Abstract: This piece explores the development of a facilitated workshop for primary school children around sustainability and the children’s images of a preferred school environment. A rationale for the Workshop is outlined; design principles and methodologies are discussed, as are the approaches taken to interact with an audience of concrete operational thinkers. The Pilot School for this workshop is used as an example.
This article outlines a process that was undertaken at the end of 2005 at a suburban Primary School (‘The School’) in the middle ring of the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The process involved children from Levels 3 and 4 and it asked them to imagine what a sustainable school might look like. Sustainability was used in its widest sense – what are those things that make the school nice to be in (sustainable for the students) and also good for the environment? In this piece, the workshop is outlined and some indications given as to the reasons why certain processes were used. Also the outcomes from the pilot workshop are included to give a flavour of how the children reacted to the day.
The School has been accepted as part of the Victorian Sustainable Schools Initiative in 2005 and received Local Council funding to undertake a Master Plan mapping exercise with the Gould League in 2006.
The Sustainable Schools Initiative is a joint supported by the Department of Environment and Heritage and the Victorian Government. It aims to move students beyond awareness to action and environmental leadership based on co-learning.1 A review of the material about the Initiative available on the CERES and the Gould League websites indicates that the ‘what and how’ of sustainability has been necessarily prescribed. The schools have a choice of which paths to follow from a list that includes: waste, water and energy. There are a variety of programs for the school to choose from, one of which is the Master Planning activity.
The School will undertake the Master Plan activity as a three half day process with teaching staff, parents and students. The Master Plan involves a well-thought out approach which aims to engage the whole school community. The School had decided to use the Master Plan activities in this development role, and was going to involve selected student representatives in the process.
The suggestion for an additional workshop came at the instigation of the author, who is a member of the Sustainability sub-committee of the School Council. An offer to run a workshop which captured the student’s visions and imagination around the issue of sustainability at the School was received enthusiastically, the workshop was run in October 2005, the outcomes from it fed into the Gould League workshops and an number of the innovations developed in the workshop have been ‘made real’ in the school grounds. One of the current Year 6 Environmental Monitors was in the workshop, as were a number of younger students who have indicated they wish to keep involved in the Sustainability Program. A student-centred vision for a sustainable school was an opportunity for the teachers to hand pick participants for their enthusiasm and their ability to act as leaders in the school on this topic.
Connecting children to their immediate environment is just as important, if not more so, than connecting them to the geography of Australia or the world. Map making, visioning and designing their school environment will give these children a richer school experience by changing the way the see the world that is directly around them.
The Gould League website describes the Sustainable Schools Initiative as a:
flexible framework of teacher professional development; integrated student activities; and opportunities for community involvement which will improve your school environment; incorporate sustainability into the curriculum; and assist the school community to adopt sustainable practices.2
The approach takes a holistic look at the school in its social, economic and support environment and uses sustainability as a way of building community. Many of the initiatives generated through the Framework will require large amounts of volunteer time, something which is in short supply in many schools.
There are twelve key elements in the Framework which are regarded as essential for the Initiative to work. These include collecting baseline data, forming a committee, conducting an audit, and developing curriculum plans. The journey to sustainability is a six step process from awareness through engagement, to action, involvement, interaction then to leadership. Each step is well thought out and allows the school to follow the path.
The Sustainable Schools program is one of large number now running in countries all over the world. It stems from the United Nations push to educate children on the need for sustainable development which started at a UNESCO conference in 1977.3 UNESCO had a work plan, through Agenda 21and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to encourage education schemes around sustainable development, with its associated issues of poverty, globalisation and democracy. This approach was traditionally known as Environmental Education and aimed to provide positive experiences for students so they would learn to value the environment and would therefore wish to protect it.
In fact, this approach was not as successful as expected, so the push in the UK, US and Canada, has been towards Education for Sustainability. This movement has used the UN initiatives as a springboard, at the same time redefining what the aims of education around this issue should be.
Instead of educating for sustainable development, these initiatives “highlight the possibilities for schools to innovate and showcase changes in practice for a better future. Some programs are documenting deep levels of change resulting in cultural shifts within schools and the wider community”.4 The focus of these programs is an appreciation of the complexity of the issues facing the environment, the aim of equipping citizens with systemic thinking skills, and the placement of critical enquiry as central to the endeavour.5
Whole of school sustainability programs have been running for around 10 years in many parts of the globe, with the Australian experience starting in 2002 and the first programs are now reaching their review and evaluation stages.
Pilot – ‘The School’
The School is in a low density housing area in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. In the 2001 census 10% of the suburb’s population was aged 5-14 years, mostly in the area around the Primary School.6 At that stage, 22% of the population came from a non-English speaking background (NESB)7 and it is likely that this percentage has increased in the past 4 years. Compared to other suburbs in the Council area it has relatively low levels of University graduates (17%) and higher than the municipal average of persons with no qualifications (51%).8 Many parents work long hours, they are interested in the School but volunteerism is dropping. Lack of after school involvement by families resulted in high levels of vandalism, especially to the landscaping efforts of the Parents Association over the past couple of years. The suburb has not attracted those with higher incomes in the municipality, and overall, it is second in terms of levels of disadvantage in the local council area, and in the past, it has been overlooked by those in the political process as there are louder voices in other areas of the community.
The School is trying to change this situation through the efforts of the Principal, teachers, parents and students. Money has been spent translating the Newsletter into Mandarin and holding information nights with an interpreter to try and engage the NESB portion of the school community. A tree planting day was held in 2005 by parents to build ownership of the trees and gardens by the students. The Junior School Council has appointed Environmental Monitors who have been responsible for running rubbish free days and encouraging students to clean up mess when they find it in the grounds.
