Sustainability, Creativity and Culture

Exploring the pedagogical intersections between ecology, education and culture

Ribs to Die For: In Fundraising the Medium is the Message

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This summer the wildly successful second annual RibFest 2016 was held at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Cape Breton. The event is organized by the Rotary Clubs in the area and funds raised are donated to the Hospice Palliative Care Society of Cape Breton County. The organizers, no doubt, have plans for the third annual next summer.

The need for end of life services is great in Cape Breton. The money raised is badly needed also. The Hospice Palliative Care website reports,  “Thanks to the exceptional efforts by the Rotary Clubs of CBRM’s Sydney RibFest 2016, the Hospice Palliative Care Society of Cape Breton will be the recipient of $70,000…”

Hospice Palliative Care provides compassionate end of life care for people predominately suffering from cancer, but also end stage respiratory, and cardiac disease as well as other terminal illnesses. There are future plans for a hospice residence as the demand for palliative services continues to grow.

Without doubt, support for hospice services is important. And RibFest is the medium chosen by which money is raised. On the first evening of the three day event, 35,000 people passed through the gates - an incredible number for any event, anywhere. The organizers and vendors had 90,000 pounds of pork ribs on hand to meet the demand. However, this was not enough. Ribs had to be sourced across the province to meet the unprecedented appetite of the attendees. The final number was a whopping 112,000 pounds of ribs consumed. One volunteer gushed, “Sydney went through more ribs than Ottawa on Canada Day!!”

And this was said without a trace of irony, but in the spirit of true accomplishment  - a feat to be celebrated.

In Cape Breton, the overall cancer rates in both incidence and mortality are substantially higher than Canadian rates, and higher than the rest of Nova Scotia. There is 20% more cancer here than in any other province. The rates are similar for increased mortality for heart disease. Cape Breton residents have higher standardized rates of ischemic heart disease, heart failure, lung, breast, prostate and colorectal cancer. Cape Breton has a 25% higher rate of colorectal cancer than the national average. 

There is an  irrefutable link between food, diet, lifestyle and cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables with less red and processed meats can help cut cancer risk. There is also growing evidence that meat cooked at high temperatures, or open flame as typically  found in grilling, produces chemicals that can cause cancer. Researchers found that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats was associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

So the prospects of raising funds for a healthcare initiative by promoting the consumption of tons of high fat, grilled meat slathered in sugary sauces and marinades sends a troubling message to the people, the families and, especially, the children and young people of Cape Breton.

In light of the disturbing health statistics in the region, raising health funds through an event like a RibFest should result in some serious soul searching by community and health care leaders. Some may argue it is the moral equivalent of raising funds for an alcohol treatment centre by having a massive beer and wine tasting event.

In this fundraising case, the medium is the message. We have to ask, “Is the  ‘RibFest’ message one we want to promote in our community?” Or, maybe, we find other ways to raise funds for healthcare that promote healthy food, that reflect an ethic of care for people, for the environment and for the overall well-being of our communities. 

Posted 48 weeks ago

CBU  Provides Leadership at National Roundtable on Pre-service Teacher Education

Cape Breton University is a national leader in teacher education for sustainability. Since 2012 the Education Department has made Education for Sustainability a core focus and central to its mission. 

All B.Ed graduates complete the course Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future. In 2016 CBU launched its one of kind online M.Ed in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation in partnership with the NGO Learning for a Sustainable Future. 

At Trent University in June, Dr. Patrick Howard represented CBU Education Department at the National Roundtable on Environmental & Sustainability Education in Pre-Service Teacher Education. Over 75 delegates from across Canada met in person to discuss, analyze, share research, and plan future directions to make Environmental and Sustainability Education (ESE) central to programming in Pre-service Teacher Education across Canada. 

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Representatives from faculties of education, NGOs, ministries of education, policy agencies, and school boards shared their expertise and experience to develop new initiatives, plan potential collaborations, and strengthen their networks. The leadership of Cape Breton University in pre-service teacher education for sustainability was widely recognized at the Roundtable. 

Since the June meeting at Trent University the results of working groups and roundtables were collated, transcribed, and analyzed. The information, knowledge, and expertise provided by the Roundtable delegates, will result in the creation of a National Action Plan and Declaration. When published, the National Action Plan will provide the blue print to make environmental and sustainability education central to all pre-service teacher education programs across the country. 

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Cape Breton University is ready to continue its leadership role and to assist in the developing of national networks across faculties and disciplines thereby enabling joint discussions that will explore and theorize relationships and issues among social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability. These processes of inquiry, theory development, and critical dialogue that were evident at the National Roundtable at Trent will continue through the Action Plan. 

