The educational appeal of vagueness: the case of biodiversity

Environmental Education & Biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity is back on the agenda having faded somewhat during the last 15 years or so with the rise of new urgent issues such as runaway climate change, loss of food security, the rise of micro-toxins in waters and soils, etc. With the renewed attention for biodiversity it might be useful to go back to the nineties when the topic was high on the international policy agenda and some effort was spent on making biodiversity meaningful for ordinary citizens. Two publications that I was involved in back then seem very relevant today.

The first one appeared in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (I believe the only open-access EE journal): Dreyfus, A., Wals, A.E.J. and D. van Weelie (1999). The socio-scientific dispute character of environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 155-176. Download here: Canadian Journal of EE[

The second one is a book commissioned by the Dutch government titled “Environmental Education and Biodiversity” which I recently updated slightly to make it suitable for open-access publication. Full reference: Wals, A.E.J., (Ed.) (1999). Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen, 107 p.Download here: Book Environmental Education & Biodiversity

The book is more elaborate than the article and contains concrete stepping stones for making biodiversity meaningful. Here’s a brief abstract of the book which also applies – in part – to the article.

Despite all the confusion about biodiversity, one thing is clear: there is no one single perspective or definition of biodiversity that accurately describes it in all situations or contexts. Biodiversity can have different meanings depending on the user and the context in which it is used. Even within the scientific arena a great number of biodiversity meanings and interpretations can be distinguished. It is not uncommon to find that scientific, political and symbolic meanings are used interchangeably by the same person. Both the knowledge base and the value base of biodiversity are variable and to a degree unstable and questionable.

Although these characteristics of biodiversity can render the concept useless or reduce it to a rhetorical instrument, they can also add to its strength when handled with care. Certainly from an environmental education perspective, but also from a policy-making perspective, these characteristics offer some worthwhile advantages: 1) Biodiversity brings together different groups in society that are searching for a common language to discuss nature conservation issues in relation to sustainability issues. 2) This dialogue allows the socio-scientific dispute character of “science-in-the-making” to surface. Participation in such a dispute is an excellent opportunity to learn about a highly relevant, controversial, emotionally charged and debatable topic at the crossroads of science, technology and society. 3) Making such a concept meaningful to the lives of citizens requires a procedure that could be utilised when developing educational programmes that focus on similar topics (i.e. education for sustainability).

This book provides a justification and rationale for developing biodiversity as a leading concept for environmental education for human development. Furthermore it proposes a stepping stone procedure that recognises the socio-scientific dispute character of biodiversity and provides a tool for turning biodiversity into a meaningful and existentially relevant issue. The procedure includes the following steps: analysing meanings of biodiversity, determining one or more perspectives based on the general learning goals of environmental education, setting specific learning objectives, selecting (sub)themes for learning, contextualising biodiversity and establishing the value of biodiversity. The procedure is intended to help curriculum developers, teachers, educational support staff and environmental educators give specific meaning to biodiversity and to help learners critically analyse the way biodiversity is used in science, technology and society. The procedure is an intermediate product that offers direction in developing and implementing specific learning activities and materials for various groups of learners.

Abstract of the article in French
Résumé
L’éducation relative à l’environnement dans un monde postmoderne devra être sensible à la nature mal définie des principaux concepts naissants, tels que la biodiversité et la durabilité. Malgré toute la confusion qui entoure ces concepts, une chose est claire : il y a plus d’une façon de considérer ces concepts ou de les définir. En d’autres termes, il n’existe pas une seule perspective ou définition de la biodiversité ou de la durabilité qui les décrive avec exactitude dans toutes les situations ou tous les contextes. Bien que cette définition approximative rende de tels concepts inutiles ou les réduise à un instrument rhétorique d’un point de vue moderne, elle les rend intéressants dans une perspective postmoderne. En reconnaissant la nécessité de respecter le pluralisme (respect des différentes façons de voir, d’évaluer, de comprendre, etc.), la présence constante d’éléments d’ambivalence et d’incertitude dans la prise de décision environnementale et la nécessité d’apprendre dans ce riche contexte, les éducateurs en environnement dans un monde postmoderne trouveront une valeur dans la nature mal définie de ces concepts naissants. En se servant de la biodiversité comme exemple, les auteurs illustrent l’attrait pédagogique de la définition approximative. La biodiversité réunit différents groupes de la société à la recherche d’un langage commun pour discuter de la conservation de la nature en relation avec les enjeux postmodernes de la durabilité. Le seul fait que ces groupes avec des antécédents divergents se concentrent sur un concept commun, bien que la signification du concept varie pour chacun des groupes, ouvre la porte au débat socioscientifique. Ce débat fournit une excellente occasion d’apprentissage sur un thème hautement pertinent, litigieux, émotif et discutable au carrefour des sciences, de la technologie et de la société. Une attention spéciale est accordée au rôle des connaissances scientifiques dans des débats de ce type.

Creating Transdisciplinary Dialogue & Phronesis in Pursuit of Sustainability

TradingZonesCover
This book is the result of a rather interesting writing process initiated by the editors about two years ago when they decided that the focus of the book, transdisciplinary dialogue, should also be its process… In order to realize this they invited about 30 scholars from quite different disciplinary backgrounds who did not know each other (most of them anyway) very well or at all, but all had an interest in trans- and interdisciplinarity and a shared concern about the well-being of people and planet. During a joint ‘thinkshop’ held at Cornell’s Field Station in upstate New York, the participants jointly conceptualized the book and created writing ‘duo’s’. I myself formed a duo with Science Historian Scott Peters and bonded with him around the concepts of phronesis, post-normal science and transformative learning (find a link to our chapter at the end of this post). Author-teams were also asked to include a piece of art in their work that somehow captures the spirit of their joint writing venture. On the publisher’s website the wonderful book that resulted is described as follows:

Environmental educators often adhere to a relatively narrow theoretical paradigm focusing on changing attitudes and knowledge, which are assumed to foster pro-environmental behaviors, which, in turn, leads to better environmental quality. This book takes a different approach to trying to understand how environmental education might influence people, their communities, and the environment. The authors view changing environmental behaviors as a «wicked» problem, that is, a problem that does not readily lend itself to solutions using existing disciplinary approaches. The book as a whole opens up new avenues for pursuing environmental education research and practice and thus expands the conversation around environmental education, behaviors, and quality. Through developing transdisciplinary research questions and conceptual paradigms, this book also suggests new practices beyond those currently used in environmental education, natural resources management, and other environmental fields.

Contents: Marianne E. Krasny: Introduction. Tales of a Transdisciplinary Scholar – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Participation – Jeppe Læssøe/Marianne E. Krasny: Participation in Environmental Education: Crossing Boundaries under the Big Tent – Martha C. Monroe/Shorna Broussard Allred: Building Capacity for Community-Based Natural Resource Management with Environmental Education – Scott Peters/Arjen E. J. Wals: Learning and Knowing in Pursuit of Sustainability: Concepts and Tools for Transdisciplinary Environmental Research – Barbara A. Crawford/Rebecca Jordan: Inquiry, Models, and Complex Reasoning to Transform Learning in Environmental Education – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Appreciation – John Fraser/Carol B. Brandt: The Emotional Life of the Environmental Educator – Leesa Fawcett/Janis L. Dickinson: Psychological Resilience, Uncertainty, and Biological Conservation: Junctures Between Emotional Knowledges, NatureExperiences, and Environmental Education – Joseph E. Heimlich/Mary Miss: Art and Environmental Education Research: Reflections on Place – Timon McPhearson/Keith G. Tidball: Disturbances in Urban Social-Ecological Systems: Niche Opportunities for Environmental Education – Richard C. Stedman/Nicole M. Ardoin: Mobility, Power, and Scale in Place-Based Environmental Education – Marianne E. Krasny/Megan K. Halpern/Bruce V. Lewenstein/Justin Dillon: Conclusion. Do «Arranged Marriages» Generate Novel Insights?

You find a sneak preview of the chapter I co-authored with Scott Peters – titled: Learning and Knowing in Pursuit of Sustainability: Concepts and Tools for Trans-Disciplinary Environmental Research here: FinalPeters&Wals2013<

Meeting Malawi’s Minister of Environment & Climate Change Management

Earlier this month I had a fascinating week working with colleague Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University (SA) and three SANPAD PhD-students in Malawi (Tich from Zimbabwe, Aristide from Mozambique and Dick from Malawi) on research issues related to the PhD work on Social Learning and Natural Resource Management (See my earlier Blog Post on (Re)Views of Social Learning). In the city of Zomba Prof. Sosten Chioto of Chancellor College took us to a brand new community radio station that has been set up to reach rural area’s in Southern Malawi on issues of climate change and food security. The radio station (104.1 FM ChanCo Community Radio) mixes music and information and is quickly becoming one of the more popular stations in the region. A big part of its success seems to be the fact that listeners, even in some of the remotest of area’s, respond to questions using their cell phones, either by calling in or by sending in text messages.

While at the station for a recording session we had the opportunity to speak with the Honorable Halima Daud, Malawi’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management who later that week would open the annual congress of the Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa in Lilongwe where I was asked to give a keynote on “Environmental Education and the Green Economy – opportunities and pitfalls”

Meeting Halima Daud

Ms. Daud made it clear that the addition of ‘Climate Change Management’ to her job title was crucial to emphasize the severe challenges climate change poses on food security issues in the country. Particularly the shifting of the rain patterns is affecting seeding and harvesting cycles and is extending the dry season while the current systems are not set up for harvesting the intensified rains that do fall periodically in the wet season. This is negatively affecting productivity which, near the lake area’s is increasing the pressure on fisheries (where stocks are under pressure and declining rapidly). The latter is an issue that Dick’s thesis “Organizing Multi-stakeholder social learning to foster sustainable fishing” is seeking to address.

Both the conversation with Ms. Daud and the presentations and discussions at the EEASA conference confirmed that we live in times of accelerating changes that require creative, routine braking responses, from the world of business, governance, science but, indeed, also from education.

As an introduction to this I am including the Introductory chapter to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” (Wals & Corcoran, 2012) here: Introductory ChapterIntroduction – Wals & Corcoran, 2012

If you are interested in Food Security in relation to Sustainable Development you may want to have a look at the newly formed Centre for Sustainable development & Food Security at Wageningen University at:http://www.wageningenur.nl/en/Expertise-Services/Research-Institutes/centre-for-development-innovation/CSDFS.htm

Just out: (Re)views of Social Learning Literature – A Monograph for Social Learning Researchers in Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education

Recently a monograph containing (Re)views of Social Learning Literature in the context of Natural Resource Management & Environmental Education was published by the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) in conjuntion with WESSA, Rhodes University, Wageningen University and the Environmental Learning Centre. On the cover page it states: “This monograph provides four different reviews on social learning literature. Rather than seeking to be comprehensive, the reviews provide views on the social learning literature, from different perspectives. The papers scope aspects of the social learning literature, providing access to a wide body of literature(s) on social learning. This monograph should be useful for researchers interested in social learning in the fields of environmental education and natural resources management.”

The monograph was edited by Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University and the result of collaboration between Wageningen University and Rhodes with support of SANPAD (the South Africa – Netherlands Partnership for Development funded by the Dutch government) and the UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development. The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

The excerpt below comes from the foreword I was asked to write.

How can learning not be social? Isn’t all learning social? These are often the kinds of questions I get when I share my fascination with social learning. Arguably all meaningful learning is inter-relational (with others, including other species, with place and, indeed with oneself) and requires some level of reflexivity by mirroring the significance of one’s encounters with the inner sediments (frames, values, perspectives and worldviews) of prior experiences. The result tends to be a process of further solidification (freezing) or a loosening (unfreezing) or a modification (re-framing) or even the parallel occurrence of all three. So yes, the ‘social’  as inter-relational is crucial in most, perhaps all learning, that we engage in, but even though this is emphasised in social learning, this is not what sets it apart from related learning concepts such as collaborative learning, participatory learning, group learning, and so on.

It appears that in the context of working on inevitably ill-defined and ill-structured issues and situations (e.g. natural resource management issues or sustainability issues) there is an increased awareness that there is no one single perspective that can resolve or even improve such issues. Much social learning literature therefore refers to the importance of bringing together multiple perspectives, values and interests, including marginal and marginalised ones in order to be able to creatively and energetically break with stubborn routines that led to unsustainability in the first place. Despite the range of views on social learning that currently exist, the utilisation of pluralism and/or diversity in multi-stakeholder settings is often referred to as a key component of social learning. Now it would be naïve to think that just by putting people with different backgrounds, perspectives, values and so on together, this creative and energising process would automatically start. This is where another form of ‘social’ comes in: social cohesion, sometimes referred to as social capital. In order to be able to create a constructive dynamic that allows diversity to play its generative role in finding routine-breaking solutions to sustainability challenges, there needs to be sufficient social cohesion between the participating actors, even between those who don’t seem to care much about each other.  In much of the social learning literature stress is placed on things like: investing in relationships, deformalising communication, co-creation of future scenarios and joint fact-finding. The idea is that when people who don’t think alike, or even disagree, engage in a common task in a pleasant and safe environment, they will find their common humanity (which is considered a first step in developing the empathy for the other) needed to open up and engage with the other’s perspective. Creating such an environment is an art in itself and requires careful facilitation – another key topic area in social learning literature.

In the open-access publication acoustics-digital acoustics-digital(which appeared at the launch of the Wageningen University UNESCO Chair on Social Learning and Sustainable Development (Wals et al., 2009) we used the metaphor of an improvising jazz ensemble to capture the essence of social learning.

“Chaos frequently emerges in an (improvising) jazz ensemble, but structure rules. Everyone makes up part of the whole and that whole is, if it sounds good, more than the sum of the parts. Every musician has his/her own experiences and competencies, but also intuition and empathy. The ensemble doesn’t know how
things will sound ahead of time, but its members instinctively know when things sound good. They have faith in one another and in a good outcome. Leadership is sometimes essential and therefore provided by one of the musicians or a director, or it sometimes shifts and rotates. The music is sometimes written down, though this is often not the case, and everyone simply improvises. If it sounds good, then the audience will respond appreciatively, that is to say, those who enjoy jazz music (and not everyone does…). People from the audience sometimes join in, changing the composition of the ensemble. The acoustics of the hall in which the music is played is important as well: not all halls sound alike and some have more character. A concert may also be recorded to serve as inspiration elsewhere, though this does not happen often…” (Wals et al., 2009, p.3).

Indeed social learning processes remind one of an improvising jazz ensemble. They too are intangible in a certain sense, and are therefore not easily controlled. Success often depends on the people concerned and on the manner in which they became involved. There are ideas regarding which direction the participants want to go and there are even recurring patterns, but the ultimate result comes about little by little. Sometimes, but certainly not all the time, the conditions are quite optimal and the process brings out the unique qualities and perspectives of everyone and results in surprisingly novel solutions and actions. Indeed, in social learning too the whole is more than the sum of its parts.This monograph, consistent with some key ideas underpinning social learning, brings together and confronts different views on social learning, in order to arrive at a better understanding of the potential and the limitations of social learning in the context of natural resource management, environmental management and sustainability.  The monograph represents one of the fruits of a collaborative effort between Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Rhodes University in South Africa. It represents a wonderful entry point into social learning for (young) academics not only in The Netherlands and South Africa, but all around the world, as some of the literature reviewed and the issues raised clearly transcend these two countries.

