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.

 

Education for Sustainable Development in the ”Capitalocene” – Call for abstracts

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There is still some time to submit your manuscript idea or abstract for this special issue Educational Philosophy and Theory (EPAT) that I am co-editing with my Swedish colleagues from the University of Gothenburg – Helena Pedersen, Beniamin Knutsson, Dawn Sanders and Sally Windsor. The deadline for – just the abstract – is May first. Go to the Routledge website for the details and see the description below!

Special Issue

ESD in the ”Capitalocene”: Caught up in an impasse between Critique and Transformation

Has Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) reached an impasse? Offering an application of Baudrillard’s thoughts to educational research, Paul Moran and Alex Kendall wrote in 2009 that education researchers are engaged in an act of forgery; a manufacture of presuppositions about what education is. Moran and Kendall argue that our research approaches, produce nothing but illusions of education, not because our approaches and methodologies are somehow flawed, rather that these illusions are what education is. Education, they claim, does not exist beyond its simulation.

Perhaps more provocatively, this implies that all critique of educational practice, from the revolutionary critical theory of Marx and the Frankfurt School via Foucauldian power analyses, as well as more recent ”new materialist” and post-qualitative approaches and beyond –are also part of the simulation of education process. These movements constitute an “improvement agenda” of education, and over and over again, more interventions are produced and critiques are repeated to foster improvements, pursued as if they were possible (Moran & Kendall 2009, p. 329).

We would like to take this Baudrillardian analysis of education as a springboard for thinking around ESD and capitalism. ESD is paradoxically positioned right at the nexus of looming ecological crises (”the Anthropocene” [Crutzen & Stoermer 2000]; the ”Capitalocene” [Malm & Hornborg 2014]) while at the same time the ESD field has been severely criticised for its presumed normativity (Jickling 1994). Quite regardless of the validity of this critique, embedded in the core idea of ESD is, arguably, a grandiose ”improvement agenda” – not only of education, but of the planetary condition as such. There is an asssumption that if we can find the appropriate way of ”doing” ESD, a sustainable world is within reach.

However, if there is nothing that may be called education “that exists independently of the methodologies, comments, curricula designs, testing regimes, forms of discrimination”, as Moran and Kendall (2009, p. 333) put it, what place is there – if any – for ESD under current conditions of predatory capitalism, exploitation of natural “resources”, transgression of planetary boundaries, and the destructive fantasy of infinite growth? Does ESD generate nothing but reproduction, much like capitalism itself (e.g. Hellberg & Knutsson 2018)? Is ESD an affect-organizing “comfort-machine” in the classroom (Pedersen 2019), sustaining the present order of things? Perhaps Bruno Latour (2004) captures the point most aptly: ”Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?” (p. 225) Latour suggests, that the critic “is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather” (p. 246). Such arenas, Giroux observes, need “an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical, particularly in terms of how private issues are connected to larger social conditions and collective force” (Giroux 2004, p.62).

Stratford (2017) has recently called for education researchers to identify and respond to the challenging philosophical issues evoked by the current ecological crises. Our initiative is a response to Stratfords’s call; however, our starting point differs from how educational philosophy can “improve education in the Anthropocene” (p. 3) and is rather concerned with the “impossibility” of this claim.

We suggest that the idea of ESD as producing illusions of education rather than a sustainable world, does not necessarily lead to an impasse, but can, in Moran and Kendall’s (2009) words, be a very useful place to begin. We are looking for theory-, philosophy-, and empirically-driven papers that address the  ”impossible” position of ESD in ”the Capitalocene” at an urgent juncture in history.

Contributions may address, for instance, the following areas of inquiry;

  • Has ESD reached an impasse, and if so; how can it be understood?
  • Are there ”functions” of ESD beyond the improvement agenda, and beyond the cycle of Critique and Transformation?
  • Is ESD a form of simulation and, if so, what purposes might such simulation serve?
  • How can ESD effectively interfere with capitalism, its forces and threats to life-supporting Earth systems?
  • In what arenas of intervention and action can ESD assemble its participants?
  • How can we reimagine education in extinction and post-extinction narratives?

Submission Guidelines

Please send your abstract of 250-500 words, along with references and a brief bio, to both Helena Pedersen and Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg.

