During 2002-3 I was co-leader of a course run by Tide~ for teachers interested in Education for Sustainable Development [ESD], with an emphasis on climate change, in the context of two regions - the West Midlands and The Gambia. The aims of the course were:

• to develop our knowledge of climate change and sustainable development;

• to develop our understanding of how we learn about these things, with a view to applying this to our own educational settings.

The course took place over eight months and included a week in The Gambia, where we worked in partnership with the country’s National Environment Agency [NEA] and teachers in the NEA’s ESD sub-committee. Towards the end of this week, and during final sessions back in the UK, we collaboratively generated some ideas about how we learn from experience and how our understanding of the processes involved can make us better teachers. In understanding what we experienced and how we constructed meanings from these experiences, the model shown below seemed to be helpful.

The Primary Learning Cycle consists of reflection on and interpretation of experience, planning next actions or hypothesising what will happen next, and immersing oneself in doing a task. For us the stages in the process were not always linear, and did not always begin with reflection. For example, while in The Gambia we often began by doing, recording what we were doing [photographs, note-taking] and reflecting and interpreting later in the day. Even in the doing one is automatically interpreting what is experienced according to one’s own preconceptions, and the values that underlie them.

In this respect the model shows that the learning cycle is acted upon by one’s paradigm - a set of assumptions, beliefs and values that direct attention and influence interpretation. As a result, not only should one periodically reflect on experience in order to revise learning, but also meta-reflect [in which core beliefs, assumptions and values are also challenged and revised as needed].

What did we learn about sustainable development and climate change?

We learnt an enormous amount. At a general level we learnt that the issues surrounding climate change are far more complex than we realised. Our own, UK-centred perspective, focuses mainly on the science of climate change, its causes and where responsibility for mitigation [reduction in CO2 emissions] lies.
A Gambian-centred perspective is more likely to focus on the social, economic and environmental consequences of climate change, to investigate solutions to these, and to consider where responsibility for these solutions might lie.

What did we learn about learning?

The reflection and meta-reflection processes enabled us to develop some insight into how we learn. We felt we could apply this to how children learn, with clear implications for our teaching. Points particularly important in the context of sustainable development and issues-based learning include:

  • we learn as much from informal experiences as we do from formal ones;
  • emotional responses to experiences are as important as cognitive responses [reflection therefore needs to address both if real, deep learning is to follow];
  • the course as a whole modelled the process of collaborative learning [thus a great degree of control for learning rested with the learners - the roles of learner and teacher/facilitator were often interchangeable];
  • the role of mutual, or intercultural, collaborative learning cannot be underestimated - we became aware of how each individual both contributed to other individuals’ and the whole group’s learning and learnt from other individuals and the group. The continuous interplay between individuals within the group [UK and Gambian] and between individuals, groups and the experiences, provided us with a variety of perspectives, which helped to add complexity to issues that are often seen as one dimensional;
  • constructing meaning is therefore, as much as anything else, about recognising that knowledge is not certain or unproblematic but constantly changing and open to a variety of perspectives and interpretations;
  • challenging one’s preconceptions and beliefs can be very unsettling; it is more effectively done within a secure and open environment.

"To enable learners to access meanings constructed from direct experiences, one needs to aim to share meaning rather than direct experiences of places in The Gambia and England."  Caroline Mathews, Welland Primary School, Worcestershire

"I learned so much in the short time I was there ... both emotionally and intellectually. It may sound like a cliché but I feel as if someone has turned a light on in my head and I suddenly understand so much more now! I really want to share my experiences with everyone and I have tried to tell people all about it and capture all the times that our group experienced but it never seems to come out the way I want."  Sally Baskerville, ITE student, University College Worcester

Applying what we learn to our teaching

In the final stages of the course we considered how we could use all that we had learnt to devise learning experiences for pupils. These experiences would enable them to construct their own meanings about similar issues to the ones we had been dealing with.

We shared ideas about

  • giving a sense of place through the use of photographs, artefacts, talking about sounds and smells etc;
  • providing learning experiences - we felt it was important to provide a variety of perspectives and a sense of purpose;
  • how enquiry activities using photographs, role play, stories etc would help students to explore and discuss their ideas.

"The whole experience has influenced my thinking and my teaching: what I teach and how I teach it. I’m especially finding ways of teaching about The Gambia through wider Key Skills. The photos and memories [which are still concrete to me] are things I can use. It makes me want to travel. After a year or so, the emotional impact dies down a bit. You take a step back. That takes time. You think about other things."  Alison Farrell, Walsall College

Fran Martin was Senior Lecturer in Primary Education [Geography] at University College Worcester at the time of writing. She is now at Exeter University.  She co-led study visit courses to The Gambia in 2002-3 and 2003-4.