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Sustainable systems and positive human agency

November 6, 2015 in PGcert

I spent the majority of time on this topic wondering what ‘sustainability’ actually means.

I did three pieces of reading, which first made me feel perplexed, then a bit annoyed, and finally slightly more comfortable.

1) Perplexed

An enhancement guide for Sustainability in the Curriculum

This guide doesn’t explain definitions of ‘sustainability’. It says that sustainability is not just ‘related to our physical environment’, but what is it related to? The closest thing to a definition is the quote from UAL’s strategic aims, ‘To create a culture of social and environmental awareness in order to develop and integrate sustainable and ethical practice throughout all aspects of our life and work.’ (University Strategy 2010-15)’.

2) Bit annoyed

Dawe, G., Jucker, R. & Martin, S. (2005) Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments. York: Higher Education Academy 

This goes through different definitions of Education for Sustainable Development (EDS). There are variations on three factors: environmental, social and economic.

Dawe et al present different criteria for EDS. One is ‘Acceptance of limits’, related to the idea that ‘we are living within a materially non-growing, closed system’. This is based on a model called ‘The Natural Step’, accompanied by a picture of a person draining too much water from planet Earth via a tap. The tap represents technology (not cutting edge technology, given taps were invented in the 1800s!).

The Natural Step

I react against this definition. I think education is about not accepting limits. Are we really living in a finite, closed system? For example, fossil fuels might be limited but what about the other ways we might be able to create energy?

There’s a great book called ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’ which is all about dispelling the assumed limits that we place around ourselves and going beyond them. I think we should want students to be proactive, innovative and taking action, and not see themselves as consumers who are fearful that our resources will run out.

In the workshops I deliver, there is a focus on empowering the individual. (Dawe et al do talk about the ‘empowerment of the learner’.) Developing speaking skills is not just about better communication, it’s about your agency as a human being and doing something that matters to you. It’s about breaking limits, taking risks and helping create a future that is better than some of the dystopian futures I hear about in the context of sustainability.

3) Comfortable (ish) 

Sterling, S. (2013) Future Fit Framework: An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE

Sterling gives much clearer context for ‘sustainability’. More importantly he relates it to ‘graduate attributes’ and how graduates should prepare themselves for the world. He sums it up here:

‘In a nutshell: sustainability education prepares people to cope with, manage and shape social, economic and ecological conditions characterised by change, uncertainty, risk and complexity.’

A German view of sustainability literacy seems the most practical to me. This checklist (Michelsen and Adomssent 2007, p22) includes: the ability to deal with uncertainty, working in an interdisciplinary way, being participatory, the ability to plan, feeling empathy, motivating yourself and reflecting on wider concepts.

All of these things I understand in relation to developing enterprise and employability skills, and particularly to speaking skills. For example, being participatory (something I explored in Topic 2, Equalising student participation) and feeling empathy (when giving feedback, there is a need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes).

Sterling sums up: ‘..the sustainability learner will be characterised by such qualities as resilience, resourcefulness, creativity, systemic and critical thinking, enterprise, and a co-operative and caring outlook.’ (p 23)

This is exactly the kind of skills that I want to help students and graduates develop. Though I do still wonder if sustainability is something that can mean what you want it to mean.

I thought about sustainability when I designed and delivered a day of workshops this week on collaboration and presentation skills. I worked with two year groups on the Documentary Film MA at LCC. In the morning, the graduating students acted as mentors to the new students, and gave feedback on their presentations. In an afternoon workshop, the new students gave feedback on the graduating students’ presentations in return.

This ecosystem and reciprocity will carry through to next year, when the new students will be graduating and will act as mentors to the next intake of students.

In these sessions, the students are:

  • Resourceful (reflecting on ideas and articulating them)
  • Participative (each person speaks)
  • Supportive (give constructive feedback to peers)
  • Collaborative (two year groups working together)

There is a circular sense of sustainability about it. But I also feel that these skills encourage positive human agency, with the voice helping turn thought into action).

Sustainability and innovation

Critical reflection and the voice

October 2, 2015 in PGcert

I read a Chapter 2 from Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

The first half of the chapter focuses on the methods that you can use to be critically reflective: 1) how you’ve learned in the past shapes how you teach now 2) seeing learning from the point of view of the students 3) learning from colleagues and using them as a ‘critical mirror’ and 4) using theoretical literature (to help ‘teachers from mistakenly blaming their personal inadequacies for situations that are politically created’).

The power of developing your authentic voice stood out most for me, both that of yours and that of your students. I work on how we can help students feel comfortable speaking, particularly in relation to developing employability skills, so this is really interesting for me.

Brookfield says: ‘Feeling the power of one’s voice is fundamentally connected with developing one’s sense of agency’. He also quotes Richert (1992): ‘Agency, as it is described in this model, casts voice as the connection between reflection and action’.

The idea that speaking is about human agency, and helps you catalyse thoughts into action feels quite profound.

Brookfield says that getting feedback from your students is central to understanding your teaching from the point of view of the students. Deborah talked about Ramsden (2003). One of his points is that you first need to understand your students’ experiences of learning.

In both my teaching and digital work, user research and testing is a key process.

Brookfield emphasises the importance of getting feedback anonymously. I collect anonymous feedback in my workshops, as it allows for complete honesty. However, in our discussion group James said that teachers should create an atmosphere where it feels OK for students to contribute criticism, and that dialogue allows for further clarification.

As a result, I’d like to think more about how we create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing what could be done better face to face. This also adds to the idea of creating conditions where all voices can be heard.

One point that seemed to come up strongly was that learning is an ongoing process. Brookfield certainly suggests this, as does Dall’Alba (2005) – she talks about teachers playing an active, collaborative role in their own learning. James said that practice and discipline as a product designer is one in the same, and you couldn’t be a product designer if you weren’t continually learning.

Emmeline felt that her teaching practice was integrated and holistic, when looking at the categories put forward by Shreeve (2008). Emmeline made a very interesting point that her practice is distinct from the advertising course that she teaches on, and how that relates to how you can integrate learning and practice (my work doesn’t always relate to what I teach either).

One final point from Brookfield is that it’s important to understand that curricula is constructed and tentative, and should be questioned. I think this relates to the power your own teaching and voice can help shape external factors.

So the summary from my perspective is: in order to develop your own voice, you can help facilitate other people’s voices, understand other people’s voices to help define your own, and use yours to help shape the environment around you.

Critical reflection and voice

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