What is the sentiment? Building Communities of Learners

In his TED talk, author John Green (so that’s what he looks like.  I wonder if my Fault-In-My-Stars-loving daughter knows?) discusses his learning journey and the strength derived in building learning communities online (I wonder if my daughter would appreciate the sentiment?).

So what is that sentiment? What do online learning communities provide and what is key to any learning community, whether in the virtual world or the real?  Here, for discussion, are my thoughts:

  • Learning is best when it is collaborative
  • Acquiring knowledge does not always need a classroom, teacher, desks or interactive whiteboard (etc.)
  • Peers can be an effective source of knowledge and information
  • Effective learning requires feedback on progress…
  • …therefore there needs to be opportunity to demonstrate understanding and progress
  • Developing understanding requires critical thinking and effective guidance

So if my daughter is learning about fashion and makeup, music or her German homework (and I can learn the ukulele) by watching YouTube channels, then we need to embrace the idea that the paradigm has shifted in the sharing of ideas.  And this embrace needs to be more fully realised within our schools, where the focus can be more effectively placed on developing the values and skills essential for a more tolerant and just society.


National Sustainable Schools Conference, July 2nd 1025

The National Sustainable Schools Conference was held at Bristol University Students Union on July 2nd.  The conference aimed to bring together educators and thought leaders from the formal and non-formal sectors to share ideas for developing more sustainable schools and best practice in Education for Sustainability curriculums.  In addition invitations were sent to students from primary and secondary schools, to share their experiences. This was the first year that the conference was organised through a partnership between SEEd, the Sustainable Schools Alliance and Bristol University. The conference was cancelled last year due to lack of interest so therefore it was a delight to welcome over 170 delegates; proof that partnerships work and that interest in sustainability in schools is strong.  As a City, Bristol is the European Green Capital for 2015 and already has an impressive track record in issues of Sustainability and Social Responsibility.  Furthermore, the University itself emphasises these issues and within this context the conference was able to build strong foundations and attract excellent speakers and larger numbers of delegates.

The Revolution That Keeps Evolving

I have been involved in the Environmental Education movement in one form or another since the early 1990s.  This was the time of the first Rio Earth Summit on Sustainable Development, out of which emerged Agenda 21 – an action plan for nations to address sustainability at local, national and global levels.    Over the past 20+ years although Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has passed in and out of fashion, it is now seeing resurgence in interest.  The decade for ESD, which finished last November, is being followed up with UNESCO’s Global Action Programme. SEEd is one of only 90 key global partners supporting this ongoing work and the only UK-based organisation involved. This interest is in part due to the failure of nations to have met the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  Partly it is connected with an increasing involvement of business (large and small) in corporate social responsibility and social enterprise.  And partly due to increased interest in the potential of learning outside the classroom and its impact on pupil achievement.

Yet, as we learned at the conference, these last 20 years are founded on previous cycles of development.   The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time when the impact of human activity on the environment was being better documented and more clearly understood.  Concepts like Peak Oil and Global Warming, for instance, gained greater credence and greater interest was taken in learning about the environment, ecology and how we can live more lightly on the planet.  Of course, we know that there has always been an interest in these areas along with passionate advocates.  However, although trends come and go, subsequent generations reiterate them to make their own contributions; to make a difference and learn (hopefully) from the mistakes of the previous generation.  Although we are facing arguably more severe environmental, social and economic challenges, our policy makers over the past 20 years have not responded in timely or effective ways and opportunities have been lost.  Nevertheless, we stand at another significant point in time and with action, we can effect the changes that need to occur. This is the motivation that lies behind the National Sustainable Schools Conference.

A Different Approach to Conference Planning

The conference organization, led by Ann Finlayson, Chair of the SSA and CEO of SEEd, had a strong emphasis on learning, with fewer speakers and more workshops – 17 in all.  This was designed deliberately to enable delegates not only to gather new ideas and practical solutions on ESD in schools, but also to share their own experiences and practice.  To facilitate this, each delegate’s badge was a foldout self-reflection feedback form that they were asked to fill in at the start and end of the day and was collected by the conference organisers to be collated and shared.  Not only does this provide useful feedback and a pledge for further action but also more importantly it gave each participant the opportunity to track their own learning throughout the day.   This lent the conference a unique feel and, along with the first “green” Teachmeet at the end of the day, it left delegates with a greater feeling of possibility and potential, quite different from the usual burden of listening to a procession of speakers!

Furthermore, the range of workshops, initiative launches and an open platform session gave delegates a great deal more to take away and incorporate into their practice.  The workshops included dressing up as insects and birds to learn about hedgerow ecology, hearing the experiences of secondary school students, sharing strategy for reducing carbon footprint and an introduction to an iPad game for learning the principles of sustainability.  This diversity and range of content was designed to provide interest and scope as well as inspiration and contacts so that delegates could return to school re-energised and re-equipped to further explore practice in ESD.

But the conference doesn’t end there. For the next 12 months the NSSC will continue online. There delegates can access videos of the workshops, launches and keynotes as well as links and resources on where to go next to help continue the journey to making schools more sustainable. It is available as both a training and CPD resource for a year and can be used in classes and with pupils to help them to engage with sustainability online.

The Missing link: Plans for the Future?

Through the day, discussion centred around the imperative of ESD and the positive impact that it has on young people.  Yet, despite numerous invitations, we were lacking a clearer voice from schools and opportunity to engage young people in the conference as only a handful of schools were able to attend with pupils.  One of the aims of the conference was to bring policy makers, practitioners and young people together.  This aim will be sustained through planning for next year’s conference and therefore we can look to partnerships that could support bringing together the voice of all of these “layers” in education.  In this way the focus is greater and the outcomes more powerful.  We will truly have a remarkable event that brings all of these stakeholders together to explore a sustainable future for our planet in the environment, in society and in economics.

The very last words of the day at the conference were from the very last speaker at the Green Teachmeet.  It was about 7.00pm when Cynthia, a Philosophy undergraduate from Bristol University who had been volunteering at the conference since 8.00am, got up to speak for her 2 minutes.  It was as insightful as it was inspiring.  At a recent schools gifted and talented day hosted by the University, a mock election activity required the participants to devise their own party.  Each one of these parties had included sustainability as part of their manifesto pledge.  It was clear, Cynthia told us: young people care about their planet and their future.  We must listen to their voice.

Our thanks go to Ann and her team at the SSA and SEEd (Victoria, Frances & Rachel) along with the numerous volunteers from Bristol University. It was a memorable day and leaves us looking forward to next year with great excitement.

Neil Jones

Management Board, Sustainable Schools Alliance

SEEd Trustee