‘From Sweden With Care’; Alternative Visions of Education by Isak Stoddard

This is an audio recording of the presentation given by Isak Stoddard at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the University of Manchester. Isak is Project Coordinator in Climate Change Leadership, Educational Coordinator and Deputy Director of CEMUS at Uppsala University in Sweden. The presentation was called ‘From Sweden with care’ and it deals with education and societal change in troubled times.


Isak Stoddard
Isak Stoddard

He talks from the position of how much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of inadequate and misdirected education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination and causes students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are. This is of particular interest to those who are exploring how education can be differently structured to bring about different means of learning and development.


With a focus on education and societal change in troubled times, he questions the way in which education is delivered taking us on a journey which starts from the early origins of the university – looking at the Bologna of medieval times and making a direct comparison with the learning environments which are commonly reproduced throughout the world; specifically, the teacher stands on in front of a lectern and delivers a talk to a room of students.



With the work of CEMUS (The Centre for Environment and Development Studies) they are challenging the ways we learn, work together and develop solutions to the big questions of our time.  Climate change, loss of biodiversity, soil errosion, acidification of the seas, loss of the tree cover and rainforests, toxic pollution, damaging of the water table, and many more large scale problems require humans as a species to think and work in new and more collaborative/cooperative ways.

Click the below image to download a copy of Isak’s slides…


Click to Download a copy of the presentation slides of 'From Sweden With Care Tyndall Seminar'
Click to Download a copy of the presentation slides of ‘From Sweden With Care Tyndall Seminar’


Part of what Isak is doing is experimenting with an ‘exercise of imagination’ as he put it.  Asking people to conceive of their imagination as a tool for discovery he opened the session by just getting us to list ways of understanding what a university is.  A university is many things to many people and what it behaves as is context specific.


A university can be conceived of as a community hub, a nesting site for bats, an anchor institution which could serve the society it is a part of, a laboratory, a means of discussion, a formal centre for learning, a centre for responsibility, a place for bringing people from multiple cultures together in an atmosphere of discovery, a habitat for critical thinking…


If we are to conceive of new things in education we are in need of thinking imaginatively.  I thought about how universities could be understood as centres of responsibility because I was toying with the notions that within these organs of society, these institutions which shape so many lives there are behaviours which are in response to phenomena as well as in response to abilities, skills and bodies of knowledge.  Isak emphasized that the discussion was not about thinking about what was right, correct, definitive etc, but was a means of letting the imagination fire up the mind.


The presentation is a means of him discussing how CEMUS came about and how learning and education has been developed by students, teachers and community stakeholders.


In his discussion Isak takes the time to read out a quote from one of the great commentators of our time on sustainability – David Orr:

“The scientific evidence suggests that the years ahead will test coming generations in extraordinary ways. Educators are obliged to tell the truth about such things but then to convert the anxiety that often accompanies increased awareness of danger to positive energy that can generate constructive changes. Environmental education must be an exercise in applied hope that equips young people with the skills, aptitudes, analytic wherewithal, creativity, and stamina to dream, act, and lead heroically. To be effective on a significant scale, however, the creative energies of the rising generation must be joined with strong and bold institutional leadership to catalyze a future better than the one in prospect.”


David Orr writes State of the World report
Click to Download a full copy of a report which has David Orr’s article ‘What is higher education for now ?’


State of the World Report: blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/What-is-Higher-Education-for-Now-Orr.pdf


Expanding on the second quote that Isak introduced in the presentation, we look again towards the writing of David Orr, this time in his 2004 book ‘Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect’:


“Much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of inadequate and misdirected education that: alienates us from life in the name of human domination; causes students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are; overemphasizes success and careers; separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical; deadens the sense of wonder for the created world. The crisis we face is one of mind, perception, and values. It is, first and foremost, an educational challenge.”


