From education to employment

Sustainability through learning and teaching

Sustainability is dear to my heart and so is lifelong learning. Having worked in or with the education sector for the last twenty-four years, I have been asking myself how have we educationalists contributed to unsustainability to continue and to thrive and for sustainability to remain an elusive goal? We will have a look at how different perspectives on learning and teaching could make the difference.

Professor William Scott, Honorary Professor of Education at Bath University and Paul Vare wrote an article entitled “Learning for a change: exploring the relationship between education and sustainable development.” In this article they explore the concepts of ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) I and ESD II. ESD I is about “facilitating changes, promoting behaviours and ways of thinking where the need for this is clearly identified and agreed.”

This would be about engaging learners in behaviour changes that have been agreed by experts and solutions that have been externally generated. These include education about recycling, switching off lights, increased use of public transport, reducing food waste and the like. Many different voluntary and public sector organisations are involved in bringing about this change through awareness raising events, promotional literature and campaigns. Information is often given in bite-sized junks, without having to think about the bigger, global context. This approach is exemplified by stickers on walls that say switch off the lights before you leave the room, putting in place recycling facilities and green travel plans, running food growing projects, installing insulation, changing light bulbs as well as integrating some ideas on how the particular subject can be “greened” through the use of recycled resources or the use of fewer chemicals. It is about being less bad, about incremental change, about running more or less like business as usual but in the comfort of knowing that “we are doing our bit”. Organisations who would take on this approach would from Chris Argyris? organisational development point of view, likely be engaged in single-loop learning. They would make “changes in the organization?s knowledge and competence base without altering present policies, objectives and mental maps (Snell and Man-Kuen Chak).” It is one level up from what Gregory Bateson referred to as level zero learning, when fresh imperatives arise, yet corrective action is not taken. Learners will frequently be engaged in shallow learning that is characterised by memorisation, learning of facts, replication, extrinsic motivation, compliance and dependence. At this stage we do not challenge the structures that our society is built on, we are doing things right but not necessarily doing the right things, we are treating symptoms such as waste, CO2 emissions, energy use without questioning the root causes. We are reforming our thinking but not transforming it.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ESD I as long as it is part of a wider set of choices and strategies. The complement to ESD I is ESD II, which is about”Building capacity to think critically (and beyond) what experts say and to test sustainable development ideas. Exploring the contradictions inherent in sustainable living. Learning as sustainable development.” Learners are now not taught specific sustainable practices but instead are given the meta skills to challenge and question so empowering them to make sound choices. Scott and Vare likened ESD II to double-loop learning which does involve modification of an organisation?s underlying norms, policies and objectives and not merely of behaviours. Learning providers at this stage will think more widely about sustainability and what it means to them as an organisation. They are likely to have an integrated sustainability policy, sustainability will be part of their values and strategic plan, their own structure with sustainability being integrated in job descriptions and they will engage learners in deep learning that makes them reflect, gaining deeper knowledge and understanding, learners will become independent to interpret the world in their own and new ways. Scott?s and Vare?s model, to my understanding, stops here. In order to create a sustainable society, we need to, however, live within the carrying capacity of the planet and establish an economy that supports society?s goals while operating within this very carrying capacity. Neatly packed into this sentence it seems like not too difficult a task but the enormity and complexity of it is unprecedented and never in the history of humanity have we been in a similar situation, from which we could learn. This requires a new level of awareness, Dr Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan Management School, describes it as eco-system awareness. Eco-system awareness is demonstrated through generative listening, or a listening from the emerging field of the future. Scharmer says you know that you have listened generatively when “…at the end of the conversation you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation.”

In this mode of listening you access collective creativity and the wider context and thus act from the whole. This is a systems approach to working. Here learners learn how systems work and the way they approach the subject they study is through systems approaches. They will study in an inter-disciplinary way, deep learning will give way to profound learning. Learners learn to work interdependently, they challenge themselves and the structures and mental models or world views that society is built on through a combination of critical thinking, resilience thinking, creative and systems thinking. They operate from a moral code, no longer motivated by extrinsic or intrinsic motivation but by what needs to be done, by doing the right thing. They derive meaning not only from knowledge but through accessing their intuition. The outcomes of this sort of learning are wisdom and this is not testable through education’s conventional approaches. This sort of learning will mean a true transformation of society as we know it. The organisation engages in triple loop learning and maybe beyond. This “…manifests itself in the form of “collective mindfulness”: members discover how they and their predecessors have facilitated or inhibited learning, and produce new structures and strategies for learning.” This level of working will develop citizens who will want to ask questions about what sort of society we want to be.

Current good and best practice models operate largely at the first and to some extent at the second level, but they are insufficient to transform our society. The third level is the domain of “Blue Skies College” and to start the work we collectively need to develop new leadership, one that comes from an eco-system awareness. And this takes courage. Over the next few months we will be looking at the how in greater depth.

As Schopenhauer said “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT  as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)


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