Final article manuscripts will be approx. 6000 words.

  • Abstract due: May 1, 2019
  • Notification of acceptance: May 20, 2019
  • Manuscript submission deadline: November 1, 2019

Guest Editors:

  • Helena Pedersen, University of Gothenburg
  • Beniamin Knutsson, University of Gothenburg
  • Dawn Sanders, University of Gothenburg
  • Sally Windsor, University of Gothenburg
  • Arjen Wals, University of Wageningen

Link to the publisher’s website is here!

EPAT

“We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people” Ghent University wants to become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured

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“A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.”

My last two blog posts have been raising some critical questions about the viability and legitimacy of the scientific ‘enterprise’ in neo-liberal times. The Publish AND Perish blog post led to a lot of responses from colleagues within academic but also from the publishing ‘industry,’ including from the CEO of MDPI, Paul Vazquez. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, Ghent University in Belgium released a statement in which the university declared to go  – what I would call – ‘off-the-grid’ of commodification, marketization and economic globalization by turning towards, autonomy, (local) relevance, responsibility towards people and, hopefully planet as well, by creating spaces for transdisciplinarity, boundary-crossing and collaborative action (perhaps I am filtering the statement using my own lens – apologies if I do so). Below some excerpts form the statement which can be found here as well: Ghent University’s New Pathway

Here is the message from Ghent’s Vice Chancellor Rik van de Walle

‘We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured’

(17-12-2018)

Our university should once again belong to the academics, rather than the bureaucracy, writes the rector of Ghent University, Rik Van de Walle.

Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

It is a common complaint among academic staff that the mountain of paperwork, the cumbersome procedures and the administrative burden have grown to proportions that are barely controllable. Furthermore, the academic staff is increasingly put under pressure to count publications, citations and doctorates, on the basis of which funds are being allocated. The intense competition for funding often prevails over any possible collaboration across the boundaries of research groups, faculties and – why not – universities. With a new evaluation policy, Ghent University wants to address these concerns and at the same time breathe new life into its career guidance policy. Thus, the university can again become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured. We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured.
With the new career and evaluation model for professorial staff, Ghent University is opening new horizons for Flanders. The main idea is that the academy will once again belong to the academics rather than the bureaucracy. No more procedures and processes with always the same templates, metrics and criteria which lump everyone together.
We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. The quality of the individual human capital is given priority: talent must be nurtured and feel valued.
This marks the end of the personalized objectives, the annual job descriptions and the high number of evaluation documents and activity reports. Instead, the new approach is based on collaboration, collegiality and teamwork. All staff members will make commitments about how they can contribute to the objectives of the department, the education programmes, the faculty and the university.
The evaluations will be greatly simplified and from now on only take place every five years instead of every two or four years. This should create an ‘evaluation break’. 

 

We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. At the same time, we want to pay more attention to well-being at work: the evaluations of the supervisors will explicitly take into account the way in which they manage and coach their staff. The model must provide a response to the complaint of many young professors that quantitative parameters are predominant in the evaluation process. The well-known and overwhelming ‘publication pressure’ is the most prominent exponent of this. Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

Through this model, we are expressly taking up our responsibility. In the political debate on the funding of universities and research applications, a constant argument is that we want to move away from purely competitive thinking that leaves too little room for disruptive ideas. The reply of the policy makers is of course that we must first do this within the university itself. This is a clear step in that direction, and it also shows our efforts to put our own house in order.
With this cultural shift, Ghent University is taking the lead in Flanders, and we are proud of it. It is an initiative that is clearly in accordance with our motto: ‘Dare to Think’. Even more so, we dare to do it as well.
A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.
Where opinions, procedures and habits are challenged. Where there is no place for rigidity.

 

I am absolutely convinced that in a few years’ time we will see that this new approach has benefited the overall quality of our university and its people.

Rik Van de Walle, rector.

New book – Sustainability Science: Key issues

 

 

SustScienceSustainability Science Key Issues Edited by Ariane König (Université du Luxembourg, Luxembourg) and Jerome Ravetz (Oxford University, UK) is a comprehensive textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates from any disciplinary background studying the theory and practice of sustainability science. Each chapter takes a critical and reflective stance on a key issue of sustainability from contributors with diverse disciplinary perspectives such as economics, physics, agronomy and ecology. This is the ideal book for students and researchers engaged in problem and project based learning in sustainability science.

I co-authored Chapter 2 with Michael A Peters titled: Flowers of resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. Here’s a short intro to our joint effort. “When democracy can be hijacked, power corrupts and capitalism penetrates deeply into society, including into our schools, what prospects still exist for education for a more sustainable world? Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities. In this paper we seek comfort, inspiration and support from emerging forms of ecological democracy, civic science and transgressive education.  The latter invites conflict and disruption as mechanisms to break with stubborn, unsustainable routines, that encourage people to leave their comfort zone. The resulting discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true. Learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones amidst a plurality of ideas, can help us interrogate and rethink the way we frame – or are made to frame – our experiences, as well as our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions.”

Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. and Peters, M.A. (2017) Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm König, A. & Ravetz, J. (ed.). 2017.  Sustainability Science: Key Issues.  London: Earthscan/Routledge.

Here’s the link to the book: Sustainability Science: Key Issues

UNESCO Chairs in Education for Sustainable Development reflect on accomplishments and challenges in new report

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A new UNESCO publication containing the reflections of  a number of UNESCO Chairs who focus on an aspect of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has just been published as an open access report.

Michelsen G. and Wells P. J. (Editors) A Decade of Progress on Education for Sustainable Development Reflections from the UNESCO Chairs Programme. Paris: UNESCO. Freely downloadable. Download the report here!

Conclusions  from the foreword by the editors.

“The UNESCO Chairs, together with UNITWIN projects, made an active contribution to the worldwide UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development. In particular, in the area of higher education, but also in other educational sectors, the UN Chairs have kick-started a wide variety of interesting activities, as the contributions to this volume demonstrate. Even though a number of UNESCO Chairs focusing on specific issues related to sustainable development, and to education for sustainable development, have been established in several countries over the past few years, it has unfortunately not yet been possible to anchor sustainability in the teaching that occurs in higher education – apart from individual examples, such as Sweden, where higher education institutions are legally required to promote sustainable development. UNESCO Chairs should be given the resources and opportunities to take on even greater responsibility for this area of education, as its graduates play a key role in disseminating ideas about how society should develop, and they make a significant contribution to sustainable development through science and research.

The SDGs mark an important turning point in the focus of the UNESCO Chair and UNITWIN Programme work as well as a challenge to build on their acknowledged achievements. As highlighted earlier, the SDGs place an earnest call on higher education institutions to focus their endeavours on addressing the world’s most fundamental developmental issues – not only those related to education but on all areas of human activity – from clean water and healthy living spaces, to peace building, issues of gender disparity and non-discriminatory prosperity. The challenges for the UNESCO Chairs on ESD, and indeed for all the UNITWIN Networks and Chairs across all fields of activity, is to now use their power of collective creative thought to find solutions to meet these challenges. The Chairs in ESD have now entered a period of consolidation and forward strategizing – a period which requires them to look beyond the theory to the practical and to pertinent problem solving. Turning theoretical knowledge into practice demands them to be at once trans-disciplinary in their implementation design worldwide, to cooperate and collaborate with the wider family of UNESCO Chairs and to urge the full embodiment of ESD into the broader research, teaching and learning higher education agenda towards 2030. The current publication provides a reference point, reflecting the past achievements of the UNESCO Chairs’ diverse areas of thematic focus during the worldwide UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, their outlook for the Global Action Programme (2015-2019) and beyond in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

As on of the invited Chairs I wrote Chapter 2 titled Transformative Social Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at the Interface of Science and Society: A Forward-looking Retrospective.

Wals, A.E.J. (2017). Transformative Social Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at the Interface of Science and Society: A Forward-looking Retrospective. In: Michelsen G. and Wells P. J. (Editors) A Decade of Progress on Education for Sustainable Development Reflections from the UNESCO Chairs Programme. Paris: UNESCO, p. 18-28.

Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability

Just before the end of the year a fascinating paper appeared in the journal Sustainability authored by a multi-author team led by Martha Chaves who just completed het PhD in Wageningen last month.

