Deconstructing a Happy Meal – making everyday life routine practices a source of transformative learning – indeed: food for thought!

“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, or which also raises questions about animal-well in relation to industrial agriculture, 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 miles travelled or in ‘producing meat’ , and then there are economic ones, as well, for instance, 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 in so-called “hidden” environmental costs.

Obviously, students 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 episode of transformative learning will affect who they are, who they’d like to become and how they will behave in the future cannot be known or measured shortly after the activity or even months of years later. This will depend on future experiences and circumstances, but what we do know is that having a learning experience like this will make learners a bit more conscious of what they eat and how this may impact themselves and the world around 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.

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Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice – now available!

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Australian colleagues Ralphe Horne, John Fien, Beau Beza and Anitra Nelson edited a fascinating book on ‘sustainability citizenship’ to which I was priviledged to contribute a chapter together with Frans Lenglet. Urban sustainability citizenship situates citizens as social change agents with an ethical and self-interested stake in living sustainably with the rest of Earth. Such citizens not only engage in sustainable household practices but respect the importance of awareness raising, discussion and debates on sustainability policies for the common good and maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities seeks to explain how sustainability citizenship can manifest in urban built environments as both responsibilities and rights. Contributors elaborate on the concept of urban sustainability citizenship as a participatory work-in-progress with the aim of setting its practice firmly on the agenda. This collection will prompt practitioners and researchers to rethink contemporary mobilisations of urban citizens challenged by various environmental crises, such as climate change, in various socio-economic settings.

This book is a valuable resource for students, academics and professionals working in various disciplines and across a range of interdisciplinary fields, such as: urban environment and planning, citizenship as practice, environmental sociology, contemporary politics and governance, environmental philosophy, media and communications, and human geography.

The chapter Frans Lenglet and I wrote is titled: “Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning” and emphasizes the role of learning and cultivating diversity and generative conflict in co-determining what it means to be sustainable within the everyday realities people find themselves. It is argued that in order to brake with stubborn unstustainabel routines – that are heavily promoted and strenghtened in a market, growth and consumption-oriented society, citizens will also need to develop disruptive capacity and engage in transgressive learning (see my earlier post about transgressive learning and the work within the ICSS project on T-learning led by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes Univerity in South Africa). If you want to have a look at our chapter you can find it here: SustainabilityCitizenshipWalsLenglet2016 (for personal use). The full reference is:

Wals, A.E.J. & F. Lenglet (2016). Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning. In: R. Horne, J. Fien, B.B. Beza & A. Nelson (Eds.) Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan, p. 52-66.

If you want to get a hold of the entire book visit: https://www.routledge.com/Sustainability-Citizenship-in-Cities-Theory-and-practice/Horne-Fien-Beza-Nelson/p/book/9781138933637

 

 

Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all – GEM-2016 soon to be launched

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Starting in 2016 a new series of UNESCO reports, the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Reports, will monitor the state of education in the new framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new series replaces the earlier Global Monitoring Report (GMR) series. I was brought on board the GEM 2016 Team last December to provide input on the thematic part of the report – especially to provide feedback on the relationship between education and achieving sustainability.

The report has been titled: ‘Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all’. It is a very comprehensive and well-researched report that seeks to be geographically balanced in its analysis and examples. There are two parts: a thematic part and a monitoring part. My role was mainly limited to providing feedback to the thematic part which covers 5 ‘Ps’s: Planet, Prosperity, People, Place and Partnerships. The thematic Part 1 of the Report focuses on examining the complex interrelationships and links between education and key development sectors. It determines which education strategies, policies and programmes are most effectively linked to the economic, social, environmental and political priorities of the new sustainable development agenda.  Part 2 establishes a much needed a monitoring framework for education post-2015, and examine key financing and governance challenges for the post-2015 era.

You can read the concept note that underpins the report here. 

The GEM 2016 report will appear in multiple languages.

Sign up to receive the report in your inbox as soon as it’s released.

