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).

Educators of the Future

Isaac Asimov stated in the early 1930’s……….

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Undoubtedly, our world is changing drastically and rapidly.  These changes make us question the foundations of our systems of education and schooling.  It is becoming increasingly essential that educators continue to stay current and familiar with emerging technologies and that they are comfortable integrating a variety of technologies into their educational practices.  Technological literacy has emerged as an essential literacy of equal importance to reading, writing, mathematics, scientific inquiry, and critical and creative thought.  However, it is also important to remember that technology is often the medium, and should not be confused with the message.  Educators of the future face the challenge of implementing technology in order to aid in reaching the larger goals of education; in order to create motivated life-long learners who have the skills, abilities and the willingness to educate themselves.  As the Internet and the ‘world of Education’ continue to shift progressively toward a notion of open thinking, sharing, and collaboration, the role of the teacher must also shift from sole provider of knowledge to a facilitator of learning.  As our planet and the human race face a convergence of simultaneous crisis, the implementation of web technologies will not be education’s greatest challenge.  Teachers will increasingly be faced with the challenge to create projects and learning environments that aim towards solving real world problems and sustainability.

Students Thinking about Sustainability

My students have been thinking about the sustainability of our planet, and our ways of living on it.  I’ve had my English Language Arts students [grade ten students] working through a unit that I’ve called The Necessary Revolution.   The title is not very original, as I’ve lifted if from a great book by Peter Senge, but it works.  Students

Chris Jordan

began the unit with an introduction to Chris Jordan  and his work and message.   They watched short videos, viewed much of his artwork digitally, and read from his blog.  They were asked to respond to Chris’ message in writing by posting their thoughts and opinions as comments on my blog.  They also began to study a list of essential vocabulary; words like unsustainable, sustainability, necessary, revolution, citizenship, etc.  Next, the students viewed the documentary The 11th Hour.  While viewing, student took notes of important facts, information, and viewpoints, and we stopped the film constantly having good discussions.  After viewing, my students were expected to write a written response to the film.  Follow the link bellow to read their responses (please leave us some feedback).  

Another activity I’ve had on the go, is a small-scale tree planting project.  I’ve had students in three homerooms in the school planting white spruce tree seedlings.  We’ve planted them in small pots to keep in the room for the winter, to care for them, and then eventually move them to a more permanent home in the spring.  My students have been measuring, and watering their trees.   They’ve even tagged and named their trees. 

All of this is just a start, yet I feel that we are heading in the right direction.  

Follow the links below to read my students responses, and please, leave us some feedback. 

Student responses to Chris Jordan, his work and his message. 

Student responses to the film The 11th Hour.

On my rock, thinking… VISIONING.

A few months ago I had changed the banner that sits at the top of the introduction page to my web space (which this is a part of).  I have been thinking deeply about change and really found meaning in the following quote.  It is a famous inspirational quote of Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi that has been translated into English.  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.

As I try to envision the larger picture; the ideal situation towards which I strive, I see myself living as a positive example.  I see myself working hard towards living a lifestyle that contributes to the sustainability of human existence on our planet.  I dream one day of owning a house that is not only ‘off the grid’ in terms of demanding gas and electricity to be supplied, but one that generates a surplus of electricity to give or sell back to the community.  I dream of living in a community of like-minded people who are thinking, acting and living sustainably.  I dream of looking back on my teaching career and realizing that I was able to make a difference; that I was able to awaken teenagers to the realities and to the truths of our world; that I was able to communicate a message of hope; and that I was able to inspire young people to create change.  I hope that I can inspire children to create significant change; real change that has an impact on our culture and the mindset of many people; change that leads us to living sustainably as a culture.  I hope to be able to lead as an example.  I hope to be able to live as the best possible example, especially for my own children.  I want my own children to live healthy, happy, creative lives through which they have a positive footprint on the earth.

