Educational leadership and survival: the ultimate moral question?


Sustainable development is “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…  The changes in human attitudes that we call for depend on a vast campaign of education, debate, and public participation. This campaign must start now if sustainable human progress is to be achieved…We are unanimous in our conviction that the security, well-being, and very survival of the planet depend on such changes, now’. Bruntland Report, 1987

Is survival the ultimate moral purpose?

The Bruntland Report on “Our Common Future” sent out its clarion call for sustainable development twenty years ago, four years before ENIRDELM was established.  It introduced environmental concerns into international politics. Our 2007 conference finally presented our international ENIRDELM network with the opportunity to contribute to the ‘vast campaign of education, debate and public participation about the ‘very survival of our planet’.  The theme for the Uppsala Conference was “Education with a Moral Purpose: Educational Leadership, Management and Governance for a Sustainable Future”? For me, the conference did not adequately address the moral purpose of helping schools and their leaders deal with the pressing questions of a ‘sustainable future’ (nothing less than ‘species survival’) set out by the 1987 report named after Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland.  Is survival of our species and planet not the ‘ultimate moral purpose’?  Does it not demand a higher priority than the keynote concerns of Andy Hargreaves for ‘sustainable leadership’ or Hans Ake Scherp’s ‘sense-making school leadership and sustainable school development’?  If the human species is unsustainable and is on course for self-destruction, as an ever-growing number of serious scientists and commentators fear, then is that likelihood not the ‘future’ that educational leadership, management and governance should be addressing? Leadership for a sustainable future is, of course, the prime responsibility of the leaders of international organisations and nations, but educational leaders at system, regional, university, school, team and classroom levels surely have a vital, if secondary, leadership role in supporting national and global leaders by encouraging the next generation to deal seriously with its possible demise within this century?  Schools have an important role in sustaining our world and contributing to its development.  All our present and future leaders were educated in our schools and universities where they were helped to acquire or modify their view of society, economy and the environment.

What I found and missed at the Uppsala Conference

In Sweden there is a school subject called ESD (education for sustainable development). Leif Osterman of the Institute for Research in Education and Sustainable Development identified three approaches (fact-based; normative and pluralistic) to the teaching of ESD and EE (environmental education) in Sweden.  He favoured the pluralistic approach because it encouraged democratic dialogue about conflicting values inherent in developing a sustainable future.  He raised the question whether sustainable development required a top-down form of indoctrination that might contradict the ‘new paradigm’ of learning for ‘critical thinking’. Given the rapid progress of serious planetary threats that many scientists now discern, this point is well made.   He also spoke of the need to strike a balance between protecting the natural environment and serving human needs, although the former may indeed be the most important example of a human need.  I would have liked to hear more about the content of ESD but clearly as in many developmental issues, progressive Sweden is responding directly to global needs. Both Hargreaves and Scherp offered relevant and important recommendations on the process of leadership and learning in schools. But neither addressed seriously the ultimate moral question.  Hargreaves did credit the Bruntland Commission (1987) with coining the term ‘sustainability’ in relation to development in the future and his seven principles of sustainable leadership (depth, endurance, breadth, justice, diversity, resourcefulness and conservation) offered a critique of the incessant ‘waves of reform’ and the ‘age of standardisation’ that have ‘marketised’ the relationships between schools.  He characterised school leaders as shifting their functions as visible guides or shields in the ‘age of complexity and contradiction’ in the two decades before 1995 to their current abandonment of their protective function.  In the age of standardisation, teachers increasingly perceive school leaders, at least in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ schools in his North American study, as anonymous managers preoccupied with implementing government policies or furthering their own careers, and certainly less focused on the ‘deep’ learning of their students.  But the question ‘what should a curriculum for future global sustainability contain?’ was not addressed.  Given the severity of the interlocking problems that confront us, surely this content is a crucial focus for ‘deep learning’ including problem solving and critical thinking? Scherp certainly advocated a problem-based approach both to student learning, leadership and to school development.  He emphasised the importance of ‘learning dialogues’ and a deep understanding among the teachers of the mission of the school and the instructional pattern that would integrate ‘conscious sustainable change’ into the everyday life of the school.  However, like Hargreaves, the content of the learning and change was not spelled out in terms of the sustainable development of the future generation on the planet.  Both speakers were primarily concerned with the sustainable leadership and development of the school, not of the school for a sustainable future.