 

The relevance of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom to urban socio-ecology

jane+in+news+slideshowJane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were both giants in their impact on how we think about communities, cities, and common resources such as space and nature. But we don’t often put them together to recognize the common threads in their ideas.

Jacobs is rightly famous for her books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and for her belief that people, vibrant spaces and small-scale interactions make great cities—that cities are “living beings” and function like ecosystems.

Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work in economic governance, especially as it relates to the Commons. She was an early developer of a social-ecological framework for the governance of natural resources and ecosystems.ostrombook

These streams of ideas clearly resonate together in how they bind people, economies, places and nature into a single ecosystem-driven framework of thought and planning, themes that deeply motivate The Nature of Cities. In this roundtable we ask sixteen people to talk about some key ideas that motivate their work, and how these ideas have roots in the ideas of either Jacobs or Ostrom, or both.

The natureofcities.com is a wonderful resource and platform for people interested in re-designing urban spaces to make them more liveable and sustainable. Every two months the site organises a Global Round Table that starts with input from scholars and practitioners from around the world. I was asked to provide an short input piece as well which can be found in the online discussion forum. In the past these roundtables  have been getting about 12,000+ readers, from 1000+ cities and 70+ countries and I encourage anyone to have go to visit and contribute at this roundtable by clicking on the link below.

Common threads: connections among the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, and their relevance to urban socio-ecology

For more of their ideas, directly from them, good places to start are:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA

Transformative Learning for Sustainability: Special Issue

Ariane König and Nancy Budwig have edited a cutting edge Special Issue for the Journal Current Opinions of Environmental Sustainability on Transformative Learning for Sustainability and more specifically on ‘New requisites to universities in the 21st century’.

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This Special Issue focuses on how universities engage in sustainability issues by staging transformative learning opportunities. The special issue features ten case papers from five continents illustrating the changing relationship of learning, research and practice in such programmes. The issue includes a paper on the Luxembourg Certificate in Sustainability and Social Innovation and an introductory overview by Dr König.to which I will contribute in May with a talk on “Sustainability transitions in society: changing science/citizen relations with citizen science for social learning“. The University of Luxembourg has made the entire special issue open access which means that anyone can download all the papers for free, including the one I co-authored with Heila Lotz-Sisitka, David Kronlid and Dylan McGary on Transgressive Learning which you can also download the paper here: transgressiveSocialLearning Transgressive Social Learning

Highlights from the paper are:

  • Pedagogies are required that are not constrained by current use of limited concepts, or by disciplinary decadence.
  • Concepts such as resilience are problematic if they hold unsustainable systems and patterns in place.
  • Disruptive capacity building and transgressive pedagogies are needed for a more sustainable world.
  • Transformative, transgressive forms of learning requires co-learning in multi-voiced and multi-actor formations.
  • Higher education should provide possibilities for engaged, lived experience of transformative praxis for students.

“Beyond unreasonable doubt – learning for socio-ecological sustainability…”

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As my ‘special professorship’ has been converted into a ‘personal professorship,’ (I know this is confusing to academics from around the world but I don’t want to use up valuable blog-space to explain it) I was invited to give a second inaugural address titled: Beyond unreasonable doubt –  education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the anthropocene in the Aula of the Wageningen University on December 17th 

The special day happened to be the warmest December 17th on record… quite fitting for the talk and the cover of the accompanying booklet (with people sitting on an terrace a cold Fall evening in Gothenburg under so-called ‘space heaters’).

A short introduction to the new Chair has been placed on youtube:

Transformative Learning for Socio-ecological Sustainability in less than 3 minutes

Here’s the back flap text of the booklet is now available:

‘For the first time in history one single species has succeeded in living in a way on planet Earth that disrupts major natural systems and forces in such a way that our survival is at stake. A transition is needed to break with resilient unsustainable systems and practices. Such a transition requires active civic engagement in sustainability. New forms of education and learning, including ‘disruptive capacity building’ and ‘transgressive’ pedagogies are urgently needed to foster such engagement.’

