Deliberately ignoring the Trump and Brexit elephants in the festively-decorated room, I predict that Blue Planet II might be one of the most popular conversation topics this Christmas. It was watched by an average of 10.3 million people here in the UK, and it has started off a whole number of discussions across generations. Teachers and students everywhere have been talking about its themes. They have also been talking about food waste and the glitter ban. All of these global topics are excellent ways of engaging with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In our schools
For teachers Blue Planet II has provided a great opportunity to bring in a number of global themes into the classroom, including the issue of plastic pollution. Sir David Attenborough, Blue Planet’s narrator, has often spoken out against plastics. But perhaps it was this clip that got so many of us thinking about plastics in the oceans, seeing the Pilot whale carrying its dead calf around, where Attenborough explained:
'In top predators like these, industrial chemicals can build up to lethal levels, and plastic could be part of the problem...
As plastic breaks down, it combines with these other pollutants which are consumed by vast numbers of other marine creatures. It's possible her calf may have been poisoned by her own contaminated milk.
Blue Planet has helped highlight the problems of plastics in our oceans, but of course many have been working hard to raise the issues for years. One way in which some young people around the world have been sharing their ideas for action and change on SDG 14 has been through Flipgrid (started by World’s Largest Lesson), where young people have responded to the challenges posed by two young people from Bali with their Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign. A great blog on the many other resources and opportunities out there for teachers can also be found on the Think Global site. Blue Planet has provided us all with opportunities to reengage with issues of recycling, rubbish, climate change and our responsibility to protect our planet - so thanks to the BBC on behalf of the global learning community!
A linked SDG theme that has also rightly received a lot of publicity this year is that of food waste. There are a number of organisations and engagement opportunities for young people on food waste and the associated issues of waste disposal and human consumption (linking to SDGs 12 and 14) like Hubbub and the Real Junk Food Project. Here is a video from the Fuel for School (part of the latter).
From a pedagogical point of view, the collaborative research, learning and action across the age groups is wonderful in otherwise quite sobering themes such as this, and so is the opportunity for teachers to learn alongside their students.
And what about our younger children? Some of you may have heard of the glitter ban that some nurseries in Christchurch, Bournemouth put in place in their 'pre Christmas drive for cleaner seas’. In a discussion with two primary teachers about how to address the issue with their 4 and 5 year olds, they linked it to their campaign on stopping the use of straws and plastic cups. Questions students and teachers could ask together to bring in a global dimension include:
What is glitter made of and why might this be a problem?
What alternatives are there to glitter that we can use?
How else could we have a more environmentally friendly Christmas?
These global topics, questions and suggestions for action frequently come from the students themselves (often because of something they have heard or seen in the media), or at least arise as a joint effort with teachers. There is an identifiable thirst to know more about global issues among young people, and fortunately there are many organisations, people and resources out there to support schools with this task.
In our homes
As a mother of two primary aged children, it has been eye-opening to see their reaction to Blue Planet II. Discussions about the programme in our home have got me thinking about two age-old issues in global learning. The first is that sometimes human beings find it easier to care more about the plight of animals than they do other human beings. The second is that global learning offers fantastic opportunities for intergenerational learning and that we need to take greater advantage of these to collectively come up with solutions if we are to have buy-in from all.
In global learning, we are trying to support a move from charity to social justice thinking, and a deeper sense of empathy. These are big asks! The global goals present us with some intimidatingly huge global problems, about which there are always many ways of thinking and perspectives to entertain if we approach them in a critically reflective way. For example, some of the issues at the heart of the 17 themes are not as straightforward as the colourful boxes might suggest, but if we probe hard enough we may uncover deeper complexities (for example, we might recognise the rather narrow economic definition of growth and development at play in some of the SDG targets). But I digress, the question I want to raise here is that, as these global themes enter our homes and workplaces, do we feel adequately equipped to engage with the deeper issues they raise and take action for change?
We are lucky in the UK that many of our schools are well-supported by dedicated organisations and programmes like the Global Learning Programme to deal with potentially overwhelming topics, but what happens when a 11 year-old asks her grandparent about what she can do about rising sea levels? We live in an age of instant information and this can be both positive and negative – one opportunity it presents is for collaborative research and intergenerational learning. When my 8 year-old sits down with his 69 year old grandma, he can navigate her laptop with considerably more technical skill than her, but she can help him phrase the questions and select the most reliable looking sources of information. Together, they can learn from data and theory which is constantly shifting, together they can navigate the facts and perspectives in order to devise their own plan for action and change.
In our workplace
If these discussions are happening at home and in school, then inevitably these topics will crop up in the workplace too. But I wonder how far do they go? I’ve met a number of internal and external sustainable professionals actively working to promote sustainable practice within businesses or organisations, but who sometimes struggle to find the financial support for action ideas and instead end up doing little more than raising the profile of initiatives that have been in place for some time. It is not surprising, therefore, that some movements are targeting the employees directly.
Having been part of the taskforce for #TeachSDGs, a movement that has gone from strength to strength around the world, it's great to see the emergence of the #employees4sdgs movement and that World’s Largest Lesson are helping companies with the task of awareness raising by providing some template resources. It will be interesting to see to what extent (and how) workplaces support their employees in quests to move from awareness raising, a necessary first step, to action. Similarly, the National Union of Students has launched its #SDGteachin asking universities and colleges to include the SDGs in teaching, learning and assessment in the week of 19-23 February 2018. But again, it will be important to discover how and to what extent these exercises go beyond awareness raising.
Learning from what's happening in schools?
I'm passionate about the necessity for intergenerational collaboration for actioning the global goals, and so it's great that television programmes like Blue Planet and people like Ben Fogle are raising the profile of key SDG themes. As Rt Hon Baroness Patricia Scotland QC said in her lecture on the global goals a couple of weeks ago, 'human genius got us into this mess, now human genius has got to get us out' (see presentations below from Uni of Southampton Environment Public Lecture Series). My current thinking is that organisations, businesses and homes might take advantage of some of the resources, support and opportunities being offered (and created) by schools - if you haven't read it already, maybe start with this on the opportunities of the Global Goals or take a look at the easily searchable resources here (many are free). Although some of these resources are aimed at children, my experience shows that they are often just as appropriate for adults. Next year one of our exciting projects involving cross-sector and intergenerational collaboration for the SDGs will move beyond pilot stage and I couldn't be more excited - more to come early 2018!
Wishing everyone a lovely intergenerational catch-up (with a global dimension) this festive period!