how environmental education might influence people, their communities, and the environment. The authors view changing environmental behaviors as a «wicked» problem, that is, a problem that does not readily lend itself to solutions using existing disciplinary approaches. The book as a whole opens up new avenues for pursuing environmental education research and practice and thus expands the conversation around environmental education, behaviors, and quality. Through developing transdisciplinary research questions and conceptual paradigms, this book also suggests new practices beyond those currently used in environmental education, natural resources management, and other environmental fields.

Contents: Marianne E. Krasny: Introduction. Tales of a Transdisciplinary Scholar – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Participation – Jeppe Læssøe/Marianne E. Krasny: Participation in Environmental Education: Crossing Boundaries under the Big Tent – Martha C. Monroe/Shorna Broussard Allred: Building Capacity for Community-Based Natural Resource Management with Environmental Education – Scott Peters/Arjen E. J. Wals: Learning and Knowing in Pursuit of Sustainability: Concepts and Tools for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research – Barbara A. Crawford/Rebecca Jordan: Inquiry, Models, and Complex Reasoning to Transform Learning in Environmental Education – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Appreciation – John Fraser/Carol B. Brandt: The Emotional Life of the Environmental Educator – Leesa Fawcett/Janis L. Dickinson: Psychological Resilience, Uncertainty, and Biological Conservation: Junctures Between Emotional Knowledges, NatureExperiences, and Environmental Education – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Place – Timon McPhearson/Keith G. Tidball: Disturbances in Urban Social-Ecological Systems: Niche Opportunities for Environmental Education – Richard C. Stedman/Nicole M. Ardoin: Mobility, Power, and Scale in Place-Based Environmental Education – Marianne E. Krasny/Megan K. Halpern/Bruce V. Lewenstein/Justin Dillon: Conclusion. Do «Arranged Marriages» Generate Novel Insights?

You find a sneak preview of the chapter I co-authored with Scott Peters – titled: Learning and Knowing in Pursuit of Sustainability: Concepts and Tools for Trans-Disciplinary Environmental Research here: FinalPeters&Wals2013<

Meeting Malawi’s Minister of Environment & Climate Change Management

Earlier this month I had a fascinating week working with colleague Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University (SA) and three SANPAD PhD-students in Malawi (Tich from Zimbabwe, Aristide from Mozambique and Dick from Malawi) on research issues related to the PhD work on Social Learning and Natural Resource Management (See my earlier Blog Post on (Re)Views of Social Learning). In the city of Zomba Prof. Sosten Chioto of Chancellor College took us to a brand new community radio station that has been set up to reach rural area’s in Southern Malawi on issues of climate change and food security. The radio station (104.1 FM ChanCo Community Radio) mixes music and information and is quickly becoming one of the more popular stations in the region. A big part of its success seems to be the fact that listeners, even in some of the remotest of area’s, respond to questions using their cell phones, either by calling in or by sending in text messages.

While at the station for a recording session we had the opportunity to speak with the Honorable Halima Daud, Malawi’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management who later that week would open the annual congress of the Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa in Lilongwe where I was asked to give a keynote on “Environmental Education and the Green Economy – opportunities and pitfalls”

Meeting Halima Daud

Ms. Daud made it clear that the addition of ‘Climate Change Management’ to her job title was crucial to emphasize the severe challenges climate change poses on food security issues in the country. Particularly the shifting of the rain patterns is affecting seeding and harvesting cycles and is extending the dry season while the current systems are not set up for harvesting the intensified rains that do fall periodically in the wet season. This is negatively affecting productivity which, near the lake area’s is increasing the pressure on fisheries (where stocks are under pressure and declining rapidly). The latter is an issue that Dick’s thesis “Organizing Multi-stakeholder social learning to foster sustainable fishing” is seeking to address.

Both the conversation with Ms. Daud and the presentations and discussions at the EEASA conference confirmed that we live in times of accelerating changes that require creative, routine braking responses, from the world of business, governance, science but, indeed, also from education.

