Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Eco-Capability - preparing the ground for sustainable living

Conference Theme
How can we develop a curriculum content and pedagogy that helps new teachers acquire the attributes they need to be able to enable young people to ‘make a difference’? How can we mainstream this practice?

Author: Dr. Paul Clarke
Professor of Education, St Mary’s University College, Waldegrave Road, Strawberry Hill, London email: paul.g.clarke@camb-ed.com phone: 07950479553

Paper Title
Eco-Capability - preparing the ground for sustainable living

If you plan one year ahead, plant rice;
If you plan ten years ahead, plant trees;
If you plan a hundred years ahead,
educate the people.

This paper will argue that a curriculum for sustainability can only arise through practical actions that are focused on ecological principles. To realize this we need to invest time and energy to establish basic operational conditions in our schools which foster such principles; these conditions are what I have called elsewhere an eco-capability (Clarke 2010). They are a framework for understanding and focusing our learning and action concerned with sustainable living. They will be informed by, and evolve through human activity and experience, but connect closely with natural systems and processes all aligned to growing food (Clarke forthcoming). The basic idea is designed around a set of modules that schools use that guide their actions to become sustainable. The modules set the ground which connect learning to energy, water, waste and land.

Our experience, arising from the Incredible Edible[1] (Clarke 2009) programme has taught us that the basic ideas of sustainable living need not be overcomplicated, indeed, they resonate with the everyday and encourage creative engagement, but they have to provide routes for profound change in organizational and individual behaviour. What is more complex, and remains a testing matter, is how to proceed and engage with a school community in a way that enables teachers to integrate ideas about sustainable living in the curriculum (Capra 2010).  We have found that learning and understanding about sustainable living comes from action, from doing things and seeing how sustainable living can be easily undertaken. Our approach is best experienced as a living, emergent, formative, evolutionary form of pedagogy. It has to relate and reflect the reality of where we live, and acknowledge that we are in the main living in far from sustainable communities.

Our central dilemma when it comes to mainstream education, concerns how closely to align with existing practice, and how far to push the boundaries to facilitate new thinking. Moving too far, too soon, can frighten people away from taking steps forward, but too much caution will not generate the necessary creative organizational turbulence to initiate any shift of mind or practice. Therefore how to position the sustainable living agenda in such a way as it maintains the vitality and creative impetus without compromising our radical ambition is a central concern for progressive eco-literate design.

