In search of healthy policy ecologies for education in relation to sustainability: Beyond evidence-based policy and post-truth politics

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A new paper just came out in ‘Policy Futures in Education’ that I co-authored with Robert Stratford critiquing evidence-based approaches to policy making in the context of (re)orienting education towards sustainability in times of post-truth and alternative facts. In the aper we pose that there is a rational assumption built into some research projects that policy contexts are influenced by the quality of the evidence. This is, at best, only somewhat true some of the time. Through policy ethnographies, two education researchers working in the context of sustainability discuss their experiences with evidence-based policy. Central to both accounts is how critical messages about such issues as race, wellbeing and sustainability can become diluted and even lost. In the existing ‘politics of unsustainability’, and at a time of ‘post-truth’ politics, these accounts also show the limits of evidence-based policy.

We argue that those working with ‘the evidence’ need to be open about how evidence-based approaches can end up supporting the ‘status quo’. Moreover, while approaches such as knowledge mobilisation emphasise the relational qualities of policy contexts, and the importance of simple compelling narratives for decision-makers, they, like many other practices, do not sufficiently theorise the power structures surrounding knowledge and the policy context. In addition to the careful use of evidence, we argue that there needs to be greater emphasis on building healthy policy ecologies – including far more emphasis on building critical and creative policy alternatives, especially in areas like sustainability and education.

The paper can be found/downloaded here: Healthy Policy Ecologies Paper

 

Short Intro Video – Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF)

Wageningen UR is one of the partners in the Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF) Network. TESF is a GCRF funded Network Plus, co-ordinated out of the University of Bristol, working with partners in India, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The network undertakes collaborative research to Transform Education for Sustainable Futures.

TESF just released a short video outlining the mission and way of working of the network. The coming months the four hub countries will launch their innovation grant scheme which will allow local partners to apply for funding to engage in educational reform towards sustainable development at different levels of education.  Please go to the TESF-website for more information.

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Overcoming socio-ecological vulnerability through community-based social learning

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A new paper was published in the journal Local Environment this month led by one of my recently graduated PhD-students, Daniele Souza. The paper investigates community-based initiatives and collective learning practices in sustainability transition processes. This paper presents the results of a participatory study that investigated a local initiative in the community of Lomba do Pinheiro in south Brazil to examine social learning processes in the context of socio-ecological vulnerability. In this community, a group composed of local residents and members representing the public sector and local educational institutions has promoted several learning-oriented actions aimed at restoring a degraded local watershed and improving residents’ livelihoods.

The study used social learning as a lens through which the initiative enacted by this group may be understood, and analysed how local conditions, determined by a context of vulnerability, have influenced local processes. We applied a multi-dimensional analytical framework that included individual, collective, and territorial dimensions. The analysis focused on the leading group, the individuals who comprise it, and their actions in the territory, while considering local constraints. Our findings highlight the importance of (1) shared values, mutual trust, and affective bonds for group cohesion as well as concerted action, equalisation of diverse languages within the group, knowledge integration, and initiative persistence; (2) a practical-reflexive approach based on a sequence of actions that catalyses group learning and facilitates advancement within the wider community; and (3) the role of inter-sectoral articulations and the establishment of partnerships to support actions.

This paper raises questions about the limits of an exclusively bottom-up approach to solve complex problems in the context of extremely precarious conditions.

The full reference is: Souza Tubino, D., Wals, A.E.J., Jacobi, P. (2019) Learning-based transformations towards sustainability: a relational approach based on Humberto Maturana and Paulo Freire, Environmental Education Research, 25 (x), 1-15.

A link to the journal here!

Transformative Sustainability-oriented Open Education

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This new book published by Brill just came out and I am pleased to have been ablte contribute to its contents together with one of my colleagues from the University of Gothenburg, Anne Algers. Our chapter is part of a rich collection of chapters focusing on ways of opening education to allow for more dynamic forms of learning to emerge in a world that is trying to grapple with many of the existential and ecological crises that, both ironically and sadly, humanity itself has created. The chapter that Anne and I wrote (have look at the pre-print here: Sustainability_orientedOpenLearningAlgersWals2020) asks the question of “How can open education play a role in making academia more responsive and responsible in addressing ill-defined and ambiguous, but ever so urgent, sustainable development challenges?”  In our chapter, a case study from the field of sustainable development of food systems provides a narrative that illustrates the possible impact of open education; and the value of a culture of openness to individuals, to a community, and to society.

