Reorienting Education Toward Sustainability

The greatest dilemma that humanity faces today is an unprecedented need for large scale and rapid change.  Our situation is urgent, as the environmental and social challenges before us indicate.  We face a convergence of crises, from climate change and global warming, to the increasing number of environmental refugees and the effects of rampant consumerism.  All of which urgently call for action.  Although there is no universal solution to our vast array of problems, it is quite clear that we must change the ways by which we think, act, consume and waste, collectively.

Ultimately, many of the problems that face us today are the result of yesterday’s solutions.  We have arrived at our current situation only because we have been so successful.  Industrial and consumer outlooks have increasingly dominated our ways of thinking over the last two hundred years.  These ways of thinking have brought forth extraordinary successes beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

This is, in part, what makes our challenge so daunting.  We are faced with the reality that our old ways of doing things will no longer serve us, and yet they have been so astonishingly successful in the past.  What needs to change is an established norm, and such changes do not come about easily.  In his book, The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge writes that the Industrial Revolution “did not simply change the way we worked; it transformed the way we lived, the way we thought about ourselves, and the way we viewed the world.  Nothing like it had ever occurred before” (2008, p. 14).  This is the magnitude of change that is needed today.

The impacts the Industrial Revolution had on quality of life were undeniable.  As industrial expansion continued into the twentieth century, life expectancy in the industrial world roughly doubled, literacy jumped from 20 percent to over 90 percent, and benefits hitherto unimaginable sprang up in the form of products (from private cars to iPods), services (from air travel to eBay), and astounding advances in medicine, communication, education, and entertainment.  With this kind of success, it is little wonder that the side effects of the Industrial Age success story went largely ignored. (Senge, 2008, p. 15)

The dominant modes of thinking of the Industrial Age have produced astounding progress and success, but also severe side effects.  The very advances that have enabled such perceived increases in quality of life are also the causes of critical imbalances in the natural orders of things.  Advances in industrial production and consumption of goods, among other advances, have contributed to several unsustainable crisis situations, both socially and ecologically.

Although the concept of sustainability is not new, it is being discussed more frequently.  In a recent guide, the steering committee for the Saskatchewan Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Network (2009) notes that “calls for sustainability date back to the 1970s, when the combined effects of human population growth and resource consumption started to appear at the global level” (p. 4).  As the discourse around the concept of sustainability develops, it is becoming increasingly clear that in order for significant change to take place, a shift in the role of education is necessary.  “It is also clear that sustainability is ultimately about transforming the values, beliefs, and attitudes that support, and are reinforced by Western industrialized cultures” (SaskESD Network, 2009).  Dr. Glenn Sutter, curator of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and chair of the Saskatchewan ESD Network has written that in order “to foster a culture of sustainability, we need to develop appropriate technologies, policies, and regulations at various scales, but these need to be supported by a fundamental shift in our thinking and actions, ostensibly through education” (2005, p. iv).

On-line PD – I’ll Get to the Point

In order for true quality professional development to take place, I think that we need to address some of the ways around which we think about professional development as educational systems.  Yes, it is certainly true that there are hundreds of on-line tools and resources available to enhance PD, but I don’t think that it would matter if we had hundreds of thousands of excellent tools to choose from.   These tools are simply the medium through which to facilitate PD.  If there is no unified direction of message, does it really matter what tools or media are used?

Herein lies the point.  There seems to be a lack of direction as to where we need to head in education.  There seems to be a lack of direction in aiming towards best practices in education, and there is certainly a lack of direction in how we should best utilize professional learning time.  Essentially, I believe this to be an issue of control, and I think it is time to let go.  Traditionally, educational systems and their leaders have prided themselves in their abilities to create quality professional development sessions that have been intended for the masses; a great majority of teachers.  I don’t think this works anymore.  We simply have too much choice, and that is a good thing.  Let’s embrace our power of choice.

It is time for educational systems and their leaders to understand that TEACHERS ARE LIFE-LONG LEARNERS. It is time to give up the control over how PD time is to be spent.  We need to pass this control over to the individual teachers who, as dedicated life-long learners, will ultimately decide what their best possible learning path is, and how they should best go about it.  This is how true PD will take place.  Teachers must be invested in their learning in order for it to take place. A growing number of teachers are finding many current PD opportunities are simply not engaging.

