Introducing SF Associate Members, Veta Tsaliki and Phil Sixsmith, Thessaloniki, Greece

Q.    What have been the key milestones on your environmental/sustainability education journey so far?

V. Well, I must say that working with children on environmental and sustainability education projects, in real school situations, under the pressure of a rigid curriculum and timetable, is definitely a main milestone in my journey so far.  Later, I had the chance to work at an education department at the university that allowed me to combine practical with theoretical work and of course to start to engage with pedagogical and environmental education research.  In the meantime I started to get to know people from other countries, participated in international conferences, cooperated on specific projects and shared practices and approaches with other people.  This international involvement helped me broaden my ideas, enrich my practice, develop critical thinking and become a better educator really.  Finally I think another important part of my journey was being given opportunities to deliver teacher training, where I had the chance to share with other teachers approaches and strategies which I found useful in my environmental education work. As is inevitable in this process, dialogues developed that have influenced me enormously in both my thinking and my practice.

P.  Unlike Veta, I don’t have the track record of being involved in environmental education pretty much from the year dot.  Certainly here in Greece anyway, and so it almost seems pompous to describe myself as an environmental/sustainability educator, certainly in comparison to many of the excellent practitioners and thinkers I have met in the last twenty years or so.  I suppose what I bring to the party, as a person with a background in drama and theatre, began with a way of USING environmental issues as shocking content to create responses in young people that might help them to consider more deeply problems and catastrophes.  Looking back, I’m now faintly embarrassed about my motives and selection criteria, as well as some of the strategies I employed to examine the issues.  Well, maybe not faintly!  But I reckon that this is common to most of us who are involved in teaching.  Some things we did in the past we remain modestly proud of.  Others, well it’s best to draw a pretty thick veil over them.  As I grew more dissatisfied with this approach, I was reassured to read in several key texts concerns that such disaster scenarios were more likely to damage emerging environmentalism by rendering the participant impotent to affect change.  Cue time for a personal change in style and content. That said, what these early encounters taught me was the massive motivational urge the exploration of environmental concerns provided for young people and adults alike.  It was up to me to step up to the plate and try and provide a more sophisticated and complex way of helping the people I was working with, students or adults, to engage in the debate. This was not a rapid process. Whilst drama retained it’s primacy in my work, other equally important art forms (dance, music, media, visual arts etc) and approaches stolen jackdaw-like from the environmental education world, were integrated into my practice.  As this procedure unwinds, I have found such an eclectic approach the most successful way of assisting participants to clarify their feelings, thoughts, hopes and fears about our world, and the human species’ role in it.  As environmental education morphed into sustainability education, and the word sustainable was hijacked by a plethora of interest groups, opportunities to explore our personal value systems against this backcloth became all too easy to find.  Accepting that a lot of the people we work with do not necessarily share our background, interests, agenda and lifestyles provides tons of material to examine how we can reconcile our materialistic urges with our desire to keep this planet operating for a little while longer.  Put crudely, I’ve gone from exploding factories to exposing vested interests motives. All in a fictional context of course!

Q. How do you see environmental /sustainability education landscape at this point in time?

P. Depends a bit on whether you are viewing it through binoculars or a microscope. There is a lot of interest in the sustainability/climate change industry at the moment. What I mean by this is the development of hi-tech resources to improve our efficiency, carbon blades for wind turbines, 3D printing for solar panels, etc.  This is attractive to educational institutions – schools of all phases and universities – as it allows them to press on with one of the foundations of modern education (post- industrial revolution) that is to provide remunerated work opportunities for the citizens of a country. There’s nothing wrong with this per se. But it can become too tightly focused, exactly like staring down the tube of a microscope – I know that they’re all digital now, but bear with me.  The bigger picture can easily be missed by concentrating too much on just one aspect of a multi-faceted landscape.  My contention is that this landscape is best explored using binoculars. No.  Scrap that. Explore it instead using a camera obscura providing a 360-degree image.  Portions of that image can then be explored in more refined detail, but the lasting impression is of the whole image.  With the exception of gifted practitioners all around the world who are fully conversant with how to use their own personal camera obscura, I suspect far too many educational institutions are more familiar with using a cam obs, and consequently recording, at best, only half the picture.  Schools and teacher education departments of universities really have no excuse for this one eyed approach.  It’s more difficult to accomplish in the non-formal sector, but there are many excellent examples of superb work with volunteer groups, co-operatives etc suggesting difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