First, we provide a contextual background on the implications of openness in higher education. Second, we introduce the subject of sustainable development (SD) of our global food systems; and third, we discuss the concept of education for sustainable development (ESD). Fourth, by means of thick description (Geertz, 1973), we report a case study on open education which we discuss in light of learning theory, critical pedagogy, and sustainable development.

In the end we argue for a radical interpretation of open education which we refer to as transformative sustainability-oriented open education, where ”open” refers to inviting and expressing critique and marginalized perspectives in controversial societal issues, while transformative refers to enabling learners to bring about change.

Suggested citation: Algers, A. & Wals, A. J. (2020). Transformative Sustainability-Oriented Open Education. In: Conrad, D. & Prinsloo, P. (Eds.).  Open(ing) Education. (pp. 103-120). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Sense. doi.org/10.1163/9789004422988_006

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Imaginative Disruptions: Creating Place- and Arts-based Responses to Climate Urgency

Imaginative disruptions

The Video

Taking place in 3 countries (Sweden, United Kingdom and The Netherlands) three ‘collective residencies’ brought together an intergenerational group of people who played, ate, (re)imagined, learned and created together, to design alternative futures around a selected ‘glocal’ issue, and explore what needs to be disrupted to realise these imagined realities; what is working with us and what is working against us? Two hopeful examples of local residents and one from academia show the power of arts-based approaches and the importance of hope and lightheartedness. The research was initiated and led by former MSc and PhD-students of mine, Natalia Eernstman

You can find more information and a link to the video here: Imaginative Disruptions Video

The Research

Imaginative Disruptions was a two-year creative research project that explored the transgressive potential of art and making to engage groups of citizens and experts in imaginative conceptions of alternative environmental narratives.

Underneath the project is the assumption that the structures and mind-sets of our modern society have made unsustainable living the default and sustainable living the exception. Acknowledging that environmental issues occur in the every-day lives of people rather than on drawing boards of technocrats, implies that designing and transitioning towards a more environmentally sustainable alternative should include citizen, lay or situated knowledges.  There are some signs that such knowledge is recognized and demanded in both science and society (e.g. the push for citizen science and multi-stakeholder social learning). However, the practical realisation of processes that include public dialogue, in which citizens become critics and creators of knowledge, are fairly under-developed.

Here are some of the things we aimed to find out:

What arrangements and conditions are needed to disrupt daily routines and generate new ones?

Does the recognition and inclusion of situated knowledges generate radically different perspectives on how we can live well and environmentally, or do they represent the fine-tuning and, thereby, the maintenance of the status quo?

What happens if you put adults and children in the same learning arrangement and invite them to learn, play and experiment collectively? Chaos or…?

(How) is the knowledge produced through this heterogenous, vernacular, artistic, non-hierarchical and intergenerational process ‘useful’ to the community in question and a wider subject arena around it?  

What is the added value of creative / artistic techniques in the social learning that will take place?

The ‘data’ of the research project emerged from the residencies with people talking, creating and reflecting together. We aimed to collect what the residencies generate in ways that don’t disrupt the activities, and allow us record things that we didn’t know we were going to document in advance.

More background information can be found on our Imaginative Disruptions website here: Imaginative Disruptions Home Page.

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The Funding

The project was funded by the Swedish SEEDBox small grant scheme for innovative approached to education and research aimed at realizing a more sustainable world.

Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning as a Response to Systemic Global Dysfunction – new book chapter

EcologiesofLearning.pngEcologies for Learning and Practice edited by Ronald Barnett and Andrew Jackson, provides the first systematic account of the ideas of learning ecologies and ecologies of practice and locates the two concepts within the context of our contemporary world. It focuses on how individuals and society are being presented with all manner of learning challenges arising from fluidities and disruptions, which extend across all domains of life. This book examines emerging ways of understanding and living purposively in these new fluidities and provides fresh perspectives on the way we learn and achieve in such dynamic contexts.

