Ben Balin
writes about the Young People on the Global Stage Project.

The great educational thinker Jerome Bruner once famously asserted that “education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture.” If so, then there seems to be a bit of a muddle in the map-making department about where some of the key ideas around ESD, EE, Global Learning etc. ought to go. I am going to offer some metaphors that I hope will help.

  1. Let us imagine the environment as a vast and oceanic swimming pool. Inside this pool, we can find all human activity; everything that has been grown, made or changed by people; plus, all the as-yet-unmanipulated remnants of the natural world. In other words, within it we can find pretty much everything. This is what Environmental Education is most interested in (especially the ‘natural world’, though it would be flying in the face of evidence to see any of the world as untouched by human activity).
  2. Let us imagine the global as the boundaries of that enormous pool: its sides, the pool bottom, the roof above it. This is the limit of where everything in the pool can happen and interact. Again, it covers pretty well everything.  The processes within those boundaries are what Global Learning is most interested in (especially the human ones, although it would be ecologically illiterate to imagine that human beings can exist independently of their environment).
  1. Let us imagine sustainable development as a perpetual-motion machine. This keeps everything moving and interacting inside our boundaried pool. If one element within the pool gets seriously out of balance with another, the machine risks grinding to a halt, and the pool is spoiled. (We might give these elements names like society, economy, culture, the natural world). In other words, the machine’s ability to work relies on the idea that human beings can live in balance with the natural world, now and in future, to the benefit of all. So sustainable development, too, involves pretty much everything … and this is what ESD is most interested in.

Essential learnings
These are imperfect and scientifically inexact metaphors. However, if we run with them, then what we become interested in is not whether one of these things matters more than another, but how they play out: how the environment operates at scales from the local to the global; how the concept of sustainability affects the way we look at the world; how different elements can work together in more or less benign ways; how the different ‘educations’ can complement each other and offer distinctive insights.

We can see, too, that things that sometimes appear to be opposed to each other may not be so: humanity vs nature, local vs global, or Global Learning vs ESD vs Environmental Education. We will need them all if we are ever to get our heads around what is going on in our world or do anything useful about it.  This is nowhere clearer than when looking at the pressing matter of climate change, where local and global processes, human activity and the natural world are intimately and dangerously intertwined.

Global learning lenses

Other visual metaphors keep cropping up as part of an EU-funded project that I am currently involved in at Tide~ global learning. ’Young people on the global stage’ brings teachers and educators together from the UK, Spain, The Gambia and Kenya. (Visual metaphors are, of course, very helpful when teachers are working across the boundaries of language, culture and different education systems).

The project looks at key issues around sustainable development, including questions around poverty/wealth and hunger/food production. This is quite clearly the terrain of Global Learning, ESD and – I would argue – Environmental Education.

One of the things that our partners at FERE CECA in Madrid have brought to the project is the metaphor of ‘global learning lenses’. We might use these lenses as follows:

  • a magnifying glass opens up the issue
  • 3D glasses invite us to look at the issue from different perspectives
  • a microscope subjects it to critical thinking
  • a telescope helps us visualise solutions (what our partners call ‘utopian thinking’)

Bringing all these visual metaphors together, let us imagine that a year six class is learning about the recent climate change summit in Paris. By borrowing an enquiry process that Tide~ has used in the past, we could ask:

What is climate change? 

This involves the magnifying glass and the 3D glasses: we are opening up the issue, and looking at it from a number of perspectives. There is some solid science here, including the (Environmental Education) opportunity to take weather measurements, look at leaf-fall and bud-burst. Children could examine what so-called ‘climate sceptics’ have to say, and where the balance of evidence presently resides. (This might take us more into the terrain of ESD).

Why does it matter? 

Using the microscope, we subject the issue to critical scrutiny. Children might look at the differential impacts of climate events on, say, the UK, the Sahel and small island states. They could use a ‘mystery’ to explore complex chains of cause and effect across the globe. They could follow online news reports about what people are saying in different places in the lead-up to the Paris summit. This involves linking science to geography, English and other subjects. (Global Learning has a great deal to offer us here).

What can we do about it? 

And so to the telescope, solutions and ‘utopian thinking.’ As well as geography and science, children could look at technical solutions in design and technology, personal action and morality in PSHE and RE, and the decision-making processes at Paris. They might write persuasive texts to send to local delegates to Paris. For a whole school response, a scheme such as Eco Schools would come into its own. (I think we can detect action-orientated strands of all three ‘educations’ here).

What have we learned and how? 

This is a chance for children to purposefully share their learning with others. For example, they could create an assembly, a film, a blog or news bulletin for their peers and the community. The ‘lenses’ themselves can serve as tools for children’s meta-learning: exploring how they have learned. In reviewing the ways they have learned about this issue, they may well devise further questions for the future.

This is about empowering children not only as learners, but also as confident citizens. (To borrow a term from the editor of this volume, this is not so much about ESD, EE or Global Learning, but is closer to ‘learning as sustainable development’, a process of continuous learning that helps keep the perpetual-motion machine going).

In conclusion, and to return to Bruner: if education is part of ‘the continent of culture’ then it both acts on and is influenced by wider ideas about sustainable development, the environment and the global. At best, these ideas – and their related ‘educations’ – complement each other, offering distinctive insights and approaches.  In addition, we can experiment with tools like ‘the global learning lenses’ to gain particular kinds of understanding. Together, all these things help learners understand an issue like climate change more fully. In isolation, learners are left with a restricted and partial understanding: a pool without form; boundaries without content; a perpetual-motion machine that operates outside of any context.

One final thought: if ‘reality is made, not found’ (as Bruner also asserts) then that is not only true of learning, but what we do with it. Through learning, we make the world. In the current climate, it seems to me that this is not simply a matter of theory, but a matter of survival.

Ben Ballin works with Tide~ global learning – – as joint project co-ordinator for ‘Young people on the global stage’ in the UK.  Contact:


This article was first published in NAEE’s Summer 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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