For me the presentation that came closest to my expectations was given by educational philosopher from Dalarna, Frank Sundh.  He reminded us that as far back as 1956 Theodore Brameld had identified the promotion of international government as the main imperative of schooling. Sundh offered four key questions to use in deciding upon how to act in the face of existential challenges: “What is/ought/can/will?” To these I would add, in relation to the answers produced, two additional questions:  “What do you mean and how do you know?” in order to ensure that the conclusions are logically clear and empirically grounded.  These questions that prepare the way for action reminded me of the DEPA mnemonic that that I used in the 60s as a simple guide to framing an action-focused curriculum – Describe, Explain, Prescribe, Act.  What Sundh adds is the question of the will to act based on what is judged to be feasible.  In addition to providing a simple guide for problem-based learning, Sundh got to the heart of the issue of global sustainability by outlining the Bruntland Report’s four principles of justice as an aid for fitting education for the future:

1. Global justice – fair distribution of resources and wealth

2. Justice between generations – ensuring the well-being of our grandchildren

3. Ecological justice – considering the effects of human activity on mother earth

4. Participative justice – relating to world citizenship and the creation of a better world

He also reminded us that there is a UN Declaration of Human Rights that helps to define a ‘global scope of action’ into which not only school but their nations should begin to operate.  We have enough scientific evidence now with which to move from description and explanation to prescription, but what is notably lacking world-wide, except perhaps among a tiny minority of affluent, educated people, is indeed the will to act in support of the four Bruntland principles.  Hargreaves and Scherp provided stimulating descriptions, explanations and prescriptions for leading schools, but they did not ‘DEPA’ on the question of species survival, perhaps because that has not been the focus of their research and writing.

A career-long perspective

I first became aware of and active in addressing questions of survival of life on earth, particularly that of the human species, as a young geography teacher in the 1960s.  It was the era of the Cold War and ‘mutually assured destruction’. The Cuban Missile Crisis was followed by the Vietnam War.  We had not long before seen the first iconic picture of ‘earthrise’ taken from the moon.  The blue planet appeared as a vulnerable blue and white sphere, a spaceship with its passengers evolved over a period of 4.5 billion years, thanks to a favourable orbit around one of the universe’s billions of stars.   In the USA radical educators such as Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, Edgar Friedenberg and John Holt were challenging mass education for its irrelevance to the needs of young people in a grossly unequal and dangerous world.  Environmentalists such as Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich were being dismissed as prophets of doom.  As a youthful President of the Manitoba Geography Teachers’ Association in Winnipeg, Canada, I wrote in their professional journal and article entitled ‘Geography and Survival’ which ended with the question that an imaginary child might ask its teacher parent in the year 2000 – “Daddy, what have you done in the last 40 years to help save the world from the problems that now face us?”  Those forty years are now passed.  The human population has more than doubled from 3 billion in 1960 and is heading towards 9.1 billion in 2050.  The negative impact of human activity on the global ecosphere may now have passed the point of no return in relation to global warming, over-population and the proliferation of technology, including the spread of nuclear arms.  These problems were our preoccupations in the 60s when we had not passed the ‘tipping points’ or the safe ‘carrying capacity’ of planet earth.  The gravity of these problems was not understood early enough by our political and educational leaders, despite prophetic inter-disciplinary work, for example, the Club of Rome in 1970 and publications by Carson, Ehrlich and many other environmental scientists that the print and electronic media helped to popularise before the Internet became available or the term ‘globalisation’ was in use.  In 1972 in the UK James Lovelock published his controversial work that portrayed ‘mother earth’ as Gaia, itself an organism that was infected by a virulent and damaging human species.  This was a metaphor that heralded the global impact of humankind that now so much preoccupies us.  Lovelock’s latest book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ (2006) compares our species to ‘a revolting teenager, intelligent and with great potential, but far too greedy and selfish for our own good’ (p.197).  He concludes that ‘we may be unable to prevent global decline into a chaotic world ruled by war lords on a devastated Earth’ (p.198)

Is the survival of our species really threatened?

Fifty years on from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Neville Shute’s “On the Beach” economist Jeffrey Sachs reviewed in his 2007 BBC Reith Lectures the issues of survival.  He outlined how our generation faces an unprecedented challenge of learning to live in an extraordinarily over-crowded world while intra-species risk and hate seem to be on the rise despite the best efforts of international organisations and NGOs.  The problems of over-population, climate change, resource depletion, nuclear arms proliferation and terrorism are global, a fact that should persuade us to work for peace. He labelled the current phase of geological history as theAnthropocene’ a period in which physical systems of the planet (the ecosphere) are now under domination of human force. In economic and technological matters (the technosphere) our interconnected world is driven by technology that diffuses rapidly, allowing economic gaps to be closed, leading to fundamental shifts of economic power and political power, for example towards China and India.  But maldistribution of wealth, poverty and suffering are likely to be deepened by climate disruption leading to deteriorating habitats that keep people off the ladder of development.  Crises such as the genocide in Darfur are really about deep poverty and lack of water and infrastructure. Such problems are immune to peace-keeping troops.  Leaving people to die is reckless. In October 2007 Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to raising awareness of the scientific evidence about global warming.  Gore says little about the role of schools in acting on behalf of sustainable development, but it seems obvious that school curricula should address in a scientific manner, the economic, political and social global issues that the mass media often oversimplify to the point of hysteria.  In Uppsala Hargreaves’ outlined his seventh principle of sustainable leadership – ‘Sustainable leadership undertakes activist engagement with the environment’.  It advocates that activist leaders build personal and professional networks and forges strategic alliances.  But by ‘the environment’ Hargreaves means the administrative and social superstructure in which the school operates and that captures its discourse.  This environment diverts the attention of schools, leaders and teachers from the bigger threats of world that is becoming too complex and fast to manage.

Facing the curricular challenge

Some progress is evident in adapting school and university curricula to the question of a sustainable future.  Swedish education now promotes education for sustainable development (ESD) and environmental education (EE) as Osterman described. Multiple intelligence theories now identify environmental intelligence as one more area of learning that slow-to-change school curricula neglect. Teacher education pre- and in-service training courses continue to advocate the ‘new pedagogy of deep learning’ and a wide array of terms fill countless pages of standards and competency documents but are not greatly evident in classroom learning activities. These include:

  • Constructivist student-centred teaching
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Higher order cognitive skills
  • Core competencies or key skills
  • Dialogic pedagogy, learning conversations
  • Problem-based learning
  • Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills
  • Personalised learning
  • Accelerated learning
  • Small group project-based learning
  • Learning to learn (meta-cognitive skills)
  • Communicating about communication (Meta-communication)
  • Multi-intelligence learning

But these challenges are generic and must be employed in making scientifically informed meaning about, and preparing the next to decisively on behalf of, sustainable development of our species and its planetary home.

Facing the challenge of educational leadership at school and local level

As ENIRDELM members are well aware, sustainable leadership is only the latest adjectives to be used by academics that further intensify the task of school leadership.  Educative leadership, a term favoured by Anne Gold is characterised by:

  • Giving followers a voice
  • Offering informed decision-making possibilities
  • Distributing leadership
  • Making boundaries clear
  • Encouraging ingenuity in solving problems
  • Leaving scope for individual and team creativity and risk-taking
  • Professional learning communities
  • Communities of practice
  • Learning networks
  • Collaborative culture

Again, these are the processes and are means rather than ends.  What seems to be missing and what I hoped to hear at the Uppsala conference, is the awareness of how a sustainable future has become such an urgent priority, ‘an ultimate moral issue for education’.  Of course, the word ‘ultimate’ is particularly apt when we are talking of ‘ends’. ‘Sustainable leadership matters, spreads and lasts. It is a shared responsibility, that does not unduly deplete human or financial resources, and that cares for and avoids exerting negative damage on the surrounding educational and community environment. Sustainable leadership has an activist engagement with the forces that affect it, and builds an educational environment of organizational diversity that promotes cross-fertilization of good ideas and successful practices in communities of shared learning and development’. (Hargreaves and Fink, 2003)

Facing the challenge of educational governance and administration

At the level of national and international governance and administration our slow-moving policy environments need to develop systems for dealing with accelerating complexity.  Again we have fine concepts and labels but much dysfunction that prevents moving from policy to practice, particularly as many transition countries  trapped in Hargreaves’ ‘age of standardisation’ and still unable to cope with the ‘age of complexity and contradiction’.  Where are the examples of the following desiderata?

  • Policy learning
  • Adaptive, open systems
  • Intelligent accountability,
  • Formative accountability
  • Global mindset, global dialogue, global networks
  • Networks of schools/professionals to provide challenge and support

These are fine ideas but our global mindset and dialogue must focus on the underlying issues of species survival.  At the end of his amazing documentary series ‘The Life of Mammals’ (BBC, 2003) David Attenborough suggests that it is time to reverse the historical process of controlling the environment for the sake of the human population and start controlling the human population for the sake of the environment.  Perhaps it is also time for educational leaders at all levels to refocus the ultimate goal of leadership not simply on the process of leading.  Educational leadership for a sustainable future means nothing less than ‘leading for survival’

Conclusion: Facing the ultimate global challenge with moral purpose 

I had no sons in 1966 when I wrote about ‘Geography and Survival’.  Now I have two sons in their mid-30s.  Their credit-based consumer lifestyles do not match that of their father whose early enthusiasm for saving the species was for a time overwhelmed by the demands of career, two marriages and supporting two families. These two families are now in the process of producing and nurturing the first generation of the 21st century. This new generation may well spend their lives in what Martin Rees has called ‘Our Final Century’ (2003).  Humans appear not to be equipped by evolution to cope with the technosphere that they have invented and are imposing on the ecosphere at an unsustainable rate.  In the sphere of politics and science we seem unable to close the ‘ingenuity gap’ (Homer-Dixon, 2000) needed to solve hard-to-discern global problems of a world that is rapidly exceeding our grasp.  Schools change slowly and seem often to stifle rather than to encourage ingenuity and problem-solving.  Leadership is diffused through several levels of the education system and is distracted from the ultimate question by many other preoccupations.  But networks such as ENIRDELM from time to time offer a break from daily routine to ask ‘ultimate questions’.  For this we should be grateful and take full advantage to turn these reflections into relevant actions. 

References Attenborough, D (2003) The Life of Mammals BBC Worldwide Ltd: DVD Brundtland Report (1987) Carson, R (1962) Silent Spring Boston: Houghton Mifflin Club of Rome (1970) Limits to Growth  Friedman, E (1965) Coming of Age in America [The Vanishing Adolescent]  Goodman, P (1964) Compulsory Mis-education  Gore, A (2006) An Inconvenient Truth: The planetary emergence of global warming and what we can do about it.  London: Bloomsbury Hargreaves, A and Fink, D (2003) ‘The Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership’ Educational Leadership December Holt, J (1964) How Children Fail Homer-Dixon, T (2000) The Ingenuity Gap, Toronto: Alfred A Knopf Illich, I (1973) Deschooling Society Lovelock, J (2006) The Revenge of Gaia London: Penguin Books Rees, M (2003) Our Final Century London: Heinemann  Sachs, J (2007) Bursting at the Seams BBC Reith Lectures Shute, N (1961) On the Beach London: Heinemann

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