Introduction - setting the context
As societies around the world begin to recognise that their relationship with the natural environment has to evolve if it is ever to be sustainable, the role of education becomes ever more critical as it moves to the centre stage. The trouble is, that if we turn to mainstream education across most developed nations we will find very little ecological learning takes place beyond some elementary ideas about how to grow a few vegetables in the schoolyard. Education has traditionally fragmented learning, creating subject disciplines that disintegrate rather than integrate knowledge. The ecologically capable learner engages with ideas differently, they combine ideas to form coherent, holistic ways of understanding. So there is a job to do to offer a coherent and cogent curriculum for sustainable living that does not end up as a bolt-on addition to existing curricula, or a set of fragmented experiences which fail to provide sufficient connection for learners to get the fundamental messages about sustainable living. What we need is a new set of capabilities and literacies concerned with deep ecology, and a set of steps for people to get there which connects hand, heart and mind (Sterling 2005). What is clear is that, as yet, there is an insufficiently connected and systematic response to the broad concept of sustainable living emerging from the school world. Clearly, a few vegetables in a schoolyard are insufficient on their own to enable a conceptual shift to happen, but they do serve as an important starting point upon which to build (Clarke 2009).
Interest in the natural environment as a facility for learning raises the need to think carefully about what we might learn, what we already know, but do not consider to be of value, and what do we need to find out about to make the connection between curriculum content and attributes which will help young people to understand and apply this new knowledge to make their own life choices in greater harmony with the world around them.
How much of the burgeoning interest in schools might be assigned to mandatory measures, rather than a particular organisational conviction remains to be seen. The emergence in the regulatory framework of carbon reduction measures will no doubt translate into required activity by every institution and household as nations strive to meet targets that have been set on the international scale. In the English context this is already taking shape both structurally and culturally. At a structural level, Local authorities and businesses are having to look closely at their internal schemes for reduction of their carbon footprint, and at a cultural level recent Ofsted reports have cited the importance of learning outside the classroom and its role in improving student achievement, standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour (Ofsted 2008). Without going so far as to ensure that both awareness and action are mandatory, the general direction that they have pointed towards in terms of best practice suggests that some form of knowledge, perhaps informed through the previous government gateways to sustainability, may provide a framework for action and modification of curriculum to guide and inform a transition of basic practice.
The importance of innovative community projects
Perhaps more important than the centrally prescribed ‘sustainability’ pedagogy, is the rise of community awareness on the issue of sustainable living. These many and varied projects are connecting local activism with new thinking about community and landscape, which amongst other things is generating public debate on daily habits and routines (Hopkins 2008, Clarke 2010). In my own case, my involvement in the Incredible Edible project has provided direct evidence of a rapidly expanding and demographically widespread interest in the way individuals and communities can take action to redefine themselves and re-orientate their activity towards more sustainable practices. The drivers behind these projects vary from personal beliefs and values, to simple economic necessity, but the prevailing focus is localism and redefining self and context. This localising and personalising of the bigger sustainability challenges enables people to participate and act, it encourages debate and questioning of existing ways of living, and in turn can be used within schools as a vehicle for reform and redesign of both curriculum practice and process.
Incredible Edible has evolved in a matter of a few years from a small-scale guerrilla gardening campaign, to an eco-lobbying force with connections locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. As it has developed we have recognised that an emergent methodological approach has been adopted, not particularly by deliberate design, but by circumstance. As we began to see that there was so much happening we also realised that to orchestrate all elements of the programme within one operational structure was a self-defeating job. Instead, we encourage creative participation and self-managing of discrete programmes within the project, and we contain the overall concept within a set of capabilities concerned with core ideas – actions to become sustainable (hand, heart and mind), energy, water, waste and land. Oddly enough, these simple ideas raise some difficult challenges for schools, who often want very structured approaches to be applied to fit alongside their existing arrangements. We see this, but question their logic, and encourage them to engage with the possibility of making connections as a route to learning. We are not interested in business as usual with a few eco-green additions, instead we are looking for a radical overhaul of how to live. To make the shift, we encourage teachers to see the programme as a series of interdependent and mutually supportive micro-projects, that way, they can adopt a strategy – from the small scale to the ambitious depending on their interest, and we encourage them to then begin to experiment using the bigger frame of Incredible Edible to provide a type of bounded zone that provides their experimentation with conceptual and operational justification for their activity, as it is endorsed by the broader local community and by connection to a much wider network of similarly minded organisations.
The pedagogic implications of these observations are important, we see any ‘eco-literacy’ or ‘eco-capability’ as essentially emergent forms of learning, emphasising process as a vital component of how to understand and interpret what is happening when we engage with the natural world. In the programme, schools are all experimenting with different ways in which they might engage young people and parents in practical activities which on their own appear relatively benign, such as growing food on an old playground, or planting an orchard, or learning jam making and pickling, or introducing compost heaps, or water harvesting strategies, but when they begin to accumulate we can see the emergence of a formula for sustainable living, connecting self to place, to soil, to water, to weather, to season and therefore making that important first step to connect to the natural. The resilient sustainable community is not, we suggest, something that has been pre-formulated and pre-defined, and this insight into design may be of great value as we proceed to try and make sense of how to nurture suitable sustainable capabilities within our school systems. Each remains unique, but each connects to a wider network of ideas and approaches which begin to illustrate and demonstrate a shift of mind, a change of cultural understanding.
Our approach to eco-literacy might be seen therefore as a process of engagement and enquiry with critical local concerns, rather than a set of assumptions based on global circumstances, which may not be easy to connect with in our own school settings. For example, we can begin by looking at what we have and ask: ‘What does our city/neighbourhood look like with failed infrastructure?’ What does our city/neighbourhood do when 15% of its population are undocumented? What might our city/neighbourhood look like when a great number of its children get no formal education? What strategies might our city/neighbourhood adopt when its water resources begin to run dry? From such questions we are able to think about the  opportunities that exist in our environment around school which can provide responses to these questions. We can consider the approaches we might adopt, from the mandatory to the freeforming, we can see that different governance approaches will have different consequences. We can then move to the practicalities and consider what happens if we grow food in our small urban spaces. We learn that we have to know how to nurture that produce, we develop specific, contextualised understanding of soil, water, plants, light, heat and the ways they combine.
