Blurring Boundaries and Expanding Horizons – Re-thinking education and learning in an era of (un)sustainability

Although technological advances, new policies, laws and legislation are essential in moving towards sustainability, it is not enough! Ultimately, sustainability needs to emerge in the everyday fabric of life – in the minds of people, organizations and communities, and in the values they live by. Such emergence depends on how and what people learn, both individually and collectively. A central question in my work is how to create conditions that support new forms of learning that take full advantage of the diversity, creativity and resourcefulness which is all around us, but so far remains largely untapped in our search for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect. This question was also the focus of a two day seminar organized in The Netherlands a while back with Rietje van Dam-Mieras (a UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development and ICTs) and the able assistance of Rebekah Tauritz.

Fortunately the persistent call for a more sustainable world continues to influence policy-making, governance, public debate, business decisions and lifestyles. Nonetheless we are still searching for adequate responses to manifestations of unsustainability which are manifold (e.g. the depletion of natural resources, the rise of unnatural disasters, human-induced climate change, marine toxicity, and rising inequity). This search is marinated in complexity, uncertainty and controversy. After all, governing, consuming, producing and living inevitably takes place in rich social contexts with actors representing innumerable vantage points, interests, values, power positions, beliefs and needs.

‘Learning in one form or another is increasingly seen as a key in transitioning towards a more sustainable world. Learning-based change, anticipatory learning, collaborative learning, community problem-solving, and social learning represent just a few of the many ideas and concepts that are connected to the quest for sustainability. It is through various form of learning that a more reflexive society can emerge, one in which creativity, flexibility and diversity are released and used to deal with the challenges posed by sustainability, one that has the capacity to challenge existing routines, norms and values and one that has both the desire and the ability to correct itself.

Universities, colleges, schools and institutes of vocational education have a key role to play fostering these types of learning and need to figure out the possible consequences for the way they structure their curricula, for the kind of research that is needed, for the kinds competencies they need and wish to develop in staff members and students, and for the way they interface with the community. The latter is crucial in times that demand increased permeability between disciplines, cultures, institutions and sectors.

Key questions we need to address include:

  • How can schools, colleges and universities participate meaningfully in trans-boundary learning projects that are rooted in (local) sustainability issues?
  • How can we utilize the change potential of diversity in co-creating new visions and more sustainable ways of living and working?
  • How (and to what degree) can such learning be designed, supported and facilitated?

“message-in-a-bottle”

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