Scenario A.  A PD session is implemented with mandatory attendance from all staff members.  The PD session is designed in a sort of ‘top down’ approach in which the direction was decided upon by an educational leader.  The topic is yet another of several ‘new initiatives’.  The session is well attended, and many staff members contribute to the discussion, however others are not engaged, even sowing buttons on shirts in the back of the room.

Scenario B.  A block of time is set aside for PD opportunities to take place.  Staff members were given advance notice and ample time to ‘choose their own adventure’.  Some staff members have decided to drive to other schools in the system to meet with teachers with a similar focus.  One group in particular meets to learn photography techniques from a teacher who has already set up a successful photography program.  Other teachers decide to head to their classrooms.  One teacher uses his lap-top to watch a lecture from professor Michael Wesch via Ustream.  Another spends time watching a few TED Talks videos about creativity [like Ken Robinson’s, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s].  A small group of teachers meet to discuss potential recycling and composting projects to be implemented in the school.  One of the teachers in this group logs in to Tapped In, and they meet up with a couple of other teachers in another city who have already begun similar projects.  Another teacher browses through a list of new Web 2.0 tools and begins to play with software she was not familiar with.  Several others meet in the library for a more traditional and guided PD session and discussion about literacy.

From these example scenarios, it is my opinion that the second involves a higher level of professional development.  More teachers are engaged in their learning, as they’ve had control over the design of their learning path.  In order for this to happen, we need to change our outlook about PD.  We need to understand that professional learning can take place on-line.  We need to understand that PD can be solitary, and that professional learning can take place by watching quality lectures or YouTube and TedTalk videos.  It’s time to give the control of professional learning over to the professional who is to be learning.

Online Survey

The Song Remains the Same, It’s My Ear that has Changed

Although at times it feels like a lifetime ago, I quite vividly remember selecting my undergraduate degree of Business Education because of its emerging focus on technology.  Even at that time [the late 1990’s], at my young age, and the relative infancy of the Internet, I had an idea of the unbreakable connections between emerging technologies, education, and the arts.   My understanding of my role with technology and education has changed as continually as the technologies themselves have developed.   More than a decade has come and gone, vast changes have taken place, and although I still hold some of the beliefs I held at this time, much of my outlook toward educational technology has changed.

At the beginning of my career, I focused on teaching technology.  Not teaching with technology, but teaching technology.  Just as Marshal McLuhan would say that the medium is the message, I believed that  the technology was the content.  I taught keyboarding, word processing and other office applications, computer animation, programming, web design and photo editing.  I felt very successful at what I was doing.  I was very proud of my ability to engage most students, and I had very few major behavior or classroom management issues.  I particularly remember being very proud of achieving class average keyboarding speed improvements of over 30 words per minute, or enabling particular grade nines and tens to develop this skill well beyond 100 words per minute.  There were a lot of successes.  I was often able to push students to develop their technology skills, often guiding them to complete projects they would not otherwise have completed, or perhaps even thought possible.

It was sometime after trading the computer lab for the classroom and the art room that I began to question what the end purposes of education were.  I am quite sure that a large number of young people are able to keyboard quite well because of my efforts.  Many probably rely on that skill regularly at school and a work.  I know of some students who have continued to program and have long ago exceeded my understanding of computer languages.  Perhaps there are some web-designers or even an animator or two out there that found their spark in one of my classes.  I am proud of that.  At some point however, I began to ask bigger questions.

What is the purpose of education?  Is the end goal to prepare young people to enter the work force?  Is the aim to help children develop skills that help them earn a living?  I’m still quite certain that these are important goals, but now I see them as just a piece of a larger puzzle.  Is the purpose of education to teach the youth how to earn a living?  Or is it perhaps the goal to teach children how to build a life? (see Neil Postman)  As I began to ponder questions of this magnitude, it became clear to me that in the earlier part of my career, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.  I believed that the technology was the message.  Now, I question that notion.  Technology is not the message, but rather the medium to be used to deliver the message.  I believe much more strongly in principles of integrality, interconnectedness, and interdisciplinarity.   I think that technological literacies are still very important.  They are a very important pieces of the greater whole.  Computer skills still need to be taught as content, but perhaps in less of a separate nature, and instead, integrated into all disciplines of study.