V. The other day I was in a pupils’ conference where groups of young people, aged 15-16, presented their environmental education and sustainability projects. I was disappointed. Most of them were knowledge-based resulting in the children trying to describe difficult terms that I am not sure they thoroughly understood because the process was essentially one of cut and paste education.  One could see that activities like going out and relating in a meaningful way to the environment, being involved in interesting, participatory work in the classroom, exploring values, expressing feelings and emotions, were missing from these projects.  After so many years of practice, I truly did not expect to see such an arcane and discredited methodology employed to this extent. I hoped we knew better now.  Don’t get me wrong, there is some brilliant work done by teachers with young people, but I am afraid this is still the exception. Of course, the way education, especially at the secondary level, is structured in Greece is not at all friendly to any interdisciplinary approaches, like environmental and sustainability education, or health education, or any other ‘education’. All these are exiled out of the timetable and done when the school finishes the ‘proper’ curricula.  But, on the other hand, there is so much evidence now that when children are involved in such projects it allows access to many interesting learning opportunities in the real world that are meaningful to them. So, I am also optimistic, because there has to be a change in the whole education system with sustainability related issues being integrated in school policies and ethics.

Q. What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications of your own work?

V. I’d very much like to see a shift from knowledge based work to a more holistic approach which focuses upon multiple approaches to sustainability going beyond the three known pillars - environment, the economy, the society- to embrace other aspects such as the aesthetic, the spiritual, the ethical and the cultural.  We need approaches that give space for emotions, feelings and intuition.  All these should be allowed to come within the learning process.  I would like to see this not only in schools but also at all levels of education, formal and informal.  I want to see both schools and society trying out ideas, being open, avoiding being judgmental, giving ideas a chance to develop and then to reflect upon them and accept or change them.  I would like to see sustainability in everyday life become the social norm, the self evident, not the exception, because this is the way to go if we do not want to continue to behave the way we do to this planet.

P. I’d endorse everything Veta has said above, but with a caveat.  In the arts, when trying to explain to skeptics why they are a crucial and elemental part of children’s educational entitlement we have often selected the same terms to justify our existence.  A major part of face-to-face discussion is the reading of body language and facial expression.  This language induces a clear and obvious ‘what a load of woolly nonsense’ look in such people.  Now, I don’t believe it is nebulous and sloppy for one minute, but I may not be able to get past that person’s prejudice.  In much of our recent work, we have stressed, through active involvement, the rigor, discipline and thoroughness that are an inevitable consequence of working effectively on sustainability and climate change issues.  As this work develops, we become more and more interested in pushing the boundaries just a little outside the group’s comfort zone.  Not too far though.  Alienation is most certainly not the desired result.  A bit of a headache from deep thinking and exploration will do nicely.  We also have (drug free) strategies for fixing the headache afterwards, so that’s OK!

Q. How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?

P. I’ve reached a stage in my life where maybe, at last, I’ve begun to realize a few things.  I’m never going to be a politician.  I’m never going to be an academic. The skills associated with these roles are very important to SF, but I don’t have them in the necessary abundance, so I’m happy to leave this to other members.  I’m not a bad practitioner though, and together with Veta we make a pretty good team skilled at meeting the needs of practicing teachers, and able to communicate effectively with young people of all ages.  Well, most of the time anyway!  I’d like to think that my arts background can also play a part in defining the character of the organization as one which takes the creative and aesthetic seriously. We can’t hide from the fact that teachers need quality materials to help them to inspire and enthuse their students.  It’s unrealistic to expect all teachers to be continually devising original and comprehensive sustainability/climate change education in addition to their massive workload.  Naturally, they will some of the time, but with SF we would hope to be instrumental in offering interesting and challenging approaches through workshops and via texts.

V. Well, I see a lot of good work done by SF which is inspiring and within the philosophy I was talking before.  So, I see myself cooperating either to develop further the ideas and practices or to try and implement them in my country and elsewhere.  I see that the focus at the moment on climate change is very crucial as it links to lots of issues and gives opportunities for action.  Action is what is missing nowadays.  Because we all agree that something should be done but it seems there is a big gap between this belief and actually taking action.  Research says that young people feel helpless and disempowered in front of huge environmental problems.  We need to empower them to believe that any individual or collective action can make a difference.

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