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Open dialogue is crucial to the process, as opposed to imposing the concepts of environmental and sustainability education (ESE) on others. That people interpret ESE differently was readily apparent at the Roundtable. Yet, this diversity of interests and priorities should be viewed as a positive opening and a way to develop a critical discourse to make environmental and sustainable education an open question for examination in the unique socio-political and socio-ecological contexts within which we work.

The Action Plan is expected to be published in Fall 2016. 

Posted 50 weeks ago

On Language, Limpet Shells, Lessons and Life

Our lives bring us to many places, some we can call home, others we simply cannot. But, ultimately, on some level, we choose to stay, to live in a place, for whatever reason. Most often, the choosing feels like it is has been done for us. The reasons are as varied as our lives. Early in my teaching career, much to the surprise of friends and some family, I chose to take a position in a small coastal community in north east Newfoundland. I remember having to justify that decision to raised eyebrows and skeptical, incredulous stares. And yet the choice, the decision, did not seem a conscious, planned or deliberate one.

I felt comfortable. The place in which my wife and I were going to raise a family was a good fit. I bought a home overlooking the ocean. My backyard led into endless stands of spruce and fir forest. The teaching staff was close knit; the students warm and friendly. The years spent there have not been without their challenges. Coming from homes without a tradition of the literacy and skills valued by mainstream economy and culture, many children had special needs and required consistent, thoughtful care and attention. The collapse of the cod fishery in the early nineties had a profound effect on families and children dispersing them throughout Canada, undermining self-reliant communities with strong traditions of valuing intergenerational knowledge and systems of mutual support.

As a teacher, I lived with children in a region once home to the greatest biomass on the planet. The incredible diversity and numbers of fish species that swam the plankton-rich waters of the North Atlantic stood not only as testament to the miracle of the life generating power of the Earth, but also to the unknowable depths of human greed and the capacity to destroy and lay waste to that same miraculous fecundity. Working through the lens of critical pedagogy I attempted to address my concerns by devoting several weeks of my language arts program to exploring the social, political and environmental constructs responsible for the collapse of the ocean ecosystem. The exploration was primarily expository; letter writing, debates and research essays. But for the most part, this approach missed the mark. I never felt as if I was truly allowing the kids to connect with what was truly happening in their lives and communities. The same was true in other school subjects.

Really, what was happening in their lives and in their homes rarely influenced what was happening in the classroom and perhaps more sadly, vice versa. As the ocean was plundered and decimated, the children dutifully categorized the “natural resources” and diagrammed the food cycle. Meanwhile, their communities died a slow, inexorable death. A way of life that had sustained these communities for almost two centuries was no longer available to its children. Hope and promise were on the wane. Many children grappled with the prospect of leaving a place that was their home.

But there was an opening. It was in my students’ personal, expressive writing -the journals and poetry, the artworks and collage. The writing spoke to me of children struggling with their sense of place in a rapidly changing reality and it led me to look elsewhere for insight and understanding into how their schooling might make a relevant, authentic response to what was happening all around them. I looked, to language and literature – to poetry and fiction. I felt that imagination, creativity, the power of language may provide another way of knowing more deeply how to dwell in place. I wanted to allow children to experience their place, to experience the complex and subtle interrelationships between humans and the living landscape that surrounds them. I wanted to explore how children experience and respond to literature, particularly poetry, that reflects interactions and interrelationships between the human, and as David Abram says, “the more than human.”

I wanted to know more about how to do this. So I left and pursued doctoral studies.

I returned to the small coastal community having been away for two years. It was August and I was about to start my “research project” in September, to work with the children of coastal Newfoundland to better understand the intersection between language, literature and ecological literacy.

In the waning weeks of that summer, as I prepared to return to the classroom and to the lives of the children, I was reminded of the immediacy and rawness of life here. Tragic events in August set the tone for my return and determined how it was to unfold during that fast approaching autumn.

News swept through the villages on a fine mid August afternoon of a drowning. A boy I had taught just prior to my departure for doctoral studies had been swimming in a small pond with his brother and cousin just a short walk from their community. Men from the village using a small boat retrieved his body; gingerly snagging his bathing suit with hand lines, they brought him to the surface - an all too familiar image in the human history of coastal Newfoundland. The boy would have been in my classroom in a few short weeks. Now I was attending his funeral. I remembered him as a quiet, sensitive boy who enjoyed reading and drawing, filling his writing portfolio with wonderful stories, poems and sketches. He was communally remembered for these qualities on that sad day.