 

If you want to receive the booklet containing the accompanying text to the lecture then send an email to office.ecs@wur.nl with unreasonable doubt in the ‘subject’ and put your name and address in the body of the message and we will post you one.
 If you wish you can still attend, sort of,  the event by going to:
Here you can see the entire ceremony which starts at minute 9 with an introduction by our Vice-Chancellor (Rector Magnificus) Arthur Mol and with me starting the speech (battling the flu but hanging in there – I think/hope) at minute 15. Sometimes the animations I used do not fly-in on WURTV for some reason but fortunately they did in the auditorium). But it’s of good quality and you can advance the timer if you wish to.

 

Focus of the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability

In short the new Chair in transformative learning for socio-ecological sustainability explores three important questions: 1) What sustain’abilities’ and responsibilities we need to develop in learners? 2) What learning spaces or ecologies of learning are most suitable in developing those abilities? and 3) How can the cultivation of these abilities, responsibilities and spaces be designed and supported? In other words, the main focus of the chair lies on understanding, designing and supporting learning processes that can help citizens understand complex socio-ecological issues through meaningful engagement and interactions with and within the social, physical and virtual realities of which people are part and the development of the capacities they need to contribute to their resolution.

The addition of ‘socio-ecological’ to sustainability is intentional, as much work done on sustainability nowadays tends to focus on economic sustainability, often without people and planet in mind. In a way sustainability has lost its transformative edge ‘sustainability’ during the last decade as the much of the private sector embraced it as a marketing opportunity. Adrian Parr (2009) even suggests that sustainability has been hijacked and neutered. While economics inevitably is part of the sustainability puzzle, the need to (re)turn to the ecological boundaries in which we have to learn to live together, as well as to the well-being and meaning of life issues for all, has prompted me to make the social-ecological more prominent in the description of this Chair. Therefore, I am particularly interested in understanding and supporting forms of learning that can lead to the engagement of seemingly unrelated actors and organizations in making new knowledge and in taking the actions necessary to address socio-ecological challenges.
Note 1: The booklet containing the inaugural address will be posted to you for free (as long as supplies last) when you email office.ecs@wur.nl with “Unreasonable doubt” in the subject area and your name and postal address in the body of the text).
Note 2: The inaugural address can be followed live via WURTV where it will also be archived: https://wurtv.wur.nl/P2G/cataloguepage.aspx

 

Milestone in an evolving field: International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education

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2013 marks the year in which the world’s largest and most diverse educational research organization – the AERA – jointly with Routledge, published the International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education (Stevenson, Brody, Dillon & Wals, 2013). The field of Environmental Education has roughly existed for just under 50 years and has over time developed its own research, research networks and research journals. The AERA commssioned the editors in 2009 to compile this Handbook as a part of AERA’s Handbook Series on Education Research.

The International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education describes the important concepts, findings and theories developed by the research community and examines the historical progression, current debates and controversies, missing elements from EE research agenda, and the future.
The environment and contested notions of sustainability are increasingly topics of public interest, political debate, and legislation across the world. Environmental education journals now publish research from a wide variety of methodological traditions that show linkages between the environment, health, development, and education. The growth in scholarship makes this an opportune time to review and synthesize the knowledge base of the environmental education (EE) field. The purpose of this 51-chapter handbook is to illuminate the most important concepts, findings and theories that have been developed by EE research and critically examine the historical progression of the field, its current debates and controversies, what is still missing from the EE research agenda, and where that agenda might be headed.

You can find the orginal proofs of chapter 1 here: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J and Wals, A.E.J. (2012). International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education_Ch01_1pp In: Stevenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2012) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge, 1-12

The Handbook can be order through Routledge or any on-line bookseller. Here’s a link to the Routledge Handbook page which also contains the Table of Contents. Should you be working for a university you may want to recommend the Handbook for you library.