Isak talks about the origins of the foundation of CEMUS and the development of an experimental or explorative approach to education. Citing two biology students which went to Uppsala University early in the 1990s, they arrived thinking that it would be exciting and fun learning and being immersed in their subject areas.


They thought they were going to ‘an imaginative space where they could think about the world and also think about how you could actually be a part of influencing things which might not be completely rigged around us and the world’. They came to Uppsala University and sat in the lecture halls uninspired.


They were quite disillusioned with what they had found but what was interesting was their response to this and tried to do something about it they put together a proposal for an interdisciplinary seminar series which they called ‘Humanity and Nature’ trying to figure out ways in which the university could start addressing the questions which were being discussed at an international level the Rio Earth Summit was happening the same year in 1992.


Rio Earth Summit 1992
Click to Download Rio Earth Summit 1992 Report


Rio Earth Summit 1992 Report: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/Agenda21.pdf


Thus these students put together their proposal and had the good fortune to meet with some Professors at the time who lent help to presenting the proposal to the vice chancellor. The vice chancellor really liked this idea as the notion of students taking initiative made him think of the origins of the university in Bologna where students invited lecturers into the university to teach. So rather than the students having this curriculum delivered to them, they were put in charge.


The vice chancellor said that if the students identify the thinkers from across Sweden, he would sign the letters of invitation and give them a small budget. He also asked them to make sure to make a reference group of academics that can help and guide the process. The handing over of responsibility to the students was an important part of the innovation. This origin shaped the organisation from the start to the present day.


From these roots the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS) was established in 1996 evolving many activities and ways of bringing the learner into the position where they design the curriculum.


To me as a commentator, CEMUS speaks of the ‘Student as Producer’ philosophy articulated by Prof Mike Neary and Joss Winn at the University of Lincoln, and that afternoon I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Isak, getting the chance to find out how the community are included and involved in the intellectual life of the university.


It made a strong impression on me the way that they are conceiving of a Whole School Approach which extends out from the institution involving everyone.  It strikes me as a kind of ‘Whole Society Approach’ to education which promises all the benefits of diversity; I can only think that this is healthy in expanding the horizon from which we learn to all of society – which also smacks of Dewey speaking of democracy and education.


At one point Isak speaks of Carl Rogers’ ‘self-appropriated and self acquired knowledge’.  In his book ‘Interpersonal Relations and Education‘, David Hargreaves talks of how “Learning is not merely the acquisition of knowledge, but a pervasive process of change which affects how a person sees himself, the world, and his relationship to the world. Rogers calls such learning significant learning: it is learning which is self-discovered, self-appropriated, learning which contributes to and enhances the structure of the self.


It is self-discovered in the sense that it takes place in response to the learner’s problems and purposes and in this way makes a difference to him as a person. It means grappling and struggling with a problem. Learning which is not significant tends to be the acquisition of knowledge which is simply stored – or more typically, knowledge which is inadequately grasped, then distorted and finally stored.”


The talk which Isak gave and the conversation which we engaged in was nuanced and powerful.  I saw in it models of doing which challenge the mechanistic repetition of what we already know and are familiar with which can lead us to new terrain.  It is that new terrain which we collectively need to seek out to supply our need to evolve – this is with emphasis on our becoming in balance with our environment and restoring some of the wellsprings we have destroyed as a species.


They are fostering perspectives at CEMUS which rest on people not being consumers of knowledge but instead active participants in creating knowledge, opportunity and understanding.


So for anyone interested in reaching in this way, I would recommend you check out what is happening in and through CEMUS.  For anyone interested in education and learning, read through their stuff and get in touch – my impression is that they are interested and open; far from the ossified bureaucracy laden institutions which turn learning from an exciting journey into a gray, mind freezing burden.  They have opened an agora which is inviting people and questions.

Here is one of their publications:


Transcending boundaries Cemus
Click to Download a copy of ‘Transcending boundaries’ CEMUS


Transcending Boundaries CEMUS: www.web.cemus.se/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/TranscendingBoundaries.pdf