I want to educate children about sustainability and sustainable energy sources.  I want to educate children about carbon emissions and about positive global footprints.  I want to share the messages of so many important thinkers.  I want children to understand what David Suzuki, Chris Jordan, Al Gore, Peter Senge, and so many others are talking about.  I want children to be literate of the truths and the real issues of their time.  And I want to be careful not to overwhelm them.  There are so many problems and issues facing this, and future generations.  There are so many examples of how we are not living in sustainable ways on this planet.  The information, the facts, and the images can be completely overloading, overwhelming, and quite depressing.  I want to be careful at balancing informing with inspiring.  There is a serious risk of overwhelming individuals with truth, sometimes creating a feeling of hopelessness.  I want to provide positive examples of change that is already happening.  I want to communicate a message of hope. 

In a nutshell, this is my vision statement.  I want to be the change that I want to see in this world.  I want to awaken and inspire others to do the same.  The change that I want to see is to live sustainably in ways in which we are not taking more from the earth than it can supply, and in ways that do not take away from future generations.

Chris Jordan – Picturing Excess

Chris Jordan is one of the most amazing visual artists working today.  If you haven’t been introduced to his photographic artwork, now is the time to become acquainted.  Check out his web-site at ChrisJordan.com.  His works are enormous, aesthetically beautiful, mind-boggling, and thought-provoking.  I was introduced to Chris’ works through a video of his presentation on TED Talks.  This may be a great starting point for anyone who is not yet familiar with what Chris is doing. 

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan

Chris puts statistics into a visual format so that we can truly understand.  Facts and statistics are often provided to inform or to educate.  However, statistics and facts are overwhelming and often completely impossible to comprehend.  A problem arises when facts contain very large numbers.  What does 1 billion actually mean?  When statistics contain gigantic numbers, they lose their meaning because it is just too difficult to comprehend how big they really are.  Chris’ work attempts to break down the barriers between the language of statistics and facts that bombard us in an age of information overload, and to allow us to find meaning. 

Chris understands that seeing is believing, and he creates a visual portrait of our world today that allows us to see and understand just how wasteful we are.  Chris has created two series of works titled Running the Numbers.  The first series is An American Self-Portrait.  His second is A Portrait of Global Mass Culture.  The works in these series show us an arresting view of what Western culture looks like.  His supersized images picture some almost unimaginable statistics — like the astonishing number of paper cups we use every single day.

Running the Numbers

Running the Numbers

Chris creates these enormous images in order to help us feel more as a society; in order for issues to really matter to us.  He aims to break through the anesthetizing effect that most statistics have.  His main goal is to help us to wake up from our slumbering state of mass consumption, to face the facts, and to find ways to create change.  His artworks make us confront the real issues of our time, and they make us question how we are going to create change.  Perhaps this is why I love Chris’ work so much.  I feel where Chris is coming from.   Often I feel the need to scream WAKE UP.  I feel that too many of us need to wake up and take our heads out of the sand.  It is time for us to stop pretending that there is nothing wrong with our culture of global mass consumption.  It is time for us to stop many things.  It is time for us to wake up, and to demand change, create change, and to be the change that we want to see in this world.

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.

On my rock… writing to… myself…

A portion of the assessment of my current graduate course is on the completion of an analysis journal.  Dr. Pickard has asked us (the students of EC&I 871 – Sustaining Wellbeing through H.O.P.E.) to find a space at least once a week to sit and reflect upon the readings, presentations, and activities that will be presented throughout the class.   Basically the premise is to “get on your rock” and reflect upon and analyse your development through the class.

In the past, I have found blogging to be a useful method of reflecting and analysis.  I have blogged as part of a network in which each member would regularly read and respond to eachothers’ blog entries.  Although there was much value to the presence of a network and an audience, much of the value of blogging was in the ability to communicate, develop, and articulate thoughts and ideas as they developed in relation to the readings and other course materials.  It is most likely that this most recent blogging activity will not have any audience (one is not intended).  I suppose in a way this is a sort of disclaimer to say that I am really writing to myself, journaling, in order to further develop my own thoughts.  Yet also this is meant to say that an audience is certainly welcome, as I do understand that there is much value when discussions arise.  So if you are reading any of my posts, and you are inclined to respond, please do.

At some point, as this develops, I may intend for this blog to reach and audience… perhaps my classes of high school students.  That is something I have not yet experienced.  We’ll see how this goes…