Providing an insight into the research of a range of internationally renowned contributors, this book explores diverse topics from the higher education and adult learning worlds. These include:

  • The challenges faced by education systems today
  • The concept of ecologies for learning and practice
  • The role and responsibility of higher education institutions in advancing ecological approaches to learning
  • The different eco-social systems of the world—local and global, economic, cultural, practical, technological, and ethical
  • How adult learners might create and manage their own ecologies for learning and practice in order to sustain themselves and flourish

With its proposals for individual and institutional learning in the 21st century and concerns for our sustainability in a fragile world, Ecologies for Learning and Practice is an essential guide for all who seek to encourage and facilitate learning in a world that is fundamentally ecological in nature.

In the chapter I contributed I argue that the current sustainability crisis demands a radical re-orientation of the way we learn. I consider sustainability to be an emergent property of an ecology of learning that is reflexive purposeful cocktail of actors, perspectives, forms or learning, connections and support mechanisms, driven by an ethical concern for the wellbeing of people and planet both now and in the future. Sustainability-oriented learning then becomes an organic and relational process of continuous framing, reframing, tuning and fine-tuning, disruption and accommodation, and action and reflection, which is guided by a moral compass inspired by an ethic of care. Such learning implies or even demands a certain freedom to explore alternative paths of development and new ways of thinking, valuing and doing.

The chapter introduces sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning as a blended learning space where multiple actors, often having different backgrounds, co-create sustainability organically using a variety of tools, relations, and forms of learning. The concept of whole school or whole institution approaches is introduced as a way to enact such ecologies of learning in a systemic way (see the figure below from the 2016 Global Education Monitor Report published by UNESCO).

Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. (2019) Sustainability-oriented Ecologies of Learning as a response to systemic global dysfunction In: Learning Ecologies: Sightings, possibilities, and emerging practices Ronald Barnett and Norman Jackson (Eds.), London: Taylor & Francis. p. xx-xxx

Here is a link to the book on the publisher’s website!

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An ecology of learning created by a whole school approach to sustainability (source Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO, 2016)

Should and Can Education Save the Planet? ECER2019 Keynote now online

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Last month I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER in Hamburg this year. Around 3000 participants from over 60 countries attended the conference. Since the overall theme was ‘Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future’ I had the honor of being asked as one of the plenary keynote speakers, as was my good colleague and friend Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes University in South Africa who, like myself, is a member of ECER/EERA’s subnetwork on Environmental and Sustainability Education (Network 30), one of the youngest and rapidly expanding networks.

The title of my talk was: Should and Can Education Save the Planet? In the talk I outlined the current global sustainability challenges form a learning perspective and I introduced the concept of sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning. I also introduced the notion of sustainability Bildung in which Biesta’s three tasks of education are reconfigured with Planet in mind to become eco-subjectification, eco-socialization and eco-qualification.

You can watch the full keynote here (also understandable for the deaf and hearing impaired as the talk was kindly supported with sign language).

Here is the official ECER2019 abstract of the keynote.

Education unwillingly has become a key mechanism for fostering economic development, innovation and growth. In the meantime, humanity is facing a range of sustainability issues that include: rising inequity, loss of democracy, runaway climate change and mass extinction. These issues can be so overwhelming that they can easily lead to apathy and despair which will only make them bigger. We appear to be at a tipping point where the decisions we make about how to live together will be crucial for the future of our planet. There is no better time than now to ask:  What is education for? What if education would serve people and planet rather than just or mainly economic interests?  Is this a role education should play? And, if so, what does such an education look like?

Based on emerging research and practices from around the world, I will sketch forms of education and learning that are: responsive, responsible and transformative in light of global sustainability challenges. Sustainability here is not seen as another subject to be added to an overcrowded curriculum, but rather as a continuous quest for finding ways to live more equitably, meaningfully and healthier on the Earth without compromising planetary boundaries and the futures of the coming generations. Such a quest requires a more relational pedagogy that can help establish deeper connections with people, places and other species. Such a pedagogy not only invites reflection on values and ethics, and the utilization of diversity, but also the critiquing and transgressing of the structures and systems that make living unsustainably easy and living sustainably hard.