Making a Difference: A Literacies Perspective on Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

The Eden Project is an educational charity famous for its Biomes located in Cornwall. It aims to work with people to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. It aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals related to the environment and emphasises participation and social justice.

A map of Morecambe Bay and its immediate surroundings

The Eden North project is designed to carry through these aims in a new and very different environment in the North of England – Morecambe Bay which is one of the largest tidal bays in the UK, situated on the NW coast near the big conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester. The project has generated significant excitement across all sectors of the region: county offices, businesses, schools, the volunteer sector and more. Recognition of the centrality of the Bay in the lives and interests of the region’s people has acted as a catalyst for additional discussions on educational, economic and social change. Within those discussions, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (see below) plays a central role. While the Bay is a unique place, the issues that Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum aim to address are in no way unique to the Bay or to the North of England.

Architect’s drawing of the Eden North   “mussel shell” domes

The Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC) is an initiative linked to Eden North, which spans education from early years to college and University level. Its aim is ‘to promote green, technical, vocational and professional pathways to University. The Curriculum will help provide the skills and knowledge needed by employers, build capacity to develop responsible and sustainable new green enterprises and support regional graduate retention.’ Lancaster University is a partner in this initiative, working closely together with further and adult education colleges, local schools, community organisations and businesses.

In this blog post, three members of the LRC share their thoughts on the MBC, looking at it from a language and literacies perspective and in the context of climate change being a global issue faced by people across the world.

Curriculum as Participation

Diane Potts writes:

“We are rightful participants in this democracy” (Burch, 2020, December 29). Those words were spoken by LaTosha Brown, a founderof the Georgia-state, grassroots organization Black Voters Matter. It is one many such groups that have worked over the last decade to ensure the rightful participation of blacks in U.S. electoral processes. In another time and place, the quiet power of these words might not have resonated so forcefully. But amid the social isolation created by a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the economically and socially disadvantaged but also amid the more hopeful discussions surrounding the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC), the words gave pause. For Brown is not arguing for a specific policy or programme nor is her organization seeking to impose their vision of the world on others. What they are working toward is something far more fundamental, the rightness of their participation in determining what that future might be.

A curriculum is a negotiated vision of the future. Within discussions of Eden Project North, negotiations have been open-ended and use of the word curriculum rather loose. For good reason. Heads and Deputy Heads, educational consultants and community members have focused on curriculum as it might be imagined, not details of how curriculum will be decided upon and delivered. Whatever form it takes, Morecambe Bay will be at the curriculum’s centre for while MBC has not been described as a place-based curriculum – at least, not to my knowledge – Morecambe Bay legitimates and circumscribes the project. The Bay, what the curriculum would have us think of as our Bay, bounds participation. Rightness, however, is not so easily addressed.

Rightness requires consideration of how and not only who will be involved. MBC is imagined as formal and informal learning and as addressing learning in and beyond educational institutions. It is a curriculum in which each of us is a source and recipient of knowledge, future knowledge that will be jointly developed but also individual and community knowledge that arises from our unique experiences and opportunities. The Bay’s diverse natural habitats, its relations with peoples and histories and its contributions to our economic, social and personal well-being bring together what is inherently a site of diversity and difference. Referencing the Bay does not, however, answer who we are to each other and who we will need to be in order to achieve the project’s larger objectives. This has implications for the development of the curriculum and not only the curriculum itself.

If rightness of participation is to be achieved, then participative practices for formulating MBC will be diverse. They cannot, for example, be limited to traditions of formal consultation for these traditions have historically excluded many who MBC seeks to involve. Quite simply, the ways in which language is organized and used are not ways that the diverse communities of the Bay recognize as theirs. Too easily, the language of bids, grants and policies hardens into structures and processes that exclude. This is no small matter. Time and again, research in education and more particularly language and literacy education has demonstrated that learners succeed when they see themselves represented in a curriculum and not only represented but represented as they understand themselves. Failure to account for diverse ways of knowing – that is, failure to understand learners as participants rather than recipients – undermines educational initiatives and the larger change efforts of which they are often part. Research in language and literacy education shows this. Research in education more broadly shows this. Educational research carried out by organizations such as the OECD shows this. While Lancaster University’s leadership has been frank in their support of non-academic voices, new practices of participation must be imagined or crucial voices will be excluded from the onset. This makes rightness among the first knotty puzzles that must be addressed, one that will require drawing upon the diversity of expertise across and beyond the university will need to be drawn upon.

