Currently reading Part I of the book “Sustainable Development Teaching – Ethical and Political Challenges”, edited by Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019)

I am teaching the course “teaching sustainability” again in March, and while my course has a very applied focus on the questions teachers bring themselves into it, I have been looking around at how other places teach similar courses. I saw that the course in Stockholm assigns the book “Sustainable Development Teaching – Ethical and Political Challenges”, edited by Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019). The book is supposedly focussed on teaching practice, translating educational research into something that is directly useful for teachers, and  I recognized one of the names from my favourite Head-Hands-Heart framework, so I decided I had to make time to read the book. Below my summary of their

PART I: Education and the challenge of building a more sustainable world

The book started out with a pleasant surprise: I had already read, and summarized, the first chapter on

Four misunderstandings about sustainability!

Gotta love it when a task is smaller than you thought it was! But in a nutshell, these are the misunderstandings:

  1. “Sustainability is about ecological concerns” — no, it is much bigger than that, and needs to be perceived as much bigger and not just a luxury problem that concerns only a few people
  2. “We need a waterproof and objective definition of sustainability” — this discussion is not going to lead anywhere, since different people are concerned with different aspects of this wicked problem. Rather than focussing on the definition, we should focus on what we mean in a given context, and welcome contributions from everybody working in the right direction, rather than gatekeeping who is allowed to contribute because they do it right
  3. “Every change leads to a transition” — transitions are more than just baby steps in one direction, transitions are radical changes
  4. “We can easily plan and manage sustainability transitions” — as radical changes, we cannot foresee exactly what is going to happen as consequence of what other action, since we need to include everybody’s knowledge, skills, but also values and worldviews, it will be an ongoing, constant negotiation and renegotiation

So with that out of the way, the first article I read this time round is on

“Tackling wicked problems in teaching and learning. Sustainability issues as knowledge, ethical and political challenges”

by Block, Van Poeck & Östman.

They start out by describing different kinds of challenges and place them relative to two axes: agreement on norms and values, and certainty of knowledge. There are the relatively “easy” problems to solve; the ones where there is a relatively certain knowledge of how things work, and an agreement on norms and values, e.g. fixing the ozone hole. The ozone hole was a big issue when I was a kid, but it isn’t any more, and that’s because there was an easy solution to fix it: CFCs were banned, so by using a different cooling fluid in fridges and a different gas in hairspray cans, the problem was solved.

There are other problems, where the scientific basis is clear, but there is no agreement on values and norms, like for example birth control. Not a big scientific problem, but a big moral one (or not, depending on perspective). Or problems where the values and norms are very similar everywhere, but the science is difficult, like storage of renewable energies. Everybody wants it, nobody has really figured out how yet.

But then there are “wicked” problems, for example

  • climate change. is a much more complex problem. Complex global cycles that occur with or without us and lead to variations in pretty much all properties, are complicated by anthropogenic influences. And CO2 is so much the foundation of our lifestyles that it’s difficult to imagine alternatives. Many conflicting interests — avoid sea-level rise, definitions of what a good life should look like, individualism, financial interests of industries or countries. Also risk perception differs not just on how close one lives to raising sea level, but also on personality, discourse, culture, …
  • GMO organism can be seen as a solution to world hunger or a threat to biodiversity, and both views have their validity depending on what values we start from.

In post-normal science, both uncertainties and stakes are high. Challenges can obviously not be solved within one discipline alone. Additionally, we need to start talking about ethical and political challenges that we in STEM have mostly avoided for a long time, but learning about “facts” alone is not enough any more, especially since a lot of relevant knowledge is contested.

One point I really like: “sustainable development teaching should not be seen as one homogeneous kind of practice but, instead, as something that can take different forms depending on the context in which it takes place and the specificity of the content addressed“. We’ll learn how to do that in Chapter 5 (I’m hoping), but until then the authors offer insights and principles:

  • Treat `facts´ modestly. Facts are only facts until a new understanding comes along, and which facts we select to teach about while omitting others is based on our values, culture, tradition, and many other complicating factors.
  • Engaging, pluralistically, with the basic principles of sustainable development. Since sustainable development is a wicked problem, it is pointless to argue about what its definition should be. Instead, “taking responsibility for the urgency of sustainability problems, however, requires a sustained effort to draw attention to the basic principles and characteristics of sustainable development, i.e. that it is a form of development that is socially just, remains within the carrying capacity of the earth’s ecosystems, guarantees quality of life for all and realises that within a democratic society.”
  • Designing issue-driven and problem-oriented teaching and learning practices: confront students with real sustainability problems, where they then have to deal with the wickedness themselves and are exposed to values — their own, their peers’, the teacher’s — and have to reflect on them and take a stand in order to respond to the problem, its consequences, and possible solutions.