As an introduction to this I am including the Introductory chapter to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” (Wals & Corcoran, 2012) here: Introductory ChapterIntroduction – Wals & Corcoran, 2012

If you are interested in Food Security in relation to Sustainable Development you may want to have a look at the newly formed Centre for Sustainable development & Food Security at Wageningen University at:http://www.wageningenur.nl/en/Expertise-Services/Research-Institutes/centre-for-development-innovation/CSDFS.htm

Greening in the Red Zone… Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening – now available!

Cover Greening in the Red Zone

Cover Greening the Red Zone

Ok – it has taken some time to appear but finally this much anticipated volume is available. My former colleague Marlon van der Waal and I have a chapter in it titled: “Sustainability-Oriented Social Learning in Multi-cultural Urban Areas: The Case of the Rotterdam Environmental Centre” which explores the utilization of social cohesion and diversity in creating more sustainable multi-cultural communities. Community greening is seen as a catalyst for sustainability-oriented social learning. Greening here is not the same as literally adding green to a community (trees, parks, gardens) – although that certainly can be a part of it – but rather as a metaphor for improving quality of life and a stepping stone towards sustainability. Social learning is introduced as a process that builds social cohesion and relationships in order to be able to utilize the different perspectives, values and interests people bring to a sustainability challenge. Although there are many perspectives and definitions of social learning it is defined here as: a collaborative, emergent learning process that hinges on the simultaneous cultivation of difference and social cohesion in order to create joint ownership, and to unleash creativity and energy needed to break with existing patterns, routines or systems. The author proofs – for a sneak preview – can be found here: GreeningintheRedZoneWalsWaal

The full reference of our chapter is: Wals, A.E.J. & van der Waal, M.E. (2014) Sustainability-Oriented Social Learning in Multi-cultural Urban Areas: The Case of the Rotterdam Environmental Centre. In: Tidball, K. & Krasny, M. (Eds.) Greening in the Red Zone. Frankfurt a.m.: Springer, p379-396.

Greening in the Red Zone as a whole makes a first foray into the intriguing and potentially important field of “greening” by painting a comprehensive picture of how greening might be useful after major disasters. The book brings together renowned experts and practitioners from around the world. On the publisher’s website we can read:

“Creation and access to green spaces promotes individual human health, especially in therapeutic contexts among those suffering traumatic events. But what of the role of access to green space and the act of creating and caring for such places in promoting social health and well-being? Greening in the Red Zone asserts that creation and access to green spaces confers resilience and recovery in systems disrupted by violent conflict or disaster. This edited volume provides evidence for this assertion through cases and examples. The contributors to this volume use a variety of research and policy frameworks to explore how creation and access to green spaces in extreme situations might contribute to resistance, recovery, and resilience of social-ecological systems.”

Some advance praise:

This book takes important steps in advancing understanding of what makes communi­ties bounce back from disaster or violent conflict. The authors’ findings that creating and caring for green space contributes positively to recovery and resilience add to the toolkit of those working in disaster and conflict zones. W. C. Banks, Director, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, Syracuse University

Greening in the Red Zone is a highly relevant book. At a time when society is more separated than ever from the natural world, it offers additional reasons why our ongoing experience of nature is essential for the human body, mind and spirit. This book is both instructive and inspiring. S. R. Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus, Senior Research Scholar, Yale University

This is a fascinating book that greatly elevates our understanding of how the perspective of humans as an integrated part of nature may contribute to the resilience discourse. I warmly recommend this book to anyone interested in how we may prepare ourselves for an increasingly uncertain future. T. Elmqvist, Department of Systems Ecology and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University

Greening in the Red Zone is an important contribution to science and security policy and practice. This edited volume provides unique and novel approaches from a participatory, transparent, ecosystem-based perspective that puts those affected by disasters and conflict into positions of empowerment rather than weakness and dependency. This book is an interesting and timely contribution. C. Ferguson, President, Federation of American Scientists

