Today’s blog is from Ben Ballin who chairs the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network – @wmsussch – It is written in Ben’s personal capacity

It’s that time of year again when people look back on what they have achieved in the preceding twelve months and vow to do better in the following ones.  In that spirit, I have come up with a handful of New Year resolutions for my professional self that I think might be worth sharing with others.

  1. I am going to keep learning. As a rule, I tend to think that the best educators are also good learners. Indeed, there are very few of us who are so wise and all-knowing that we don’t still have a lot to learn, including from children. And the world has a bad habit of changing in all sorts of interesting and unpredictable ways, so there’s always a lot of keeping-up to do.

More than that, though, I think that sustainability – living better with the planet – is something of an experiment, which will need constant invention, imagination, dialogue, trialling, review and reconstruction if it is going to work out. In other words, it’s a learning process.

  1. I am going to get better at unlearning. On any learning journey (sustainable or otherwise) It’s hard enough to keep adding to your knowledge, making connections between one thing and another, trying to build up some sort of a big picture. It’s even harder to admit that some of the things you have learned along the way may be unhelpful, obstructive or in conflict with your core values. It’s harder still if some of those values themselves are the things in the way.

There are all sorts of names and voices and books that I cherish that might actually be getting in the way. (Of what? Of being able to learn, perhaps). A lot of those treasured things come from one or two centuries ago, when the world was really quite different from how it is today. Some I have grown up with. We all carry this sort of baggage, so I am resolving to ask myself from time to time how much of it is still worth keeping. It might be liberating to lose a few heavy packages, though I don’t imagine it will be easy to say goodbye.

  1. I’m going to dodge the traps. This follows on from what I have already said.  I tell myself this every year and I don’t always succeed. But as the mythical figure of Sisyphus was fond of saying, as he rolled his rock up the hill and watched it tumble back down again, it is probably worth trying. It’s a learning curve.

Here are a few of the traps.

  1. The salvationism trap (we all want to save the world). If something gets said often enough, it may well be time to get suspicious. Real learning has got to be more than a series of uplifting memes. I have heard so many teachers, educators and young people say that they ‘want to make the world a better place’ that my antennae have started to twitch. What sort of ‘better place’ do we have in mind? As those living with despotism have often come to realise, one person’s utopia can be another person’s (or community’s, or environment’s) abject misery. In an historical moment where populism and demagoguery are rife, it seems worth teasing it out a little.

More than that, for whom are we accepting that responsibility for change, and do we have their active consent? The various voices arguing for decolonisation, for example, offer a challenge to those of us in countries like the UK that our well-intended efforts to relieve poverty and promote development often have their historical roots in highly problematic ideas (such as the racist paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’) and they may sometimes lead to detrimental and unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, taking action on behalf of ‘future generations’ is a very slippery concept, and as some have pointed out might entail a notion of responsibility without any notion of future rights or reciprocity. It’s a gamble.  So, maybe there is something to be said for enlightened self- and mutual-interest, rather than laying dubious claims to altruism? I resolve to give all this some careful thinking-through.

  1. The quick fix trap. We’d all love to see the plan. In the spirit of self-contradiction, here is a useful little quote attributed to Einstein that often pops up as a meme: “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” This chimes with my resolution about ‘unlearning’.

 So, here are a few examples of the kinds of things that I resolve to try to remember:

  • Personal actions like recycling are generally useful but do not in themselves lead to sustainability;
  • The SDGs seem to offer real potential, but they are not forever … and they come along with some serious baggage;
  • One perspective on an issue is never enough (especially if it is just my own perspective) … and even two are probably too few;
  • Government support can be a help, but we shouldn’t bank on it;
  • People came up with concepts like ‘the environment’, ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’ because they thought they would be helpful, but there may well come a time when other concepts work better.
  1. To keep trying to act constructively. Meanwhile, ice shelves melt, species die out and human beings suffer, so all this learning, thinking and remembering is emphatically not an alternative to acting and doing. Indeed, some of the best learning arises from doing, and in that sense sustainability is best thought of as an action learning process.

Here are two things that I certainly resolve to do in 2018.

  1. To keep exploring the educational potential of the global learning lenses. These came out of a project that I was involved in with Tide global learning and international partners from Spain, Kenya and The Gambia. They are in effect a set of cognitive tools for looking at any question or issue. They can be used in any order and there may well be further lenses to add to the list:
  • The magnifying glass opens up the issue and raises questions about it;
  • The 3D glasses look at the issue from a range of perspectives;
  • The microscope subjects the issue to critical scrutiny;
  • The telescope looks to solutions and constructive action.
  1. To consolidate, sustain and build networks. Sustainability is not all down to other people and it’s certainly not all up to me. It relies on dialogue, debate, negotiation, communal action and exploration. In that sense sustainability is perhaps best thought of as a social action learning process.

So, count me in, alright? I resolve to keep supporting teacher groups, associations like the NAEE and networks like the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network – and to keep encouraging linkages between them.

I look forward to hearing others’ resolutions.

Happy New Year!


  1. Terrific stuff, Ben. Totally with you on the importance of unlearning andthe value of reevaluating thinkers and beliefs we have come to venerate. It ought to be more of a hot topic for education for sustainability community. Too many, I think, have over-reacted to talk of “alternative facts” and a “post truth” world, and uncritically yoked themselves to a culturally conditioned trust in “objectivity” and a faith in expertism. I was interested to hear Jonathan Powell on Radio 4’s A Little Lateral Thinking [10/01/18) ] describing how his ignorance of the history of the Irish conflict made an important contribution to the success of the peace process – well worth a listen, I think. Yes,pf course, we need people who are technically savvy, but that doesn’t necessitate elevating them to positions of secular priests. I think it’s worth recalling Horkheimer and Adorno opinion that, “Clever people have always made things easy for barbarians, because they are so stupid. It is the well-informed, farsighted judgments, the prognoses based on statistics and experience, the observations which begin: “I happen to be an expert in this field,” it is the well-founded, conclusive statements which are untrue. Hitler was against intellect and humanity. But there is also an intellect which is against humanity: ir is distinguished by well-informed superiority.”

  2. Thank you Ben! Plenty to think about! Delighted that you continue to explore the role of the global lenses and build networks!
    Perhaps you might like to come along to our new Worcester GA branch and do both!
    Best wishes, Elly

  3. Maybe in the summer, Elly?
    Thanks for the link, Nigel. I think that education (including EE, DE, ESD etc) has not really taken on fully the implications of the current crisis in how we conceive of knowledge.
    I wrote about this for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust a little while ago, but since then the crisis (at least in the public sphere) has deepened.
    I am not sure that the answer to Trump era relativism (where ‘Truth’ is defined but the person who can shout down other voices) is a return to crude positivism and – as you say – a renewed reliance on ‘experts’. I think that postmodernism has proved better at deconstructing knowledge that constructing either knowledge or meaning. There is still some mileage in the methods of dialectical materialism, but certainly not as a dogma, and we are right to be wary of some of the uses to which it has been put. Scientific method still has value, as does evidence -though it should always be subject to critical scrutiny and analysis.
    My lodestone in much of this continues to be the wonderful Jerome Bruner, who reminds us that knowledge – and meaning – are socially constructed, and therefore of the importance of dialogue, debate and other forms of social meaning making. One of Bruner’s tests of an idea is whether is it is susceptible to common sense – a tricky concept perhaps in the world of ideas and values, less so in the world of material things. It remains a question worth asking.

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