The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: business as usual in the end? – OPEN ACCESS!

Cartoon by Betsie Streeter

Cartoon by Betsie Streeter

Environmental Education Research has just published a special issue on environmental education in the age of neo-liberalism. It is a fascinating collection of papers! Here’s what SI editors Joe Henderson, David Hursh and David Greenwood write in their opening paper: This introduction to a special issue of Environmental Education Research explores how environmental education is shaped by the political, cultural, and economic logic of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, we suggest, has become the dominant social imaginary, making particular ways of thinking and acting possible while simultaneously discouraging the possibility and pursuit of others. Consequently, neoliberal ideals promoting economic growth and using markets to solve environmental and economic problems constrain how we conceptualize and implement environmental education. However, while neoliberalism is a dominant social imaginary, there is not one form of neoliberalism, but patterns of neoliberalization that differ by place and time. In addition, while neoliberal policies and discourses are often portrayed as inevitable, the collection shows how these exist as an outcome of ongoing political projects in which particular neoliberalized social and economic structures are put in place. Together, the editorial and contributions to the special issue problematize and contest neoliberalism and neoliberalization, while also promoting alternative social imaginaries that privilege the environment and community over neoliberal conceptions of economic growth and hyper-individualism. I had the good fortune to work together on a paper, reviewing the UN DESD from this perspective, with John Huckle. Here’s the abstract to our paper: HuckleWalsAbstract2

The paper is one of three papers (out of 13) that Taylor & Frances has made open-access! The paper’s citation is: Huckle, J., Wals, A.E.J. (2015)  The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: business as usual in the end. Environmental Education Research, 21(3), p. 491-505. DOI:10.1080/13504622.2015.1011084  It can be downloaded here HuckleWalsESDNeoliberalismEER2015

Sustainability Tipping points, Meaning and Transformation in 2015: one more week to submit to WEEC!

Perhaps 2015 will be the year that education, learning and action for socio-ecological sustainability will accelerate. Public unrest about climate change, micro-plastics in oceans and bodies, awareness of the hijacking of identity and colonalisation of the mind for business interests (don’t accept those cookies, or check that ‘I agree’ box too quickly), the increased yearning for meaning over consumption, can be considered early beginnings of a transition towards a healthier, more equitable, ecologically viable, morally defensible and peaceful world.

2015 will be the year where the UN Global Action Program for Education for Sustainable Development will be approved as one mechanism seeking to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Closer to home, in my own backyard, 2015 will be the year where the Dutch government will need to respond to a demand by the parliament that all Dutch education seriously addresses sustainability. This demand was initiated by 36 Dutch youth organisations last fall and somewhat surprisingly received a majority.

2015 will be the year where the city of Gothenburg in Sweden will host the 8th World Environmental Education Congress (WEEC2015) in June. The conference identifies 11 key themes to be explored during the conference and beyond, and all represent potential tipping points in a transition towards sustainability. I have listed them below but please go the conference website (http://weec2015.org/) for more information or have a look at a short ‘pitch’ for the conference that was taped last year to promote the conference.

  1. Taking Children seriously in addressing global challenges

We only have one planet, it’s simple, it’s the only we one we have, and we have got to look after it. But when we explore ’People and Planet and how they can develop together’, what people are we talking about? In this strand we focus on the young both as victims, heirs and catalyst and agents of change: not only the children growing up in affluence but also those growing up in poverty. How can we create spaces for them to become fully self-actualized members of society who can ably and meaningfully contribute to a transition towards a more sustainable world in which People and Planet develop together?

  1. Reclaiming sense of place in the digital age

Place-based approaches emphasizing the importance of place and place-based identity in determining our relations with the planet are on the rise across the globe. The focus on place and identity is timely as the complexity and uncertainty brought on by globalization and the rapid pace of technological and social change resulting in enormous cultural shifts which include a search for meaning and affiliation in locally defined identities. Although there are some who are worried about the ‘disconnect’ between people and place that results from a pre-occupation with and dependency on information and communication technologies, there are also those who see the use of ICTs as a way to reconnect people and places. There are numerous examples of citizens monitoring changes in the environment (e.g. changing bird migration patterns, changing quality of water, soil and air, changes in biodiversity) using GIS, cell phones, and specially designed monitoring apps. This strand explores the opportunities for reconnecting people and planet locally in a rapidly changing world.

  1. Environmental education and poverty reduction

As the millennium development goals are being replaced by sustainable development goals and there appears to be a shift from ‘education for all’ to ‘quality education for all‘, an important question is: what is the role of EE in reducing poverty? Already in 1975 (Belgrade Charter on EE) and 1977 (Tbilisi Declaration) EE was assigned a role in overcoming inequality and questioning unsustainable economic models to help alleviate poverty. But what has EE done concretely since? And why has reducing inequity and poverty been under-emphasized in the DESD? As poor people around the world are disproportionately affected by the impact of climate change, mining, resource depletion, loss of food and nutrition security, and so on, environmental and sustainability educators need to look for ways to engage multiple stakeholders (schools, communities, governments, private sector and civil society organizations) in strategies to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods. In this strand we look for researched practices from around the world that seek to do so.

  1. Learning in vital coalitions for green cities

Transition towns, eco-villages, urban agriculture, green schools with edible school gardens, are becoming more and more mainstream and widespread. These initiatives all require forms of joint learning with sometimes unlikely partners. Organizing such learning, also referred to as multi-stakeholder social learning, requires a new role for environmental and sustainability educators and policy-makers. A new task might be: brokering and supporting vital coalitions that are both energizing and generative in engaging citizens, including children and youth, meaningfully in greening urban areas in order to contribute to local food security, health and ecological stewardship. This thematic strand explores these emerging and expanding initiatives from a learning perspective: What kind of learning is taking place? Who is learning? How can such learning be supported? What is the impact of these coalitions on the learners themselves, the organisations they represent and the community they seek to improve?

  1. (Re) emerging concepts for environmental stewardship and sustainability

Since the birth of environmental education in the sixties of the last century emphasis has been placed on systems thinking and a more holistic approach to problem solving or situation improvement. Over the years many learning activities and curricula have been developed by environmental educators but still the challenge of enabling people to see connections, relationships and interdependencies, is as big as back then but the urgency to so is greater than ever. In meeting this challenge there are calls for re-discovering and utilizing indigenous ways of knowing but at the same time there are new concepts such as bio-mimicry, cradle to cradle and life cycle analysis that show promise in strengthening integral thinking and design. In this strands the educational potential of old, new and blended ways of ‘thinking the earth whole’ is explored.

