The Oxford TEFL Blog

Blinded by the light – understanding and reducing the environmental impact of ELT.

Article by Christopher Graham

I was quite surprised to be asked to write this blog. I am, after all, a car-driving, frequent-flying, meat-eating, supermarket-shopping kind of person. Like so many other people, but with a lot more flying. And, like so many other people, over the last few years I have developed an awareness of my personal environmental impact and taken small steps to reduce it, picking my battles.

A more recent awareness has been that of my global environmental footprint as part of my professional community. Some reading, conferences and conversations have underlined the importance of our community’s impact and this encouraged me, with colleagues, to co-found the ELT Footprint group.

The ELT Footprint group is  growing rapidly and offering up a wide selection of solutions across the eco-ELT field. One of the many things that I have learned from this exercise – though I probably knew this already – is that the ELT community are a very aware, socially-minded and mutually-supportive bunch of people.

But that’s enough flattery.

The ELT community – the one I’ve been so nice about above – has a number of stakeholders. My non-exhaustive list includes:teaching institutions of all types, both  state and private

    • ministries of education and examination authorities
    • publishers
    • conference organisers
    • teachers and their immediate colleagues
    • learners
    • teachers
    • educators

Global awareness of our environmental impact is growing across the entire stakeholder network, and time spent on the ELT Footprint Facebook page shows myriad initiatives being taken. Reviewing them is both daunting and gratifying in equal measure. At the time of writing, the group had 1034 members and 7800 posts, comments and reactions. All in fewer than 21 days.

I have written some thoughts below, many about sustainability, that might add to the strength of the direct action that we seem to be experiencing. If ‘direct action’ sounds a bit revolutionary, I’m pleased. This is a crisis. And the crisis goes beyond climate change.

So ‘sustainability’ is the thing, but what does it mean?  Well, it depends who you ask, so here are a few ideas:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Bruntland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development (1992)

“We cannot just add sustainable development to our current list of things to do but must learn to integrate the concepts into everything that we do.” 

The Dorset Education for Sustainability Network.

The UN has 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be met by 2030

Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms
Goal 2: Zero Hunger
Goal 3: Health
Goal 4: Education
Goal 5: Gender equality and women’s empowerment
Goal 6: Water and Sanitation
Goal 7: Energy
Goal 8: Economic Growth
Goal 9: Infrastructure, industrialization
Goal 10: Inequality
Goal 11: Cities
Goal 12: Sustainable consumption and production
Goal 13: Climate Change
Goal 14: Oceans
Goal 15: Biodiversity, forests, desertification
Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions
Goal 17: Partnerships

So what does all this have to do with ELT? Well, quite a lot.

What we teach

Bearing in mind we work in both childhood and adult education, then our content offers us great responsibilities to involve our students in these areas. That’s responsibilities, not opportunities, by the way. Climate change is of course only one of the sustainability goals, but the inter-connectivity between these UN goals provides us with extraordinarily rich material for our classes.

How we develop ourselves and others

Continuous professional development is a professional priority for most of us, but it can leave a substantial carbon footprint, especially as it often requires movement of people by air.

Let’s think about some ways of reducing this, localisation and technology being the keys. 

We could look at Diploma-level courses having in-built train-the-trainer elements to facilitate the global reach of CPD and enhancing our community of teacher educators globally.

We need to consider how we can make technology such as Zoom or Go to Meeting work for us in CPD, especially combined with locally-based facilitators.

The development and mentoring of local teacher educators should be built into CPD as much as possible. It’s sustainable, strengthens institutions and reduces the carbon footprint. 

Where possible, CPD sessions that require teacher educators to travel abroad should be longer than, say, a week or consolidate a series of shorter sessions to lessen the impact of flying.

How we network and support each other

Conferences, conferences, conferences. Do we have too many of them? My answer is, helpfully, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

We need more relevant conferences, and ‘relevant’ probably means local or regional. Local speakers increase the degree of empathy and relevance, and so enhance the sustainability of local teaching communities. They also mean less flying.

International speakers (and I mean international, not just white native speakers) are of course an asset (usually) at local conferences but why can’t they be live-streamed more often. Cheaper and greener.

We should also look at the positive impact on the local community of conferences. Delegates spend money in hotels, restaurants and, of course, bars, so let’s keep that in mind when we choose venues.

The conference themes and contents are also something to explore.If I see another conference around ‘innovation’, I will probably scream. I think the 17 Sustainable Goals might give organisers a few ideas.

The materials we use

ELT publishers, like all businesses, are under pressure to become somehow greener and I think that we all need to appreciate the difficulties and complexities this holds for them. So what can we reasonably expect? 

The impact of digital publishing is really only just being felt. The paperless (or reduced-paper) classroom clearly has environmental and sustainability benefits, but the ease of updating content and producing regional versions of materials is also a huge win.The challenges will be around the way publishers can adapt their business models to this, and these challenges are not small. We need to lobby, yes, but also be supportive of changes in practice and be aware of the very real constraints the initiators of these changes face.

Perhaps an easier mutual win for us all is the way that books and other materials are promoted. The dreaded tote bag full of pamphlets, the piles of leaflets that get scooped up at book fairs. Surely QR codes, USB sticks and emailing of PDF samples can cut lots of this out. I’d love to hear from marketing folk on how effective this leafletting is anyway, as I think cutting down on paper and eliminating the costs inherent in producing it can be good for us all.

The people we teach

Lastly and most importantly we come to our students. Young learners and university students around the world have been bombarded with messages about environmental issues for some time now. This bombardment seems to have worked. But we can push things even further. If we see the English language as a medium of global communication and the environmental threats as a global crisis, then let’s try and link them. I see no reason why every ELT class from upper primary to adult shouldn’t have at least one project around the 17 Sustainable Goals active at any one time.

Project ideas include:

  • school partnerships worldwide to share ideas and solutions
  • posters, short films and podcasts to spread the word in the school and the community
  • active participation in, for example, beach clean-ups or lobbying schools and universities around single-use plastics
  • encouraging parents to shop for local products with minimal packaging
  • creating personal strategies for moving towards zero waste

The list, sadly, is endless. Am I trying to make students into eco-warriors? No. I want all ELT stakeholders to be eco-warriors.

If you have any ideas about how we can reduce our environmental impact within the EFL sector and have been teaching for more than two years, you might be interested in our Trinity DipTESOL scholarship competition. Let us know your ideas on how we can all reduce our environmental footprint and win a Trinity DipTESOL scholarship worth €2600!

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Chris Graham

Christopher Graham is a freelance ELT consultant, conference speaker and writer based in the UK. He is particularly interested in teacher development in fragile and post-conflict environments. In the last year or so he has worked on several projects in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq for the British Council and Ministry of Education and in Western Sahara for the local teacher association. In 2016 he worked with the British Council on the production of secondary EFL materials for low-resource schools in Sierra Leone. He is one of our guest tutors on the Trinity DipTESOL.

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