Educational labels are a smokescreen – it’s time to focus on what connects us

SEEd’s Executive Chair, Ann Finlayson, on why we need more joined-up thinking
October 28, 2016
You have to be in it to win it
February 17, 2017
Have you ever wondered about the connections between environmental education, education for sustainable development and global learning or global citizenship? I know I have and have been involved in all of the above at some point in my career. Then there is forest schools, forest education, climate change education – and many, many more adjectival educations. This blog has helped me make some sense of it: Of course all this depends on your definitions of each of the educations listed above, but here is a simple way to identify the objectives and differences between them.
So what are the differences?
First, let me not include in this any educations that are ‘about’ a topic i.e. just content. This is about learning objectives that lead to change. Environmental education (education for the environment) and others like place based education and even forest schools are about developing a relationship with the environment. This may be local to the student or on a residential or be a totally new environment anywhere on the globe. But it requires being in that environment and developing a relationship with it.  Of course, good educational practice in developing that relationship will lead to a sense of awe or wonder (Rachel Carson’s concept from the 1960’s) and this leads to further learning about the ecology of the special place (a systems approach). As the blog highlights, many educators tend to start first with the critical thinking, analysis or evaluation of a place before developing that sense of a relationship with your place. You find this in programmes that focus on the teacher’s syllabus or curriculum that they have to follow. A word often bandied about here is experiential learning – and some programmes are just about experiencing the outdoors. Good environmental education looks at the systems of nature and builds on all of the above.
If we extend this idea about relationships – you can see how some global education objectives fit here. I am thinking of some of the deep school linking, pen pals, field trips, cultural exchanges etc. However – let me suggest that at the core of global learning is an objective about care for people – care for the other, who is not like us. So we learn to care about those who are abused, in poverty, treated as unequal, not living in peace etc. Much of global education is about developing empathy as well as awareness. Good global education will also examine the systems and cultures that lead to these difficulties for people – and encourage critical thinking. Good global education looks at the economic and cultural systems as well as developing this sense of care.
Some EE programmes are developed out of a care ethic too – especially those that focus on environmental degration and issues we should worry about. So campaigns or some NGO programmes will have this as their objective.
So how does education for sustainability fit into this? At its best it should develop those important relationships with the world be it human or natural. It should also develop the care ethic too. It should explore the connections between the natural and human systems that are at play in the world. But it mostly should take the learner one step further beyond systems thinking, critical thinking, analysis or other higher order thinking strategies into developing a sense of agency and empowerment. Because the objective here is not about the individual but how we collectively can start to live sustainably.
This leads to thinking very differently about the purpose of education and what you need to build into any learning experience for both environmental education, global education and ESD. So how will you do something that is different to a content based approach and what are your objectives? I am humbly suggesting here that reflecting on the objectives of your programme or mission, then building your teaching and learning approaches from that is essential.
What is less important is how we categorise by the labels currently being used. In my opinion the labels are confusing and are a smokescreen to what binds us and what we have in common. What binds us are the objectives: developing relationships to deepen learning, developing a care ethic and exploring the connections between human and natural systems is a good start. But it is the sense of agency and empowerment that is crucial in times of crises and change – and we owe that to ourselves and our students.
I’d love to hear your comments or views on this!
Ann Finlayson
Executive Chair, SEEd

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