The full report can be downloaded here: Reviews on Social Learning Literature

Reference

Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.

Re-orienting, re-connecting and re-imagining – learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change goes open-access!

There may be trouble ahead,
……Before they ask us to pay the bill,
And while we still have the chance,
Let’s face the music and dance
.

Irvine Berlin, 1936

“There are three people in a vehicle. In this story, they all seem to have a foot on the accelerator. Not too far in the distance, and clearly coming into view, there is a noticeboard. It reads: ‘Brake hard or change direction! – Abyss ahead!’.  As the vehicle continues speeding forward, the occupants react differently to the noticeboard.  One has seen it coming for some time; in fact, she anticipated it. Her optician told her she had good foresight. ‘For goodness sake’, she says, ‘we must slow down and change direction while we can’. A second one, who has also been aware of the notice for some time, says ‘It’s certainly an interesting notice. Let’s deconstruct its meaning exactly, then we can develop our critical awareness and understanding, and decide what to do.’ The third person, who was much later in recognising the sign than the other two says, I don’t think there’s any danger ahead, and if there is – which I doubt – we’ll deal with it  then’.   Meantime, the vehicle is still getting closer to the notice, and stays on track….”

A metaphor of course, but perhaps illustrative of our collective predicament.  We all – or nearly all – have a bit of our foot on the accelerator, whilst at the same time, increasing numbers are aware that braking, changing direction, and learning ‘our way out’ is critically important. At the same time, a significant proportion of the population and vested interests drive forward regardless, albeit with a growing suspicion that, in the words of the old Irvine Berlin song, ‘there may be trouble ahead’.”(Sterling, 2012 p. 511)

The above excerpt is the opening of Stephen Sterling’s wonderful Afterword to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change”. The Afterword is one of the contributions that has been made open-access via Wageningen Academic Publisher’s website. Along with Juliet Schor’s Foreword and the Introductory Chapter to the book, some authors have paid the publisher a fee to unlock their chapter to allow everybody with access to the Internet download it for free for their own use. You can find the full pdf of the Introductory Chapter here: Introduction to L4S in Times of Change Wals&Corcoran

On the publisher’s website the book is introduced as follows: We live in turbulent times, our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key inter-related challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on-going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Living in such times has implications for education and learning.  This book explores the possibilities of designing and facilitating learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability. In 31 chapters contributors from across the world discuss (re)emerging forms of learning that not only assist in breaking down unsustainable routines, forms of governance, production and consumption, but also can help create ones that are more sustainable. The book has been divided into three parts: re-orienting science and society, re-connecting people and planet and re-imagining education and learning. This is essential reading for educators, educational designers, change agents, researchers, students, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike, concerned about the well-being of the planet and convinced of our ability to do better. (click on the book’s cover if you wish to go to the publishers web-page about the book)

The book can be ordered at a discount when going to ‘books’ in the menu bar on top of this page.

Just out: The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology

About two years ago Susan Clayton invited me to contribute to a major handbook on environmental and conservation psychology (33 chapters, 780 pages!). She felt it was important to also have a chapter on the role of education and learning in connecting people with ‘nature’, ‘place’ and ‘environment’ but also in engaging them with ‘sustainability’ issues. It gave me the opportunity to write a, hopefully somewhat accessible and compehensive, introduction to the field of environmental education and the related emerging field of education and learning for sustainability. At the end of this post there is a link to the proofs of this chapter.

Environmental psychology studies the ways in which people perceive and respond to the physical environment, whereas conservation psychology  tends to refer to psychological research on the need and ways to protect the natural environment. What is conservation psychology, and what is its relationship to environmental psychology? This new Handbook answers those questions. From the Oxford University Press website:

“The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology includes basic research on environmental perceptions, attitudes, and values; research on specific environments, such as therapeutic settings, schools, and prisons; environmental impacts on human well-being; and ways to promote a more sustainable relationship between people and the natural environment. By presenting an extensive review of current research, the handbook serves as a thorough guide to the state of knowledge about a wide range of topics at the intersection of psychology and the physical environment. Beyond this, it provides a better understanding of the relationship between environmental and conservation psychology, and some sense of the directions in which these interdependent areas of study are heading. Research on the human-environment relationship is increasingly relevant to understanding and addressing the environmental challenges society is facing. This handbook should serve as a resource for professionals both within and outside of psychology who are trying to comprehend the human implications of environments, and to design programs, policies, and environments that are cognizant of human psychology.”

Here’s some background inforrmation about the chapter I contributed (for a full Table of Contents please go to the publisher’s website).

Wals, A.E.J. (2012) Learning our way out of un-sustainability: the role of environmental education. In: Clayton, S. (Ed.) Handbook on Environmental and Conservation Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 628-644. (by clicking on the title you can get to the proofs of the chapter).

Abstract

In this chapter the role of education in creating a planet that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect will be discussed from two vantage points: an instrumental one and an emancipatory one. The instrumental perspective emphasizes the potential of education in changing human environmental behavior in predetermined and more or less agreed upon directions. The emancipatory perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the potential of education in strengthening people’s capacities and confidence to enable them to help determine how to live together in ways that do not further undermine the carrying capacity of the earth. Whereas the former, more behaviourist vantage point tends to have more support among environmentalists with a strong concern about the rapid loss of biodiversity, climate change, depletion of natural resources, and so on, the latter, more human development–oriented vantage point, tends to have more support among educators with a strong concern for self-determination, agency, and democracy. The chapter ends with the introduction of “post-normal” environmental education.

Key Words

environmental education, sustainable development, nature conservation education, emancipatory learning, instrumental learning, agency, participation, post-normal science

Fifty Shades of Green – why the Green Economy cannot be business as usual and ESD cannot be education as usual…

The novel ‘Fifty shades of grey’ by British author E.L. James Critical has sold over 30 million copies since it appeared in 2011. The book went ‘viral,’ as they say, at least in part because of its sexual content. Reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey have been mixed to negative, with most reviews noting poor literary qualities of the work. Princeton professor April Alliston wrote, “Though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series”. [1] Jenny Colgan of The Guardian wrote “It is jolly, eminently readable and as sweet and safe as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) erotica can be without contravening the trade descriptions act” and also praised the book for being “more enjoyable” than other “literary erotic books”.[2] However, The Telegraph criticised the book as “treacly cliché” but also wrote that the sexual politics in Fifty Shades of Grey will have female readers “discussing it for years to come.” [3]

Admittedly I have not read the book but the title, and the fact it went viral, might inspire: “Fifty shades of green”. This book – which also was part of a conversation at the last Frankfurt Book Fair between a representative of Wageningen Academic Publishers (publisher of Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating change – see below – and a representative of KNNV-publishers, a Dutch nature publisher) – would critically analyse the green-inflation, green populism and green rhetoric that is going on. It also, perhaps more importantly, would help people differentiate between what might be called deep green (suggesting a genuine transition to a more sustainable world built on principles, values, lifestyles and systems that are more sustainable than the ones currently demanded by the current dominant economic thinking) and shallow green (more of the same but with a nice green gloss that will make every-body feel good but doesn’t fundamentally change anything in the end and, in fact, amplifies unsustainability in disguise).

“Fifty shades of grey” apparently succeeds in what seems to be somewhat of a taboo, accessible to a huge audience and leads, in some ways, to a different conversation. Perhaps “Fifty shades of green” could accomplish that as well.

This morning, in a Skype meeting with Swedish Education for Sustainable Development teachers, I suggested such a book and people immediately seemed to start thinking about what such a book could be about. Please submit any ideas you may have about this in the comment box at the end of this post!

Below a wonderful cartoon by Singer that illustrates what might be called shallow green.

Green energy, green incinerators, green cars, green growth, green airplanes, green nuclear, green economy, plant bottles… , green growth, green mind-sets?

For those of you who are a bit concerned or skeptical about the green economy (a wolf in sheeps clothes?) and wonder whether education, learning and capacity building should be re-oriented towards such an economy – as if education only serves the economy… – I am inserting a link to a talk that was pre-recorded recently which was shown at The Swiss Sustainable Development Forum. Here’s the link which works with all main browsers I’m told. If it works well you can see both the talk and the slides used.

For those of you who would like to read about this I can refer to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” – of which some chapters are now open-source including the introductory chapter co-authored with Peter Blaze Corcoran. You can click on the picture below – offering another peak into the green economy –  to get to the book.

Green Economy for All? (Source: google images)

Green Economy – business as usual? ESD – education as usual? Rio +20 or Rio -20?

It has been about a month now since 40-50 thousand people (from policy-makers to activists, CSOs, NGOs to CEOs) came to Rio to discuss the future of the Planet. What was accomplished? Having been among the privileged ones to be able to go to the meeting I can safely say that Rio minus 20 (The Stockholm Conference on Environment and Development) was more ground-breaking than Rio plus 20. Some will disagree with me as they see the interest of the private sector in environment and sustainability as a major step forward. The issues of 1972 have moved from the margin to the mainstream. The role of education – with Stockholm as a launching pad for Environmental Education and Rio as a launching pad for Education for Sustainable Development – has been ‘re-affirmed’ in the final declaration, much to the delight of UNESCO which hopes that Rio +20 will lead to an extension of ESD beyond the closing of the UN’s Decade for ESD (2014). At the end of this post you can read a briefing from UNESCO’s ESD-section head Alexander Leicht about the results achieved in Rio from his perspective.

I was invited to Rio to present the review of the UN DESD which UNESCO commissioned me to write up in the report 2012 DESD Full-length Report”.  Basically there are three reports: the one I submitted to UNESCO, the full report as edited and authorized by UNESCO and an abridged, glossy version for policy-makers that contains a selection of texts from the full report made by UNESCO’s ESD section. Some of the rough edges and critical notes of the original report were taken out somewhat to my dismay.

One of the key messages from the reports is that ESD or sustainability education can act as a potential catalyst for educational renewal and the introduction of new forms of learning and pedagogies (e.g. social learning, transformative learning, critical pedagogy). There is also a section addressing the changing role of science in society in times of uncertainty, complexity, eroding trust of hegemonic systems, and of rapid change. This theme connects well with the “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” book featured in my previous post. There is some movement within higher education but also within less institutionalized environments to transition towards new forms of knowledge co-creation and self-determined practices that are considered more sustainable and transformative. At a side-event the so-called Treaty on Higher Education Towards Sustainable development was launched that calls for the transformation of higher education itself in order to become part of the transformation towards a more sustainable world. Clearly, when taking some of these counter movements and alternative approaches to education and learning seriously ESD cannot mean ‘education as usual’.

Finally, although the green economy has been billed as ‘an opportunity’ both in the report and in Rio there is also the cautionary tale about privileging the ‘green economy’ as a driver for societal transformation as opposed to the ‘green society’ and, with that, ESD becoming an extension of economic globalization.

———————————————————————————-

Education/Education for Sustainable Development and Rio+20 (compiled by Alexander Leicht UNESCO’s ESD section)

Summary and preliminary conclusions regarding Education/Education for Sustainable Development at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) from a UNESCO perspective

  1. While the overall outcome of the Rio+20 conference contains few new joint commitments by governments regarding sustainable development, the outcome for education and in particular Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is positive. The education passages in the outcome document, The Future We Want, are in line with UNESCO’s priorities and contain a clear call to continue ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014, education was frequently mentioned at the conference as an important area of sustainable development, and UNESCO’s ESD side-event was successful and very well attended.

Conference outcomes

  1. Member States reaffirm in the outcome document their commitment to achieving universal access to primary education and reaffirm that “full access to quality education at all levels is an essential condition for achieving sustainable development” and the internationally agreed development goals. Greater international cooperation to improve access to education, the need to strengthen and build education infrastructure, and increasing investment in education, in particular regarding quality education for all in developing countries, are also emphasized.
  2. The outcome document emphasizes the link between quality education and ESD, which is an important emphasis of UNESCO’s ESD work. The “need for better quality and access to education beyond the primary level” means that “the capacity of our education systems to prepare people to pursue sustainable development” must be improved. This includes the development of “sustainability curricula” and of “training programmes that prepare students for careers in fields related to sustainability”. The importance of non-formal education in pursuit of sustainable development is also recognized.
  3. Member States commit to strengthening ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014: “We resolve to promote education for sustainable development and to integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.”
  4. A ‘whole institution approach’ to ESD – “teaching sustainable development as an integrated component across all disciplines” together with “sustainability management” on the campus and engagement with the community – is particularly encouraged for education institutions. Research and innovation for sustainable development, including in education, are also highlighted, as well as programmes in the areas of “entrepreneurship and business skills training, professional, technical and vocational training and lifelong learning” with a view to “bridging skills gaps for advancing national sustainable development objectives.” Information, education and training on sustainability to strengthen the capacities of workers are referred to in the context of green economy policies.
  5. From UNESCO’s perspective it is important that the document treats education not merely instrumentally as a means of implementation for sustainable development, but that education (paras. 229-235) is grouped with other thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues of sustainable development.
  6. The document recognizes the usefulness of a limited set of concrete sustainable development goals, which should be integrated into the UN development agenda after 2015 and drive the achievement and mainstreaming of sustainable development. Their development should be guided by the outcome document, that is, goals will presumably be formulated on the basis of the thematic areas mentioned in the document. Regarding process, an open working group of 30 representatives will be established at the 67th session of the General Assembly and submit its proposal for goals to the 68th session. The Secretary-General will give first input into this group and support its work through an interagency technical support team. The document very generally states that the process must be coherent with the deliberations on the post-2015 development agenda. This will obviously have to be closely monitored in the context of the development of EFA follow-up and in order to ensure UNESCO’s priorities, including ESD, are taken into account in any post-2015 development/sustainable development agenda. More generally, UNESCO’s involvement with Rio provided further support to the view that the Organization’s ESD work needs to connect closely and strategically to global agendas in sustainable development, development and education.

Other issues regarding UNESCO/ED’s engagement with Rio

  1. UNESCO’s side-event on ESD, which was co-organized with and supported by the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, was highly successful and very well attended. It received very good external and internal feedback. Speakers were Shigeharu Kato, Director-General for International Affairs, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, and Secretary-General of the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO; Annika Markovic, Environment Ambassador, Ministry for the Environment, Sweden; Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, Canada; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University; Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director, Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, India; Rafael Zulli and Thiago Schlieper, secondary school students from Brazil. The panel was opened by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and chaired by Gretchen Kalonji, Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences. Arjen Wals, UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, presented the latest UNESCO report on the UN Decade of ESD, Shaping the Education of Tomorrow. Speakers pointed to ESD as one of the key priorities when advancing towards sustainable development and highlighted ESD’s potential to transform and innovate education. UNESCO’s leadership in education and ESD was widely recognized.
  2. Together with UN DESA, the Global Compact Secretariat, UNEP and UNU, UNESCO presented a higher education initiative launched before the conference by the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, Elizabeth Thompson. Higher education institutions have been invited to sign up to a declaration on higher education and sustainable development and make concrete commitments. The initiative achieved good visibility during the conference, many of the voluntary commitments uploaded to the Rio+20 website in advance of the conference came from this initiative. UNESCO agreed with the Global Compact Secretariat to continue collaborating in this important and promising field.
  3. UNESCO’s message on ESD and education was also successfully shared at side-events on multi-stakeholder partnerships, led by UNICEF, on capacity-building regarding climate change, led by UNITAR, on environmental education and ESD, led by the Government of Georgia, and on partnerships for education, led by the International Business Leaders Forum. The UNESCO/IOC side-event on oceans also variously referred to the importance of education.
  4. In the lead-up to the conference, the Swedish Minister for the Environment, the Japanese Minister for Education and the Director-General co-wrote an op-ed article on ESD. It was published during the conference by a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, distributed to the Japanese press club, and published on the UNESCO website.
  5. The importance of education was also confirmed by the online Sustainable Development Dialogues, which were organized by the Government of Brazil in the lead-up to the conference. Stakeholders had the opportunity to discuss topics such as poverty eradication, water and oceans. UNESCO provided several discussion papers as input to the discussions. Out of the 100 recommendations that came out of the dialogues, people from all over the world chose the top ten recommendations by vote. Three of them are on education.
  6. In the context of the engagement of UNESCO with Rio+20 it should also be recalled that the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which was published as Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing before the conference, contains significant passages and recommendations on education, including the development of skills and knowledge needed for sustainable growth and jobs.

Alexander Leicht, Chief, Section of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO (a.leicht@unesco.org)

“Learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change” presented to Gro Brundtland at Rio +20

Just in time for Rio +20 we were able to finish a wonderful book project that involved many authors from four continents. The book, learning for sustainability in times of accelerating change, was presented at Rio +20 to former Norwegian Prime Minister and Chair of the infamous Brundtland Commission which made a first attempt to define “Sustainable Development” in the 1987 report “Our Common Future”.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland receives the first copy at Rio +20. Brundtland Chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) that wrote “Our Common Future”, a report that introduced the term “sustainable development” well before the first Earth Summit was held in 1992.

On the publisher’s website the book is introduced as follows: We live in turbulent times, our world is changing at accelerating speed. Information is everywhere, but wisdom appears in short supply when trying to address key inter-related challenges of our time such as; runaway climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of natural resources, the on-going homogenization of culture, and rising inequity. Living in such times has implications for education and learning.  This book explores the possibilities of designing and facilitating learning-based change and transitions towards sustainability. In 31 chapters contributors from across the world discuss (re)emerging forms of learning that not only assist in breaking down unsustainable routines, forms of governance, production and consumption, but also can help create ones that are more sustainable. The book has been divided into three parts: re-orienting science and society, re-connecting people and planet and re-imagining education and learning. This is essential reading for educators, educational designers, change agents, researchers, students, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike, concerned about the well-being of the planet and convinced of our ability to do better. (click on the book’s cover if you wish to go to the publishers web-page about the book)

Here are some nice words from some good people about the book:

We are living in times of incertitude, complexity, and contestation, but also of connectivity, responsibility, and new opportunities. This book analyses the consequences of these times for learning in formal, non-formal, and informal education. It explores the possibilities offered by the concept of sustainability as a central category of a holistic paradigm which harmonizes human beings with Earth. To change people and to change the world are interdependent processes—this book contributes to both. (Moacir Gadotti, Director of Paulo Freire Institute, São Paulo, Brazil).

Moacir Gadotti of the Paulo Freire Institute receives a copy of the book at Rio +20 during the Earth Charter event

I hope you share my excitement about the innovations for sustainability that this book catalogues and analyses. While the ecological news is grim, the human news is not. Even in a time of accelerating change, people are showing their enormous capacities to learn, adapt, restore and protect. (From the Foreword by Juliet Schor, author of True Wealth: how and why millions of Americans are creating a time-rich, ecologically-light, small-scale high-satisfaction economy).

Instead of educational thinking and practice that tacitly assumes that the future is some kind of linear extension of the past, we need anticipative education, recognising the new conditions and discontinuities which face present generations, let alone future ones… This implies a ‘culture of critical commitment’ in educational thinking and practice – engaged enough to make a real difference to social-ecological resilience and sustainability but reflexively critical enough to learn constantly from experience and to keep options open in working for a sustainability transformation. (From the Afterword by Stephen Sterling, Professor of Sustainability Education, Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth University, United Kingdom).

In the coming months this blog will be used to share some main ideas expressed by the authors that are a part of this volume. 

The table of contents can be found here (click on the hypertext)learn4

The book can be ordered at a discount when going to ‘books’ in the menu bar on top of this page.

Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability

Some people have asked me for a copy of a ‘think piece’ I wrote a few years ago as input for a World Congress on Environmental Education held in South Africa a few years ago. The paper – Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability – was published in the Southern Africa Journal of Environmental Education which is an important resources in the field of EE and one of the oldest journals in this field. Unfortunately the journal’s electronic distribution is somewhat limited still. Therefore I am making it available here as a pdf.

One key message – which is important just a few weeks for the Rio +20 meeting – is that Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development have a high familiy resemblance when taking the 1975 Belgrade charter on EE and the 1977 UNESCO-UNEP conference on EE held in Tiblisi as foundational to the field of EE.

The other key message is that the nature of sustainability challenges seems to be such that a routine problem-solving approach falls short. Transitions towards a more sustainable world require more than attempts to reduce the world around us into manageable and solvable problems but instead require a more systemic and reflexive way of thinking and acting with the realisation that our world is one of continuous change and ever-present uncertainty. This alternative kind of thinking suggests that we cannot think about sustainability in terms of problems that are out there to be solved or in terms of ‘inconvenient truths’ that need to be addressed, but we need to think in terms of challenges to be taken on in the full realisation that as soon as we appear to have met the challenge, things will have changed and the horizon will have shifted once again.

The paper therefore calls for reflexivity (Reflexively fumbling towards sustainability) and offers social learning as a form of learning that is particularly suitable for promoting reflexivity in diverse groups of learners.

The pdf is linked to the full citation of the paper below:

ReflexivelyFumblingSAJEE2007

The full citation for the paper is:

Wals, A.E.J. (2007). Learning in a Changing World and Changing in a Learning World: Reflexively Fumbling towards Sustainability. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. 24 (1), 35-45.

‘Science as community — Sustainability-oriented trans-disciplinary research’

Recently I contributed to the 5th Living Knowledge Conference which was held in Bonn, Germany last May with a talk on “Science as community: Sustainability- oriented trans-disciplinary research”. The entire talk has now been uploaded on youtube as have been several of the other talks held at this energizing event. The talk can be found here. Since the slides I used are not always (clearly) visible you can find the slides I used here: WalsBonnLivingKnowledge.

The conference covered the following teams: 

A. Setting shared research agendas by CSOs and Research Institutes 

B. The role of Higher Education in creating knowledge with communities
C. Communities and students learning together
D. Evaluation and quality improvement: New lessons learned on measuring   the value of community engagement and  collaborative research
E. Developing  partnership working for research – civil society engagement
F. Policies to support collaborative research relationships

My talk related mostly to theme B which is described on the conference website as follows: Research and education are going to play a central role during the transformation process towards a knowledge society, as the realisation of the necessity for restructuring the world economy has been triggered mainly by scientific knowledge. Society should therefore decide on actions that are not a direct response to recently experienced events, but motivated by foresight and precaution. For this purpose, the debate between science, politics and society should be far more structured, more obligatory, and livelier, to ensure a constructive discourse about the best ways to achieve sustainability.

Key questions:

  • How can problem-based approaches and transdisciplinarity be encouraged?
  • How can a relation of mutual trust between researchers and CSOs be developed?
  • How can career opportunities for young researchers engaging with communities be improved?
  • How can universities and research institutions give researchers and students more opportunities to reflect about the societal consequences of their work?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3cda8qyiuI&feature=relmfu

The Black Market for Facebook “Likes,” and What It Means for Citations and Alt-Metrics

The Black Market for Facebook “Likes,” and What It Means for Citations and Alt-Metrics

This is a follow-up on my earlier posted ‘publish or perish’ post. It is inspired by Phil Davis who posted an interesting article in the ‘Scholarly Kitchen’ today which only amplifies some of the concerns expressed in my initial post. Here are the opening lines of his article which can be found in its complete form at: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/05/18/the-black-market-for-facebook-likes/

“There is an online market for so many intangible goods these days that it should come as no surprise that there is a market for Facebook “Likes” — the little thumbs-up rating that accompanies so many products and services we see on a daily basis.

For $75, a marketing company will sell you 1,000 Facebook “Likes,” according to NPR’s Planet Money. Only the marketing company does not supply the “likes” but works as a broker between real individuals who are willing to sell their online preferences to your product for very small sums of money — ten cents a “like” — and those who wish to artificially inflate their prestige.

Ten cents may not seem like a lot of money, but there is a huge workforce of individuals willing to be employed to undertake low-skilled, repetitive online work for pennies a task, as evidenced by mature markets like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Global outsourcing has never been easier.”

And later on Phil writes: “The artificial trust market is not new and is found in environments where online trust is important, such as purchasing an antique love seat from a complete stranger on eBay, finding a reputable bed and breakfast in rural Ireland, selecting a new e-book from Amazon, or choosing an app from the Apple Store. When in doubt, our tendency is to turn to the wisdom of the crowds because we believe that these ratings are accurate evaluations generated by honest individuals and based on real experiences.

Trust — or at least consensus — works the same way in scientific publication through the accumulation of citations, only the barriers to participate in this market are much, much higher. To cast your votes, you need to publish a paper that is indexed by Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science (or alternatively, Elsevier’s Scopus). Like Facebook, Thomson Reuters does not take kindly with citation manipulation and will delist a journal when it exhibits forms of citation manipulation such as systemic self-citation or, more recently, through the formation of citation cartels.”

He then refers to my earlier post where I suggest a website like PleaseCiteMe.Com where ‘academics’ can ‘purchase’ citations to increase their h-factor… see my original post below.

“What’s your h-factor?” is a question that is increasingly asked at gatherings of scientists or during interviews for academic positions. Scientific careers depend on h-factors these days. What am I talking about?

The h-index is an index that attempts to measure both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar. The index is based on the set of the scientist’s most cited papers and the number of citations that they have received in other publications. The index can also be applied to the productivity and impact of a group of scientists, such as a department or university or country.

A scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each.

In other words, a scholar with an index of h has published h papers each of which has been cited in other papers at least h times. Thus, the h-index reflects both the number of publications and the number of citations per publication. (source: wikipedia)

An important determinant of the hight of one’s h-factor depends on what counts as a ‘ cite-able publication’. In the Web of Science h-factor only scientific articles published in journals which have ISI-recognition (determined by Thomson-Reuters) are considered citeable (so not articles in other journals, chapters in books, etc.). In the Scopus h-factor a larger pool of journals is included, while in google citations and in ‘publish or perish’ (www.harzing.com/pop.htm) the h-factor is likely to be higher as it also considers articles in a wide range of journals, book chapters and reports as cite-able). In my university, Wageningen University, it’s not your x-factor that matters but your h-factor. Our librarians have become information specialists that have expertise in bibliometrics and scientometrics. Such expertise is pivotal in helping our academics, science groups and, indeed, our university (76th on the Times Higher Education Index…) climb the rankings. Biblio-what?

Bibliometrics and scientometrics are two closely related approaches to measuring scientific publications and science in general, respectively.  In practice, much of the work that falls under this header involves various types of citation analysis, which looks at how scholars cite one another in publications  (source: Eric Meijers via www. microsites.oii.ox.ac.uk/tidsr/kb/48/what-bibliometrics-and-scientometrics

Below you will see a screenshot of my personal bibliometrics (click on the image to make bigger).

As you can see my overall h-factor is 16. Impressive? Hardly. But how can I raise it? Let me move to the crucial information google citations provides (if you want to check your own bibliometric data you need to make a profile on google citations!). You will note below that “Learning in a changing world and changing in a learning world: reflexively fumbling towards sustainability” is the crucial paper at this moment (click on the image to make bigger).

If I want to increase my h-factor to 17 then I need to get two of my papers cited 17 times or more. I could try to promote the paper that currently occupies place 16 (“reflexively fumbling”). I would then also need to find another paper that is still somewhat attractive to be cited – perhaps the 2006 paper with Justin Dillon on “The danger of blurring methods….” .

So how can I do that? There are many ways of course – I can suggest the paper to authors of papers I review for journals… or I can ask my colleagues to cite those papers… or I can make free-downloads available of those papers via my blog… but there might be a better way – one that could be the beginning of the end of this metrics-based system: hBay

Introducing: PleaseCiteMe.com

Why not develop PleaseCiteMe.com – a web-based system where people can trade citations. Scholars can post citations of their own work that they need to have cited in order to increase their h-factor. Of course there is a price to pay: the scholar will have to cite the work of the scholar on the other end who agreed to cite the work. If this is not possible then there can be a monetary value attached to a citation. Possibly citations in a Web of Science journal might cost more than citations in a Scopus journal or of a book chapter that is recognized by Google citations. Of course we need to have a few clever web-designers, economists and Mark Zuckerman-types to create all this but then by 2014 we could probably take this to Wallstreet as by then will be a huge demand in the world of science for this service.

Publish or perish…. or, perhaps, publish and perish…

So what are we to do? In the end it is not about science for impact factors or h-factors but science for impact in society. Some of us are part of a system run increasinly by bibliometric information. Playing the game may be inevitable until the game will end, when people begin to realize that people don’t read but only cite… or when people only write without having the time to read… or when strategic thinking replaces intelligent thinking, curiosity and passion for contributing something meaningful to people and planet.

Fortunately there are still academic environments driven by societal relevance, planetary responsibility and curiosity. And, indeed, there are calls for bridging science and society and other forms of reviewing quality in research (see for instance Funtowitch and Ravetz idea of the ‘ extended peer review’). More on this in another post!

Innovation saturation and growth fatigue – sustainable contraction as an alternative to sustainable development

Re-blogged – apologies as an earlier re-blog did not include the actual contents of the blog.

People across the globe are being told that they need to continuously grow and develop. There are no jobs for life, no guarantees. In order to survive you need to ‘upgrade’ your skills and be a ‘life-long learner’. To stand-still, to pause for a moment, is to fall behind. Before you know it you have become a ‘laggard’, somebody who missed the ‘wave’ or missed the boat altogether. Our mission in life has become to grow ourselves – whether you work or are unemployed – in order to help grow the company or organisation we work for, should you have work. And even if you find time for yourself in all this, you need to work on your inner-self to grow as a person – there’s a whole industry around spirituality, finding personal happiness and inner-peace and so on. Even meditation is becoming a commodity and a growth industry. Even in working on yourself you can outcompete others. When someone tells me “I meditate every day,” it sounds a bit like “I am better than you are” which ironically contradicts the entire philosophy underlying meditation.

In our spare time our other pre-programmed mission is, not to meditate, unless you pay for it or at least take a professional meditation course, to be diligent consumers. We need to spend our money. And when we don’t have any, we need to spend someone else’s money. We need to play our part in both sides of the 24/7 economy, if we don’t consume, everything will come to a grinding halt, so we are told. In being told this we are addressed as consumers, not as citizens. From birth onwards we are taught to be unhappy with who we are, so that we constantly look for ways to do better, to keep up won’t cut it. Juliet Schor’s “Born to buy” and “The over-spent American” shows some of the ramifications of this kind of programming and wiring of the brain. In “True Wealth” she suggests some alternatives.

Our sustainability crisis above all is a crisis of values, coupled with a lack of imagination and creativity. It is no surprise that there are counter movements rising such as the ‘transition town movement’ and the ‘occupy movement’. It is no surprise that there are junior activists and scholars but also senior leaders around the world who have seen it all who are now, retired and, granted, in comfortable positions, declaring that we are on a wrong path and need to explore the non-material side of being, consider abandoning the idea of continuous growth and start thinking about something like “dynamic equilibrium” and even “selective de-growth” and “sustainable contraction” instead of sustainable development.

Anyway this is becoming a bit of a rant – my apologies – but how do we begin to develop new systems and lifestyles (or re-discover old ones thatin hindsight turn out to be more sustainable)? What alternative values and ways of working and living together might be helpful? Where might we find some examples? I offer you a paper that was published a few weeks ago that only touches on some ideas. But it you have other ideas – please leave a comment!

The journal ‘The Learning Organization’ has just published a special issue on  “The importance of educational learning for organizational sustainability” edited by Peter Smith. The special issue has a paper I co-authored with a very talented graduate student of Wageningen University – Lisa Schwarzin. It blends the wonderful research experience of Lisa in India, where she spent some time investigating a “sustainable community”  in Auroville, with some research we did in a Dutch “sustainable community” in the town of Culemborg, near Utrecht.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction (note: the link below to the paper leads to a site where you’ll need to purchase the paper. You may be able to get it free via your library. If not, send an email to: arjenwals@gmail.com and I’ll mail you a copy for personal use).  Full citation – Arjen E.J. Wals, Lisa Schwarzin, (2012) “Fostering organizational sustainability through dialogical interaction”, Learning Organization, The, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.11 – 27):

In this contribution organizational sustainability has a normative underpinning that considers an organization or a community sustainable when it contributes to a more sustainable world as can be understood with our current knowledge and understanding of what sustainability might entail. In other words, a sustainable organization does not refer to an organization that succeeds itself in keeping on going by maintaining, for instance, profitability, but rather to one that, given what we know today, successfully balances people, prosperity and planet by searching for a dynamic equilibrium between these 3Ps. Ultimately such a balancing act may require a shift altogether from the maximisation of profit to something completely different such as the maximisation of meaning. This is a different vantage point from so-called green economist perspectives that tend to argue that there is little wrong with the principles of (neo)capitalism,  but that businesses and industries need to adopt production methods that are more efficient (World Bank, 2000). This call for increased efficiency and environmental mindfulness tends to be coupled with the belief that technological advancement can put off the exceeding of the Earth’s carrying capacity. Furthermore, green economists also tend to see the ‘tremendous potential for growth’ that the greening of production and consumption offers (green as a growth industry) (Makower and Pike, 2008).

While the green economy appears to be booming these days, there is a modest but growing undercurrent that suggests that ultimately a transition towards sustainability will not be the result so much of ‘doing things better’ by optimizing our current hegemonic systems but rather demands that we ‘do better things’. The latter requires more fundamental changes in the manner in which we  live, work and spend our leisure time, et cetera,  and on the kinds of values that we pursue. In other words, sustainable developments concern system  innovations that require an integrated redesign of products, lifestyles, processes and structures. This paradigmatic “whole system redesign” perspective (Sterling, 2004) is increasingly supported by economists (McKibben, 2007) as well and by emerging strands within economic sciences such as industrial ecology and ecological economics. In this article we are particularly occupied with the question of how to engage people, organizations and communities in these more fundamental transitions, while recognizing that there is still much to gain from doing things better.

Childhood Obesity: Scrap it and Start Over: Deconstructing a Happy Meal (2)

Today Dianna Carrey commented on this earlier blog post on the deconstructing of a Happy Meal.  The comment was based on an article she wrote on diannacarey.com titled:

Childhood Obesity: Scrap it and Start Over

In the article she gives a number of useful pointers on how to scrap it and start all over, including this one:

“Teach the truth about nutrition in school – not the industry propaganda.  Do not use materials provided by McDonalds, or other industry giants,  to teach children nonsense that a hamburger, french fries, and milk satisfy a portion of the recommended servings of meat, grain, vegetable, and dairy.”

You might consider this approach to using McDonalds to give a lesson in nutrition and health.

“Today we’re going to study the food pyramid for healthy living!” the High School Social Science teacher Mark told his class. Mark was excited about launching a healthy food project that would enable kids to analyze their diets. He was well-prepared and had collected a number of teaching resources from government agencies, NGO’s and food-companies concerned with youth obesity and increasing health costs. One of his students called out: ”Food pyramids?” Boring! Why can’t we go to McDonalds?” This idea got the whole class excited, but frustrated Mark. After all, he had thought of something new that was hands-on and seemed very relevant. Later that evening Mark asked himself how he could motivate his students and engage them in an exciting learning process that would teach them something about health issues. He got an idea.

The next day Mark said to his class: “Today we’re going to McDonalds!” The whole class cheered. They couldn’t believe it.  Their teacher was actually going to take the whole class to the McDonalds near the mall across the street. “But…, there’s one condition. We will only buy one happy meal for the whole class”.  This got the students a little less excited, but they went anyway, just to get out of school. The class bought one cheeseburger happy meal and took it back to the classroom. Mark told the class that “unfortunately we are not going to eat the happy meal, we are going to carefully study it instead”.  He wrote down two questions on the blackboard:

What is in it?

Where did it come from?

They first dissected the meal: a plain bread bun, a slice of melted cheese, a grilled beef burger, salt, mustard, ketchup, pickles, French fries, diet cola, and, finally, a nice toy.

Then Mark divided the class in six groups of four students. One group got the bread bun, another group the salted French fries, another group the diet soda, another group got the burger, another group the accessories; ketchup, mustard and pickles and the last group got the plastic bagged happy meal toy.

“You have the remaining social science hours of the week to answer the two questions. Next week I want a short presentation with your findings from each of the groups. You can use the internet, the school library, the telephone in my office, and, if you need to ask questions across the street at the restaurant you can do so with my permission.”

All the groups went to work and the more they found out, the more interested they got. The group investigating the french fries found out that fast food chains need enormous volumes of potatoes and demand a certain type of potato that guarantees a consistent quality. As a result potato farmers around the world have reduced the number of potato varieties greatly. This has led to a loss of crop-biodiversity, making the remaining crops more vulnerable to pests and leading to an increase of pesticide use. A common response to this vulnerability is use genetically modified crops that are resistant to these pests. However the students also found out that McDonalds, pressured by concerned consumers, decided not to use Monsanto’s GM new leaf potato. The group’s investigation led to an interesting discussion about the pro’s and con’s of GM-foods. Most students were not aware that they were already consuming GM-foods. In fact the group studying the diet Cola found out that the sweeteners contained GM corn.  When presenting their finding students used a provocative quote from the internet to start a classroom-wide discussion:

Giant agribusiness, chemical and restaurant companies like Cargill, Monsanto and McDonalds dominate the world’s food chain, building a global dependence on unhealthy and genetically dangerous products. These companies are racing to secure patents on every plant and living organism and their intensive advertising seeks to persuade the world’s consumers to eat more and more sweets, snacks, burgers, and soft drinks.