These simple starting points provide our students with a direct link to their environment and offer them a route to redefine their urban environments based upon what they discover, this is the first step to an eco-capability of retrofitting what we have to suit a new situation. The point being that cities, neighbourhoods and streetscapes are not going to go away in a hurry, they will be the places we live – sustainably or otherwise, and they will form the landscape which in turn will shape the mindscape of our citizens. As a result, we have to reconceptualise them so that they serve our needs and those needs of the planet, the small act of growing becomes a route map for this new literacy.
Incredible Edible is therefore an example of the ways that people in their community of learners can take practical steps towards sustainable living. We know that people need examples, they want to be able to see how it might be done, and this means that schools can play a very important strategic role in educating not just young people, but their entire neighbourhoods. The use of the school yard as a food source is one powerful approach which Incredible Edible promotes. To rethink the physical landscape of the playground as a food-hub challenges us to experiment with existing space and put it to new use. This is a foundation piece of the approach we adopt – to get people to look again at their landscape, be it the playground, the street, the park or the balcony, they can all be seen as starting points for new thinking about sustainable living. In our case we use planters to enable growing on tarmac playgrounds, this raises questions – how can we water the plants, what happens out of school time, how do we know what will grow well here, can we create new ways of using old resources and waste to improve soil quality and perhaps generate greater warmth through greenhouses and sheltered growing. The simple starting point of food growing generates significant connections across the core issues of water, energy, soil and place and enables students and staff and parents to connect on a practical set of activities which in turn generate deeper questions about longer-term sustainability. In particular, when such practical activities are then considered on a wider cityscape. This comes in the form of new thinking about the shape, movement and spaces in what are rapidly being known as smart-cities. Instead of building new roads and tower blocks, we are asking how to retrofit cities so that they bring together the farm and the city, witnessing the convergence of urban and rural. This step from food for self, to food for all, emphasises the importance of sustainable living as a social as well as a technical consideration. As people live in the city they need to eat, and the more people that arrive in the next few decades in cities, the greater pressure there will be to meet their basic, in sustainable or unsustainable ways. If they are to survive then we have to make the former our default position. If carbon based energy availability emerges as the crisis issue of the next two decades as is being predicted, then our existing modes of moving food from the country to the city become ever more problematic as they are heavily carbon dependent. Instead, redesigning urban space so that it becomes a backbone for survival through the localising of food within urban space, provides a viable way forward and should therefore form a substantive element of any eco-literacy for our education system. Add to this the way that water can already be harvested within the urban environment and the modification to ensure distribution and redistribution begins to be a viable way of maintaining its use in the longer term. As we begin to connect to such a narrative, we begin to see that reshaping cities for long-term health and well-being of all natural systems is quite possible, it generates wealth and knowledge and maintains engagement of people within their social and community spaces in new and more convivial ways. We simply have to work outside of the predictable, a lesson we have learnt and continually adopt in Incredible Edible.
That is why growing food in the school yard is a good start, it is the first step on a journey towards full use-age of the city as a natural food-scape, and a direct link to the myriad of problems people face daily in their struggle to exist in cities at the present time as it enables and empowers, rather than deskills and disempowers the citizen. Schools more often than not have at least some play space, or some wall-space which can be adopted as a basic food-growing hub. This simple demonstration of the possibility of new uses for existing spaces has profound possibilities.
There are many ways of developing capabilities which serve to inform an eco-literate society. These are not exclusively the concern of schools as they are lessons we learn by living. However, schools play a critical role in preparing people to see the world in culturally acceptable ways.  In the past, these culturally acceptable ways included an acceptance that we can use the natural world as a resource for our sole use, to the exclusion of other living things and this was modelled through a defined curriculum. As we are leaning, this is no longer tenable nor practical, if for no other reason than we now understand that our own life is dependent upon a bio-diverse community which in its interdependence and emergent learning maintains and nurtures further life on the planet. It is therefore in our own self-interest to nurture eco-literate, evolving capabilities in learners, they follow lines of enquiry based on real time problems within their lived environment concerned with the stuff of life – water, land, energy and waste. Schools can participate in the development of a range of capabilities that will facilitate this learning. Through the curriculum they offer, and through the ways in which they utilise their resources, their buildings, their land and  how they use and dispose of waste they learn by doing the necessary things to respond to the changing landscape. We should ensure however, that this work remains naturally focused, which is why food growing is such a powerful connector, it serves as a guide to the necessary capabilities of observation, nurture, maintenance, conservation of resource, attention to solar energy, the cropping and preparation of food as a life source, and the cyclical properties of resources once used to form waste to enrich and maintain the soil.
This paper simply sets the scene for the venture of sustainable education, and leads to an idea of a sustainable school. The activity that is arising from this work will begin to illustrate in more meaningful ways what we might understand by progressive sustainable community.


Capra, F. (2010) Schooling for Sustainability: Making Teaching and Learning Come Alive. Lecture series at Berkeley, California, June 23–25, 2010
Clarke, P. (2009) Incredible Edible: Growing Community. IET publications. Todmorden
Clarke, P. (2010) Incredible Edible: how to grow sustainable communities, Forum. Volume 52 Number 1 2010 pp.69-79

Clarke, P. (forthcoming) Our Great Work: Growing Sustainable Communities. Routledge. London
Hopkins, R. (2008) The Transition Handbook. From oil dependence to local resilience. Green books. Totnes
Ofsted (2008) Learning outside the classroom. How far should you go? Report no 070219. Crown Copyright. London
Sterling, S. (2005) Sustainable Education: Revisioning Learning and Change. Schumacher Briefings.  Green Books. Totnes

[1] Incredible Edible is a community food programme which was formed as a way of guiding community understanding about sustainable living through the focus of food, growing and connecting to the land. The author is one of the founder directors of the programme.

1 comment:

  1. I think you would find Kalu Yala very interesting. We are building a sustainable village in the Panamanian rainforest!
    Check it out: