Educating for Sustainability with the Brain in Mind

Useful Tips and Principles for Educating for Sustainability - notes by Jaimie P. Cloud adapted from the work of David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz. 

Create a Shared Understanding

A shared experience, shared understanding, and shared vocabulary within the organization or group of people you are working with will save you a lot of time. That statement couldn’t be truer in relation to our work to Educate for Sustainability. Don’t assume that everyone has the same understanding of what sustainability is, why it is important, or what it means to educate for it.

Understand How Our Brains Process New Learning

Our brains need a rationale in order to learn new things and to make new and sustained cognitive connections (make things stick). We all learn on a “need to know” basis. To encourage our participants to develop a rationale for educating for sustainability, we begin our workshops by asking them, “Why educate for sustainability?” Their initial rationale is a useful entry point through which we can engage our audience. If they don’t have a rationale yet, asking them to think of one “primes the brain” for learning.

As part of rationale building, people need to first be able to identify what is un- sustainable about their current practices and our current global reality (un-sustainability). Once they learn this, they will be able to understand why it is necessary to learn about what sustainability is. Then they can move to thinking about what it will take to make the shift toward practices that contribute to a sustainable future.

At the end of the Introduction to Education for Sustainability Workshop we ask people again to address the question, “Why educate for sustainability?” We do this for a few reasons. First, we are interested in growth and changes in thinking. Second, we want to make sure that each participant has a personal rationale for Education for Sustainability by the end of the day. Third, we collect rationales over time as a way to predict and teach to the entry points and rationales that are most likely to be present in new audience groups as a way to be learner centered even before we know our learners.

Know Your Terminology

Different fields have different names for the same basic premise: our thinking drives our behavior and our behavior causes results. Here is some of the terminology from the fields we draw on: Mental Models (Systems Thinking); Mental Maps (Neuroscience); Paradigms (Innovation); an Accepted Premise (Rhetoric); and Frames/ Framing (Cognitive Linguistics); “In the box” Thinking (Design); and Schema (Education). Popular terms used for the same concept include worldview or frame of reference. The phrase, “Right Thinking, Right Action” also describes this idea well. Thinking about our thinking is the most “upstream” place we can intervene in order to make transformative personal, organizational, and societal change. The thinking itself comes next.

Ask Permission to Shift People’s Paradigms

The shift toward sustainability and regeneration will require new and different thinking. We liken the shift to the Copernican Revolution. No matter who your target audience is, its members are most likely still operating in the “old paradigm” (most people are). Before playing The Fish Game or any transformative learning experience with adults, ask permission to cause new learning which could “shift their existing paradigm(s)”.

Piaget called learning something that reinforces your existing schema “assimilation.” He called learning something new that requires shifting your schema to understand it “accommodation”. We call it paradigm shifting or “out of the box” thinking. The reason we ask people for permission to “leave their comfort zone” is because being explicit about it both primes the brain for learning and reduces resistance (impasse) which provides a safe space for the brain to “re-frame” or “re-appraise”—literally “re-wire”—in order to make new cognitive connections (create new maps/neuro-pathways).

“Changing circuitry” (creating conditions for learning/paradigm shifting) makes it possible for people to pay attention to, and literally see, different aspects they could not perceive before. They can and do pay attention to things they could not—and therefore did not—pay attention to before.

Understand What Triggers Tremendous Learning and What Triggers No Learning At All

We want to create a learning environment where people feel comfortable and safe to learn, to change, to think “out of the box”, and to grow. Shifting people’s paradigms is disruptive and potentially threatening for people. We have found “SCARF”, a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others very useful in ensuring that tremendous learning takes place in our programs. Developed by David Rock, Author and Founder of the Neuro-Leadership Institute, SCARF is a useful acronym to remember if you want to create the conditions for tremendous learning (“the “toward” response) to take place in your participants, and to avoid no learning at all or “the away” response.

TREMENDOUS LEARNING (The “Toward Response”) Takes Place When People Experience:

STATUS: Status refers to a person’s self esteem, perceived status, position, and/or personal best. How can we connect sustainability, learning and new thinking to our participants’ increased status?

CERTAINTY: The brain likes certainty. Uncertainty is perceived by the brain as a death threat. In uncertain times, focusing on principles and things that you can count on is critical. Make a case for why education for sustainability provides us with more certainty and things that we can count on than does our current reality. We tend to hang on to what we know because it is impossible to predict the future and we need to exist in a “known” state even if this is just our perception.