Meanwhile the group investigating the happy meal toy learnt some things they didn’t expect to learn either. The discovered that the toys served cross-marketing purposes. Meaning that they bring parents and their children to the restaurant but they also promote things like Disney movies.  Most of the toys were made of plastic and not used by the children for a very long time. They went back to the McDonalds and studied how and for how long kids played with the toy and asked parents to estimate for how long the toy would remain in use. They estimated that the effective play time would be less than 10 minutes. Perhaps the most interesting finding they got by using the Internet. They found many sites – mostly activist  sites – that suggested that the happy meal toys were made in China. They came upon an article that stated that “.. a happy meal toy manufacturer, China-based City Toys Limited, employed children as young as 13 to assemble the “Happy Meal” toys.” These young teenagers were reportedly forced to work 16 hour days, seven days a week, and lived in crowded, on-site dormitories for a salary of less than 3 dollars a day. As a result of these revelations made in the Summer of 2000, McDonalds quickly responded by denying to have any knowledge about these conditions. The company distanced itself from City Toys Limited and moved its operations elsewhere. Since McDonalds was, at the time, not required to disclose information about its overseas contractors, it was difficult for the students to trace where they moved the operations and what the working conditions are at the new facilities. When this group presented their results to the class the were discussions about child-labour, children’s rights, ethics of moving jobs to countries with different standards and laws, but also about the consequences of McDonalds using a ‘cut-and-run’ strategy for the children in China working for City Toys, whose income might have been crucial for their families. The teacher also raised the issue of the reliability of the information of provided on the internet. Who put the information there? With what purpose? Is it based on fact?

The other groups too, found interesting information and point of discussion related to a happy meal (varying from beef imports, hormones in meat, clear cutting of rainforest to the sweeteners used in Diet-coke). One group was interested in figuring out ‘how many miles a happy meal has travelled to get to the local McDonalds? They didn’t get a chance to figure it out but they guessed tens of thousand of miles. The whole excersise was transformative in that they view of fast food in general and of a happy meal had changed. Mark’s concern was that, even though the students learnt a lot about food-related sustainability issues (health, environment, equity, economics), gathering information, presenting information, critical thinking, debating, etc., the project may have resulted in a rather bleak picture of something they really enjoyed: eating a nice juicy cheeseburger at McDonalds. He wanted the students to think about viable alternatives. So he asked the students a third question:

Can you design a happy meal that makes everybody happy?

The same groups started thinking about alternative buns, cheese, beef, mustard, pickles, soda, and even an alternative toy. This took another week of investigations but in the end they designed a happy meal that was more organic, healthier, socially-responsible and used up less energy. They cooked the happy meal themselves in the school kitchen for all junior high students and did a taste survey which demonstrated that the meal was a least as tasty as a McDonalds happy meal.  There was one problem: the new happy meal was far more expensive that the McDonald’s version. This raised another issue in the classroom: are we willing and/or able to pay more for meals that are healthier, more equitable, have less environmental impact? Some argued that consumers should demand this kind of food so that big corporations will change their own policies and practices, making alternative foods more affordable as demand increases.

“When McDonalds, Pringles, and the other major potato buyers decided not to sell Monsanto’s GM New Leaf potato, for example, it was soon taken off the market. McDonalds and others doomed Monsanto’s potato because they wanted to satisfy consumer demands. We have that power.” “In the U.S., Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s announced that GMOs would be removed from their store brands. Gerber baby foods, as well as scores of health food products, have similarly changed their ingredients.”

“When a store or brand removes GM ingredients, it has a ripple effect through the industry. After a supermarket chain commits to eliminate GMO’s, they usually send out a letter to their suppliers who in turn contact their suppliers and so on. A store may have hundreds of food items, each with a list of ingredients. Hundreds or thousands of businesses can be affected, right back to the farm level.

Others pointed out that their parents make decisions about what to buy, since they are the ones going to the grocery store.

The deconstructing of a happy meal became a transformative learning experience for all those involved, including Mark, the teacher. The happy meal brought out issues, tensions, dissonance, north-south relationships, health issues, ethics, the role of corporations, consumerism, economics, crop-biodiversity, etc.  It made an ordinary activity (going to McDonalds), somewhat unordinary and raised many critical questions that demanded some serious reflection. It developed a range of competencies in the students: asking questions, finding reliable information using a variety of sources, analysing data, presenting information, critical thinking, etc., etc.

Mark’s point of it all was not that students would reject going to McDonalds but that they would become aware of range of food-related issues: ethical ones with respect to using GMO-food or not, or with respect to children making toys for children, ecological ones, for instance, with respect to the potential loss of agro-biodiversity, environmental ones, for instance, with respects to the use of batteries in toys, the use of plastics or the energy used in food milese travelled or in producing meat, economic ones with respect of the economies of scale of mass-production and consumption but also with respect to the shortening of food-chains and going local, when factoring ” hidden” environmental costs. Obviously, they can still choose, having considered all aspects and given their own situation, socially and economically and so on, to go to McDonalds but in all likelihood, having done an activity like this will have transformed the way they look at (fast) food. How this transformed view will affect who they are, who they’d like to become and how they will behave now or in the future, is up to them.

Post-script:

Deconstructing a Happy Meal is a composite example based on a number of stories and ideas from critical teachers engaged with transformative learning and problem-posing-based teaching. The Happy Meal represents many forms of fast food and just as easily could have been built around other meals. The activity is meant to be educational and not prescriptive in that it tells people what to think and how to behave. It should be recognized that McDonalds, like many multi-nationals, are aware of their ecological footprints and have a range of sustainability and environmental-oriented policies and guidelines. Whether these efforts are genuine driven by a deep concern about the well-being of people and planet or driven by purely economic interests is in the eyes of the beholder.

The Happy Meal case has been presented at several international meetings on Education for Sustainable Development. For references to this example and type of learning please go to:

Wals, A.E.J. (2010) Mirroring, Gestaltswitching and Transformative Social Learning: stepping stones for developing sustainability competence. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, (11(4), 380-390.

Sriskandarajah, N, Tidball, K, Wals, A.E.J., Blackmore, C. and  Bawden, R. (2010) Resilience in learning systems: case studies in university education. Environmental Education Research, 16(5/6), 559-573.

Farewell to Place? The impact of invasive information and communication technologies on our relationship with the Planet

In recent years ‘place-based education’ has been receiving increased attention from educators and policy-makers as a means to help people, young and old, re-connect with the physical, material and socio-ecological world they, oftentimes unknowingly and unconsciously, inhabit. There is a whole body of scholarly work emerging that suggests that (re)discovering and (re)connecting with place can be restorative (therapeutic, healing, etc.), generative (leading to new ways of seeing, sensing, experiencing) and empowering by enabling people to shape and care for a place. Apparently there are a number of psychological, sociological and pedagogical benefits associated with place-based education (see the work of David Sobel and Greg Smith for examples).

What I am interested in, however, is not so much to echo these benefits but to mirror them against a hegemonic trend that affects the entire globe: the exponential growth of highly invasive and, indeed, addictive hyper media and associated information and communication technologies.

Whereas place-based education, somewhere in the margins of education, seeks to reconnect people with the physical space around them, this counter hegemonic trend seems to do the exact opposite, only in much more forceful way. Educators in general and environmental educators in particular need to ask themselves what the implications are of the age of wireless, hyper-media and ICT for teaching and learning, but also for the way people ‘relate’ to each other but also to nature and the planet as a whole. Strangely, even though educators themselves are also inundated by these new ICTs both in their personal and professional lives, this question has hardly been raised so far. I’d like to propose a Special Issue for a journal like Environmental Education Research to bring together some of the early and emerging work that is being done in this area. Some contributions may consider the impact of ICTs and hypermedia on people’s sense of place and the implications for teaching and learning. Others perhaps will sketch possible educational responses that may critically take advantage of elements of the ICT revolution which can help re-store the current disconnect between people and place. Again others may wish to explore yet a different angle to this timely topic in education and learning.

Anyone with ideas for papers that might fit in such a special issue… feel free to respond. Perhaps we can pull something together.