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Keynote Address | New Collaborative Concepts Dr David Blades is a distinguished Professor of Science Education and Curriculum Studies at the University of Victoria. His areas of focus include philosophy and science education, ethics, post-structuralism and curriculum theory, science for citizenship and the role of authentic science experience in science education pedagogy.


he objective is to problematize the Community of Practice, to complicate the conversation, and then to know where to go from there.” Dr Blades begins his keynote address by discussing daily acts of carbon contrition—how such small changes can turn into a groundswell of action. “Richard White said, ‘We should see how people live their everyday lives. And do good things for it.’ I will say that again for emphasis. ‘We should see how people live their everyday lives. And do good things for it.’” Wanting to reduce his own carbon footprint while living in Alberta, Dr Blades said he promised to ride his bike to work every day—even in the winter— “which is a big commitment in Edmonton!” One conscientious act, he said, segues into another, “and that brings me to bananas.” “I had no clue how bananas were grown in Central America, until someone told me many of the workers are women and children who are being inundated with insecticides. If you’re not eating an organic banana, you’re buying into the discourse of insecticides like DDT, which is still being used in developing countries.

“Change becomes bound to the existing narratives in which we live.”

“It’s a small example of hearing something and changing.” But to complicate the issue, says Dr Blades, at an American Research Conference in New Orleans which he attended, a group of educators began discussing “the curriculum of oil”. They were considering what educators should be talking about in light of the recent Deep Horizon incident. Dr Blades said at the time he was confident he was doing his part; and explained to the group he rode his bike to work everyday. “But they talked about all of us being implicated in the oil spill. Someone suggested my five years of bike-riding, when compared to one flight for conference travel, does not balance out. And now I’ve got a problem on my hands. By going to conferences, I’m contributing to an environmental impact that I can’t possibly make up for.”

“Systemic change is much more difficult to create,” he asserts. Dr Blades offered the example of a David Whiteland book, which talks of Buddhist monks and dragons. “Dragons are scary. They crack boulders, breathe fire; and people are controlled through fear. No one strays out of bounds, despite no one ever seeing the alleged dragon. Now, substitute ‘the economy’ for the dragon. Change becomes bound to the existing narratives in which we live.”



Keynote Address | New Collaborative Concepts How can we learn to see in different ways? This requires “complicating the conversation for wise action”, he says, and asks the audience take a hard look at current social movements in Japan and Detroit—places where the public have noted problems in society and, as in Japan, done the complete opposite. “Sustained questioning is extremely important for a COP, as a collaboration of a community,” he maintains. Another example of this kind of critical, quotidian questioning, says Dr Blades, comes when someone swaps out all the plastic in their life for glass. “How do you know it’s more sustainable? Especially when the glass jars you’re using are shipped from Italy, using petroleum products to get them to their destination. Or when the metal around the lid is aluminum—Canada being the third largest aluminum producer in the world, behind China and Russia—and even more, when companies like Alcan are paying for a permit to be non-compliant with governmental environmental standards. And on top of that, the neoprene ring around the lid is made from the fracking of crude oil—and here, in Canada, from the Tar Sands.”

“The word

“So, it’s not just plastic versus glass. The discourse is much more messy than that.” But messy discourse is exactly what is needed in conversations concerning sustainability, says Dr Blades. These conversations will invariably make people uncomfortable—and that’s precisely the point: our society has become too comfortable.

sustainable has bothered me for a long time.”

“The word ‘sustainable’ has bothered me for a long time. We find it appears in two forms: the first is in sustainability, as in ‘restoration’ (we can destroy it but we can replace it, or fix it later). And you see this played out in the oil sands/tar sands, because by law the companies are required to restore the land from the bitumen extraction. In 2013 a report of the Alberta Ministry of Environment showed just 0.2% of these lands have been designated as restored,” he continues. “The CEO of Suncor doesn’t know how to restore this land; they’ve admitted it. Yet they’re all involved in ‘sustainable oil extraction’, creating a mockery of the word.” The other form of the word sustainability, says Dr Blades, is found in a “romantic turn to the past”, a time before plastics. That is when we adopt “a view of something that never really existed. It seems to privilege class distinctions and gender inequality. It’s not a place we want to go back to.” We see another example in the ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) piping used in plumbing. Before using a petroleum-based product, this type of piping was made of copper, lead, and iron. “While ABS plastic can be reformable, although there’s no place in Victoria to melt this and recycle it, it’s also an incredibly non-toxic, stable product, you’re still involving yourself in the discourse of petroleum extraction, but it’s good to discuss what connections are involved in any product that we choose. It’s an uncomfortable way to live; but when thinking about a CoP, it’s a necessary way to think.” Dr Blades notes there are numerous school-based programs teaching children about sustainable development: “there is one where school kids cut up old shirts and make cloth bags.” But as it turns out, he says, even the T-shirts are made in countries where labour is cheap and carried out in inhospitable conditions.