  1. Mind the gap! Moving from awareness to action

Early EE was informed by insights from behaviourist social psychology suggesting that an increase in environmental awareness would lead to more responsible environmental behaviour. This assumed linearity between increasing knowledge-growing-awareness and changing-behaviour has shown to be weak. Attitude-behaviour models have since then been revised to include a number of additional factors and feedback loops. Just providing information, raising awareness and changing attitudes apparently is not enough to change people’s behaviour. But still policy-makers and donors want ‘evidence’ that education leads to a change in behaviour and improved environmental quality. In this thematic strand we re-visit the ‘gap’ by exploring new behavioural models and new forms of ‘evidence’ taking a critical look at projects and approaches that successfully influence and/or change behaviour.

  1. Assessing environmental and sustainability education in times of accountability

In this thematic strand the focus is on assessment of learners in school settings (K-12 and vocational education). In many countries there is a call for climbing the rankings and excelling in math, science and languages (cfr. the Pisa rankings). This often leads to a focus on the testing of ‘universal’ knowledge. At the same time schools – in their own context – need to pay attention to sustainability, health, citizenship, arts and humanities while preparing learners for a rapidly changing world and workplace. These claims seem to be competing with one another. How can environmental and sustainability education navigate this force field? Are there alternative ways of assessing learners that provide more space for meaningful learning around real/authentic issues?

  1. Beyond the green economy: educating and learning for green jobs in a green society

Driven perhaps by mostly economic interests and technological innovations, companies and governments are beginning to re-orient themselves to what is commonly referred to as the ‘green economy’ and its related ‘green skills’ and ‘green jobs’. The demand for a workforce that is capable to work in such an economy is on the rise and (vocational) schools are responding by re-orienting their curricula. From an environmental and sustainability perspective it is important to critically follow this trend in order to make sure that the P for People and the P for Planet receive at least as much attention as the P for Profit or Prosperity. In this thematic strand we invite participants to discuss the role of environmental and sustainability education at the interface between school and community and the world of work.

  1. New perspectives on research in environmental and sustainability education

The increased attention to ‘engagement’ in environmental learning has resulted in a greater focus on the agency of citizens, young and old, and their active participation in all phases of learning and inquiry. Positioning citizens in such roles is consistent with calls for treating all people as responsible agents capable of participating in changing and improving their circumstances. Doing so is considered crucial as the complexity and seemingly overwhelming nature of sustainability issues can easily lead to negativity and action paralysis. This is why some environmental education researchers emphasize not only the intellectual engagement of people in socio-ecological issues, but also their emotional engagement. For environmental education research to contribute to citizen engagement in socio-ecological-environmental issues, forms of civically engaged scholarship with appropriate research methodologies and methods are needed urgently. In this thematic strand participants are encouraged to share, reflect on and discuss emergent perspectives on research in environmental and sustainability education.

  1. Educational policy development for environment & sustainability

Communities, schools and universities are affected by a number of educational policies that are not always consistent with one another and offer varying opportunities for addressing environment and sustainability in a meaningful way. This strand investigates existing and new policies and innovations that offer the most promise for enabling educational change for a more sustainable future, including in relation to educational institutions’ approaches to curriculum, research, facilities operations, governance, and broader engagement with community and place.

  1. Education and learning for climate change adaptation and resilience

Communities, both urban and rural, are experiencing the impacts of climate change in sometimes subtle (e.g. the shifting of seasons, change of bird migration patterns) and not so subtle (e.g. flooding, droughts) ways. How can education and learning help communities adapt to these impacts and become more resilient in their response? How do communities strengthen their capacities for social resilience, reduced vulnerability and an integral risk management? Or should the focus be on ’adaptation’ and ’resilience’ reflecting the inevitability of climate change while de-emphasising climate change mitigation or prevention?

IF ANY OF THESE THEMES SPEAK TO YOU AND YOU FEEL YOU CAN MAKE A CONTRIBUTION GO TO http://weec2015.org/ AND SUBMIT YOUR ABSTRACT BY JANUARY 14TH!

Strengthening ecological mindfulness through hybrid learning in vital coalitions

New article written by Jifke Sol & Arjen Wals published in a journal called Cultural Studies of Science Education

DOI: 10.1007/s11422-014-9586-z  /  Online Date: 6/11/2014

In this new paper a key policy ‘tool’ used in the Dutch Environmental Education and Learning for Sustainability Policy framework is introduced as a means to develop a sense of place and associated ecological mindfulness. The key elements of this tool, called the vital coalition, are described while an example of its use in practice, is analysed using a form of reflexive monitoring and evaluation. The example focuses on a multi-stakeholder learning process around the transformation of a somewhat sterile pre-school playground into an intergenerational green place suitable for play, discovery and engagement. Our analysis of the policy-framework and the case leads us to pointing out the importance of critical interventions at so-called tipping points (see the figure below) within the transformation process and a discussion of the potential of hybrid learning in vital coalitions in strengthening ecological mindfulness. This paper does not focus on establishing an evidence base for the causality between this type of learning and a change in behavior or mindfulness among participants as a result contributing to a vital coalition but rather focusses on the conditions, processes and interventions that allow for such learning to take place in the first place.

Tipping points in transitional learning

Figure: Tipping points in transitional learning

Keywords: Ecological mindfulness – Vital coalitions – Hybrid learning – Place-based education – Reflexivity

The full paper for personal use – under the condition that is not shared – can be obtained by emailing arjen.wals@wur.nl  or through your library system

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.

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

Milestone in an evolving field: International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education

IHEERBookCover

2013 marks the year in which the world’s largest and most diverse educational research organization – the AERA – jointly with Routledge, published the International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education (Stevenson, Brody, Dillon & Wals, 2013). The field of Environmental Education has roughly existed for just under 50 years and has over time developed its own research, research networks and research journals. The AERA commssioned the editors in 2009 to compile this Handbook as a part of AERA’s Handbook Series on Education Research.

The International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education describes the important concepts, findings and theories developed by the research community and examines the historical progression, current debates and controversies, missing elements from EE research agenda, and the future.
The environment and contested notions of sustainability are increasingly topics of public interest, political debate, and legislation across the world. Environmental education journals now publish research from a wide variety of methodological traditions that show linkages between the environment, health, development, and education. The growth in scholarship makes this an opportune time to review and synthesize the knowledge base of the environmental education (EE) field. The purpose of this 51-chapter handbook is to illuminate the most important concepts, findings and theories that have been developed by EE research and critically examine the historical progression of the field, its current debates and controversies, what is still missing from the EE research agenda, and where that agenda might be headed.

