Easier Done than Said:  Move from Fear to Action by Educating for a Sustainable Future

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In my experience, it is harder for people to think about what it will take to educate for sustainability, than it is to actually educate for sustainability. This makes sense, given that change of any kind is threatening to our reptilian brains. We have a biological fear of change. Add to this the fact that most educators think of “sustainablizing” as an add on to an already packed life, curriculum and to do list. Given the flavor of the month way that schools often operate, it seems like just one more thing to do.  It isn’t.  It can’t be. It is the thing we all must do if we want to thrive over time.

Despair impacts learning and drives educational policy

The fact that it is necessary belies the idea that it takes less time to educate for sustainability than it does to educate for un-sustainability.  Think about it.  Unsustainability is depressing.  When students (or any of us) become depressed or hopeless, our neuropathways shut down, making it more difficult to learn.  In addition, we tend to throw our hands up in despair, questioning the point of learning if we think that we’re “going down” anyway.  It follows that much time and money are spent repeating ourselves, reviewing, remediating, testing, re-testing and treating the symptoms that inevitably ensue.  Since more time is required just to achieve the basics, less time is spent on authentic place-based projects that require creativity, problem finding and problem solving, critical thinking, analysis, and design. In turn, we deprioritize the meaningful and engaging work that solves more than one problem at a time and minimizes the creation of new problems. 

Empowered students learn better and foster change

On the other hand, when students are educated for sustainability, they learn that a healthy and sustainable future is possible. They understand that we are all responsible for the difference we make—because everything we do and everything we don’t do makes a difference.  Instead of despair, these young people feel empowered.  They get creative, think deeply and well in systems and cycles, and begin thinking about their thinking. In turn, they learn, remember, and apply this learning over time.  Change happens much more quickly when young people take a leadership role. Adults tend to have low expectations.  Young people, when activated, have very high expectations, and tend to achieve their ambitious goals. Youth leadership is grossly overlooked by adults as a leverage point for this vital mid -course correction.  For example, some system dynamicists still model education as a 20-year payback, so when asked where the leverage points are for timely shifts toward sustainability, they recommend against significant investment in education as a leverage point for change.  They assume that we must wait 20 years until the students grow up for them to make the difference that will make the difference. It is a completely false assumption that must be challenged.

Reframing the question from why to how

Education for Sustainability, when done comprehensively over time, has positive effects on student achievement, students’ interest in democratic participation and civic engagement, teacher effectiveness, school culture, school community relations, and sustainable community development.  With benefits like these, we know EfS is worth doing. So then it is time to consider: “How do we get started?”.

There is no beginning or end in a system so we begin where there are favorable conditions.  We start where there is energy and will.  I like to unleash this momentum by engaging a representative group of school community stakeholders (those that will be supportive and those that will be critical—but not the laggards) and create a shared experience for them that will do three things:

1.     Build a shared understanding and vocabulary of sustainability and education for sustainability;

2.     Give each person a chance to develop a personal rationale for why they would want to be supportive or get involved, and

3.      Get everyone inspired and hopeful about contributing to a sustainable future through education—to be clear about the unique contribution that transformative learning can play in making the shift toward the future we want. This should not be difficult, given that we have all the children and young people in our communities legally required to be in school for 13 years during the most favorable time for learning.  

Once we have spent a day or two together, (two is statistically more effective than one), the leadership team and I typically ask for volunteers who want to “sustainablize” something.  For faculty, this means embedding  the different ways of thinking that characterize Education for Sustainability into curriculum and instruction through “backwards design”, innovation, documentation and mapping, development of assessments and performance criteria, and student centered learning experiences.  For administrators, it means strategizing and planning that involves instructional and organizational policies and practices and school community connections.

Let the magic begin

The fastest work is the work we do with faculty because they love the coaching and even more, they love the results they get from their students.  Sandra Switzer at The Lovett School had to revise her rubric three times in one school year, raising the bar significantly each time, because more and more of her students were consistently exceeding her expectations.  We educators live for that.  Once the students are involved through curriculum and instruction, the whole place starts to move.  More and more people want to get involved, more and more coaching and self-organizing takes place and within a year or two we see emergence—best described in the following excerpts written by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze  from a 2006 piece entitled, Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale:

“[Things] change as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what is possible.  This is good news for those of us intent on changing the world and creating a positive future.  Our work is to foster critical connections among kindred spirits—[the “early adopters” in the innovation diffusion theory].  Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage and commitment that lead to broad based change [among the early and late majority].” 

“But networks aren’t the whole story.  As networks grow and transform into active, working communities of practice we discover how Life truly changes, which is through emergence. When separate, local [individual] efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals.  It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change.  Emergence is how Life creates radical change and takes things to scale.”

Emergence is exactly what we experience in the schools with which we work. I have been calling the experience “magical” so I am grateful to Meg Wheatley and her colleague for explaining so well what emergence is and how it works.   

Looking to deepen your school or organization’s commitment to educating for sustainability?  We can help. Contact me at (212) 645-9930  or Jaimie@cloudinstitute to talk about next steps.

Also see our blog: Game Over or Game On the 1st part of this series