A teacher perspective on the Junior Cycle framework and Education for Sustainability

This short course has been developed by teachers from two schools, Cork Educate Together Secondary School and North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School, in order to create new or deepen existing learning opportunities which can support the mainstreaming of Education for Sustainability in Junior Cycle programmes. These include opportunities for outdoor learning, space for meaningful co-design of learning and for the development of skills for collective action, opportunities to experience different modes of decision making and non-hierarchical organizing and opportunities to imagine radical social change. These opportunities are described briefly below.

Outdoor learning

The framework for Junior Cycle aims to support the wellbeing of learners. However, the potential wellbeing benefits of outdoor learning have not been emphasised. Eisner (1985) discusses the impact the ‘null curriculum’, that which we do not teach, has on our perceptions of what we value in education. If we do not spend time teaching the formal curriculum outdoors this suggests that we do not see it as an important learning tool (Beames et al, 2012). The National Strategy for ESD (2014) fails to recognise the value of outdoor learning. Confining students to learn indoors has serious implications for students’ skills for understanding their natural environment as well as for their appreciation of ecology, biodiversity and natural resources. Locating all learning indoors also sends an implicit message to students that what is found outdoors in the natural environment is not of value and not a worthwhile focus for learning.  Numeracy, literacy and digital skills for interacting with the virtual world are highly prioritised by the Framework for Junior Cycle Key Skills. By contrast ecological literacy and skills for interacting with the natural world are not explicitly included.

Co-design /democratisation of learning

The Junior Cycle framework aims to meet the ‘needs of junior cycle students, both now and in the future’, however this would require significant opportunities for consultation to identify needs and to co-design learning experiences to meet those needs. While selecting how to present work or being given more choice in how to be assessed is a step towards a democratised classroom, teachers and students need space to become genuine partners and collaborators. A principle of co-design means that this short course can be responsive to the student’s interests and needs and can be shaped by students’ wishes to respond to real world events that will vary each time the course is delivered. Learning can be phenomenon based, with the phenomena being the issues of greatest interest to students taking the course at that time. The learning can also be designed to engage directly with a live issue in the local community of the students.

Skill development for collective action

Learning to take action collectively with others (rather than taking action only as an individual) is an essential component of a journey towards empowerment as an active global citizen. Learning to take action collectively involves development of a range of complex skills such as how to facilitate and take part in group decision making, analyse root causes, strategise, choose tactics, plan and evaluate actions together. The provision of CSPE in schools goes part of the way in introducing these collective action skills, as CSPE actions ‘may involve students working with others’ (NCCA, 2016, p.17). However, the lack of time available for CSPE action processes means that they are likely to be planned and managed by teachers rather than student-led, with a consequence that students are unlikely to gain a wide range of action skills that they can apply to other local and global issues. Allowing more time for student-led action increases their capacity to collaborate with peers to carry out action, without the support of their teachers, as will be required in the world beyond school.

Experience of a range of decision-making and organising models

In addition to experiencing systems of majority voting (for example in a mock referendum in CSPE) schools can also provide opportunities for students to learn how to make decisions by consensus. Instead of voting, the process of consensus challenges all participants to keep discussing and to find a solution that everyone in a group can live with and can be an important way of working for non-hierarchical groups. As well as offering experiences working with others within hierarchical leadership structures (such as a class led by a teacher or a sports team with a captain) schools can also provide opportunities for young people to experience organising themselves according to mutually agreed principles of equality and structures for non-hierarchical organisation. Self-organising in group of peers without any leaders being appointed, can be a new experience for students that can build their capacity to participate effectively in groups of all kinds. Students can learn how to form group agreements, how to facilitate meetings, how to rotate key roles in a group to share power and skills and how to take initiative and support others in the group, without dominating others or controlling decision-making. The experience of different modes of decision-making, such as consensus decision making and working with others in explicitly non-hierarchical ways, provides valuable experience and skills that students can use in school, in further education, community groups, voluntary organisations and social movements, businesses and social enterprises, as well as in families, friendship groups and in the workplace.

Imagining radical social change

During Junior Cycle students learn gradually about a world that is unsustainable and unjust. They will encounter evidence that the earth’s environment is undergoing extreme and in some cases in irreversible change and will try to comprehend how and why existing social and economic structures have produced this situation. The world which they will discover is a world quite clearly in need of fundamental changes. Meanwhile it is likely that many students will also encounter a pervasive perspective among adults that fundamental changes to how society is organised are impossible. In order to genuinely become lifelong global citizens who are empowered to create a just and sustainable world, students must remain able to imagine possibilities for social change. Possibilities for radical social change, deep transformations in social and economic or cultural practices, should not be excluded from this imagination.

References:

Beames, S., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2012). Learning outside the classroom: theory and guidelines for practice. New York: Routledge.

DES, (2014). National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Education-Reports/National-Strategy-on-Education-for-Sustainable-Development-in-Ireland-2014-2020.pdf

Eisner, E. (1985). The Three Curricula that all schools teach. The Educational Imagination, 2nd edition. New York,  Macmillian.

NCCA, (2016) Short Course: Civic, Social & Political Education. A Citizenship Course. Specification for Junior Cycle. Retrieved from https://www.curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/4370bb23-00a0-4a72-8463-d935065de268/NCCA-JC-Short-Course-CSPE.pdf