Those who have read this far will recognize themes that cut across current academic interest in design-based research (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012; Design-based Research Collective, 2003; McKenney & Reeves, 2019, participatory research methods (Penuel, Riedy, Barber, Peurach, LeBouef  & Clark, 2020) and decades-old work on decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999). The thinking will resonate with those engaged in theorizing culturally-sustaining pedagogies, pedagogies that assume rather than advocate for the necessity of rethinking how ways of knowing come together in curricular spaces (Harmon, 2018, Paris, 2012; Paris & Alum, 2014; Prasad & Lory, 2020). My interest rests with schools, teachers and young people engaged not only in curriculum-as-plan but curriculum-as-lived (Aoki, 1993, 2004). This reflects my longstanding involvement as a consultant and as a researcher in participatory practices that extend communities’ capacity to capitalize on existing expertise. The place of language and other semiotic resources in such practices is at the heart of my interests, not as objects of study but as the very means in which and through which we engage in social action. In the language of the day-to-day unfolding of a curriculum, the future is designed (New London Group, 1996/2000; Potts, 2018).

Knowledge, skills, dispositions: language is crucial in all. In his work on the sociology of knowledge, Bernstein (1990, 2001) wrote of recognition and realization rules; of recognizing the relevance of what one knows and of recognizing how such knowledge must be reformulated to gain wider circulation. But what teachers have taught me, those who have worked in ‘the poorest postal code in Canada’ and with children whose parents cook in restaurants, deliver packages and cross oceans to visit families, is that learners must first be supported in recognizing their experience as knowledge. What my limited experience in community work with the First Nations and aboriginal peoples of Canada has taught me is that I may be asking the wrong question. Curriculum work is language work. I imagine the lived MBC as one that begins by understanding itself as incomplete and that recognizes its participants will scribe in knowledge that is unrecognized and unrealized at the onset. Curriculum rewritten as it is lived: participants’ language will be stretched as knowledge is shared.

Where then would I position myself as a participant in this work? Engaged in the front-line of schools’ efforts, documenting, analyzing and accounting for the development and circulation of knowledge in the course of learners’ literacies development. The languaging of MBC and concordant attention to language as social action is an area in which the people of The Bay can be global thought leaders for MBC is unusual in the range of peoples involved from its inception. At a fundamental level, the project recognizes that the work of curriculum design is not separate from the delivery of curriculum content and that the onus is on each of us to learn as well as share. In this, MBC offers participation in an evolving curriculum that simultaneously provides access to privileged semiotic registers, supports reformulation of experience and engages learners in re-creation rather than replication. Participation, reformulating and re-creating: each takes us back to issues of rightness. Teachers know that. Those who have been engaged in the early discussions of MBC know that. The question is how we go forward.

Reading the Word and reading the World: the Challenge of Critical Literacies in the MBC

Uta Papen writes:

To me, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum is a relevant and welcome initiative and I am pleased to see that my institution, Lancaster University, is part of this endeavour. The MBC (and the Eden North Project) is an opportunity for the University to strengthen its commitment to the region, to environmental research, social justice and educational innovation. It is an opportunity to act as a civic university. As a member of the Literacy Research Centre, I am keen to explore what role our work on literacies and languages may be able to play in support of the MBC.

Thinking about the Morecambe Bay Curriculum from a literacies perspective, the relevance of critical literacy to its aims and spirit is the first thing that caught my attention. The MBC, as I see it, seems to be exactly about what Macedo and Freire (1987) spoke about so many years ago: it is about reading the word and reading the world.