With these factors in mind, and after passing a critical eye over the suggested Master Plan process, it became obvious that a key part of what will be needed at The School was ownership of the sustainability initiatives on the part of the children. This would try to ensure that some of the vandalism would stop as word spread that the children were in charge of the improvements, and it was felt that some of the damage had been done by ex-students of the school.
The Sustainable Schools Program does tackle this idea as well, and ownership was built through the Gould League workshops also. However, as there were only going to be a small number of students represented in those workshops there was still a need for an image of a sustainable school which had been developed by more of the student body. It was planned that this work could be used effectively as a feeder into the Master Plan activities which were due to be held in Term 1, 2006.
An offer was made by the author to develop a facilitated imaging workshop for the students. The term ‘imaging’ was chosen to move away from ‘visioning’ and ‘creating’ both of which are used by the Sustainable Schools Initiative. The Principal was receptive and the proposal for the workshop was drafted with the input of parents and teachers.
The workshop needed to be as comprehensive and effective as possible in its use of class time. Where possible, its activities included the curriculum requirements for the time it substituted in the school day. The workshop will also served as experience for student teachers from the Bachelor of Education course at Monash University who acted as group facilitators for the school students.
Working with children
The author’s previous experience in workshop design has been with an adult audience. As she is not a trained educationalist, further research into the audience was required. To understand the levels of thinking that may be in the room and the challenges this posed for the Workshop, theories of child development were briefly examined.
Levels of Development and Foresight
Developmentally, children have a varying ability to understand and represent the future. This had a large impact on the types of methods that could be used and the structure of the process which was designed. The level of temporal understanding of a child is directly linked to their cognitive stage. Using Piaget’s work on the development of cognition, the students in the Workshop were be aged 8 to 12, in his terms – classic concrete operational thinkers.
As children with concrete operational thinking develop, they begin to use cognitive maps, both spatially and temporally, and are able to sequence. However, these abilities are only in evidence when they are dealing with concrete objects, if one asks them to apply this thinking to abstract areas, such as the future, and they will not be able to manipulate information in the same ways.9
Children at the concrete operational stage need:
• timelines which allow them to think sequentially
• the chance to try out their ideas which gives them the concrete experience of reality
• brief and well organised lectures to ensure their attention
• familiar examples for use with complex ideas to stretch their thinking
• problems which need analytical and logical thinking.
Although some ability for abstract thought was required, there were enough concrete activities to ensure the children were engaged and interested in the Workshop process.
Children can also show a great deal of comfort with being creative. Children will draw for hours, build intricate models and have imaginary friends. Creativity is a large part of foresight work, and much time is spent in workshops helping people feel comfortable enough to ‘unleash’ their creativity. In theory, children should be less inhibited but it seems that formal schooling can work against creativity, “about age 9 or 10, creative children often experience the ‘fourth-grade slump’ marked by a significant reduction in creative production”. This age group can start to become self conscious, so efforts were made in the workshop to make them feel comfortable and part of a group. The table facilitators were asked to gently guide the groups to ensure that everyone was heard and respected. The School’s code of conduct for students, including respect for others, was useful here.
Views of the future
The Lego Learning Institute (2004) commissioned researchers from the Sorbonne University in Paris to undertake a cross-cultural study into children’s life perspectives and their representations of the future. Fifty-four semi-structured interviews with 8-14 year olds were undertaken in six countries, and the research was published under the title ‘I Would be Happy if the Future Made Me a Normal Person: How children tell of their future’.
This report found that children’s view of the future is influenced to a great extent by the media and science fiction they are exposed to. Their images do “not stem from an autonomous children’s imaginary but rather from a collective imaginary produced by adults sand transmitted by the media”. These futures images were held in tandem with the expressed wish to hold on to the “continuity, stability and …what is known and familiar”. The researchers also found that the children held a “very precise picture of contemporary society…marked by enormous influence of public media…a culturally diverse society…and material prosperity”.
The children expressed some feelings of pessimism and helplessness in the face of large scale problems , these were highly influenced by the “images of the world offered to them by the media”. In addition, “children’s views of the future are highly grounded in the positive and negative sides of their own present lives” , where they felt that they faced something negative in their present life they wanted to make it better for their future. They were able to make positive, confident statements about the way their futures would turn out and were curious to see what happened.
When asked about their ideal school, the answers were very interesting. The children dreamed of “a school where the student-teacher relationship is based on interactivity and involvement in the learning process, a relation with room for informality, trust and the rejection of authoritarianism”. They also wanted “a spacious and enchanting physical environment” that offered challenges, imagination and allowed them to be in contact with people, nature, animals and lots of space.
Why ask the children?
Asking students to envision how they wish their school to be will be enriching for them personally, and it will help engender a sense of community and empowerment in the group. Experiences in other places have shown that involving children in helping to plan their school “transforms student’s attitudes; when given a voice about what they want in their school, they feel excitement, ownership and pride”.
The children have the opportunity to make suggestions, as a group, to the process of mapping their school’s future and the sustainability initiatives they could focus upon.
For example, a vision of what a sustainable school might look like, communicated to the school community from the students may encourage more of a community effort than previous activities in the school that have been initiated by parents and/or teachers. There is also an issue with expectations of the level of volunteer activity in the school community which is exacerbated by cultural backgrounds. The workshop may be a way in which these differences can be explored.
Asking children to imagine themselves in the future can be very fruitful if one wants to engage with hope and hopelessness, however when the aim is to create a new future, it may be more revealing to look at the:
• Weight of the past – what do we want to keep?
• Pull of the future – where do we want to be?
• Push of the present – what is moving us now?
Viewing a preferred future through these three questions will encourage the child to appreciate the good things about the current situation and to select some parts to take forward. The pull of the future is the generation of an image, and the push of the present gives the tension between what we have and what we want, pushing us to engage in negotiation for outcomes.