From bamboo toothbrushes to project-based learning – some ideas for ecoTEFL

I first read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring when I was a student and found it profoundly disturbing. I couldn’t really understand how we could knowingly be so seriously damaging our environment. That was in the 1970s and things have got so much worse since then. We now have a climate emergency.

In my own little way I try to do what I can. I drive a lot less than I used to, my toothbrush is made of bamboo not plastic and I have a metal drinking straw. The latter was an unnecessary investment because I now realise I’ll never use it as I don’t drink fruit juice or fizzy drinks, but hey. I still fly far too much -over 60 flights last year – and I’m well aware that is something that I need to try and reduce in whatever way.

I’m a great admirer of the environmentalist George Monbiot, and a recent book of his that I read, Out of the Wreckage, while not strictly an environmental book is a powerful and well-argued polemic against the major flaws in our global political system. His approach to the environment is indeed that we do  need to make major structural changes in the way we live. But I was very angry when I saw a recent interview with him on the BBC when he described the small steps like driving a bit less or changing toothbrushes as “pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks”. Excuse my French as my grandmother used to say. I find this attitude extraordinarily patronising and unhelpful in the extreme. Yes, we do need major political re-evaluation and reform globally, but equally if everybody is able to make some small commitment to changing their own behaviour, major political and thus environmental change is going to be much easier to institute. We’ll all be on side.

What does all this have to do with ELT? Possibly quite a lot. First of all, while not as bad as aviation or the fossil fuel world, as a community, (I refuse to call ELT an industry) we do have a biggish carbon footprint. Many of us do fly a lot, we use paper – much of it in these digital times unnecessarily perhaps -and because much of our teaching is after work and in the evenings we use a lot of energy to keep our classrooms light, warm or cool depending on where we live. As I say we may not be major culprits environmentally but there are certain areas where we could do better.

But there’s another thing ELT can do as part of the fight against the destruction of the planet. I was fortunate enough to attend the Innovate ELT 2019 conference in Barcelona last weekend and the closing plenary from Daniel Barber gave me not just food but a whole meal for thought. Daniel declared a climate emergency for ELT, a timely reflection of what some governments around the world are doing and he also read this piece by Carla Borthwick which confirms how I feel about small low-level action that we can all take, picking our fights as we best can. This is it in full.

To the person who uses metal straws to save fish but consumes animals, I’d like to say thank you. To the vegan who isn’t aware of our homelessness problem, thank you. To the climate change activists who aren’t attentive to fast fashion, thank you. To the girl who gives her old clothes to the disadvantaged but isn’t educated on sex trafficking, thank you. To the guy who picks up rubbish on his way home from a surf but isn’t well-informed about male suicide rates, thank you. To the people who stand up for horse racing concerns but are uninformed of the cruelty of the dairy industry, thank you. To the positive Instagram influencer who hasn’t cultivated a plastic-free lifestyle, thank you. To the grandparents who knit for sick children but aren’t up to date with current race and homophobic issues, thank you. To the students that stand up for bullying but are unaware of the constant domestic violence epidemic, thank you. To the peace activists, feminists, stray dog adopters, teachers, volunteers, foster carers, recyclers, givers, doers and believers, I say thank you. We are all on a different path and we all see through different eyes. Current world issues that you are passionate about, aren’t always what other people are trying to change… and that’s okay. It’s not everyone’s job to save every part of the world but it is everyone’s responsibility to thank every person who is doing THEIR part to save the world. Don’t critique, just appreciate. Don’t judge, just educate. We’re all trying our best. Thank you.

So what can we ELT people do about climate change? We are after all educators, so surely that gives us some level of responsibility and opportunity. if we look at a typical ELT course book, most now have chapters or reading texts and listening texts around the themes of the environment and climate change and that is entirely appropriate. You might see a reading text that begins with a picture of an unfortunate seabird that has died as a result of ingesting plastic. The picture will stimulate some discussion pre-reading, the reading itself might require students to identify some of the causes of the crisis and the activity might finish with the students writing a short paragraph about what to do to reduce the use of plastic. Please don’t please misunderstand me, that kind of activity is absolutely fine and it’s important the course books have them, but I think we can push this a bit further. Let’s see if we can use some of our lessons as a call to action, not George Monbiot-style national action but small steps, local changes that can help to contribute to the whole.

So let’s stay with a plastic pollution of the seas theme text as described above. That sounds fine but what about developing what is a fairly simple reading comprehension activity into a project-based learning activity to be done in small groups as a call to action. The aim of this project is to minimise or at least reduce the consumption of single-use plastics within the school, local community or the students’ families. Not to discuss it, but to do it.  The text should be seen as the springboard, a source of ideas and also perhaps of vocabulary. I would see the project as having the following six stages that could be completed in class and/or at home over a number of weeks, depending up how your institution is organised.  Each stage of the project should give you as the teacher some language teaching and consolidation opportunities and provide the students with a chance to use some 21t century skills such as collaboration, planning and creativity amongst others.  A useful resource is which has some ideas for action plans

Stage One Agreement of the scope of the project

Stage Two Brainstorm and agreement of possible action points

Stage Three Communication of project and action points to classroom peers

Stage Four Implementation of the project.  Remember this is real and the expectation is to see e.g students coming to school with reusable water bottles or adult students committing to taking cloth or paper bags to the supermarket.  Baby steps, but ….

Stage Five Assessment of project success

Stage Six Report to peers and possibly significant others such as parents, school principals etc.

The hope is that every 80-120 hour coursebook would have say two or three eco-projects – there are sadly plenty of angles to attack this problem from – all of them needing real actions. We are a big community and lots of small things multiplied by our scale might just make an impact. Who knows.

This is not an ELT rehearsal, it’s real. What do you think of that, George Monbiot?

One thought on “From bamboo toothbrushes to project-based learning – some ideas for ecoTEFL

  1. Hi Christopher,
    Good to read your post and how I wish I’d been at Innovate ELT 2019 to hear Daniel Barber’s closing plenary but I’m thankful that you posted his words here and I have come across them. The climate and the environment are changing fortunately in more ways than one. I’ve been examining this week and there were many intelligent responses from young people on these topics. A month ago my own students couldn’t wait to hear more about Greta Thunberg and discuss the issue and it was the first reminder they gave me when we began the next lesson. Greeks love their coffee and Greece suffers from plastic overload. While away I found it so exciting to see the beginning of the #ELTfootprint page and to witness the many responses there have been in 24 hours.
    We live in interesting times.


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