Critical literacy, or rather critical literacies, can be defined in various ways. Following Janks (2013) and others, I see it as essentially being about examining the role of language in shaping ideas, values and attitudes and the importance of texts in seeking to persuade. Critical literacy education seeks to equip students with tools to understand and carefully examine texts and the ideas they contain and to do so from a variety of perspectives. Text analysis, however, is not the ultimate aim. With critical literacy, students and teachers are engaging in social analyses (‘reading the world’) and they embark on social action, striving for social change.

To me all this is highly relevant to the aims of the MBC. If this is to be a truly ‘green’ curriculum and a truly transformative initiative, seeking to change local lives and futures, then it will need to adopt a critical perspective of the kind Paulo Freire, Hilary Janks, Barbara Comber and others suggest. It needs to consider the teaching of reading and writing to cover the four dimensions included in Luke and Freebody’s (1999) framework and to avoid a focus on decoding and comprehension only. Thinking about the MBC through the lens of critical literacies also chimes with the points about participation and the joint imagination of social futures that Diane talks about above.

What else does a critical literacies perspective suggest that could inform the MBC and its ambition? A critical literacies perspective suggests an approach to teaching and learning the ‘science’ of climate change that avoids an exclusive focus on ‘facts’, avoiding the complex political, economic and social issues that are intimately connected to local people’s experiences of climate change. Recent comments by Ofsted’s (England’s school inspection service) chief inspector, reported in the media, about climate change and how it ought to be taught in schools, are revealing of the challenges a critical and transformative MBC might face. According to the Guardian, in a very recent debate, Amanda Spielman, responding to calls for diversifying the curriculum, stressed the importance of science in addressing climate change and sustainability. She said “I think if it is not grounded in science there is no real understanding underneath it, it becomes a morality tale or something quasi-religious”. She was reported to have suggested that the curriculum should not be revised in response to a single issue or concern.

If schools have to treat climate change as a purely scientific issue, as Spielman’s words suggest, how will the MBC deal with the complex interconnectivities between ecological change, economic stagnation, social inequalities and local people’s personal experiences of the area they live in? To exclude these complexities would mean to separate science from society and it would be a bit like separating reading the word from reading the world. Critical literacy, to return to my starting point, is not a solely rational endeavour but involves emotions (Papen and Peach, forthcoming).

A related challenge is this: If the MBC has transformative ambitions, how is it to engage with the National Curriculum and its associated assessment regime? If the MBC is to be a truly local and critical curriculum, it is bound to hit against national standards for literacy and education and associated mandatory assessments. For example, how would a focus on critical, green, collaborative, local and engaging learning at primary school level square with the requirements of the Phonics Screening Check or the SATs tests, national assessments that undoubtedly shape what teachers can and can’t do in their daily lessons? In the wake of assessment related curricular necessities and constraints, might the MBC risk being no more than an ‘add on’? Similarly, what about secondary education and the requirements of GSCE and A-levels, which necessarily constrain schools and teachers to teach required exam content and to train students in the genres of subject specific exams?

I may underestimate the spaces available for local engagements with the curriculum. Drawing on local funds of knowledge and local concerns it may be possible to flexibly engage with the parameters of the national curriculum and yet to develop local content that follows the spirit of the MBC’s green ambition. Assessment structures may be a bigger challenge to the MBC, specifically when assessments are high stakes and externally set. It may need to engage with these structures, seeking to change established assessment practices as well as the content of these assessments.

Lifelong and Lifewide: Home and Community Literacies in the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

Mary Hamilton writes:

When I went into the Eden Project website as I began writing this blog, I found a message that the project in Cornwall was temporarily closed while they dealt with the effects of significant flooding. Flooding events are becoming commonplace in the UK, the sea and rain pour onto the land unpredictably leaving devastation and fear behind with long-lasting consequences for the communities they touch. The Eden project emphasises the ways in which it can work with people to make sense of such events, to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. 

Consistent with the aims of its parent project, The Eden Project North is working with all sectors of the educational system to draw on as much local expertise and energy as possible, and has funded an appointment in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster university to support this work. In offering a way to connect the different spaces where education and learning happen in Morecambe Bay, the project has already taken a radical step.