Chaves, M., Macintyre, T, Verschoor, G & Wals, AEJ (2017)Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability. Sustainability 2017, 9, 21; doi:10.3390/su9010021  Link to the paper.

Abstract: In line with the increasing calls for more transformative and transgressive learning in the context of sustainability studies, this article explores how encounters between different ontologies can lead to socio-ecological sustainability. With the dominant one-world universe increasingly being questioned by those who advocate the existence of many worlds—a so-called pluriverse—there lays the possibility of not only imagining other human–nature realities, but also engaging with them in practice. Moving towards an understanding of what happens when a multiplicity of worlds encounter one another, however, entails a sensitivity to the negotiations between often competing ontologies—or ontological politics. Based on an ethnographic methodology and narrative methods, data were collected from two consecutive intercultural gatherings called El Llamado de la Montaña (The Call of the Mountain), which take place for five days every year in different parts of Colombia. By actively participating in these gatherings of multiplicity, which address complex socio-ecological challenges such as food sovereignty and defence of territory, results show how encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially transgressive learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate un-sustainability. Although we argue that a fundamental part of the wicked sustainability puzzle lies in supporting more relational ontologies, we note that such learning environments also lead to conflicts through inflexibility and (ab)use of power which must be addressed if sustained socio-ecological learning is to take place. Keywords: ontological politics; transformative learning; transgressive learning; sustainability; Colombia; narrative methods.

Here’s the cover of Martha Chaves’ PhD-thesis which can be downloaded from the Wageningen University Library system.

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Answering the “Call of the Mountain”: Co-creating Sustainability through Networks of Change in Colombia

It is one thing to talk about wanting to live in harmonious relations with people, nature and Planet or Mother Earth, but quite another to put this into practice.

Today, Tuesday November 22nd, the day the FARC and the Colombian government are signing a new peace treaty, one of PhD students, Martha Chaves, successfully defended her dissertation. Martha’s thesis represents a systematic attempt to investigate individuals, communities, networks and gatherings of networks that seek to develop a more relational and caring way of living and of being in the world. In her native Colombia she studied what is it like to attempt to bring the principles of buen vivir such as; reconnecting to ancestral wisdom, questioning values of competition and individuality, and forming new relations to place and territory, into practice. Below you see a happy group of people who all played a role in the ceremony.

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Her research unveils the tensions between the dominant ontology or (ways of being) of modernity, and other marginalized more relational and cosmological ones such as those of Indigenous Andean communities. Her thesis also re-affirms the importance of plurality in creating the ‘dissonance’ that invites continuous learning that is sometimes at the edges of people’s comfort zones. More so, she shows how intercultural encounters between different ontological positions can lead to more a confronting and overcoming of our unsustainable habits. As such the thesis can help inform socio-ecological niches and movements across the globe that seek to provide a counter narrative to economic globalization, modernity and the neo-liberal agenda.

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After the defence – from left to right: Prof. Danny Wildemeersch, Prof. Rutgerd Boelens, myself, Dr. Martha Chaves, Dr. Gerard Verschoor, Deputy Rector Prof. Francine Govers, Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Prof. Noelle Aarts.

Furthermore, her results show or at least suggest that encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially ‘transgressive’ learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate unsustainablity. This finding connects well with here future work within the ISSC-funded project on T-learning (www.transgressivelearning.org) that I blogged about in the post below this one.

Afterwards there was a WASS seminar Symposium “Disruptive Networks of Change: Can ‘Transgressive’ learning alter the status quo?” where some critical follow-up questions were asked such as: What types of learning are needed to disrupt ingrained unsustainable behaviour? And how can learning-based change be upscaled? With invited speakers from the fields of environmental education and social learning, and building on the ISSC funded T-learning project which addresses issues of transformative/transgressive learning, we will set out to explore these questions, and possible paths towards more sustainable futures. Martha Chaves first presented here work briefly (presentation-for-defense-22-nov-2016), followed by responding presentations by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa (issc-tkn-seminar-wageningenn) and by Prof. Danny Wildemeersch (paper-presentation-maynooth) of the University of Leuven in Belgium.