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Engaging with complexity

By Kate Woodford, Senior Manager, Marketing and Business Development
22 December 2021

MS Urban Gardening

Although always an implicit part of the school’s approach to education, the concept of sustainability as a goal was named in the UWC mission around twenty years ago, as the science and understanding of the extent of the world’s environmental challenges grew and as the economic consequences of rising inequality became apparent. These dual challenges both threatened the UWC movement’s ultimate goal of promoting peace through the education of young people who are inspired and equipped to take on the responsibility of building healthy societies. Over subsequent years, the case to incorporate sustainability into the education at the College as a more explicit aim has become even more compelling.

In 2005, UWCSEA helped drive the international UWC movement to adopt sustainability as one of its twin goals. The school itself adopted sustainable development as a key part of its operations in 2007, at the same time developing its first College Environment Policy to drive its integration across the school.

However, in the decade before this, the College had already made a start, by designing an integrated Humanities course called Grade 6 Global Concerns. At the time the College was a secondary-only school, and this introduction to History and Geography set out to explicitly link learning in key concepts for each discipline with a deepening of students’ understanding of the development challenges facing communities throughout Asia.

Ellie Alchin, now Director of Teaching and Learning at UWCSEA Dover, taught the Grade 6 Global Concerns course in 1995, shortly after it was developed by a team of teachers who had also been instrumental in establishing the Global Concerns service programme. Alchin says the course was conceived as a way for incoming first-year UWCSEA students to become more informed about the issues facing the Global Concerns service partners that they would be engaging with throughout their time at the school. “If students were supporting Jakarta Street Kids GC, for example, the course was intended to help them to be more effective, because they were—while still learning important concepts of history and geography—able to understand some of the interrelated issues facing communities linked to the GC partner—poverty, inadequate health care, housing in slums—and be able to take more informed action later on.”

The development and subsequent evolution of the course into the Middle School ‘EngHum’ (integrated English and Humanities) programme which is still very much alive today is a hallmark of the College’s pioneering approach to curriculum development. This early adoption of concept-led, place-based and mission-aligned learning proved to be foundational for the College’s future; the transdisciplinary, holistic course design was an early model which informed the multi-year curriculum articulation project, which in turn led to the adoption of a concept-based model for teaching and learning.

Sustainable development is also core to the IB Diploma, which UWCSEA introduced in 1977 as part of becoming a full member of the UWC movement. While courses across the Diploma explore topics linked to sustainable development, the transdisciplinary Group 3 and 4 course Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) is an exemplary model for learning in this area. The ESS course, currently available at Standard Level (SL), explores concepts such as applied systems thinking within Environmental Science. Students are challenged to understand how each part of an ecosystem interacts with and impacts other parts, as well as the entire system. This provides a framework to understand the ethical and socio-political aspects of societal issues, evaluate and measure their impact on people and the environment, and grow students’ understanding of ecological footprints and understanding of important critical thinking tools such as systems thinking.

In 1999, UWCSEA was at the forefront of the development of this increasingly popular IB course. High School teachers Ellie Alchin (who was teaching a school based transdisciplinary course called IB Science, Technology and Society) and Gary Seston (who was teaching an IB course called Environmental Systems) to an IB workshop to write, and then pilot, what would be adopted as the curriculum for the new IBESS subject. Subsequent growth in the popularity of this subject, originally called Ecosystems and Societies, reflects the increasing importance of these concepts and skills for students who will join the workforce of the future. Alchin, who served as the IB Deputy Chief Examiner for the ESS SL course for a decade, was most recently part of the global team who completed the development of the HL ESS course, which will be piloted by the IB in a number of schools from August 2022.

The College’s continued focus on transdisciplinary curriculum development has contributed to the successful integration of sustainability topics throughout the UWCSEA learning programme from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Following years of development to create a concept-based K-12 written curriculum for four of the five elements of the UWCSEA learning programme—academics, service, outdoor education and personal and social education—Sustainable Development was recently named as one of the five mission competencies in the UWCSEA Guiding Statements.

UWCSEA’s Guiding Statements defines the Sustainable Development mission competency as being demonstrated by an individual ‘engaging with complexity, understanding multiple futures, taking the role of steward and developing sustainable solutions within environmental, social, economic and political systems.’ The development of the exciting new Grade 9 and 10 UWCSEA courses over the coming years, which have progress towards the mission competencies at the heart of their intended learning outcomes, are further examples of how the College’s long-term approach to curriculum development continues to evolve in line with the needs of students, by encompassing sustainability initiatives and student activism as part of the learning.

Most recently, the College has adopted a definition of sustainable development derived from the 1991 report Caring for the Earth, subsequently refined by the Global Footprint Network: “Wellbeing for all, within the means of nature.” This definition is measurable and achievable, both of which are important for a school whose students are in the first stage of their lifelong learning journey, and encapsulates the approach UWCSEA takes to the challenge, which is to offer a way forward and to consider how to make sustainable choices when weighing up decisions across all areas of education and throughout life.

Read more from UWCSEA White Paper 2: UWCSEA CHANGEMAKERS: Placing sustainable futures at the heart of a school