This leads us to the third chapter:

Principles for sustainable development teaching

by Östman, Van Poeck and Öhman.

This chapter opens with an example that we face in sustainable development: Even trying to do the right thing might not be the right thing. The authors describe a school where they went from recycling of drink cartons to reusing bottles, but this was then contested because the scientific base is really not clear on the environmental impact of either, and some results say that recycling cartons is the better solution. We had a similar discussion at my work where we went from plastic cups to paper cups, but then someone told me about how paper cups contain chemicals that really kill off life in groundwater, so we should be reusing ceramic cups. But then when I talked with the caterer, they pointed out that they, as a caterer, have to use very strong dish washing soap, much stronger than what we would use if we washed by hand. But then washing by hand means that I have to do that in addition to organizing and teaching the course… You see the dilemma. But then their example gets even more complicated: Can schools ban students from bringing the drinks of their choice? Even if it means that students who are allergic to something can’t bring an alternative that only exists in cartons? These problems are unstructured and don’t have one correct answer, and as the authors say about the students in their example: “they need to learn-by-doing as they do-by-learning.” So how do we teach in those kinds of situations? The authors offer five principles:

  • Principle 1: create engagement for the content of teaching. Engagement, or a “consummatory experience” (one where the students are consumed by the experience, and don’t just consume it; so I am imagining some kind of flow state here) happens when the problems that students are asked to solve are relevant to their lives and also challenging enough to be interesting
  • Principle 2: use the right focus for the teaching. In the “induction into a discipline” focus, the focus is on subject knowledge in a discipline like math or physics, and we teach students to become mathematicians or physicists, with the assumption that they will then be able to apply what they have learned in the discipline to all kinds of problems. In the “learning from a discipline” focus, students are working on a problem that requires some specialized knowledge or skills from a discipline, that they then learn exactly when they need it. This can happen for everyday situations (e.g. how to sort garbage to prepare it for recycling) or political and ethical situations (e.g. making judgements between recycling or reusing). Learning from a discipline is preferable for our purposes (even though that’s not how university is typically organized) because it creates deeper engagement with the content and also practices a transfer from inside the university out into real life problems.
  • Principle 3: deal with local sustainability problems. Problems become more relevant and thus interesting to students if they are related to students’ lives. Students also get first-hand experiences with actively working to solve sustainability problems and considering ecological, social and economic aspects. The authors present the LORET (locally relevant teaching) framework with detailed instructions for how to implement it*
  • Principle 4: stress pluralism. Especially when teaching within one discipline, we are not used to stress the social, ecological AND economic perspectives, and we typically have one accepted, the academic, way of knowing, that often does not acknowledge that it might be imperfect. Including the three perspectives forces us to prioritise and helps start talking about underlying values; and including more ways of knowing is generally more productive, and also more democratic, since it lets more different people become involved. Great life skill to practice, and it makes the solutions students find more likely to be accepted by more people.
  • Principle 5: include ethical and political dimensions. Since so many values are involved in making decisions in wicked problems, students need to understand how absolute values (“it is wrong to harm animals”) and relative values (“this is a better solution than that because it is more energy efficient”) play into people’s positions on different topics.

These principles are brought together in a description of the transactional theory of teaching and learning. Learning refers to qualification in terms of knowledge and skills, socialization in terms of values and worldviews, and person formation. Transactional means that learning happens in the context of other people and in negotiations with, and reactions to, them and the rest of the world. Learning then happens when our habits and routines, formed on the basis of prior experiences, don’t give us the result we want and we need to stretch across a gap to figure out a new solution. Small gaps we might bridge easily, for larger gaps we might require support.

And thus endeth Part I of the book. Verdict so far? Totally worth reading!

*My summary of the LORET framework:

1. Identify key sustainable development issues in your local community

In this phase, the initiating teacher makes contact with colleagues, teaching other subjects, that they might want to work with. After a brainstorming phase, the group agrees on one issue in the local community that they want to focus the project on.

2. Identify goals for sustainable development

This phase is about goal setting and planning out what exactly needs to be done in order to achieve the goals.

3. Identify the knowledge needed to reach the identified goals

In this phase, intermediate goals and necessary intermediate learning outcomes are collected and sorted, and the relevant subjects are identified.

4. Creating a teaching plan: LORET

Starting from the mind map, now the actual teaching within and across the different subjects is planned. Also the interaction with the local community is thought through in more detail. From that, teaching is scheduled and methods are chosen, and after critical revision, the plan is ready to be shared with others!

Featured image: Sea-level rise? No, just a photo I took around the time of writing this, and it helps me remember more about the situation I was in while reading, and thus hopefully also more about what I was reading and thinking…

Van Poeck, K., Östman, L., & Öhman, J. (Eds.). (2019). Sustainable Development Teaching: Ethical and Political Challenges (1st ed.). Routledge.

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