Professor Andy Stables died last week. He contributed much to UK environmental education research in the early 2000s, bringing expertise in literature and philosophy. He only wrote one article for our journal (writing with the current NAEE Chair). This restated the case for a liberal education using the idea of literacy, set out 7 pragmatic principles associated with this, and stressed the importance of working through the subject curriculum. The 20 years since its first publication have not diminished the value of what it says. It is reproduced here from Vol 68 (2001).

Why do we talk about environmental literacies, in the plural, and what do we mean by “disciplined”? The term ‘environmental literacy’ is commonly used particularly in North America. But its use has little to do with what it means to be literate, which is a pity because there is a real case to be made that we do, in effect, ‘read’ and ‘write’ our environments. We certainly can only make sense of the environment through a process of naming, classifying and patterning, and our very experience of living can be seen as one of engagement with our surroundings through interpretation of signs and symbols. One way of looking at the world is to say that everything is a text, and thus can be decoded and ‘read’. This is not a new idea. The ancients read the movements of the stars as signs. To be environmentally literate, properly understood, has always been to read and write the world – but how?

There is no one way, of course. In terms of how we learn about the environment, there are different cultural and disciplinary traditions, and it is not always possible to explain logical links between them. For example, what is the connection between learning about the pathetic fallacy (the tendency to ascribe human emotions and sympathies to nature), and about energy flow through a food chain? Both are clearly relevant to understanding human-environment relationships, but each stems from a distinctive perspective. Add to this the difficulty, impossibility perhaps, of arriving at any absolute understanding of how different people and groups see the world, and two important consequences follow:

First: Neither the curriculum, nor our understanding of the environment can ‘add up’. Different ways of understanding are not entirely mutually translatable. It is in the nature of language and human sense-making that new understandings are always emerging. We shall not wake up tomorrow to find that the world has become whole again. The individual human mind is precluded from ever knowing the whole and desperate attempts to do this have not resulted in growth and diversity but in reductionism and control.

Second: Each way of looking at the world has to be understood both in terms of its own traditions, understandings and assumptions, and in the knowledge that it is provisional, ephemeral, contingent and incomplete – regardless of the claims that its proponents might make. For example, there are at least four sets of quite different assumptions about the human environment relationship. Scientific realists will argue that their models of the world and its processes are getting nearer to some kinds of truth about reality. Critical realists will stress the relationships of social and environmental conditions, and tend to see environmental issues as expressions of social injustice. Post-foundationalists and relativists will take a more sceptical view about the legitimation of various forms of knowledge, with the latter even doubtful of the existence of biophysical reality other than in the human mind.

Such fundamental philosophical differences affect the traditions of thought and cultural practices that we think of as ‘subjects’, and which we experience through the curriculum. Each of these traditions is liable to affect our environmental attitudes and behaviour, so each must be taken seriously, yet to assume some overarching (holistic) conceptual framework seems futile. We only have the ways of thinking we have, though we will always rework them, especially in the light of environmental experience, thus creating new ways of seeing and knowing the world; ways which are all ‘true’.

Because of this, we argue that the only way to increase environmental awareness is through a critical retrospective; ie, education’s role is to help shape the future by using the curriculum to make sense of the past. All great cultural movements bear witness to this simple truth; think about the Renaissance, for example. But we are, as C.A. Bowers reminds us, caught in a double bind. Our traditions are the traditions of capitalist, industrial modernity, a period during which we have arrived at the global environmental crisis as we now perceive it. However, the only way out of something is from the inside. We need a touch of the Houdini, and recognise, (for example as did Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), that we are all shaped by capitalism; that to deny capitalism is to deny ourselves.

To move things forward, therefore, we need a degree of acceptance and some sober reflection. In the great tradition of Western liberalism, we believe in the human capacity to alter the world through reflection and the will, mediated through individual and collaborative action, although we cannot share many colleagues’ commitments to precise specification of desired outcomes of such reflection, particularly over the longer term. Education cannot be prescribed so that it is ‘for’ social justice, sustainability, or anything else, other than in the eyes of the teacher – for whose benefit, let us remind ourselves, education does not exist. Those being educated will always draw unexpected conclusions from their teachers’ work. Furthermore, to develop their own senses of self and community, they will always position themselves against their teachers and what they tell them. We all know this through experience of being parents, children and siblings. Teachers who preach gospels will probably have them rejected. They will always have them reinterpreted. Thus it is that dynasties and tyrannies fall; and a good thing too. So, if we believe that our relationship with the environment is both precious and precarious, and if we believe that the world is to us as we read it, how should we develop these disciplined (in two senses) literacies?

Let us summarise some pragmatic principles:

  1. It is useful to regard the world as existing beyond ourselves.

2. The same is true of the past.

3. The present is engaged in constructing the future through some kind of filtering, or reappraisal, or reordering, of elements from the past.

4. Human understandings will never be complete

5. Learners never learn quite what teachers teach; meaning always depends on context, which is never repeated, so learning depends on interpretation, which is personally and socially constructed

6. By extension, history cannot repeat itself – only resonate or echo.

7. We cannot prescribe what the outcomes of our teaching will be, and the more we try, the more we reduce the value for the learner, and for ourselves as teachers, of the educational experience.