I sat with an overflow crowd in the tiny parish hall to watch and listen to the funeral on television, as the church next door was full. Outside, the branches of small aspen brushed the window; a blue sky and freshening breeze brought little relief to those inside fanning themselves with thin Mass booklets. As I waited for the many mourners to be seated, I turned the booklet in my hands. On the last page was a photograph of the boy’s smiling face; the picture had been cropped out of a larger shot - on a beach, perhaps, for grey cliff was visible in the background.

It was written below, in a wistfully short paragraph, that he loved writing, poetry, and life in his small community. The winter woods, the ponds, the beaches, and the coves intersected with all aspects of his young life, of who he was. Yet, it was particularly poignant and painful to think that this relationship somehow figured in his death.

In the intervening days between his death and funeral I listened for the words of anger, of resolve to never allow children to swim at that pond, to fence off the area, that it was unsupervised and dangerous (thoughts that flooded my mind during those days), but I didn’t hear them. Children had always swum there, just as they played on the wharves and rowed their punts around the coves. There was no anger. But I was shaken. In a matter of days I would be asking these same young people I saw sitting around me in that little church hall to share with me through reading, writing and reflection their relationship with their larger living landscapes, to activate and nurture an attunement for the natural places they live. I was troubled; my return to the classroom was to be filled with a newfound pedagogy of connecting children to literature meant to affirm life, and here I was facing, what I perceived to be, a cruel and meaningless death.

As I looked into their deeply saddened faces I realized the arrogance of thinking of the children’s lives as my ‘project.’ I was humbled and the false assurance of a seeker of knowledge, a research grant holder became an emptiness, an openness, and in a sense, a kind of poverty. The word poverty comes to me through its original meaning from the Latin paucaus – little or few, and parare – to prepare. This emptiness, or poverty, I felt was a kind of preparation- not of a scholarly variety - but a making ready for something, a leading up to, a yielding. Also inherent in the word poverty is the sense of the service provided by the one who prepares, the tending in making ready. I knew that whatever else might be achieved with these children it must be imbued with the the sensitive and the thoughtful. The most I could hope for was to the create and tend a clearing across which the world may approach.

Sitting there in the tiny parish hall perched on the rocks, it was my hope that my research project would provide a space, a clearing for the words/voices of children. Their memories, stories, poems, life experiences and spoken words gleaned from the buffeting swirl of life inside and outside classroom walls would find their place here. Finger sculpted words rendered in the twirl of yellow pencils, deposited here in the furrowed wrack lines by the push of the wind. Words gathered in the roaming over the landwash, living in the eco-tone, on the margin, the border, the boundary – gathered like fragile limpet shells and polished glass.

I would not be disappointed.

Posted 116 weeks ago

Powerful Transformative Education Initiatives: Education for Sustainability by Other Names

There is something happening in education. A convergence of programs and initiatives designed to transform education for new global realities is taking place. Since its inception in Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 almost 25 years ago, Education for Sustainability (EfS) and its principles and precepts are being taken up to move education into its rightful place as a core component to address 21st century challenges. Among the challenges is the creation of an informed, highly skilled global citizenry. While these well-organized and generously supported initiatives may not explicitly call themselves Education for Sustainability programs, for the most part, they mirror EfS philosophies and pedagogies. I am referring to three specific documents: Learning for a Sustainable Future’s (LSF) Connecting the Dots: Key Strategies that Transform Learning for Environmental Education, Citizenship and Sustainability (2014); New Pedagogies for Deep Learning: A Global Initiative (2013) and “Learning 2030:  Equinox Blueprint for Learning”( 2013).

An EfS Primer

As it was conceived in the 90s and developed in the 2000s particularly during the UNESCO’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005 -2014 Education for Sustainability, (EfS) aims to help people to develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to make informed decisions for the benefit of themselves and others, now and in the future, and to act upon these. EfS supports the acquisition of knowledge to understand our complex world and the development of interdisciplinary, critical thinking, and action skills to address these challenges with sustainable solutions.  EfS or ESD (the names are used interchangeably) identifies what citizens would know, be able to do, and value when they graduate from the formal school system about key sustainability issues such as climate change, energy, biodiversity, ecosystems, water, citizenship, transportation, and poverty. EfS is experiential, authentic, and action oriented education, using real world sources rather than relying exclusively on textbooks. EfS emphasizes information analysis, not just information transfer. ESD brings together elements from many curricular areas at the same time and integrates these through a sustainability lens, ensuring that students are able to address the key challenges we all face.

Connecting the Dots

The first program that reflects EfS philosophy and articulates the strategies required to realize the EfS vision is Connecting the Dots, a document published by the Canadian NGO Learning for a Sustainable Future. The guide answers the question: what are the learning strategies for environmental education that we can employ to prepare our young people to take their place as informed, engaged citizens? The document also asks; how are these strategies aligned with 21st century learning skills including collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking?

The  “connecting the dots” in the title refers to the research synthesized in the publication that locates and describes strategies that develop the concepts, real-world connections and learning skills to build engaged citizenship. The  Connecting the Dots guide illustrates for educators ways of organizing learning experiences — in other words, the practical  “how to” of learning. And without doubt, this learning aligns very closely with the principles, precepts and practices of EfS.  For example the documents outlines specifically the “dots” to which educators can connect. For example the guide urges educators to: link environmental, economic and social issues within subjects and across subjects; link students to each other, their home life, their schools and their community; link knowledge, skills and perspectives through student engagement and action; provide a meaningful context to address numeracy, literacy, character and other educational expectations.

The Connecting the Dots guide offers a strong EfS pedagogical orientation that is collaborative, experiential, cross disciplinary, authentic and action oriented.

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

The second educational initiative that picks up the core philosophies, vision and pedagogies of EfS is the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL) project. This project takes as its focal point the implementation of deep learning goals enabled by new pedagogies and “accelerated by technology”. The group behind the initiative, led by the well known educational scholar Michael Fullan, sees the project as a response to the calls from policy-makers, employers, and youth  to renew learning systems. NDPL is a global cross-sector partnership — including research organizations, corporations, education system leaders, and clusters of schools from a variety of countries. Big players in the global change movement include the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Pearson and other large corporations and global players.  According to the authors, “This type of international multi-stakeholder partnership has the capacity and potential to advance the learning agenda in ways a single entity could not otherwise undertake.”  They go on to specify, “The initiative seeks to renew the goals for education and learning, to include skills that prepare all learners to be life-long creative, connected and collaborative problem solvers and to be healthy, happy individuals who contribute to the common good in today’s globally interdependent world. We need our learning systems to encourage youth to develop their own visions about what it means to connect and flourish in their constantly emerging world, and equip them with the skills to pursue those visions.” This is another example of EfS language and goals  used to describe that are driving a well funded and highly organized effort to re-orient education for the vision of EfS as outlined in foundational UNESCO documents in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Particularly interesting is the notion of deep learning that the writers tie directly to the broader idea of human flourishing. NPDL provides an initial summary of deep learning skills, which they say will be further refined and operationalized in the early stages of the project through collaboration with partners.

The skills are;

  • Character education — honesty, self-regulation and responsibility, perseverance, empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others, self-confidence, personal health and well-being, career and life skills.
  • Citizenship — global knowledge, sensitivity to and respect for other cultures, active involvement in addressing issues of human and environmental sustainability. 
  • Communication — communicate effectively orally, in writing and with a variety of digital tools; listening skills. 
  • Critical thinking and problem solving — think critically to design and manage projects, solve problems, make effective decisions using a variety of digital tools and resources. 
  • Collaboration — work in teams, learn from and contribute to the learning of others, social networking skills, empathy in working with diverse others. 
  • Creativity and imagination — economic and social entrepreneurialism, considering and pursuing novel ideas, and leadership for action.

Here again we see striking similarities with EfS, and LSF’s Connecting the Dots guide in strategies and language believed to reflect the pedagogical approaches necessary to create a global citizenship equipped to deal with challenging realities and address the problems we face presently and will inevitably face in the future.

Equinox Blueprint for Learning 2030: Waterloo Global Science Initiative

In 2013 Waterloo Global Science Initiative brought current leaders in education, teaching professionals, researchers, and policymakers together with innovative young people from across the globe.  The report describes the summit this way, “This unprecedented gathering represented six continents, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities to give a truly global and intergenerational perspective on learning. Together, the group created a vision of a scalable, affordable, sustainable learning system for the high school graduates of 2030.”  The final report was called: Equinox Blueprint for Learning 2030. The report outlines in detail the results of the summit and proposes a radical re-thinking of how secondary education is delivered and organized in all its aspects.

In broad strokes the vision for education outlines what is needed in order for high school graduates to reach their full potential in life. High school graduates must be:

  • lifelong learners who can identify and synthesize the  right knowledge to address a wide range of challenges in a complex, uncertain world
  • literate, numerate, and articulate
  •  creative, critical thinkers able to collaborate with others, especially those of  different abilities and backgrounds
  •  open to failure as an essential part of progress
  • adaptable and resilient in the face of adversity
  • aware of the society they live in and able to understand the different perspectives of others
  • self-aware and cognizant of their own strengths and limitations
  • entrepreneurial, self-motivated, and eager to tackle the challenges and opportunities of their world

To achieve these goals, the Equinox group proposes a wholly different structure for secondary learning  “…one in which traditional concepts of classes, courses, timetables, and grades are replaced by more flexible, creative and student-directed forms of learning. This develops deep conceptual understanding, which can then be applied in other contexts.” It is a bold, inspiring and necessary vision.

Convergence and Critical Mass

The convergence of these three influential and potentially transformative programs and initiatives marks a change in education that is important and profound.  Almost twenty five years ago, the vision of the writers of Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 planted the seeds of what would be necessary to harness education to address the goal of a sustainable world and the creation of an informed, compassionate citizenry with a planetary consciousness. Through the dedication and  perseverance of many educators around the world, the vision and language, the strategies and programs are emerging on different fronts in different places united by a shared vision.  We are approaching an educational critical mass toward the creation of a better, more equitable world that honors and respects the undeniable interconnection between planet, prosperity and people.

Posted 120 weeks ago

On Being Radical – Dismantling Education in the Service of Life

Writing about education for sustainability leads us into that most contentious and thorny, yet most fundamental of questions, “What are the purposes of education?” And of course this leads to other bedrock educational questions, “What type of learning is most important as we embark on the 21st century? What knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs do we hope to foster in children and young people? What is worth knowing?  How do school systems designed for 19th and 20th century purposes adapt to the demands and challenges of a new century?“


Globally, we continue to face critical environmental, social, and economic challenges such as increased poverty, human-induced climate change, rapid depletion of our natural resources, the spread of infectious diseases, violation of human rights, and so forth. In order to match the scale of these challenges, a whole generation will need to be engaged to think and act in a way that enables responsible choices about our economies, our societies, and the environment. We require a citizenry educated to live well in the places they inhabit, but as importantly, we need to nurture a developing sense of global citizenship. What it means to be “educated” changes over time. The skills and knowledge necessary to be considered “educated” in 1915 are very different than in 2015.  Children entering Kindergarten in 2015 will graduate from a post secondary institution around 2030.  What skills, knowledge, and aptitudes will be required of a graduate in 2030? As educators, how do we begin to think about preparing global citizens for the world of 2030? 

There are educators who have been asking just such questions and they are proposing a radical re-thinking and re-orienting of education that aligns with emergent future global realities. I do not use the word radical lightly. It certainly means as the dictionary defines it, a “thorough or extreme  change to acceptable or traditional forms.” But radical means more. I use the word radical to recover a sense with which the word was once imbued.  The word comes from the Late Latin radical-is and meant “the direct source or sense.”  It is a word rich in depth and nuance as it is related to “roots and rooting.”  In medieval philosophy “the radical humour” or moisture was inherent in all plants and animals, its presence being a necessary condition of vitality and life.  It is this sense of the word radical that I invoke; it is its reference to the fundamental, primary, essential condition of life. Dr. Atul Gawande said recently in the BBC 2014 Reith Lectures,“ The 20th century was the age of the molecule; the 21st century will be the age of the system.” Education for 2030 must be an education that is designed for a very different set of purposes than for which education in the 20th century was designed. The technical, managerialist, positivistic, industrial view on which education was built is inadequate for today and certainly for 2030. We require a view of education for “radical interconnectedness.”  David Orr succinctly outlines a vision of education in which the goal is not just mastery of subject matter but making connections.  He wrote of his vision,

First, it aims toward the establishment of a community of life that includes future generations, male and female, rich and poor, and the natural world.  The essence of community is recognition, indeed celebration, of interdependence between all parts.  Its indicators are the requisites of sustainability, peace, harmony and justice and participation.

We require a vision of education and curriculum that is inclusive, encompassing, expansive, generous, life-affirming and reaches toward a place of deep transformation.  William Pinar says curriculum theory is “about discovering and articulating, for oneself and with others, the educational significance of the school subjects for self and society in the ever-changing historical moment.”

In future posts I hope to delve more deeply into a radical re-visioning of education for the community of life and a better understanding of education’s general purposes. Much work has been done in this area and ways forward exist. As is the case when we speak of changing our destructive habits to safeguard the planet and human health, we often hear, “We have the means, we have the technology, we only require the will.” So, too it is with education. We have profoundly important and transformative models of teaching and learning designed to dismantle traditional and often moribund educational practices; we know of approaches that will excite and engage children to prepare future citizens for life in the 21st century  - what we require now is the will.

Posted 124 weeks ago
<p>International National B.Ed job fair, Halifax, NS January 2014</p>

International National B.Ed job fair, Halifax, NS January 2014

Posted 178 weeks ago
Make no small plans, they hold no power to stir men’s hearts.
Posted 178 weeks ago