Today’s post is by Ben Ballin and Richard Dawson and takes the form of a dialogue about the nature of a green curriculum.

“It is interesting when you get quoted in someone else’s article.  This happened to Ben, when he was approached by a curious journalist who was writing an article on ‘green schools’, having read a previous blog that we both wrote for NAEE.  Like all professional journalists, they had to select a quote that would grab people’s attention and say something simply and pithily.  However, getting sound-bitten (however appreciative or responsible such biting might be) often means something gets nibbled away, at least in terms of subtlety and nuance.

Our appreciative and responsible journalist selected the quote above.  On reflection, this would possibly make an even better exam question than a bite-able quote.  So, when NAEE asked us to write about it, we decided that the best thing was to go for the time-worn ‘evaluate the case for and against’ format, and present it in the form of a dialogue.  This dialogue begins, as the whole process did, with the journalist asking us “What should a green education curriculum involve and what are some of the fundamental benefits of attending a green school?”

Ben: The key difference between a ‘green’ curriculum and any other is not so much the content of such a curriculum but its purpose.

Richard: My immediate response is that all schools and curricula should prepare their learners to flourish on a planet where we are totally dependent on the natural world for our survival.  There cannot be a green curriculum which sits alongside another one … it is counter-intuitive.  We do not need to look any further than COVID-19 to realise this.

Ben: A focus on sustainability brings the world into an existing curriculum, offers a clear focus for learning and a real-world reason for children to find out, talk, write, read, use digital tools and so forth.  However, and this is important, learning for such a purpose necessarily involves introducing some sustainability content too.  It is not just about pedagogy and purpose.  After all, sustainability was a ‘purpose’ of the 2000 National Curriculum in England, but it lacked teeth and substance (except perhaps when made explicit in the related Programmes of Study for Geography and Science).

Richard: Looking at green curricula more broadly, the development of such curricula over the years has raised the profile of sustainability education, but these curricula should only be seen as prototypes for how all curricula should be.  Sadly, there seems to be a tendency to tick the green curriculum box and then move on, without realising this is only the first step.  For example, we know energy saving has been around for a while and offers easy wins but we also know there needs to be much more done around the way we generate energy and how effectively we use it.  So it is, as you say, about purpose: what purpose do we want education to be in the service of? Coming back to content, I think we know most of the core knowledge that needs to be taught; but we need to be careful to remain open to how that knowledge is taught and applied, so that it remains contextually relevant to learners and the sustainability challenges we face.

Ben: As it happens, there is some evidence that real-world learning, in affording children those clear contexts in which to apply meaningful knowledge and skills, can also enhance ‘traditional’ learning outcomes (e.g. Ofsted, 2009).  That is helpful, but what we seem to be saying is that such added value nonetheless misses the essential point?

Richard: Yes, despite the improvements, sustainability education and green curricula have brought, the general trend in schools still seems didactic and workplace-focused.  The transversal competences approach of the EU is welcome, but we still need to ask what drives classroom learning? Which is largely assessment and exam board specifications in the greater service of the jobs market.

Ben: Yes, so to ‘purpose’ we should clearly add the word ‘values’.  Meanwhile, sustainability can offer a joined-up bridge between learning in one subject and another, between what happens in class and the practices of the school, and between the school and the communities beyond it.  In that sense, a ‘green’ curriculum ends up begging questions about the purposes, values, nature and structure of the school itself.  That is even more true of an enacted, living curriculum than of any ‘paper’ curriculum.

Richard: It should also prepare learners for a future we do not know, in which they will have to continue learning and adapting.  The danger is that a ‘green curriculum’ could be as didactic as any other and become quickly dated, unless (and think this is the key you also point to) it has a clear purpose and values which subsequently drive content and pedagogy.

Ben: Perhaps it would help us to look at something more specific?  These discussions can get a bit abstract.  The key idea behind our ‘Change the Story’ project is that children and young people should not only have the opportunity to learn the basic geography and science of climate change, but to explore that learning in real world contexts: through investigating change, past and present, in their communities; through the creation of their own online narratives about the kind of changes they wish to see; and through the sharing of those narratives with others, within and beyond their own country.  That seems pretty concrete to me.

Richard: That’s right. It is about the competences learners need to navigate the world around them and the world to come.  The challenge for this project – and for climate change education in general – is to find emotional equivalents of our intellectual understanding; this necessitate that learning has a meaningful purpose and is delivered through pedagogy which nurtures real-world learning.  For this to unfold, learners need to generate contexts for learning which have real and significant meaning for them, not those imposed from outside – whether a textbook or curriculum (though this not to deny the validity of learning ‘outside’ knowledge per se).

Ben: Yes, all of what we are describing implies a degree of effective, affective and self-critical citizenly action; of thoughtful investigation; of understanding connections between the local and global, the personal and the social … and it implies a need for the sort of active hopefulness that is rooted in genuine understanding.  So, the interaction of purpose, values and content raises questions not only about pedagogy, but about our paradigms: how we conceive of and relate to the world, now and in future?

Richard: Yes, I am certainly hopeful that we have the educational tools to deliver learning for a sustainable future … but we must get on and do it.

Ben: It would be great if we come to recognise in so doing – especially as we are working with international partners –  that there may be many diverse, but valid, thoughtful and perhaps powerful ways of approaching the question of ‘greening’ the curriculum.”

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Reference

Ofsted, 2009.  ‘Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools – Excelling against the odds’.  London: Office for Standards in Education.  For example, page 19 states that “outstanding curriculum provision” in such schools was characterised by “strengthening English, mathematics and science through applications in other subjects and areas.”

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Richard Dawson is Director of Wild Awake and Ben Ballin is project worker on Change the Story and an NAEE Fellow.

We’d like to encourage debate around what this dialogue is saying (and not saying).  Please do this in the usual way by commenting here.  If you have a lengthy contribution in mind, please send to info@naee.org.uk with Response to Blog in the subject line.