You can find the orginal proofs of chapter 1 here: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J and Wals, A.E.J. (2012). International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education_Ch01_1pp In: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2012) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge, 1-12

The Handbook can be order through Routledge or any on-line bookseller. Here’s a link to the Routledge Handbook page which also contains the Table of Contents. Should you be working for a university you may want to recommend the Handbook for you library.

Just out: (Re)views of Social Learning Literature – A Monograph for Social Learning Researchers in Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education

Recently a monograph containing (Re)views of Social Learning Literature in the context of Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education was published by the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) in conjuntion with WESSA, Rhodes University, Wageningen University and the Environmental Learning Centre. On the cover page it states: “This monograph provides four different reviews on social learning literature. Rather than seeking to be comprehensive, the reviews provide views on the social learning literature, from different perspectives. The papers scope aspects of the social learning literature, providing access to a wide body of literature(s) on social learning. This monograph should be useful for researchers interested in social learning in the fields of environmental education and natural resources management.”

The monograph was edited by Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University and the result of collaboration between Wageningen University and Rhodes with support of SANPAD (the South Africa – Netherlands Partnership for Development funded by the Dutch government) and the UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development. The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

The excerpt below comes from the foreword I was asked to write.

How can learning not be social? Isn’t all learning social? These are often the kinds of questions I get when I share my fascination with social learning. Arguably all meaningful learning is inter-relational (with others, including other species, with place and, indeed with oneself) and requires some level of reflexivity by mirroring the significance of one’s encounters with the inner sediments (frames, values, perspectives and worldviews) of prior experiences. The result tends to be a process of further solidification (freezing) or a loosening (unfreezing) or a modification (re-framing) or even the parallel occurrence of all three. So yes, the ‘social’  as inter-relational is crucial in most, perhaps all learning, that we engage in, but even though this is emphasised in social learning, this is not what sets it apart from related learning concepts such as collaborative learning, participatory learning, group learning, and so on.

It appears that in the context of working on inevitably ill-defined and ill-structured issues and situations (e.g. natural resource management issues or sustainability issues) there is an increased awareness that there is no one single perspective that can resolve or even improve such issues. Much social learning literature therefore refers to the importance of bringing together multiple perspectives, values and interests, including marginal and marginalised ones in order to be able to creatively and energetically break with stubborn routines that led to unsustainability in the first place. Despite the range of views on social learning that currently exist, the utilisation of pluralism and/or diversity in multi-stakeholder settings is often referred to as a key component of social learning. Now it would be naïve to think that just by putting people with different backgrounds, perspectives, values and so on together, this creative and energising process would automatically start. This is where another form of ‘social’ comes in: social cohesion, sometimes referred to as social capital. In order to be able to create a constructive dynamic that allows diversity to play its generative role in finding routine-breaking solutions to sustainability challenges, there needs to be sufficient social cohesion between the participating actors, even between those who don’t seem to care much about each other.  In much of the social learning literature stress is placed on things like: investing in relationships, deformalising communication, co-creation of future scenarios and joint fact-finding. The idea is that when people who don’t think alike, or even disagree, engage in a common task in a pleasant and safe environment, they will find their common humanity (which is considered a first step in developing the empathy for the other) needed to open up and engage with the other’s perspective. Creating such an environment is an art in itself and requires careful facilitation – another key topic area in social learning literature.

In the open-access publication acoustics-digital acoustics-digital(which appeared at the launch of the Wageningen University UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development (Wals et al., 2009) we used the metaphor of an improvising jazz ensemble to capture the essence of social learning.

“Chaos frequently emerges in an (improvising) jazz ensemble, but structure rules. Everyone makes up part of the whole and that whole is, if it sounds good, more than the sum of the parts. Every musician has his/her own experiences and competencies, but also intuition and empathy. The ensemble doesn’t know how
things will sound ahead of time, but its members instinctively know when things sound good. They have faith in one another and in a good outcome. Leadership is sometimes essential and therefore provided by one of the musicians or a director, or it sometimes shifts and rotates. The music is sometimes written down, though this is often not the case, and everyone simply improvises. If it sounds good, then the audience will respond appreciatively, that is to say, those who enjoy jazz music (and not everyone does…). People from the audience sometimes join in, changing the composition of the ensemble. The acoustics of the hall in which the music is played is important as well: not all halls sound alike and some have more character. A concert may also be recorded to serve as inspiration elsewhere, though this does not happen often…” (Wals et al., 2009, p.3).

Indeed social learning processes remind one of an improvising jazz ensemble. They too are intangible in a certain sense, and are therefore not easily controlled. Success often depends on the people concerned and on the manner in which they became involved. There are ideas regarding which direction the participants want to go and there are even recurring patterns, but the ultimate result comes about little by little. Sometimes, but certainly not all the time, the conditions are quite optimal and the process brings out the unique qualities and perspectives of everyone and results in surprisingly novel solutions and actions. Indeed, in social learning too the whole is more than the sum of its parts.This monograph, consistent with some key ideas underpinning social learning, brings together and confronts different views on social learning, in order to arrive at a better understanding of the potential and the limitations of social learning in the context of natural resource management, environmental management and sustainability.  The monograph represents one of the fruits of a collaborative effort between Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Rhodes University in South Africa. It represents a wonderful entry point into social learning for (young) academics not only in The Netherlands and South Africa, but all around the world, as some of the literature reviewed and the issues raised clearly transcend these two countries.

The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

Reference

Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.

From the virtual to the real, discovering the world in 4D by leaving our screens behind: the potential of outdoor learning in a digital age

With nowadays many people, young and older, all over the world spending 80-90 % of their waking hours behing a screen (smart phone, tablet, laptop,TV or PC – to mix it up a bit) it is time to refer back to a study on the impact of educational nature immersion programme’s on child development completed by Wageningen University back in 2012.  The study received some national press at the time via an interview for the Dutch news paper ‘Het Parool’ which was also picked-up by another major paper ‘het Algemeen Dagblad’ in its first issue of 2013 (I have included a copy of the latter interview at the end of this post, in Dutch I’m afraid).