So what can we safely say we have? We do have evidence of the development of various kinds of worldview over thousands of years; ie, we have history, and its evidence can be interpreted in infinitely various ways. Our view is that teachers who care about human-environment relationships should spend time looking at their own disciplines in terms of those relationships, in order to help their students ‘read’ present-day environments, and ‘write’ those of the future. We think that, if given the chance, many teachers will probably do that ‘naturally as both their skill-bases and their knowledge-frames predispose them to think in terms of their own disciplines, and the human-environment relationship, in some form or other, is manifested in all subjects. However, sometimes educationalists and politicians stop them from doing this by emphasising socially-focused educational objectives at the expense of enthusiasm for subjects and what these can say about humanity, environment and their interrelationship. If we really care about tackling the environmental crisis, we need some retrospective on what it means to be human in relation to each other, and to the non-human. We need to retrace our footsteps across various kinds of cultural landscape to understand how we got here and to know where we might best go next (ie, how we might live our lives).

Of course, as educators, we are here to influence. The danger with the position we have been arguing, some may say, is that it represses professional educational intervention and encourages a simple conservatism. Let us make two points here. Firstly, conservatism does not prevent change, but merely opposes its imposition: the Renaissance was in many ways a deeply conservative movement. Chet Bowers’ advice on how we should live for sustainability involves a radical return to traditions, not a break from them. More specifically, we believe that it is possible to enrich the disciplines of the curriculum by attending to the human-environment relationship in increasingly rewarding ways, as long as we abandon the idea that there is one right way of reading and writing the world. As for ‘professional educational intervention’, as we have termed it – well, we believe that by working with teachers and ‘with the grain’ of their subject specialisms, we can help develop environmental literacies at the same time as stimulating innovative subject teaching. The following example illustrates this.

As part of an EU-funded project, The Development of Environmental Awareness Through Literature and Media Education, a collaboration between the universities of Bath, Ghent and Oporto and local schools, we developed five foci, with a view to developing environmental awareness such that what emerged was “good literature/media teaching” as well as, as opposed to in the service of environmental education; in other words, we did not wish to reduce the role of literature to one of the expression or clarification of ecological or related social issues. The foci were developed from an analysis of the ways in which good literature and media teaching interrelate the ideas of text, human interests and nature. The foci were as follows:

• The development of understanding of environmental issues through the study of literacy and media texts

• The study of literacy and media texts specifically concerned with the environment

• The creation of literacy and media texts relating to environmental issues

• The study of aspects of the environment itself as text

• The re-creation and enhancement of the environment with reference to aesthetic considerations

To investigate the extent to which such an approach can be effective within disciplines other than literature and the media we worked across the curriculum with teachers and trainees to develop ideas for teaching related to an area of protected landscape or property in the South-West of England. We took this approach, not only to extend and further test out these ideas, but also because we feel that this offered a more theoretically sound approach to curriculum and school development in response to the challenge of sustainability than are possible through other means.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of advice and direction about the nature of the professional development needed to prepare teachers and schools to deal with the perceived sustainability crises. Most of the work on teacher training within environmental education stems from Unesco’s international environmental education programme, and the OECD’s environmental education in schools initiative has also generated both theory and practice in relation to environmental teacher education. In other recent work linking environment, sustainability and teacher professional development, much complexity derives from attempts to develop cross-curricular or multi-disciplinary approach in contexts which are either dominated (secondary schools) or heavily influenced (primary/middle schools) by structures which are organized conceptually, managerially and temporally around subject disciplines. In what we propose, reflexive critiques of the human environment relationship are made within a discipline structured curriculum, generating an internal framework for curriculum planning that encourages a diversity of responses to the environmental and ecological crises.

There is another, pragmatic, reason to develop these ideas in this way, which is that to do so works with the grain of school life and teacher professional development. Teachers, especially in secondary schools, are nurtured at school, in higher education and in teacher training through disciplines, and their work is similarly structured. It is what they know and profess. If this work on sustainability is to develop, then it will be better if it is approached from within the confidence of the disciplines, for it is here that appropriate and familiar frameworks of ideas can be found; and it is this confidence and familiarity which will allow teachers to explore and interpret sustainable development as a regulatory ideal.

We argue that this approach is to be preferred to the imposition of extra-disciplinary frameworks such as that provided by the work of the UK’s Higher Education 21 initiative or Unesco’s Learning for a Sustainable Environment project. The first of these sets out seven key sustainability concepts and three sets of draft learning outcomes relating to ‘effective sustainability teaching. The issue is not so much whether these are the key concepts, or whether there are seven of them; rather, it is to doubt whether the framework which they provide can act as a starting point for the development of within-discipline interpretations of environmental literacy. We argue that any such external framework alters the primary agenda of the discipline, as teachers would be required to reinterpret their disciplines in light of sustainability using ideas which will very likely lie beyond their experiences and competence. We argue that only the most highly motivated will make the effort to come to grips with imposed, external frameworks, whereas all are capable of examining the various ways in which each discipline can construe the human-environment relationship.

Such an approach is uncertain but, we would argue, less uncertain in its outcomes than an approach which assumes a false consensus regarding sustainability, and that the school curriculum can be used as a simple tool to achieve the goal of sustainability; as John Foster has noted, society cannot use education (instrumentally) to bring about what it can only possibly understand through education and learning. In this sense, sustainability and curriculum are necessary bedfellows (for both the formal school/HE sector and for the work of NGOs) provided we mean by this that the curriculum has to encourage and enable people to think about their lives in relation to sustainability, and thus think about sustainability itself, not in the abstract, but in the crucible of everyday decision-making. We are just arguing that this makes most sense in schools within a disciplined approach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment