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Where and how do I start? Integrating sustainability and active learning from a lecture for fashion and textiles students

Abstract: Beginning to transform the delivery of a specific curriculum, from a didactic approach, to integrating aspects of sustainability education through active learning can seem problematic and risky.

This article describes how an introductory lecture on Globalisation for 60 learners on a 2nd year BA (Hons) Fashion and Textiles programme, which was part of a lecture series, and required a 500 word follow-up written report became instead a successful active learning and research project about ethical fashion. The required learning outcomes were fairly generic: the ability to identify relevant content and from a wide variety of sources, to evaluate and communicate these ideas in writing and orally, to develop the necessary research skills, and to identify learning strengths and weaknesses. The change in delivery built on these criteria but developed new processes of learning and discovery. The article explores how and why the project was put together as a first step towards integrating sustainable modes of assessment and active learning.

‘Sustainable assessment’ can be defined on two layers. The first is its connection with aspects of sustainable development, and, for example, the well-being of the environment and its present and future needs. The second layer, more subtly, highlights the relevance of a wide range of learning forms, skills and practices that prepare for the current and future learning needs of the student.  According to Boud: ‘Sustainable assessment encompasses the knowledge, skills and predispositions required to support lifelong learning activities’ (Boud, D 2000).

Keywords: Sustainable assessment, ethical fashion, active learning, didactic, lectures, globalisation.

Author information: Philip Hawkins is Visual Culture Co-ordinator
in the Division of Arts and Design
at Somerset College of Art and Technology.

Date: February 2010

Download PDF: Where are how do I start?  Integrating sustainability and active learning in the Fashion and Textiles curriculum

‘Assessment practices in higher education institutions tend not to equip students well for the processes of effective learning in a learner society. The purposes of assessment should be extended to include the preparation of students for sustainable assessment’ (Boud, D, 2000).

By teaching themes such as globalisation and national design cultures to learners at the beginning of their second year in Fashion and Textiles, the specific relevance and urgency of sustainability in a consumer-led world needs to be made. The industry is known as a significant generator of income and employment as well as a major consumer of water and as a polluter. Aspects of material diversity, ethical production, re-use, and systemic change, among other factors, are all relevant to its global contexts of consumption and production. As a sector, fashion and textiles contributes more than its fair share to many facets of unhealthy global practices and its products also connect up to a wide range of popular cultural ideals, needs and consumer habits. For learners these actually take specific forms – shopping for example - that they have lots of experience of! But connecting up some of those everyday habits and the seriousness of their impact with a didactic learning programme ‘delivered’ in a lecture theatre, as well as trying to enthuse creative 2nd year BA students who prefer working in the studio, about the importance of research and analytical skills, can seem a bit of a mismatch.

An initial consideration to include and enthuse specific aspects of students’ experience and curiosity, rather than deal with the content of globalisation in a strictly theoretical context, raised wider concerns about how effective student learning would actually be.  Another consideration related to what it was that was going to be assessed. The debate could have stopped there given important concerns about a lack of student research, an underutilised library, the effective use of research material at degree level, etc, etc. However, ‘replacing’ theoretical contexts with research contexts that connect to students’ real life experiences that engage them with activities in the ‘real world’, begins to open up a wider range of learning outcomes, skills, and assessment implications that are extremely valuable for both educator and learner, and particularly within the context of sustainability. Furthermore it helps the educator to begin to chart out a way forward for reconceptualising existing lectures into projects - that need careful preparation - but ultimately lead to an expanded field of assessment outcomes.

‘Globalisation’, as an introductory lecture, included at least two sides of a debate and allowed pro-globalisation content to be discussed alongside aspects of anti-globalisation. Key economic terms (GDP, labour costs) and organisations (World Bank, IMF) were introduced, as were arguments about wealth, job creation and economies of scale. Conversely anti-globalisation highlighted the specific impacts of unfair trade agreements, tariffs, poverty, pollution, and bad employment practices. Clearly then, sustainability was being referenced, and in some specific ways - i.e. in connection to bad employment practices and the production of cheap clothes; to aspects of pollution; and to legislative initiatives - the Ethical Trade Initiative. Learning outcomes were, to a significant extent, specific to an understanding and deepening of subject knowledge, primarily on a systemic level. The question is, however, how effectively does the lecture enthuse or engage students and how effectively does the initial written research project and then the accompanying essay assess their learning?

It was apparent that the content of the lecture was fairly complex for learners in art and design unfamiliar with economic theory. Evidence from the learners about the efficacy of the lecture was mixed. Some clearly understood the implications of the lecture as evidenced from an essay that was later set on pro and anti-Globalisation. A good range of marks was achieved but it was apparent that many students sought to answer the question about globalisation in purely theoretical terms. A number of learners demonstrated basic understandings of globalisation, and primarily attempted to describe key organisations and theoretical definitions that seemed far from their experience and, arguably, understanding. It was difficult to quantify what impact the information did have on their behaviour or judgement although they were still passing the essay. Learners seemed not to grasp the urgency or relevance to them of the information about sustainability in practice.

In Reflective Practitioner Brookfield says ‘One of the hardest things teachers have to learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice’ (Brookfield, 1995, p.1). Even though my intentions about lecturing around sustainability seemed sound, the actual practice of student engagement in the subject was another matter. In this case it seemed likely that the didactic delivery of the lecture, in a lecture theatre, and its mode of assessment, was being reflected back by students as a theoretical essay with information drawn primarily from secondary sources (websites, books, etc). In practice the lecture had demonstrated the subject more as a set of ideas and systems, and students simply responded in their research projects and essays accordingly.

