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

Following up on “PART I: Education and the challenge of building a more sustainable world” that I summarized here, and the first part and second part of the summary of “PART II: Choosing teaching content and approaches”, here comes my summary of

PART III — Designing and implementing teaching and learning practices

Part III starts out with a chapter by Östman, Van Poeck and Öhman:

A transactional theory on sustainability learning

As mentioned before, we live most of our lives according to habits, and not just in the brushing-our-teeth every night kind of way, but also when it comes to norms and morals, like for example buying only organic food etc.. The latter is a matter of habitual attention, so only looking at foods that carry a certain label or are in a certain section of a shop, and not even being fully aware of the rest. Dewey distinguishes between the surroundings (all the information and noise around us), and the environment, which seems to contain only the elements that are relevant for a certain activity. Learning a habit is to create an environment in which a certain outcome is created (like having your bag for cold dipping next to your door so you grab it every morning on your way out, which I really used to be better at. Time to reactivate that environment and habit!).

When learning a habit, a very important part is how we evaluate and prioritise the importance of certain arguments. For example when talking about climate change, we can focus on ecological concerns or on economic or cultural. When I am cold-dipping (or not), I am prioritising myself (or being in the office early). So one of the things we need to include in teaching sustainability is a specific attentiveness, which includes both qualification (as in knowledge and skills) and socialisation (so values and judgements). But it also does include person-formation, so all three main functions of education.

The difficult part in forming good sustainability habits is that we need more than just rigid routines, we need habits that allow for creativity, or plastic habits: When we come across new problems, we need to find new solutions, to “envision the possible starting with the actual situation“. This is described as an “artistic expression”: “step[ping] out of the role of students and instead show[ing] their uniqueness as a person“.

Learning takes place when our habits are not enough to solve a given problem and we have to actually think about what to do. There are two kinds of learning that can then happen:

  • A short learning loop is when an alternative is readily available and an existing habit is only slightly modified and enriched (e.g. reaching for a different eco label food when our label isn’t available)
  • A long learning loop occurs when time and energy, and inquiry, including experimentation and evaluation of the outcome, are needed to find a solution, and an old habit is either transformed, or a new habit is created (e.g. figuring out which eco label to buy)

There are different types of disturbances that can lead to a learning situation.

  1. An intellectual disruption, i.e. when we realise that our current understanding is not sufficient to solve a problem and we need to reflect and start and inquiry into the problem
  2. A change in the physical surroundings, which leads to a feeling that we become aware of and pay attention to (like noticing sun and deciding to bring sun screen next time)
  3. A poignant experience, i.e. an unexpected, strong emotion

All these can be described as gaps between earlier experiences and the new situation, which students cannot bridge without learning taking place, either through short or long learning loops. This can involve subjectification — breaking loose from a previous (and maybe expected) role into wanting to be someone who does things differently.

Whether learning actually takes place depends, according to transactional theory, on the interplay of four aspects:

  • intrapersonal — the students relating to their own earlier experiences
  • interpersonal — the students relating to their peers
  • institutional — e.g. the curriculum
  • material objects — e.g. books or other artefacts

The last important point in this chapter is that “When conceptualisation (knowledge, values, etc.) and skills are learned, the learning is not just cognitive but also bodily feelings are part of it: to understand a concept or a word is also to feel the concept and the word“. This is something I don’t think I consider enough yet.

But up next is a chapter by Östman, Van Poeck and Öhman that might give us ideas of what we as teachers can do:

A transactional theory on sustainability teaching — Teacher moves

Building on the theory form the previous chapter, now we need to consider how to “stage inquiries for students”. I find it really interesting how the authors write about the difference of an ultimate purpose, an intended learning outcome that only the teacher can make sense of, and an end-in-view “proximate purpose”, that teachers use to guide students towards learning the ultimate purpose (where ideally, the proximate purpose that the teacher communicates to students to start their inquiry is understood and acted upon as an end-in-sight, otherwise we need to try clarifying our proximate purpose again, and with a different approach, or find a different one that guides them better, or that reacts to students’ poignant experiences and uses them in teaching).

Before meeting the students, we set the scene by creating a learning environment where we want to draw students’ focus to certain objects or information which we might bring to class or provide electronically, or by inviting students into the environment where they are exposed to specific experiences (e.g. on field trips). Some helpful epistemological teacher moves are

  • Scene-setting
    • adding moves (bringing in objects, like the SDGs or a rock)
    • instructing moves (encouraging students to find relevant objects or information to create the learning environment)
  • Staging an inquiry
    • directing moves that change or confirm students’ pathways in the inquiry
    • deepening moves (generating — generalising or specifying, or judging — comparative or testing)

As mentioned in the previous chapter, we need to juggle not only the staging of the scene and our own teacher moves, but also students’ own prior experiences or current emotions, how they relate to peers, and how all of this relates to learning outcomes.

And in addition to epistemological teacher moves, teachers can also make ethical moves (supporting students in articulating and sharing their experiences and opinions) or political moves (to encourage discussion around “matters of public concern”), which are elaborated on in the next two chapters: First Van Poeck, Östman and Öhman write about

Ethical moves — How teachers can open up a space for articulating moral reactions and deliberating on ethical opinions regarding sustainability issues

We are supposed to talk about values and the actions that reflect those values, and, as mentioned above, use authentic moral experiences and turn them into ethical deliberations. For this, there are two groups of ethical moves that teachers can employ: Generating and Judging.