As Uta says above, developing a curriculum that has radically different starting points from the current English national curriculum presents big challenges for schools – though we might argue that through media exposure and their own lived experience, children’s awareness of the issues of planetary emergency may already have outstripped the existing curriculum and this awareness is waiting to be recognised and harnessed for change. Morecambe Bay and the rivers that feed it, is a vast and moving landscape of water that affects all of us who live here. It has strong industrial and rural connections. It is home to a nuclear power station, a wind farm, a gas field, ship building, railways, fishing, tourism and is famous for its wildlife including the millions of birds that live and travel across it. All these can be starting points for the lived local curriculum that Diane discusses.

A definition of education that includes informal and lifelong learning offers further ways to develop a new approach to curriculum. After school clubs, community activities that cross generations, further and adult education and the university are not subject to the national curriculum in the same way as schools. These are places to experiment with new ideas and make new connections which can in turn affect learning in schools and beyond (Ivanic et al, 2009}.

Some of the roots of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre lie in such experimentation. My own work has focussed on developing sound theory that sees literacy not simply as a set of technical skills but as a part of social practice, inextricably linked to the context of peoples’ lives, relationships and concerns (Barton and Hamilton, 2012). Such a perspective and the ethnographic evidence and practical expertise on which it is based, resonates with the ambitions of the Eden Project North. Our work can make a crucial contribution to realising these ambitions. It fits particularly well with the aim of drawing on the local  ‘funds of knowledge’ that exist in homes and communities around the Bay to inform curriculum (Gonzales et al, 2006; Moll, 2019), using multiple, alternative forms of learning including art, performance, physical outdoor learning and strengthening the role of strong, collaborative, self-managed, community resources such as local media, advice centres and libraries in supporting learning (Hamilton, 2015).

Literacy, the mastery of the written word, including its new digital forms, is essential to any curriculum and there are choices about how to work with learners to achieve it. These choices determine our attitudes toward language variety and dialect, community languages and how the language resources of newcomers are treated. A theory of literacy as social practice links with international work on literacy and the creation of local post-colonial curricula (Andreotti, 2012). Paradoxically, strengthening the power of the local to inspire learners also develops a bigger sense of history, how we got to where we are now and our connectedness with others in creating alternative futures.

Conclusion

We can see from the three perspectives offered above that The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre (LLRC) has a great deal of expertise about how to develop critical, responsive pedagogies in relation to language and literacy. Together with other perspectives, these can, we hope, feed into the MBC. The roles of learner and teacher are remade through such pedagogies, to create an evolving, living and participatory MBC. Documenting these processes and joint creations will be important and the collaborative ethnographic methods that we have been using for many years can lend support to such effort, so that what happens in the Eden North Project and the MBC can be shared with others, in contexts similar to or different from the Bay, informing their journeys to new curricula and new spaces of learning and exchange.

References

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Harmon, R. (Ed.) Bilingual learners and social equity. Springer, Cham.

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Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (1999) Further Notes on the Four Resources Model, Reading Online. http:www.readingonline.org/research/lukefrebody.html

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Papen, Uta and Peach, Emily (forthcoming) Picture books and critical literacy: using multimodal interaction analysis to examine children’s engagements with a picture book about war and child refugees. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

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Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.84.1.982l873k2ht16m77

Penuel, W. R., Riedy, R., Barber, M. S., Peurach, D. J., LeBouef, W. A., & Clark, T. (2020). Principles of collaborative education research with stakeholders: Toward requirements for a new research and development infrastructure. Review of Educational Research, 90(5), 627-674. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654320938126

Potts, D. (2018). Critical praxis, design and reflection literacy: A lesson in multimodality. In R. Harmon (Ed.)  Bilingual learners and social equity (pp. 201-223). Springer, Cham.

Prasad, G., & Lory, M. P. (2020). Linguistic and Cultural Collaboration in Schools: Reconciling Majority and Minoritized Language Users. TESOL Quarterly, 54(4), 797-822. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.560

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.

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