AUTONOMY: Autonomy is a person’s perceived ability to choose (e.g. “veto power” = free “won’t” and free “will”), a sense that what I do matters. Moving toward a sustainable future will preserve our ability to choose wisely. Continuing down the unsustainable road we are on will reduce our options. Many people confuse sustainable practices with a loss of autonomy. It is important for people to connect making responsible and sustainable choices with their autonomy.

RELATEDNESS: Relatedness is the perception that I am among friends, trust and fairness are assumed, and I have a desire to be connected/to belong. Creating learning communities, communities of practice, or geography of interest gives people a sense of belonging and connectedness to one another. We can help each other make the shift toward sustainability.

FAIRNESS: Fairness is a person’s perception of what’s honest, just and equitable. We are “hardwired” to pay attention to fairness and justice because we depend on one another in our groups. Ironically, fairness only applies to “us” not to “them.” Emphasizing that in the context of interdependence, there is no “them”, helps people extend their need for fairness and justice globally and across generations.

The “toward” response reinforces new insights and new “re-wiring” by connecting to previous knowledge. As a facilitator, help people connect new ideas and new thinking to things they already know so they are reminded that they have a foundation on which they can attach the new thinking.

The Result: Much more is possible in the “toward” state; more creativity, greater capacity for problem solving, and more energy.

CONVERSELY, NO LEARNING takes place when the “away” response is triggered. The “away” response takes place when people:

  • Cannot make connections to previous knowledge (this causes anxiety, tiredness, uncertainty, and is threatening and causes retreat)
  • Feel no sense of autonomy (no choices, no agency)
  • Do not feel part of the group (among foes, no empathy distrust and unfairness assumed)
  • Status Threatened (left out, challenged/questioned, not respected, not valued)

The Result: Much less is possible in the “away” state; loss of attention, loss of focus, distracted, fuzzy thinking, and anger.

Be Prepared To Regulate Emotional Responses

An audience will have emotional responses to what you are saying. This will vary depending on whether they are in the “Away” state or the “Toward” state. By tuning into their feelings you will be able to know what is needed to flip an “Away” response into a “Toward” response. People need to express their thinking so they can evolve it. Expression is the first step to moving from current reality to new learning. A gesture of empathy and/or respectful and timely humor can serve as comic relief for people who are in or passing through the “uncomfortable zone”.

Use A Learner Centered Approach

A learner centered approach assures that people can develop expertise which increases their status, allows them to make connections, demonstrates their relatedness and celebrates their autonomy. Self generated information is remembered best. Ask guiding questions that help your audiences to come to their own understanding and drive their own inquiry.

Concentrate On What We Want

When we concentrate on what we don’t want it embeds those things even more into our thinking. Suppression makes us unhappy, impedes memory, and makes us feel bad.

Instead, concentrate on what we do want so we can re-wire toward that. Re-appraisal/Paradigm-shifting/ Re-framing/ Re-wiring/Lateral Thinking all change our interpretation, so it makes us happy, makes it possible to remember and it allows us to find comfort in the new interpretation. The kinds of things that contribute to making it possible for people to “re-frame” or shift to a new way of thinking include: transformative experiences; asking different questions; activating the creative process; telling stories or providing case studies and exemplars; empathizing; changing perspective; reflective thinking; reading the feedback; and mindfulness.

Be Mindful and Create Conditions for Mindfulness

Mindfulness is required when open “mindedness”, new learning, and new behaviors are required. Attention, intention, focus, consciousness, and choices (veto power) are essential in order to create different results. Before we can employ “free will,” we often need to employ “free won’t.” It is our decision not to continue thinking and behaving in the old way that makes the space for the new thinking/behavior.

Provide Enough Time

Make sure you have left enough time for new learning to be applied so it has a chance to sink in and be reinforced before participants leave the program. Encourage low stakes application of new learning before high stakes application. Provide enough time to be able to adequately debrief difficult concepts so that people do not leave with too much uncertainty or ambiguity. This could backfire and reinforce their “old” thinking. Sometimes, this means that “less is more.” On the other hand, avoid feeling the need to answer all the questions people are asking and be happy that they are being generated as a result of your facilitation.

The adult learning curve—from awareness to trial and error (mostly error) to internalization or being “hardwired”— is three to five years. Mastery is never finished.

Balance Authority with Humility

We must be authoritative enough to keep our participants in the “toward state” and humble enough to generate new and better thinking among the collective that goes beyond what we alone have already learned. There is no such thing as an expert in the field, and we are no exception.

Why Are We Doing This?

Our job is to create the conditions for people (including us) to learn and to continue to learn. We want people to ask better questions than the ones they came in with—and even better questions than the ones we are asking. We need to create new knowledge and understanding as a result of our work—that is what is required.