Today’s post is by Mick Waters, one of NAEE’s Vice-Presidents. Mick was the Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) from 2005-09 and now works with the Alliance of Leading Learning. What follows are Mick’s own views and are not necessarily shared by the Association, though we do like the nice things he says about us.

Concern for the environment has become a high priority internationally. National governments are showing their credentials by stating their commitment to the environment or including environmental priorities in their wider policies whenever the opportunity arises. Deadlines for positive action are thrust forward with predictions of catastrophic impact on the planet if humans do not control their behaviour. We are urged to be less selfish to ‘protect the planet’.

Is the planet really at risk? The planet will probably survive as it has for an estimated 4.5 billion years. It may have been affected by shifting tectonic plates or climate change bringing ice ages and thaws, there are still comparatively minor events such as volcanic eruption or tsunami, but the planet carries on as part of a universe and will probably continue to do so.

What is at risk are the living organisms on the planet: the plants, trees, creatures… and humans. If we don’t change our behaviours the planet as we know it will change. We have taught about evolution, survival of the fittest, extinction: it looks as though humans are going to disappear if we don’t act. Global warming, rising sea levels, the extinction of species of flora and fauna are part of a chain reaction caused by human behaviour. Pollution, deforestation, industrial scale farming and wanton neglect are some of the causes and it is humans causing them and facing the consequence.

As well as causing the problems, humans have the capacity to put them right. Just as we developed our more sophisticated societies over centuries through ingenuity and guile, we have to use the same characteristics for a global good. Profit was a motivator for the wave of innovation and invention that created directly or indirectly much of the harm we see today. As big companies pronounce their sustainability credentials, they also see the potential for profit.

The human instinct to live more comfortable lives, to travel further and quicker and to live for the moment have all fuelled the growth in pollution and the reduction in sustainability. We have known this for years; Greenpeace is fifty years old in 2021 when the World Wildlife Fund will be sixty years old. We have had maps of the world with rising sea levels for decades. We have had campaigns to save polar bears, whales, pandas. In the last couple of years public consciousness has increased with media attention ignited by David Attenborough’s image of fish caught in plastic and by Greta Thunberg’s campaign.

The National Association for Environmental Education began its work fifty years ago. It sprang up partly because of concern to protect the environment and partly because teachers were realising that providing direct experiences tended to help children to learn better. The Newsom and Plowden Reports on secondary and primary Education in the 1960s had urged schools to engage children and confront them with real examples and practical learning activity. The grounds of the school or their locality were a prime learning arena: skills such as observation, measuring, data collection, recording could be better honed and practised in the environment than from a workbook. It is still the case.

The current concerns about the environment and global sustainability present an opportunity for the rejuvenation of widespread and rigorous environmental learning in schools. It is important that it is rigorous; while schools have leapt to support the campaign for reducing plastic usage, we need to go beyond the collecting of waste and a display, followed by an assembly saying, ‘plastic is bad’. All plastic is not bad: look around as you read this and imagine your setting without the plastic. We need to take learning below the surface and deeply explore the issue. So collecting waste plastic should be followed, depending upon the maturity of the children, by working out mass, volume, travel and spread. We should calculate the amount of raw material needed to produce it and the time it will take to decompose. We should scale up and calculate, visualise and map the collection over our neighbourhood and nation.

For the teacher and school constrained by the accountability framework, the pressure on basics is enormous. Yet what is more basic that the world in which we live? The emphasis on results in literacy and numeracy, or GCSEs, naturally consume many teachers’ outlooks and other aspects of provision risk less thorough treatment. Yet most teachers know that a rounded education will enhance the basics.

A first step to protecting our environment is surely appreciating it. That is why spending time looking closely at the environment in which we live is vital. Recording the weather, observing plants as they grow, blossom, bloom, seed and fade, considering habitats and supporting creatures to live and grow, watching water courses, beaches, marshes and bogs, and seeing trees in all their seasons: the resource is there, all around every school, even in the most urban of areas.

NAEE has a history of ‘doing it properly’. The approaches and practices that feature in the journal and on the website show deep learning which takes children into the disciplines of science, mathematics and geography in particular and open the door to many others, especially English. Many teachers need help to see that environmental education is not another subject to add in but will achieve the ambitions of the ones they already grapple with and bring them alive through the rhythm of the school year.

Somehow, we need to acknowledge that saving the planet is our necessary act. We have to encourage people to admit that what we are saving is ‘our environment’, the one we like rather than ‘the environment’ or ‘the planet’. The planet will be fine: what are our responsibilities to the habitats, flora and fauna, creatures and insects… and each other? Probably the bigger question is, how do we help humans to survive? One of the answers is to work with our youngest generation on our environmental education.

Mick Waters. November 2020


Mick Waters can be contacted at:

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