30 SES 13 B, Change and Transformation in ESE
In 2009 a part of the Swabian Alb in the Southwest of Germany has become an 85.300 ha UNESCO Biosphere reserve with a focus on nature protection, agriculture (especially sheep farming), regional product development and promotion, sustainable tourism, sustainable consumption and cultural landscapes. Biosphere reserves are considered as sites “for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity” (UNESCO, 2021).
There is a recent trend in the German sites to extend one’s outreach by promoting the possibility for schools to become a “biosphere reserve school”. In April 2018 the pilot project “Certification of primary schools in the Biosphere reserve Swabian Alb as biosphere reserve schools” started. In cooperation with seven voluntarily participating primary schools a proposed set of certification criteria was discussed and then put in practice. The certification process aims to support schools to implement ESD in a whole school approach. In more detail, schools are encouraged to develop and implement ways and measures for their students to engage in in-depth learning about the biosphere reserve region Swabian Alb as a “learning place for SD” and for institutionalising these efforts (see Scott, 2011; 2013). If successful, school leaders, teachers and students engage in a meaningful way with the learning site on their doorstep and consider the potential for orienting their daily school practices and strategic decision making on SD. As a particular feature of the program participating schools are supported to work with diverse partners and experts in the biosphere reserve.
This research study investigates if and how the seven primary schools have made progress to establish structures supporting the goals of a “biosphere reserve school” a year into the project. Further, it examines how the certification process was conducted and what steering quality it has had. The objectives of this study are two-folded. On the one hand, there is the scientific aim to make a contribute to the fields of school improvement, implementation of ESD and governance of schools. On the other hand, there is a formative evaluative goal on identifying aspects that could be beneficial for the refinement and the expansion of the program towards secondary schools and pre-school institutions.
Studies on certification of schools form the Eco School movement suggest that the quality criteria as “a frame of reference” are mainly strongly appreciated by researchers and by educational planners, but “only a few teachers, schools and school networks have tried systematically to use the booklet in practice” (Breitling & Mayer, 2015: 38). The authors make a strong claim for understanding the mechanism that generate a feeling of ownership to issues and innovations at the school. While there is growing body of knowledge on the processes in schools (Cincera, J. et.al, 2019; Mogren, 2019; Marek, 2018), there is a lack of studies investigating the interplay between internal school processes and externally set criteria and support structures from a steering or governance perspective. This gap is addressed in the focus and research design of this study as well as its embeddedness in a research-practice partnership perspective.
In this qualitative study the accounts of seven primary school leaders and three members from the project team at the biosphere reserve regional office responsible for the certification process are central. The leading research questions are: How have school leaders (and their respective school community) implement (ESD) learning opportunities SD and the biosphere reserve site in the curriculum and their daily school practice? How is this process supported, hindered or challenged by the certification scheme? The accounts were conducted in semi-structured expert interviews lasting between 60 and 90 minutes (see Gläser & Laudel, 2010). “Experts” in this understanding hold unique expert knowledge on processes of interest to the study. Including member of the project team allows a triangulation of data, for example in the process of reconstructing a school’s approach and on the mutual expectations liked to becoming and being a biosphere reserve school. Interview data from the schools were systematically categorised under the two main foci: How was it implemented (as in institutionalised)? And, how did the certification process centred on nine criteria (with several events and support services) support the process above? Sub questions informed by theoretical perspectives (see Bormann & Nikel, 2017; Helmke, 2009) were concerned with the responses on the understanding of ESD and the concept of biosphere reserve school, on measures on curriculum and school culture, on influential local conditions, on previous school improvement experiences, on experienced changes to work with external partners and on reflections about added value of participation and role as biosphere reserve partner. Along these categories for each of the seven participating schools the school development process leading up to the formal certification after one year is reconstructed and visualised. The interview data is complemented by other written material from the school submitted to the certification office (draft papers, school concept, and description of learning units). Further the data was compared across the schools and triangulated with the assumptions in the certification program and the viewpoints of the project team.
Adapting or Orienting? While the findings show that the certification process brought about highly valuable changes in manifolded ways in the pilot schools, the approach was that of adapting already existing ESD related ideas and practices for matching (in parts) the criteria. Substantial work was carried out with respect to the curriculum and the integration of external biosphere reserve partners into regular learning activities. What has been only touched on by the schools, has been progress captured in the notion of “orienting”. This refers to a process a school enters and strives towards a process of discovering the position of yourself in relation to the biosphere reserve as a “learning place for SD”. The evaluative part of the project showed a high level of acceptance, satisfaction and commitment on part of the primary schools for the project and its management style. From a governance perspective the overall outcome sheds light to the delicate challenge of orchestrating both, level of freedom and level of enforcement for change. It questions the role of engaging in conceptual work, feedback and reporting in handling this. In the presentation the research study and further findings are discussed with respect to conceptual work on the institutional journey of schools in implementing ESD (Scott, 2013) literature on using reference systems for school improvement (Dobbelstein et al., 2017). Further reflections are presented on the outreach of programmes like the “biosphere reserve school” program given there are currently 714 biosphere reserves in 129 countries. And a remaking note are given concerning the contribution of this research to the field of research-practice-partnerships (Coburn & Penuel, 2016).
Bormann, I. & Nikel J. (2017) Interconnected Case Studies on the Governance of ESD within the German Multi-Level Education System. International Review of Education. Special issue on Education for Sustainable Development, 63 (6), p. 793-811. Breiting, S., Mayer M. & Mogensen, F. (2005) Quality Criteria for ESD-schools: Guidelines to Enhance the Quality of Education for Sustainable Development. Wien Coburn, Cynthia E. & Penuel, William R. (2016) Research–Practice Partnerships in Education: Outcomes, Dynamics, and Open Questions. Educational Researcher, 45 (1), pp. 48–54. Cincera, J. et.al (2019) Emancipatory or instrumental? Students’ and teachers’ perceptions of the implementation of the Eco School program. EER, 25 (7-8). Dobbelstein, P. et al. (2017) Referenzsysteme zur Unterstützung von Schulentwicklung. Münster. Gläser, J. & Laudel, G. (2010) Experteninterviews und qualitative Inhaltsanalyse als Instrumente rekonstruierender Untersuchungen. Berlin Marek, R. (2018) Umwelterziehung und Bildung für nachhaltige Entwicklung im Rahmen der Ausschreibung "Umweltschule in Europa/Internationale Agenda 21-Schule" in Hamburg. Eine qualitative Untersuchung im Spannungsfeld bisheriger und geplanter Entwicklungen. Universität Oldenburg. Mogren, A. (2019) Guiding Principles of Transformative Education for Sustainable Development in Local School Organisations. Investigating Whole School Approaches through a School Improvement Lens. Karlstad: Karlstad University Scott, W., 2013. Developing the sustainable school: Thinking the issues through. The Curriculum Journal 24 (2), 181-205.
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