To reconsider the situation some key teaching and learning outcomes needed to be clarified and these were developed gradually from a review of some of the existing literature (Sterling, S, 2005, Orr, D, 1995, and Boud, D, 2000). Within a context of assessment about sustainability learning it was apparent from the tone and focus of the essays that learner engagement was insufficient. Some of the components of effective sustainability education discussed in the literature and that informed the course developments include:

·      a level of urgency - that action is needed in contexts that are directly relevant to students .

·      creative solutions or initiatives to current and future problems are required.

·      a sense of purpose and experiential teaching is necessary.

·      aspects of judgement and behaviour need to be considered and not just analytical qualities.

·      problem solving and transformative skills are needed and are as valuable as traditional forms of knowledge.

·      active participation and student-led projects seem central so that students are responsible for generating projects in the ‘real world’.

·      effective use of primary research connects learners to the professional and commercial world and to effective and complex forms of learning about it.

·      a knowledge of place focuses projects in specific contexts.

·      professional skills and social entrepreneurship emerge in engagement with the globalised world.

In effect these components helped to produce building blocks for the setting and form of a number of new projects. In this specific case a short research exercise was developed to replace the lecture and accompanying essay. The brief follows:

Each student is required to hand in to their tutors a chart (with workings) and two pieces of text (200 words each). It is important to show an understanding of the key words, to use and interpret some numerical information, and to develop effective case studies by visiting shops, looking at labels/sizes/materials/resources, or holding interviews.

1) Check your own clothes’ labels and represent in a pie chart the geographical distribution of origin in percentage terms that each country makes up of the total. You must also show how you worked out your percentages.

2) Explain in 200 words what globalisation is, and the economic reasons for your labels’ geographical distribution of origin. Reference key terms and figures about globalisation including: GDP, manufacturing industry, Labour Costs, Value Retailers, Ethical Fashion, the Ethical Trade Initiative, and Fair Trade.

3) Visit 2 shops in town and consider how they fit, in different ways, into ideas and practices of globalisation. These can be researched as case studies - for example Primark and Oxfam, or Lush and Matalan.

In another 200 words explain and analyse the company’s ethos in relation to globalisation, highlighting any innovative or exploitative practices and develop your personal standpoint.

Together with the research exercise learners were provided with a list of web-links - primarily about high street shops and their sustainable practices - to explore further before and after their visits (see Sources of Further Information). ‘Labour behind the Label’ has developed some excellent resources, and students can attend training programmes to learn more about ethical fashion before going on mainstream work placements. Its campaign ‘Lets Clean up Fashion’ and its 2009 report on high street shops was also popular with students.

Another fear - my worst-case scenario - was that learners might just go to the shops! But this was unfounded. Much more significant was the evidence from the research exercise that students did engage with concepts of globalisation in a way that was relevant to their own lives and shopping habits. Motivation levels were so much higher presumably because students were given the opportunity to discover what globalisation meant to them. Some students showed evidence of originality in terms of primary research, problem solving, or innovative initiatives, which would not have been evident in a didactic setting. It was curious to notice that a few of my more ‘academically-oriented’ learners didn’t get beyond the library – effectively they continued to answer the question (in point three) in didactic form and without going to the shops. However, in sum, most learners were effectively drawing conclusions from their primary research that was then informing their judgment and appetite for further learning. The projects therefore became a way to kick-start an interest in research and highlighted the more practice-based and experiential learning strengths of art and design students. 

Finally, a generic review of the research exercise was also useful as a learning tool for the effective use of forms of research and for analytic and content-driven components of essay writing. That is learners can take specific examples from the component parts of the exercise and use in any future dissertations or essays. These research forms included the value of primary research in an effective and systematic form, and the effective use of numeracy in an essay, the value of case studies, interviews and questionnaires, as well as of key terms and contexts, and the informed use of personal opinion.

In conclusion, this research exercise based on a single lecture has eventually begun to facilitate the reconceptualisation of a lecture driven course. Benefits included significantly improved levels of engagement and a wider range of learning skills, including its impact on student judgement and behaviour. Many of these skills were harder to initiate, measure or affirm within traditional forms of learning and their relevance came to the surface in the setting of the project for the students to discover for themselves and in the broadening out of the purposes of assessment. Effectively additional learning outcomes emerged - informed by the list above of effective qualities for sustainable education. These outcomes – a demonstration of problem solving skills or of a sustainable purpose for example – helped give the students a better range of choices by which to judge their learning strengths and weaknesses which was one of the existing assessment criteria in the first place. Furthermore many students also re-engaged with the research and content-based requirements  in innovative and consequential ways. These changes fuelled their interest to find out about the learning forms and content of its communication in writing, orally, and in action.

Boud, D, 2000 ‘Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society’ in Studies in Continuing Education, 22, 2, 151-167.

Brookfield, S, 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco Jossey-Bass.

Fletcher, K, 2008. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. London, Earthscan (A useful text for practitioners).

Orr, D, 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to the Postmodern World. State University of New York Press.

Orr, D, 2004. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. London and Washington, Island Press.

Sterling, S, 2002. Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, Schumacher Briefings, Green Books.

Further information

Good website and resources for learners exploring ethical fashion and high street shops:

War on want have also produced a report on sweatshops:

M&S has re-launched their Plan A web-site and developed ambitious plans for sustainability on the high street

Lush staff are often well-informed about their products and happy to discuss with learners Globalisation or the environment:

Oxfam has some good resources about citizenship and about the environment (under resources):

People Tree, an interesting ethical fashion company that has worked with Topshop:

Made-by, an independent consumer label that encourages sustainable fashion practices, and has developed a label or button that tracks supply chains for the consumer on line: 







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