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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(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective

A new paper coming out of the EnRRich network LivingKnowledge & EnRRich seems ti get a lot of attention considering the number of paper downloads within the first 10 days the paper has appeared online. This is probably because many universities are struggling to find a good way to make education more relevant, responsive, responsible and reflexive in light of global sustainability challenges.

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Here is the abstract and a link to Redesigning HE (open access, freely downloadable):

There is an urgent need to address the grand sustainability challenges of our time, and to explore new and more responsible ways of operating, researching, and innovating that enable society to respond to these challenges. The emergent Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) policy agenda can act as a catalyst towards the development of new and more responsible research and innovation efforts. Inevitably, higher education needs to be closely attuned to this need and agenda, by preparing students to engage in RRI efforts. This paper makes a first step towards guiding the embedding of RRI within higher education. It does so by bringing together academic knowledge with phronesis or practical knowledge about what should be done in an ethical, political, and practical sense. It draws on a literature review and on the reflective practices of partners in the European Commission funded project EnRRICH (Enhancing Responsible Research and Innovation through Curricula in Higher Education), as well as on interviews and case studies gathered as part of the project. The paper suggests elements, especially design principles and a competence framework, for (re)designing curricula and pedagogies to equip higher education students to be and to become responsible actors, researchers, and innovators in a complex world, and to address grand sustainability challenges. In addition, this paper proposes that contemporary higher education teaching and learning policies and strategies, especially those promoting neoliberal agendas and marketized practices, need to adopt a more responsible and responsive ethos to foster the renewal of higher education in times of systemic dysfunction.

Keywords

Higher education Responsible research and innovation Grand sustainability challenges Curricula Competence 

 

Online Masters Course on Education in the context of Sustainable Development at Gothenburg University – starting November 1st

New Course: Education for sustainable development – an introduction

There is only one Earth. With global challenges such as climate change, mass extinction of species, rising inequity and a growing world population, the prospects for a quality life for all, forever seem rather bleak. Central in this new course is the question: What is the role and responsibility of education in not only responding to sustainability problems but also in preventing them and in creating more sustainable futures? But also what might such education look like? The course will take advantage of some of the materials and lessons learnt from the recently finished Global Environmental Education Course Gothenburg University supported – along with other universities and the US EPA- which was lead by Cornell University in association with the NAAEE’s EECapacity Program.

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In this 15 credit Master’s course you will critically and actively explore central concepts and perspectives in the field of education for sustainable development. The course content will be related to the participants’ own backgrounds, specific interests and prior experiences. Master students with different study backgrounds (e.g. environmental sciences, social sciences, economics, arts and humanities) can enrol in this course as long as you have an interest in both sustainable development and education.

The course is offered by Gothenburg University online at half time during the second half of autumn 2016 (Start: November 1 – Finish: March 22, 2017). The main course language is English. There are four blocks: 1) Understanding Sustainable Development, 2) Understanding Education in relation to SD, 3) Understanding learning environments, processes and outcomes conducive to SD and 4) Education in relation to your own SD-challenge (personal project). Each block is divided up in course weeks, each with short introductory videos, background literature, discussion questions and online discussion. Periodically there will be assignments that will be used in providing feedback and assessing the quality of your contributions. The new Global Education Monitor Report on Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All will be one of the texts used in the course.

For the pilot course we are admitting a maximum of 50 students. You will need to formally register for the course through Gothenburg University via this link to the GU course web-page.

More information about course content contact me at: Arjen.wals@gu.se

More information about course logistics and registration can be found via the link to the course’s webpage (hyperlink).

Note: eligible students from European Union can participate without paying tuition to Gothenburg University. Students from outside the European Union will have to pay a tuition fee. It is assumed that participants have a bachelor degree or equivalent and have a proficient mastery of the English language (evidence of this may need to be provided).

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

 

 

Moving from Citizen Science to Civic Science in Tackling Wicked Conservation Issues

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(note the cover page above is not the one of the current issue).

Together with good friends and colleagues, Justin Dillon and Bob Stevenson I was given the opportunity to edit a Special Section for one of the key journals in the field of Biology and Nature Conservation – ‘Conservation Biology’ – on Citizen Science.

We were invited to do so shortly after our paper on using sustainability and citizen science as a bridge between science education and environmental education that was published in Science (see: ScienceWalsetall2014) well over a year ago. In the paper we use a heuristic that Bob Jickling and myself developed a while ago to position different strands of citizen science – from more science-driven ones to more policy-driven ones to more transition-driven ones. The later strands we refer to as CIVIC Science, rather than Citizen Science. The Special Section included 11 interesting papers from authors and places from around the world. What is clear is that the Civic Science, transition-driven strands are rare but represent a very important niche that is likely to grow in the years to come. Here’s the link:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12689/abstract

Some of the papers are open-access for all to down-load – but some you may need to pay for or get through your library. Our introductory paper presently is not listed as open-access but we trust that the publisher Wiley will make this open-access shortly. UPDATE: WILEY HAS DONE SO NOW! YOU CAN DOWNLOAD THE PDF FOR FREE NOW FOR PERSONAL USE.

Feel free to share with interested colleagues – also those working in conservation.

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.

Global Environmental Education and Wicked Problems – free Online Course

GlobalEE

What a global response!

There is still one week to go to: http://www.globalee.net to register for this fascinating course that has already attracted more than 2500 students and professionals from over 130 countries. Just reading the short introductions of the participants on the Course’s Facebook site is educational and inspiring:

  https://www.facebook.com/groups/GlobalEE/

The registration closes on February 15th – have a look at the website to see how we are running the course – module one focuses on the meaning of wicked sustainability problems. Participants are sharing their own interpretations and examples of such problems.

Students who wish to take the course for credit can do so via the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point – check out the website to find out how.

Course overview

The goal of this course is to create an environmental education “trading zone”—an online space where scholars and students gather to learn about multiple disciplines that shed light on how to improve environmental quality and change environmental behaviors. Each of the lectures, readings, discussions, and case studies will focus on the implications of a particular discipline for environmental education, as well as what environmental education has to contribute to related disciplines and sectors. Learn about how environmental education, environmental governance, environmental psychology, environmental sociology and other disciplines can work together to address ‘wicked problems,’ not readily addressed by working in disciplinary silos.

Some of the ideas I will be sharing can be found here in a nutshell: Sustainability & Education in Two Minutes

But if you have more time… then you can read a recent open-access publication based on an inaugural address I gave in December of 2015 titled: “Beyond Unreasonable Doubt: Education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability  in the anthropocene” which can now be downloaded here: 8412100972_RvB_Inauguratie Wals_Oratieboekje_v02Complete Text Beyond Unreasonable Doubt Complete Text Beyond Unreasonable Doubt

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