Keywords »Community-based natural resource management – Greening – Post-conflict – Post-disaster – Resilience

If your interested in ordering this book you can go directly to the book’s website:

Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development

“Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development” is the third journal paper I co-authored with former Master students and colleague at Wageningen University Natalia Eernstman who is currently a PhD student at Falmouth University/ London School of Arts in the UK. The first two – related papers focused on the introduction of IFOAM organic labelling schemes and the (negative) impact therof on indigenous farming practices in the North-East of India: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Interfacing knowledge systems: introducing certified organic agriculture in a tribal society. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 56(4), 375-390 and Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. (2009) Jhum Meets IFOAM: Introducing Organic Agriculture in a Tribal Society. International Journal of Agriculture and Sustainability, 7(2), 95-106.

This new paper – based on Natalia’s PhD-work – is quite different in that it explores the utilisation of dialogic practices, site-specific theatre and a project conducted in a British village to generate processes of “context-based meaning finding”. It concludes that Education for Sustainable Development essentially starts with and revolves around re-embedding sustainable development in life and the act of living, engaging people in place through processes in which communities yield their own, context and time specific interpretations of sustainable development. The paper was published in ‘open-access’ journals Sustainability and can therefore be downloaded and shared for free! One interesting feature f the paper is that the some of the conversations with the participants in the study as they took place during walks in through the land(scape) can be accessed and hear. The editors insisted the links to the date were put in the notes in the end instead of as hyper-links in the text – which is regretable in my opinion. But here they are the links to the two excerpts provided (which make more sense when engaging with the full text first): “in the woods” (with Natalia narrating first about how she engaged the participants and used “walking” as a way to dig for meaning) and “on the bridge”

The full paper reference is: Eernstman, N. and Wals, A.E.J. “Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development”, Sustainability 2013, 5, 1645-1660; doi:10.3390/su5041645 It can be downloaded HERE. sustainability-05-01645

How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education

Please find below the introduction to an article that appeared earlier this week on the CTA website that I co-authored with two of my colleagues. The full paper contains some useful links and can be found here in English and here in French.  Some of the resources referred to are available via the Share Box of this blog.

How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education

Authors: Arjen Wals, Martin Mulder and Natalia Eernstmann,  Education & Competence Studies, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands

Introduction:

Continued globalization and digitalization are not only affecting how we think, what we know, who to believe and how we act, they also affect the role of education in society’. In this regard, they attempt to answer ‘what do we educate for in such a world when things change so fast and knowledge becomes obsolete before you know it?’ For example, Wageningen University started changing their identity by positioning themselves as life science universities, which aspire to contribute to a better world and improved quality of life. Is that the way to go for agricultural universities?

Jimma-University-College-of-Agriculture-and-Veterinary-Medicine-JUCAVM_contentfront

Photo:  Jimma University Agricultural College (JUCAVM); source: https://plus.google.com/107229457994018982305/photos?hl=en

In this feature article we provide a brief review of some trends in Tertiary Agricultural Education (TAE) within Europe and examines the world-wide shift from traditional transmissive to emerging transformative development of more dynamic competencies in a real-world setting. A number of new competencies are required including: interdisciplinary problem-solving, addressing multiple stakeholder interests, participatory approaches in innovation, interactive methods in conflict resolution, responsive actions regarding community needs, critical media literacy, and social responsibility in entrepreneurship, to name a few, along with those that still connect to specific content areas (e.g. animal science, plant science, environmental science and agro-technology).

This overarching innovation taking place in tertiary agricultural education in Europe is referred to as Competence-based Education and Training (CBET). A synthesis of the requirements for new graduates as defined by the public and the related competencies that are considered relevant is presented. A case study of the ten-step re-design of the MSc curriculum in horticulture at the Jimma University Agricultural College (JUCAVM) in Ethiopia is showcased.

Go here for the full article!