So although ‘The Song Remains the Same’, and technological literacy is still essential, I think that I now hear the tune in a much different way; with a different ear; from a different perspective.

Understanding the Visioning Process

   At first, I was caught completely off guard by the expectation of creating a visioning statement.  For whatever reason, I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept.  From the little that I knew about a visioning statement, I thought it was a term used mostly in the corporate world of companies and businesses.  When I first mentioned the visioning assignment to my wife, she was also confused, and questioned why we would be doing something so corporate in an education curriculum class.  I vaguely remember the term from a course in organizational behavior, and I initially had to agree with her that it seemed rather odd in this setting at first.

   After digging a little deeper, it began to make a lot of sense.  It only took a small amount of searching and reading for me to realize that the goals and ideas that I have been thinking about, were in fact a part of my vision statement.  From what I understand now, a vision statement is simply a description of what you are aiming for, working towards – a description of ideal goals or dreams.  As I searched, I found that (as suspected) many of the definitions of a vision statement do in fact come from a corporate world of organizational behavior.  However, I found a couple of definitions that were key in allowing me to understand that visioning has much broader applications than simply being used by business leaders. 

   The first definition that was important in aiding my understanding of the process was that “A vision statement is a vivid idealized description of a desired outcome that inspires, energizes and helps you create a mental picture of your target” (Constandse, 2008).  Visioning is a process that applies to anyone who sets goals or who seeks to achieve something. As such, visioning is certainly transferable to paths in education.  The second piece of information that cleared the fog for me was that, “most successful people have written vision statements.”  Reading this allowed me to understand that visioning is a process that ultimately applies to any person or organization with goals of being successful.  Visions statements are linked with the achievement of success, as they allow people to picture their goals clearly and concisely.  Visioning allows individuals to keep their goals in sight and sharply in focus.

   I also have come to understand the visioning is about thinking ‘big picture’, or about thinking about ideal outcomes.  Visioning is about clearly stating the ‘what’ that is desired, not necessarily even thinking about the ‘how’. 

   In hind-sight, it seems somewhat funny that I was confused about something that now seems so logical.   After the first day of this class, I changed the banner at the top of the introduction page to my web space to read the following quote that has been translated from the words of Mohandas Gandhi.  The quote reads, “Be the change that you want to see in this world.”  Simple, yet profound. 

   In many ways this has been the mantra through which I have been viewing this course, and much of my own teaching this semester.   In many ways, this quote sums up my visioning.   I want to inspire change.   I want to awaken students to the understanding that change is inevitable, that change is necessary, that the needs are immediate, and that change is already happening.   I want my students to understand that they have the ability to create change; to be change.  I want this for myself, for my family, my children, and for my students.

Inspiring Change towards Sustainability: The New Curriculum

Now that I am about a week or two into this course, I can see that the concepts of sustainability, wellbeing, and hope are not only central to my path through this course, but will also quickly become central in my teaching practice as well.  I feel as though I am coming to a place where I am able to find new meaning, value, and purpose in teaching.  The idea of hope to inspire and create change to work towards a sustainable planet is not just an important concept.  It is much, much larger than that.  In many ways it is becoming clear to me that creating change toward sustainability is the new curriculum.  These are the most important ideas among all curricular concepts, and they need to find their way and permeate into all curricular areas. 

There are many important things that teachers do.  Teachers create change in many ways.  But all of the ways in which we impact children are really moot if we are not able to inspire children to make change in this world, quickly.  It is becoming blatantly obvious that we are living in a completely unstable and unsustainable world.  That must change.  Rapid change is needed.  Drastic and radical change is needed.  If we don’t soon begin to head in the direction of sustainable systems, then I don’t see how it makes any difference to inspire children to read, write, draw, or dance.

Sustainability, change, and renewal.  It is the new curriculum.  This is what we need to be teaching in our English courses, in our visual art classes, in math, even in phys.ed and drama and shop classes, and yes certainly in social studies and in the sciences.  It is the new curriculum, at all levels.  It is necessary to work its way into all areas of education.