Education for sustainability and the MFL classroom

Jen_AkehurstJennifer Akehurst is a current MSc Education student at the Graduate School of Education. She is a languages teacher with a PGCE from KCL and has taught French and Spanish in the UK and French in Peru. In this post she argues for the inclusion of ‘Education for Sustainability’ in the languages classroom.

As a French and Spanish teacher I have long felt that education, and specifically Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) education, can and should be a force for positive change. Recent work on education and sustainability, as part of my Master’s study at the University of Bristol, has led me to believe that education for sustainability should have a place within the UK’s MFL curricula at secondary level. Here, I tell you why and consider some of the practicalities.

Education for sustainable development vs. education for sustainability

Jickling’s Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development (1992) rejects the idea of education for sustainable development (ESD), highlighting the ‘paucity of precision’ in the term sustainable development and pointing to the inconsistencies that some people see in juxtaposing the terms development and sustainable. It also problematizes the idea of educating for anything, stating that ‘the prescription of a particular outlook is repugnant to the development of autonomous thinking’. In recognition that ESD aligns with a development-centered view of the world as opposed to leaving room in which to debate issues such as whether development and sustainability are compatible, I am not advocating for the inclusion of ESD in the UK’s MFL curricula. However, I do not agree with Jickling’s claim that education should not be for anything; I feel it would be naïve to claim that secondary school teachers do not have some idea of how we hope our pupils will respond to certain issues. It is for this reason that I would advocate for the UK’s MFL curricula to include education for sustainability, defined by Wade in Journey’s around Education for Sustainability (2008) as ‘education helping to bring [sustainability] about’.

The importance of education for sustainability

Whilst it is true that ‘teachers know that their job is primarily to teach students how to think, not what to think’ (Jickling 2000), I feel it is important to acknowledge that all decisions regarding school curricula are a result of value judgments on the part of teachers. Our choice of subject material (if not prescribed by a manager or exam board) is certainly based on our own interests and worldviews, whether we acknowledge this or not. My argument for the inclusion of education for sustainability in the MFL GCSE and A-Level curricula is based on a desire to see young people consider environmental issues, and I believe that this is reasonable, provided room is left to ‘enable students to debate, evaluate, and judge for themselves the relative merits of contesting positions’ (Jickling 1992). After all, covering education for sustainability within the curriculum will lead to pupils who are knowledgeable enough to consider the issues facing our world and, ultimately, act upon them.

Education for sustainability in the MFL classroom

It is quite easy to move from a conviction that education for sustainability is positive, to a conviction that it should be incorporated into MFL curricula in the UK. I view MFL lessons as not just a place to learn the language studied, but a window into different countries or cultures. For me, reading about the Sahel drought in French, for example, or Spanish approaches to recycling, enables pupils to engage with environmental issues beyond their immediate experience and to actively think about the interconnectedness of the world. It is my belief that education can, and should, expand pupils’ horizons and create agents of change and that’s why I argue education for sustainability should have a place in the UK’s MFL curricula.

jakehurst_wordcloud

Example word cloud for use with students (created with Tagul.com)

The practicalities of integrating education for sustainability into MFL teaching

So, if we accept that education for sustainability should be integrated into the UK’s MFL curricula, we must consider how. Currently environmental topics feature on the GCSE and A-Level syllabi of all main exam boards, providing space and time for the inclusion of education for sustainability in the classroom. The challenge facing MFL teachers is how environmental issues can be covered in a way that involves reflection on the state of the world as opposed to mere learning of vocabulary. For me, this is a challenge that can be met through careful planning, the use of authentic texts, videos and audio files to introduce new perspectives through the target language, and leaving space for pupil discussion.

References:
Jickling, B. (1992). Viewpoint: Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23(4), 5-8
Jickling, B. (2000). A future for sustainability? Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 123, 467–476
Parker, J. and Wade, R. eds., (2008) Journeys around Education for Sustainability, London: Education for Sustainability Programme London South Bank University

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