Keynote Address | New Collaborative Concepts “It’s a trivial look at sustainability, as it still buys into capitalism and consumerism. Change is approached as a conversation of technique—BMPs, if you will.” There is a technical and formula-approach to it, he concedes. “It’s not formulaic, however, when working with people. ‘Wise practices’, on the other hand, are constant conversations of critical remembering, challenging of assumptions that undergird our existence. Starting, for instance, by asking a community how they want to live their life well.” This might include broadening the CoP to an international level like UNESCO’s online chat forum connecting international students. Dr Blades concludes with the story of a class of 10year-olds, in a riverside town in Canada. Their teacher began discussing with with them the municipality’s intention to spray along the river to keep the mosquito population down. “The students began talking about it, and one suggested women walk with their babies along the stream; and the class became more concerned.” Another student’s family owned a farm and depended on swallows as biological control against mosquitoes. Students came up with the idea of placing nesting boxes along the river. “They wrote a letter to the mayor,” he says. Mayor and Council replied, maintaining spraying was still the best practice. Students responded, suggesting the nesting boxes as an experiment, which garnered another response from council that spraying remained the most cost-effective method.

“Change is

approached as a conversation of technique...”

The students were none too happy about this response. “The teacher could have stopped this, but she took it to the radio instead.” Phone calls flooded in. Letters to the paper were printed. The mayor responded in kind. But now, in an election year for council, there was an increased pressure. “Children were essentially taking on city hall. Finally the city hall acquiesced, but stipulated the children undertake the building and placing of the nesting boxes.” The birds came and the mosquitoes were diminished. Everyone was thrilled. “But then the initiative needed to be maintained. The next Grade 5 group has no ownership of this.” To build ownership in the next group, the teacher had to frame the dilemma in a different way. The next year’s class had to decide for themselves, whether the maintenance of the nesting boxes was still the most effective form of control. “It became then a matter of ownership, not a matter of technique.”



Keynote Address | New Collaborative Concepts There are some lingering questions from this discussion, says Dr Blades, things like: “How did plastic become so ubiquitous? When did the discussion between glass versus plastic begin? How long do plastic containers last? What does it cost to recycle a glass jar? What are people in other regions of the world doing? And what alternatives exist?” Replace “plastics” with any number of things, he says, and you can turn the critical lens upon a myriad social issues: “Asking these questions creates Communities of Practice.”

Questions | New Collaborative Concepts Question: My question is around communications and how do we set about asking those questions within the various members of the practice. I’m interested in how you get the dialogue moving, so people are open? Dr David Blades: I don’t think people are open. We live a comfortable existence. What you need in a community of practice are critical friends. These are very irritating people [laughter]. “A good idea” is not a good enough answer. Individuals interested in these questions will stay for the questions; the ones who are made uncomfortable leave. Q: How do we separate [the notion of what is difficult from what is inconvenient]. Human cognition is pretty screwed up—understanding there are trade-offs that need to be made and that I’m not taking a too rigid of a stance. DB: A hallmark of this is rigid thinking—this or that. John D. “Jack” Caputo says, “We need to restore life to its original difficulty”. We’re too comfortable, and I’m saying that as someone who enjoys these comforts. For some this is very wrenching, asking questions about how they live. I think we’ll be really serious about environmental change when we give up our cars. It’s just too easy. They have really affected our social fabric. We’re not yet serious enough. Q: When we talk about environmental change, it feels like the line of questioning gets totally cut off when the idea compromises a financial “money piece”. What do you suggest?

“We’re not going to get alternatives until people start asking more questions.”

DB: I really like what Paul Martin has been saying, that we need to think about a whole new way of evaluating. Why does GDP have to go up every year when there are other ways of going “up” each year? Maybe we should think about how we are framing our existence. Why aren’t we measuring social happiness instead, for instance? The measurements we’re using are sterile. We’re invested in a worldwide capitalist system. We’re not going to get alternatives until people start asking more questions. Q: Emphasizing questioning, you’ve set up a place of learning. I would only stay in that question so long until I found out how I had options of action. DB: Questioning is always experiments for action. We always have to revisit them. Actions aren’t solutions. They are attempts to live differently and they are experiments.


DR. DAVID BLADES Questions | New Collaborative Concepts

Q: There was a course taught with a chemist and an environmental scientist last year; and a thesis suggested plastics were good for the environment. The chemist talked about what materials plastic had replaced in the world (shellac, for instance, [which] used to be scraped off beetles, or billiard balls, which were once carved out of ivory). The pièce de résistance was when he pulled out a $100 bill: our value is attached to plastic. DB: When you consider Victoria and its cast iron sewer system, it will cost millions to replace this sewer system. ABS, on the other hand, will be here for hundreds or thousands of years. Q: My question is about time. It’s a barrier—especially if you’re dealing with people’s assumptions and prejudices. So, even capturing people long enough on a website, for instance. What kind of framework can you provide for people for them to give of their time? DB: If we really want change, we’re not just toying with it. Significant change, that’s going to take time. It takes months and years and people willing to be committed for the long haul. Most of these “sustainable” changes are short term. So it’s not the quick fix. This is a long discourse to change a long-standing discourse. I would recommend picking one [sustainable change] and seeing it through to the end. iI’s not easy, but it’s more likely to create a lasting change—[requiring] commitment to the conversation, wherever it may go. Q: Outside of the community, there’s been 1) exasperation in finding no answer, and 2) a use of this to force complacency; so, any course of action may not be so fruitful. How do you deal with that?

“This is a long discourse to change a longstanding discourse.”

DB: So returning to the bananas, some people react with resistance. But at least they know it now. The principle lingers; and they have to deal with it.


Community of Practice Keynote Address  

Keynote address by Dr. David Blades, University of Victoria, October 2013