Generating moves are the “clarifying ethical move” where teachers ask students to elaborate on their arguments, and “articulating ethical move” where teachers ask students to voice their standpoint and the arguments that support it.

Judging moves are the “evaluating ethical move” where students have to decide if they agree or not, the “testing ethical move” where students test the validity of an argument, the “controversy-creating ethical move” where the teacher stages a controversy and makes students take a position, and the “hierarchizising ethical move” where the teacher makes students prioritize different values and makes them take a stand.

While it is helpful to explicitly consider the different moves, they are basically all things that a teacher would use in facilitating a fruitful discussion anyway. So that takes a lot of pressure out of the “teach ethics!” thing!

In the next chapter, Van Poeck and Östman write about

Political moves: How teachers can open up for and handle poignant experiences of the conflictual aspects of sustainability issues

Political moves can be used to create situations in which students can learn from first-hand experience of conflicting views on questions of how to organise a sustainable society and from the strong feelings — poignant experiences — that such a situation invokes (but they are not fool-proof — they might work sometimes, but there is no guarantee that students will react the way a teacher might have hoped and planned). That said, there are different types of moves that are commonly used to evoke those strong feelings and stage a conflict-oriented deliberation with the purpose of engaging students in discussion about something that matters to them, but where they have to choose between mutually exclusive alternatives and where there is no universal right or wrong.

Judging moves to stage a conflict-oriented deliberation:

  • Controversy-creating: eliciting opposing standpoints and prompting students to defend them. “Tell me if you disagree”, “is this true?”, …
  • Hierarchising: prioritising different concerns or alternatives. “Which do you find more important?”, “do you value this over that”, …
  • Excluding-including: highlighting mutually exclusivity of alternatives and make students contest a proposition

While the above moves are all used to create conflict, we can also use moves to steer away from conflict, “neutralise poignant experiences”, and aim towards a normative deliberation, where the teacher has a set, predetermined outcome of the discussion in mind. So learning does not happen through emotions and personal involvement, but is focussed on skills and knowledge, shutting down the discussion based on the teacher’s power. Does not sound like a good learning environment to me…

Next chapter: Rudsberg and Öhman on

Classroom discussions — Students’ learning in argumentation about ethical and political aspects of sustainability issues

This chapter answers how students learn from discussions with their peers. For that, it is clarified what is meant by “argument”. It consists of least 3 elements: A claim (statement or conclusion being argued for) + data (facts supporting the claim) + a warrant, the connection between claim and data that explains how one gets from the data to the claim. An argument can additionally contain a rebuttal (counterargument or response to counterargument) or qualifier (limits of the claim, like “usually”, “tends to”, …). These show quality of arguments as they show students’ awareness of the limitations of the argument they make.

Learning in a discussion is described as increasing the quality of arguments in terms of complexity, nuance, and clarity. Knowledge is obviously required in a good argument and can be used in at least six specific ways:

  • emphasising the complexity of the issue
  • highlight conflicting interests
  • provide evidence in a counterargument
  • clarify and correct
  • predict consequences
  • add support to an earlier claim

Learning processes involved in argumentative discussion are then learning to formulate an argument as well as learning of the knowledge content needed, plus learning how to use knowledge in a deliberative practice, connect knowledge to value judgements, and contextualise knowledge. This works in interaction with peers through for example adding to arguments of others, explaining or reformulating others’ positions, critiquing what others have said.

Next chapter: Öhman and Öhman on

Power and governance in environmental and sustainability education practice

This chapter I really enjoyed reading as it stresses a point that I don’t think is considered enough usually. The authors remind us on the three traditions in teaching: fact-based, normative, pluralistic. Knowledge is important in all three, but in different ways. And in all three, the teacher has to make choices about content, and the choices are always influenced by the teacher’s values, perspectives, interests, and maybe even habits! Choosing what other people have to or get to learn, which content they are exposed to and which not, is an element of power: prioritising something is, at the same time, deprioritising or excluding something else.

This can be described as a discourse: a frequent or dominant way of talking about a topic, connected to a specific understanding of the world, and a certain selection of knowledge/facts. So in a way, the three traditions mentioned above can be seen as three discourses about sustainability.

Within each discourse, since it is based on certain knowledge, epistemology, norms, etc, some actions seem reasonable while others don’t. How we talk about sustainability determines what way of understanding we offer to students, and which actions would seem reasonable arising from that, thus facilitating or limiting future actions.

For example, talking about climate change:

  • A fact-based teacher might frame a session on “the heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide”. This would encourage students to deepen their knowledge by for example read books, and a result might be informed citizens
  • A normative teacher might focus on “how we can reduce our effect on the climate”, thus influencing students’ attitudes and behaviour, educating moral citizens
  • A pluralistic teacher could invite “different standpoints in the debate on climate change”, thus inviting students to reflect and develop own actions and views, leading to political citizens

The discourse that is chosen thus offers different roles and different visions, helping students “become someone” in relation to the discourse (or reject it, then becoming ignorant, immoral, or careless citizens in the respective traditions).

Reflecting about power in teaching is really important and these questions can help:

  • In what different ways do I talk about the topic?
  • How will the ways I talk about the topic shape the students’ understanding, views, role?
  • What other views are out there that I should include?

How we speak and act leads to different consequences“, and we should take great care considering the responsibility we have there!

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

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