A question that we did not ask at the time is whether the ICTs can be designed and used in such a way that they can perhaps help people reconnect with people and planet/place, given that these technologies are likely to stay. This is something the more recent paper in Science on the convergence of science education and environmental education using ICT-supported Citizen Science as a bridge suggests. See: ScienceWalsetall2014

Below I have pasted the English Executive Summary of the report. For the full report please click the link just above the photo of the report’s cover which is shown below as well.

Please note that the report itself and the articles are in Dutch

Toen ik er meer over ging weten werd het leuk Compleet(3)inclUKabstract

Image

The impact of educational nature immersion programme’s on child development

Connecting Children to Nature through an Educational Nature Immersion Programme

Full citation in Dutch:

Van der Waal, M.E., Hovinga, Wals, A.E.J en van Koppen, C.S.A. (2012) “Toen ik er meer over ging weten werd het leuk”: Onderzoek naar de meerwaarde van het educatieve natuurbelevingsprogramma ‘NatuurWijs’ in vergelijking met regulier natuuronderwijs. Rapport, Wageningen: Educatie & Competentiestudies, Wageningen Universiteit, 116 p.

Full citation in English:

Van der Waal, M.E., Hovinga, Wals, A.E.J en van Koppen, C.S.A. (2012) “Once I started to get to know it better, it became fun”: A study of the added-value of an educational nature-immersion programme ‘NatureWise’ in comparison with standard nature education in Dutch Primary schools. Research Report, Wageningen: Education and Competence Studies, Wageningen University, 116 p.

Executive Summary

Most of the world’s children grow up in urban areas with little access to the natural world. Presently there is a renewed interest in The Netherlands but elsewhere as well, in the provision of educational experiences that can help children connect with the natural world.  This interest is fuelled by an increased concern about the decline in (young) people’s health (e.g. the rise of obesity in many parts of the world), their understanding of how nature works (e.g. in relation to climate change and biodiversity loss), their ability to concentrate and engage in deep thinking, as a result of the rapid rise of digitally mediated interaction, Around the globe school-based programmes have been developed that immerse children in nature-oriented experiences near (e.g. on school grounds) and not so near places (e.g. in a natural area driving distance away from the school). The programmes vary in intensity (from once a year to periodically throughout the year), educational approach (from more cognitive and understanding oriented to more whole person-oriented) didactical orientation (from show and tell modes of instruction to more free flowing, experiential and discovery-based approaches), and the role of outside experts (from low involvement of outside expertise to high involvement of outside expertise.

Little research has been done on the impact of such programs on children’s development, learning and their understanding of and connections with nature. Longitudinal studies where children are followed over a longer period of time are even scarcer. This study reports on a three year longitudinal study of children (age 8-10) who participated in NatureWise, a nature immersion programme that takes children into the forest under the guidance of a forest ranger three times a year. NatureWise (NW) is a carefully designed programme that requires school-based preparation for each of the so-called forest days as well as school-based reflection on the significance and lessons learnt of each on those days. The programme seeks to develop ‘head’ (development of cognitive understanding of ecological principles and life in and management of the forest), ‘hart’ (development of affective, emotional bonding with nature and associated values) and, ‘hands’ (development of psycho-motor skills needed to care for nature).

An experimental design was created that included 6 primary schools, 3 from urban areas and 3 from more rural areas. In each school for each participating grade a NatureWise-class was followed as was a control class which did not participate in NW but followed the normal nature education programme that can be considered typical for most Dutch primary schools. Most Dutch primary schools at present allocate limited time to both nature-oriented and experience-oriented education mainly because of pressure to increase the scores on standardized tests in reading, writing, general sciences and arithmetic. In the worst case schools only provide 30 minutes weekly of a school television programme called ‘News from Natural World.” Within each class a group of eight pupils was followed more intensively to obtain a deeper understanding of the children’s development. Children’s concept-maps and activity booklets (in year 1 and year 3 of the study) were analysed as well as interviews with the eight focus children from each class. In addition all participating teachers (n=24) were interviewed about their understanding of nature education in general and NW in particular (for those who participated in NW) as well as about the changes they observed in the children and about the influence of the children’s home-situation on their exposure to and connection with nature. In addition classes were observed periodically during lessons about nature. In total 185 children between the ages of 8 and 10 participated in the study. Methodologically the study can be classified as a phenomenological study in that as much as possible the researchers tried to capture children’s understanding of and connection with nature, and the teacher’s understanding thereof, through their own eyes by trying to minimize the influence of the researcher’s own preconceived notions about what to expect while trying to maximize the opportunities for children and teachers to express themselves freely, undistorted by expectations about what is ‘right’.

The relationship between children and nature, according to this study, is in its essence mostly playful and animal-oriented. The children are not always conscious or aware of this relationship but the relationship becomes stronger and more explicit when given the opportunity to explore nature in their own life-world. The children’s relationship can be classified as pluralistic and culture-bound. In highly urbanized settings the relationship appears weaker as the opportunities to explore and connect with nature, both in the home setting and the neighbourhood, are rather limited. The role of the parents and the school in fostering children’s connections with nature is quite significant. A nurturing home and school environment, enabling children to have multiple and idiosyncratic experiences in nature or nature-like areas, can help create conditions that allow children to develop a stronger and more meaningful bond with nature. Such experiences include:  discovering new things and pathways in nature, seeing how others respond to experiences in nature, learning to cope with anxiety, overcoming challenges, learning how to ‘observe’ and developing a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings, storing of memories both mentally and physically (e.g. by taking home artefacts from nature, and, finally, by sharing experiences in nature in conversation and through other forms of expression (e.g. arts) at home and at school with parents, care-givers, siblings, peers and teachers.

For the pupils it is important that they learn to know and to identify nature – or what is seen as nature or green in a country where nature arguably hardly exists in in a ‘pure’ and overwhelming sense – in their own neighbourhood. This knowing and identifying makes it possible for them to shape their own meaningful relationship with nature.  This connects with the general interest most children display in nature: they want to know how nature works, how they can be good for nature and environment, how they can survive in nature, what they can find in nature, and how animals live. Given the somewhat impoverished state of nature (conservation) education in most Dutch schools, addressing these questions and building up ecological literacy must not be rushed but rather needs to be done gradually. One difference between the children growing up in the heavily urbanized environments and the children growing up in more rural environments is that the urban children also display a keen interest in cultural aspects and are more pre-occupied with the human-nature relationship.

When considering the regular nature education ‘taught’ to the control groups in the participating schools it can be concluded that there is quite a bit of variation in between the schools and even within the schools.  This leads to great differences in the ways children are exposed to nature in the school setting.

In some classes the occasional watching of ‘News from the Natural World’ on school TV is all that is offered. In other classes teachers do their utmost to develop knowledge and literacy in connection to the natural world and seek to extend this to also develop positive attitudes towards nature and the skills to care for nature. But there are many other differences: some schools have a specific nature education method or text book others do not, some schools make an effort in getting students outside of the classroom, others do not, some schools bring plants and animals to the classroom, others do not, some schools do classroom experiments, others do not, some schools bring in outside experts to talk about nature, others do not, some schools have special projects weeks, others do not…

Clearly, the children participating in the NatureWise programme do so within different contexts, some being more conducive to nature education than others. The research shows that most children, not all, benefit from participating in NW frequently over a 2-3 year which is expressed in an increase in knowledge of nature, deepened sensory and affective engagement with nature, and more sensitive behaviour towards nature. The added value of NW lies is multiple: children are in a position to establish direct contact with nature, children gain more confidence and interest in nature which helps them understand information about nature that comes to them through the media, children are better positioned to develop empathy towards another species, children come to see the importance of caring for nature, children are given hands-on opportunities to care for nature, and, finally, children get to enjoy being in nature aesthetically, psycho-motorically and intellectually. All this combined makes children more inclined to actively seek nature. The research therefore confirms the key premises of experience-oriented nature education programmes, although it should be noted that not all participating students display such a development and that in the control group some students display a similar development under favourable conditions in the school and/or home environment.

Participation in NW also results in a number of positive spin-off effects among the teachers, especially among those who already have some affinity with nature and nature education and/or are at least open to it from a professional development perspective and/or are part of a school characterized by a positive pedagogical climate emphasizing continuous improvement. Where these conditions or a subset thereof, exist, it turns out that teachers come to view their pupils differently: they discover qualities that they failed to see before or only moderately recognized in a regular classroom setting. In addition they come to appreciate the value of emotions, the affective domain and using all the senses for children’s personal development but also for teaching and learning in general.   As a result these teachers are better positioned to see the educational potential of the green outdoors, even in highly urbanized areas, and seem more capable in connecting learning outside school with learning inside school. Another spin-off effect concerns the children’s parents.  The anecdotes and narratives provided by both the teachers and the pupils suggest that NW, at least in some instances, also positively influences the parents when the outdoor experiences are shared at home.

Although these findings can be considered positive some cautionary remarks need to be made. The impact of NW is highest when a number of factors help enhance the NW-experience. These factors are:

  1. The geographical location of the school – NW at present has more impact on children growing-up in city environments.
  2. The pedagogical climate at school – NW has more impact when there is space for experiential and discovery-based learning but also when a school dares to abandon the standard curriculum at times.
  3. The teacher’s attitude towards nature and nature education – NW has more impact when a teacher has affinity with Biology, nature and the outdoors.
  4. The educational qualities of the outdoor guide – NW has more impact when the outdoor guide understands the world of a child and possesses didactical and pedagogical qualities.
  5. The involvement of parents and/or care givers – NW has more impact when the home environment engages with the children’s experiences.

When all or even a sub-set of these factors work in the right direction, these positive impacts are more likely to occur, even in children who do not participate in NW. At the same time, when most of these factors work in the other direction these impacts are less likely to occur, even in children who do participate in NW.

Overall, the potential added value of participating in an educational nature immersion programme such as NW, is highest in urban settings where the challenge to (re)connect children with nature appears greatest. In order benefit from a programme such as NW the most it is recommended that before implementing the programme an inventory is made of the five factors listed above.  A first analysis or quick-scan of these factors can help reveal areas that require attention before implementing NW or can give cause to adapt the NW-programme in such a way that it is likely to resonate better with the school, the children, the teachers and the wider community. As such this research provides an argument for more tailor-made programmes but also for policies that support these factors.

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INTERVIEW Algemeen Dagblad 02/01/13

Note: The articles fail to recognize that the study was conducted by a team of researchers consisting of Marlon van der Waal and Dieuwke Hovinga (OVC-Advies & Lector Hogeschool Leiden) – who both did the bulk of the research – and Kris van Koppen (Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University) and myself.

InterviewAlgemeenDagblad

Just out: The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology

About two years ago Susan Clayton invited me to contribute to a major handbook on environmental and conservation psychology (33 chapters, 780 pages!). She felt it was important to also have a chapter on the role of education and learning in connecting people with ‘nature’, ‘place’ and ‘environment’ but also in engaging them with ‘sustainability’ issues. It gave me the opportunity to write a, hopefully somewhat accessible and compehensive, introduction to the field of environmental education and the related emerging field of education and learning for sustainability. At the end of this post there is a link to the proofs of this chapter.

Environmental psychology studies the ways in which people perceive and respond to the physical environment, whereas conservation psychology  tends to refer to psychological research on the need and ways to protect the natural environment. What is conservation psychology, and what is its relationship to environmental psychology? This new Handbook answers those questions. From the Oxford University Press website:

“The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology includes basic research on environmental perceptions, attitudes, and values; research on specific environments, such as therapeutic settings, schools, and prisons; environmental impacts on human well-being; and ways to promote a more sustainable relationship between people and the natural environment. By presenting an extensive review of current research, the handbook serves as a thorough guide to the state of knowledge about a wide range of topics at the intersection of psychology and the physical environment. Beyond this, it provides a better understanding of the relationship between environmental and conservation psychology, and some sense of the directions in which these interdependent areas of study are heading. Research on the human-environment relationship is increasingly relevant to understanding and addressing the environmental challenges society is facing. This handbook should serve as a resource for professionals both within and outside of psychology who are trying to comprehend the human implications of environments, and to design programs, policies, and environments that are cognizant of human psychology.”

Here’s some background inforrmation about the chapter I contributed (for a full Table of Contents please go to the publisher’s website).

Wals, A.E.J. (2012) Learning our way out of un-sustainability: the role of environmental education. In: Clayton, S. (Ed.) Handbook on Environmental and Conservation Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 628-644. (by clicking on the title you can get to the proofs of the chapter).

