Environmental education past, present and future – interview with Prof Bill Scott

Bill Scott, writer and Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Bath, kindly answered some questions from CEM.

  1. A little bit about who you are, how you came to be interested in issues of “the environment”, education and environmental education. Can you say something about your recent books?

I’m a Cumbrian from the Eden Valley.  I’ve a science background and have taught in schools in Uganda and England.  I worked at the University of Bath for over thirty years where my final roles were as director of a research centre that focused on learning and the environment, and as editor of the academic journal, Environmental Education Research.  I first focused on environment issues when teaching science in Hull in the late 1970s, before moving to Bath to run an environmental science teacher education course.  Since retiring, I’ve been involved with the National Association for Environmental Education [NAEE], and I still write my blog.

The recent books that Paul Vare and I have written have a similar format (a lot of short chapters) but are quite different in focus.  The first, The World We’ll Leave Behind: grasping the sustainability challenge, sets out to explain in a straightforward way the ideas around sustainability.  It’s sub-divided into issues, concepts and strategies and was written to be read by anyone who wanted an introduction to the issues.  The second, Learning, Environment and Sustainable Development: a history of ideas, is also divided into three sections: the time before environmental issues came to the fore (which we’ve suggested was up to the publication of Silent Spring), from then to the present time, and what the future offers.  In the book, we say that it “is an introduction to the long history of our learning about human-environment relationships; that is, our struggles with and within the natural world – first for survival, then for dominance, currently for self-preservation, and in future perhaps, even for long-term, mutually beneficial co-existence.”  It’s more of a specialist book than the first one though the first section would appeal to a general reader.

  1. You had a recent blog where you laid out the causes for the development of the field in the UK, making the point that there was a lot going on before the late-60s surge. What do you think a better understanding/awareness of this long history might provide – how might it help today’s educators?

I think it’s always good to keep history in mind.  I write about it for this reason and because it brings a sense of perspective.  For example, over the last 60 years the government department dealing with English education has never really been much interested in environmental education and has usually been content to let the department of the environment be supportive.  Thus, the current reluctance of the government to change the curriculum in order to encourage an exploration of the existential issues we face is neither new nor surprising.  Essentially, it retains a 19th century view of the purposes of schools.

  1. Relatedly, do you sometimes have a sense of deja vu/Groundhog Day, where old ideas that fell from favour get dusted off and re-branded as “new and innovative”?

Not really because the context is usually very different.  Currently there’s a campaign for a return to refundable deposits on drinks bottles and cans.  I remember this from my childhood when deposits on bottles were commonplace, but today this requires quite a different approach because of how we buy food and drink.  And take litter; a national campaign to combat this has existed since 1954 when there was no fast-food packaging, drinks cans or plastics.  Today’s anti-litter campaigns try to match solutions to the materials involved which are just an unsightly but much more damaging to animals.

  1. What has never been tried with environmental education that you think should have been? Or, put another way, “what have we been doing wrong all this time?”

It’s easy to say that environmental education must have been a failure because since it began our environmental problems have got a lot worse.  But this would be a mistake.  If we take a country like the UK, there is now considerable awareness across the population that we face serious environmental issues, particularly, of course, a warming Earth and the climate issues that follow from this (though the level and detail of this awareness, and understanding, varies enormously).  Such awareness has come about because of a wide range of initiatives by schools, the media, business, and particularly through the work of the large number of national and local organisations such as the wildlife trusts that work in communities across the country.  Even governments now say they recognise the problems.  But individuals, families and communities, no matter how aware or knowledgeable (or rich) they are, cannot solve the problems we face as they have no means of directly shifting national policy.  If environmental educators can be criticised, perhaps it’s because they were not persistent or persuasive enough in making the case for policy change.

  1. Anything else you would like to say (could include an opinion on the “Teach the Future” campaign? Or about the dead-end nature of COP26, or anything you like. Or nothing!)

It’s been good to watch organisations such as Teach the Future and to help them with their campaigns (I sit on its Adult Advisory Board).  The direct involvement of young people is a significant development as are their calls for curriculum change.  Young people’s groups tend to say they want to learn more about the implications of a changing climate for their lives and learn about what we should be doing about it.  This seems to me to be a compelling argument.  As for COP26, well, I’ll not be there.

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