Abstract

In this chapter the role of education in creating a planet that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect will be discussed from two vantage points: an instrumental one and an emancipatory one. The instrumental perspective emphasizes the potential of education in changing human environmental behavior in predetermined and more or less agreed upon directions. The emancipatory perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential of education in strengthening people’s capacities and confidence to enable them to help determine how to live together in ways that do not further undermine the carrying capacity of the earth. Whereas the former, more behaviourist vantage point tends to have more support among environmentalists with a strong concern about the rapid loss of biodiversity, climate change, depletion of natural resources, and so on, the latter, more human development–oriented vantage point, tends to have more support among educators with a strong concern for self-determination, agency, and democracy. The chapter ends with the introduction of “post-normal” environmental education.

Key Words

environmental education, sustainable development, nature conservation education, emancipatory learning, instrumental learning, agency, participation, post-normal science

Action Research & Community Problem Solving and The Acoustics of Social Learning

Recently I re-visited The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I once was a PhD-student with the late Bill Stapp, considered the founding father of Environmental Education, as my mentor. During those years (1987-1992) we worked in inner-city Detroit schools to help make education more relevant and meaningful to students growing up under harsh conditions. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding the two schools that we worked with have changed in some ways (the crack houses have been demolished mostly, some abandoned lots have been converted into what is referred to as “Detroit Agriculture” and the kids we worked with have grown-up when gotten the chance or, more likely, have moved or passed away (the life expectancy of many of the youngsters in these ‘hoods’ was not all that high in the 1980-ties). Of course some things haven’t changed, for instance, there is still poverty and most education is probably still not all that relevant and meaningful (something that holds true for kids growing up in more affluent communities as well).

Driving past 8 mile road reminded me of the time we spent with teachers and students in re-designing the curriculum to allow for the kids to link their education to the issues that mattered most to them and for the teachers to link those issues to the curriculum they were expected to teach. In the end we came up with “action research and community problem solving” (ARCPS) – a cyclical learning process consisting of problem identification and analysis, generating ideas for action and change, selecting and design concrete action plans, actual implementation and evaluation of those plans – with action and reflection throughout the process.

As we talk about sustainability, transition towns, community greening, social learning, transformation and so on a lot these days, I realize that some of the work done back then is very relevant today – there’s one difference though: much of what was considered radical and out of the main stream back then is getting much more traction today which is why I am offering a key paper from that time here: Action Research & Community Problem Solving (full reference: Wals, A.E.J. (1994). Action Research and Community Problem Solving: environmental education in an inner-city. Educational Action Research, 2 (2), 163-183) and along with what in some ways is a modern version of ARCPS: The Acoustics of Social Learning. The latter publication is more recent (an available as open access) and center’s more on community-based and multi-stakeholder social learning in the context of sustainability but has similar premises and a similar cyclical reflexive learning process. This publication can be found here: Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.

Green Economy – business as usual? ESD – education as usual? Rio +20 or Rio -20?

It has been about a month now since 40-50 thousand people (from policy-makers to activists, CSOs, NGOs to CEOs) came to Rio to discuss the future of the Planet. What was accomplished? Having been among the privileged ones to be able to go to the meeting I can safely say that Rio minus 20 (The Stockholm Conference on Environment and Development) was more ground-breaking than Rio plus 20. Some will disagree with me as they see the interest of the private sector in environment and sustainability as a major step forward. The issues of 1972 have moved from the margin to the mainstream. The role of education – with Stockholm as a launching pad for Environmental Education and Rio as a launching pad for Education for Sustainable Development – has been ‘re-affirmed’ in the final declaration, much to the delight of UNESCO which hopes that Rio +20 will lead to an extension of ESD beyond the closing of the UN’s Decade for ESD (2014). At the end of this post you can read a briefing from UNESCO’s ESD-section head Alexander Leicht about the results achieved in Rio from his perspective.

I was invited to Rio to present the review of the UN DESD which UNESCO commissioned me to write up in the report 2012 DESD Full-length Report”.  Basically there are three reports: the one I submitted to UNESCO, the full report as edited and authorized by UNESCO and an abridged, glossy version for policy-makers that contains a selection of texts from the full report made by UNESCO’s ESD section. Some of the rough edges and critical notes of the original report were taken out somewhat to my dismay.

One of the key messages from the reports is that ESD or sustainability education can act as a potential catalyst for educational renewal and the introduction of new forms of learning and pedagogies (e.g. social learning, transformative learning, critical pedagogy). There is also a section addressing the changing role of science in society in times of uncertainty, complexity, eroding trust of hegemonic systems, and of rapid change. This theme connects well with the “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” book featured in my previous post. There is some movement within higher education but also within less institutionalized environments to transition towards new forms of knowledge co-creation and self-determined practices that are considered more sustainable and transformative. At a side-event the so-called Treaty on Higher Education Towards Sustainable development was launched that calls for the transformation of higher education itself in order to become part of the transformation towards a more sustainable world. Clearly, when taking some of these counter movements and alternative approaches to education and learning seriously ESD cannot mean ‘education as usual’.

Finally, although the green economy has been billed as ‘an opportunity’ both in the report and in Rio there is also the cautionary tale about privileging the ‘green economy’ as a driver for societal transformation as opposed to the ‘green society’ and, with that, ESD becoming an extension of economic globalization.

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Education/Education for Sustainable Development and Rio+20 (compiled by Alexander Leicht UNESCO’s ESD section)

Summary and preliminary conclusions regarding Education/Education for Sustainable Development at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) from a UNESCO perspective

  1. While the overall outcome of the Rio+20 conference contains few new joint commitments by governments regarding sustainable development, the outcome for education and in particular Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is positive. The education passages in the outcome document, The Future We Want, are in line with UNESCO’s priorities and contain a clear call to continue ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014, education was frequently mentioned at the conference as an important area of sustainable development, and UNESCO’s ESD side-event was successful and very well attended.

Conference outcomes

  1. Member States reaffirm in the outcome document their commitment to achieving universal access to primary education and reaffirm that “full access to quality education at all levels is an essential condition for achieving sustainable development” and the internationally agreed development goals. Greater international cooperation to improve access to education, the need to strengthen and build education infrastructure, and increasing investment in education, in particular regarding quality education for all in developing countries, are also emphasized.
  2. The outcome document emphasizes the link between quality education and ESD, which is an important emphasis of UNESCO’s ESD work. The “need for better quality and access to education beyond the primary level” means that “the capacity of our education systems to prepare people to pursue sustainable development” must be improved. This includes the development of “sustainability curricula” and of “training programmes that prepare students for careers in fields related to sustainability”. The importance of non-formal education in pursuit of sustainable development is also recognized.
  3. Member States commit to strengthening ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014: “We resolve to promote education for sustainable development and to integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.”
  4. A ‘whole institution approach’ to ESD – “teaching sustainable development as an integrated component across all disciplines” together with “sustainability management” on the campus and engagement with the community – is particularly encouraged for education institutions. Research and innovation for sustainable development, including in education, are also highlighted, as well as programmes in the areas of “entrepreneurship and business skills training, professional, technical and vocational training and lifelong learning” with a view to “bridging skills gaps for advancing national sustainable development objectives.” Information, education and training on sustainability to strengthen the capacities of workers are referred to in the context of green economy policies.
  5. From UNESCO’s perspective it is important that the document treats education not merely instrumentally as a means of implementation for sustainable development, but that education (paras. 229-235) is grouped with other thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues of sustainable development.
  6. The document recognizes the usefulness of a limited set of concrete sustainable development goals, which should be integrated into the UN development agenda after 2015 and drive the achievement and mainstreaming of sustainable development. Their development should be guided by the outcome document, that is, goals will presumably be formulated on the basis of the thematic areas mentioned in the document. Regarding process, an open working group of 30 representatives will be established at the 67th session of the General Assembly and submit its proposal for goals to the 68th session. The Secretary-General will give first input into this group and support its work through an interagency technical support team. The document very generally states that the process must be coherent with the deliberations on the post-2015 development agenda. This will obviously have to be closely monitored in the context of the development of EFA follow-up and in order to ensure UNESCO’s priorities, including ESD, are taken into account in any post-2015 development/sustainable development agenda. More generally, UNESCO’s involvement with Rio provided further support to the view that the Organization’s ESD work needs to connect closely and strategically to global agendas in sustainable development, development and education.

Other issues regarding UNESCO/ED’s engagement with Rio

  1. UNESCO’s side-event on ESD, which was co-organized with and supported by the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, was highly successful and very well attended. It received very good external and internal feedback. Speakers were Shigeharu Kato, Director-General for International Affairs, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, and Secretary-General of the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO; Annika Markovic, Environment Ambassador, Ministry for the Environment, Sweden; Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, Canada; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University; Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director, Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, India; Rafael Zulli and Thiago Schlieper, secondary school students from Brazil. The panel was opened by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and chaired by Gretchen Kalonji, Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences. Arjen Wals, UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, presented the latest UNESCO report on the UN Decade of ESD, Shaping the Education of Tomorrow. Speakers pointed to ESD as one of the key priorities when advancing towards sustainable development and highlighted ESD’s potential to transform and innovate education. UNESCO’s leadership in education and ESD was widely recognized.
  2. Together with UN DESA, the Global Compact Secretariat, UNEP and UNU, UNESCO presented a higher education initiative launched before the conference by the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, Elizabeth Thompson. Higher education institutions have been invited to sign up to a declaration on higher education and sustainable development and make concrete commitments. The initiative achieved good visibility during the conference, many of the voluntary commitments uploaded to the Rio+20 website in advance of the conference came from this initiative. UNESCO agreed with the Global Compact Secretariat to continue collaborating in this important and promising field.
  3. UNESCO’s message on ESD and education was also successfully shared at side-events on multi-stakeholder partnerships, led by UNICEF, on capacity-building regarding climate change, led by UNITAR, on environmental education and ESD, led by the Government of Georgia, and on partnerships for education, led by the International Business Leaders Forum. The UNESCO/IOC side-event on oceans also variously referred to the importance of education.
  4. In the lead-up to the conference, the Swedish Minister for the Environment, the Japanese Minister for Education and the Director-General co-wrote an op-ed article on ESD. It was published during the conference by a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, distributed to the Japanese press club, and published on the UNESCO website.
  5. The importance of education was also confirmed by the online Sustainable Development Dialogues, which were organized by the Government of Brazil in the lead-up to the conference. Stakeholders had the opportunity to discuss topics such as poverty eradication, water and oceans. UNESCO provided several discussion papers as input to the discussions. Out of the 100 recommendations that came out of the dialogues, people from all over the world chose the top ten recommendations by vote. Three of them are on education.
  6. In the context of the engagement of UNESCO with Rio+20 it should also be recalled that the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which was published as Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing before the conference, contains significant passages and recommendations on education, including the development of skills and knowledge needed for sustainable growth and jobs.

Alexander Leicht, Chief, Section of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO (a.leicht@unesco.org)

Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability

Some people have asked me for a copy of a ‘think piece’ I wrote a few years ago as input for a World Congress on Environmental Education held in South Africa a few years ago. The paper – Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability – was published in the Southern Africa Journal of Environmental Education which is an important resources in the field of EE and one of the oldest journals in this field. Unfortunately the journal’s electronic distribution is somewhat limited still. Therefore I am making it available here as a pdf.

One key message – which is important just a few weeks for the Rio +20 meeting – is that Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development have a high familiy resemblance when taking the 1975 Belgrade charter on EE and the 1977 UNESCO-UNEP conference on EE held in Tiblisi as foundational to the field of EE.

The other key message is that the nature of sustainability challenges seems to be such that a routine problem-solving approach falls short. Transitions towards a more sustainable world require more than attempts to reduce the world around us into manageable and solvable problems but instead require a more systemic and reflexive way of thinking and acting with the realisation that our world is one of continuous change and ever-present uncertainty. This alternative kind of thinking suggests that we cannot think about sustainability in terms of problems that are out there to be solved or in terms of ‘inconvenient truths’ that need to be addressed, but we need to think in terms of challenges to be taken on in the full realisation that as soon as we appear to have met the challenge, things will have changed and the horizon will have shifted once again.

The paper therefore calls for reflexivity (Reflexively fumbling towards sustainability) and offers social learning as a form of learning that is particularly suitable for promoting reflexivity in diverse groups of learners.

The pdf is linked to the full citation of the paper below:

ReflexivelyFumblingSAJEE2007

The full citation for the paper is:

Wals, A.E.J. (2007). Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. 24 (1), 35-45.

Plastic heroes, plant bottles and other sustainability myths – message-in-a-bottle revisited

Nice to be invited last night (November 24th, 2011) by the environmental science student club of Wageningen University to talk about “plastics”. (For a description of the symposium + a link to the slides used go to:http://www.kennisnetwerkmilieu.nl/#16.html

The talk gave me an opportunity to re-connect with my “message-in-a-bottle” inaugural address of two years ago where I started out referring back to the 1960-ties classic “The Graduate” (“One word Ben, just one word: PLASTICS – there’s a great future in plastics you know. Think about it!”). Indeed the world of today is unimaginable without plastics. In the words of the American ChemicalCouncil: “In today’s world, life without plastics is incomprehensible. Every day, plastics contribute to our health, safety and peace of mind (Source: American Chemistry Council 2010. www.americanchemistry.com/s_plastics/doc.asp?CID=1102&DID=4665)

Last night I added something to this by questioning some of the responses by companies,whose profits depend on the use of plastics, to more and more people expressing a deep concern about the rapid growth of plastics, including microscopic nano plastics, in the environment. A giant bottling company now introduces “plant bottles” with “up to 30% organic plant material” (what does that mean any way: up to 30%? 0.5%?), waste management companies now claim to have hyper-modern “clean” or “green” incinerators that generate energy out of garbage (which really is not garbage anymore but fuel, they are telling us… which, they suggest, is quite handy in times where we will be running out of oil and natural gas…).

On the Dutch news a couple of weeks ago it was stated that the clean Dutch incinerators were not running at full speed because the Dutch did not produce enough garbage anymore. Fortunately the waste management companies (which now refer to themselves as “energy companies” were able to sign a deal with the city of Napoli in Italy that would have garbage from the Napoli region travel by ship to The Netherlands where it would help feed the incinerators and provide Dutch citizens with energy… a ” win-win” situation… Why bother with separating waste or, worse even, reducing waste.

No wonder people are confused about sustainability matters: garbage = fuel, waste = good, plastic bottles are now plant bottles… It’s a bit like George Orwell’s 1984 with Big Brother (= Big Business) playing a language game (War = Peace) and confusing citizens with “double speak”. So part of my talk last night was about dealing with sustainability confusion, green washing and finding learning-based pathways towards critical thinking and a genuine transition towards sustainability that breaks with some of these inherently unsustainable systems and practices. Anyway – you may be interested in the original message-in-a-bottle talk and the groundswell international summary of it below.

Message in a bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability

“Message in a Bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability”
“Message in a bottle: learning our way out of unsustainability” is the title of the provocative inaugural lecture given by Professor Arjen E. J. Wals upon taking up the posts of Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development, and UNESCO Chair at Wageningen University on May 27, 2010. Professor Wals describes the fundamental shift in education required to save the planet.

The lecture’s focus on sustainability seems particularly relevant in mid-December, as Americans and much of the rest of the world engage in their most rampant consumption, and perhaps begin to reflect on what the next year will bring and what they can do to better themselves, their families and their communities. Professor Wals’ lecture carries a warning and shows us a way forward. It is also worth the read for Groundswell supporters because some of the learning concepts he discusses are implicit in our people-centered approach.

I encourage you to read the whole lecture, but recognize that many people may not have the time to do so during the holiday season, so below I have included a number of excerpts in an effort to give you a sense of the greater lecture.

Is there a way out? Can the tide be turned? When the market fails and there are no invisible hands reaching out, where or who do we turn to? When over 600 billion dollar is spent annually on advertising, and over 100 million trees are cut annually for junk mail pushing products in the USA alone? When more than two million PET bottles are ‘consumed’ every five minutes everyday in the United States alone? When the drive to consume appears infinitely greater than the drive to sustain? When individualism and materialism rapidly become the global norm? When it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a world without continuous economic growth?”

“As pointed out already, environmental educators and environmental psychologists have long known that raising awareness about the seriousness of the state of the Planet is no assurance for a change in behavior or a change in values. In fact it has been shown that just raising knowledge and awareness without providing energizing visions and concrete practices that show that there are more sustainable alternatives, will lead to feelings of apathy and powerlessness. The nature of the sustainability crisis – characterized among other things by high levels of complexity and uncertainty – suggests that people will need to develop capacities and qualities that will allow them to contribute to alternative behaviors, lifestyles and systems both individually and collectively….

In addition to much needed suitable forms of governance, legislation and regulation, we need to turn to alternative forms of education and learning that can help develop such the capacities and qualities individual, groups and communities need to meet the challenge of sustainability. There is a whole range of forms of learning emerging that all have promise in doing so:  transdisciplinary learning, transformative learning, anticipatory learning, collaborative learning and, indeed, social learning are just a few of those. These forms of learning show a high family resemblance in that they:

  • consider learning as more than merely knowledge-based,
  • maintain that the quality of interaction with others and of the environment in which learning takes place as crucial,
  • focus on existentially relevant or ‘real’ issues essential for engaging learners,
  • view learning as inevitably transdisciplinary and even ‘transperspectival’ in that it cannot be captured by a single discipline or by any single perspective,
  • regard indeterminacy a central feature of the learning process in that it is not and cannot be known exactly what will be learnt ahead of time and that learning goals are likely to shift as learning progresses,
  • consider such learning as cross-boundary in nature in that it cannot be confined to the dominant structures and spaces that have shaped education for centuries.

The above characteristics make clear that the search for sustainability cannot be limited to classrooms, the corporate boardroom, a local environmental education center, a regional government authority, etc. Instead, learning in the context of sustainability requires ‘hybridity’ and synergy between multiple actors in society and the blurring of formal, non-formal and informal education. Opportunities for this type of learning expand with an increased permeability between units, disciplines, generations, cultures, institutions, sectors and so on.

Currently we are witnessing an avalanche of interactive methods and new forms of knowledge co-creation involving a wide range of societal actors with different interests, perspectives and values but with similar challenges. Although these differences are viewed as problematic by some, they are seen as crucial by others.

Educational psychologists for long have argued and shown that learning requires some form of (internal) conflict or dissonance. Exposure to alternative ways of seeing, framing and interpreting, can be a powerful way of creating such dissonance. However, for some this may lead to too much dissonance and a defensive response which leads to tighter hold on his or her prior way of seeing things, while for others it might lead to a re-considering of ones views and the adoption or co-creation of a new one. Dissonance can, when introduced carefully, lead to, to borrow a key concept from Marten Scheffer, a tipping point in ones thinking. Such tipping points appear necessary in order to generate new thinking that can unfreeze minds and break with existing routines and systems….”

Find the complete pdf of the talk at:

www.groundswellinternational.org/sustainable-development/natural-resources-management/message-in-a-bottle-learning-our-way-out-of-unsustainability/