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”, and my first part of a summary of

PART III — Designing and implementing teaching and learning practices

here comes my last bit of summary of this book!

Teaching as a matter of staging encounters with literary texts in environmental and sustainability education

Petra Hansson writes about how to use reading and writing in teaching about sustainability. One problem we often encounter is that students are so deeply socialised into fact-based traditions, that they feel very uncomfortable and out of their depth when they are asked to interpret and make personal choices of priorities, for example when reading literature. They are expecting that there is a correct answer that the teacher wants them to find, and cannot imagine that there are many valid answers, especially when it comes to the effect that a text has on them in connection to their own experiences etc, as long as they can explain the reasons behind their choices. That each student might take something different away from reading the same text, and that that is exactly what a teacher might want, seems weird when students are used to science text books where there is exactly one correct way of understanding. But sometimes, meaning is only created when students respond to a text, for example by writing reflections about a text. The author suggests four pedagogical steps to make that happen:

  1. getting actors on stage: Having set an environment to encounter texts in, the stage, the teacher needs to encourage students to get involved with texts, for example by looking at an image of a small island and describing what life would be like on it, and sharing ideas with peers, in preparation of reading Robinson Crusoe — motivating why they should want to read. At this stage, the quality of writing is not important, just eliciting ideas, sharing and collecting them.
  2. getting students into the play: This step is encouraging students to do something with the text while reading it; taking positions to it, relating it to their own experiences, choosing favourite passages, and finally summarising it.
  3. re-viewing the play: Now the work done in 2. is connected to sustainability themes by the teacher, who lets students write about them for a couple of minutes, and choose relevant passages in the original text and reflect on them.
  4. re-acting the play: Finally, the students write for a new, public target audience, communicating the points developed before.

The author writes “students need to be accustomed to a view of reading and writing as not only being tools for extracting and expressing knowledge about the state of the world but also as means for discovering multiple perspectives of experiencing the world, with the final aim of developing solid and firm opinions that can be used in real-life sustainability discussions“.

Next chapter by Sund and Pashby:

Taking up ethical global issues in the classroom

Even though one advice for teaching about sustainability is to focus on local challenges, this might be good advice for when people are first exposed to the topic or reluctant to see the relevance for them personally, but it does hold forever since sustainability is a global challenge. But thinking globally is obviously even more complex since then much larger contrasts between rich and poor, much more different impacts like sea-level rise or desertification, very different cultures, all come together, and this creates the risk of an “us” and “them” thinking between the Global North and Global South that separates between who causes and is a victim, helps and needs help, etc.. Also the SDGs, meant and commonly used as starting point when teaching about sustainable development, are not without criticism, for example because they basically propagate for “business as usual” and implicitly uncritically support values like individualism and competition, as well as contributing to colonial systems of power.

The authors offer a didactical reflective tool (“DiRe tool”) for teaching global issues which contains the four key aspects of a critical engagement with global issues:

  • contextual-historical: how do I relate the present problem to the historical context of global injustice, roles, and positions?
  • affective: how do I include wanting well for others without falling into us/them relationships and charitable donations, how can we use empathy, responsibility, and other emotions constructively?
  • political: how do I address power relations (and that they might not be given and unchangeable) and encourage students to become agents of change?
  • epistemological: how can I include pluralistic perspectives, other ways of knowing, seeing, interpreting, and how do I avoid going for a quick fix that doesn’t actually fix anything in the long run?

While using such a tool is obviously a lot more vague and challenging than following the learning outcomes suggested with the SDGs, it also opens up for much better outcomes.

The next chapter is by Lundegård on

Students as political subjects in discourses on sustainable development – a glimpse from Sarah’s classroom

The author suggests value-clarifying exercises to help students see that they always have choices, that there is no absolute right or wrong, and also let them become aware of the choices they do make without consciously reflecting about their values. In the example, students are instructed to read up on topics like climate change and gene technology, and present on it. They then present two conflicting options and ask their peers to position themselves in the room according to their opinions (“taking a stand”, a bit similar to sociometry, but potentially also with the option to opt out), and then articulate their arguments, elaborate on them, discuss, and maybe even change position at some point. All of these are helpful steps in encouraging students to “become someone” — letting themselves become visible in relation to a topic under debate. And when the topic is culturally (i.e. corresponding with other activities within society) and personally (meaningful for learners) authentic, then teaching is relevant for the here and now and these types of debate can last long beyond the end of a lesson.

The next chapter by Pernilla Andersson elaborates on methods for embodied experiences:

Embodied experiences of ‘decision- making’ in the face of uncertain and complex sustainability issues

In working for sustainability, we are faced with uncertainty and complexity in wicked problems where there are no guidelines for how to make the correct decision (and where there most likely isn’t even one). So how do we make decisions then, and how do we help students learn how to make decisions? A method described in this chapter is ‘Four Corners’, which lets students to experience the political dimension of sustainability issues:

  1. The teacher presents an issue and three pre-defined (reasonable, not obviously “wrong”) responses to it in three corners of the room, and an “open corner”
  2. Students individually and in silence pick the corner that most closely resembles their own opinion and then move there. The teacher has to make sure that everybody feels safe to express their opinions by moving, and in later steps by talking!
  3. Students can now explain why they chose a specific corner. The teacher needs to support and care for students who take social risks for example by standing alone in one corner, by for example providing arguments for that specific statement in that corner.
  4. If students now want to change corners after having listened to the other students’ arguments, they are welcome to do so, and to elaborate on what made them change their mind

Another method for embodied exploration of decision-making is “Forum Play”, a role play with these steps:

  1. Acquiring background knowledge and inspiration by engaging with real or constructed cases, media, documentaries, …
  2. Preparing a short play (5 minutes) that has an un-sustainable ending. The teacher can set the roles involved or suggest some. Students prepare by thinking about themselves in their role: who am I? Where? What do I want and why? How could I be convinced to change my behaviour?
  3. The play is then played once as prepared, and afterwards everybody reflected on what happened, why it was unsustainable, how could one or some of the roles have acted differently for a better outcome?
  4. Then, the play is re-played, except now the audience can say “stop” when something unsustainable happens and they have suggestions of how a role should act differently. They can either suggest that to the actor of the role, or step into that role themselves. This can happen repeatedly with different alternatives, and after each intervention there is a reflection on how it felt. If no suggestions come, the teacher can “freeze” the situation to give people time to think individually or in pairs, in order to find as many alternative suggestions as possible.
  5. After this, the played-out strategies are analysed in terms of how sustainable they were — according to students’ own definitions, or relevant conventions.
  6. Then, there can be a reflection on the ethics involved whenever someone said “stop”, and the new suggested strategies.

In some situations, it is not clear how to go on, and routines don’t work any more. Those moments can become traumatic (as someone loses trust in how things have always worked) but also freeing (since they gain a little independence from their socialisation). In those moments students have to rethink who they want to become, and that can be painful. The author suggests a didactic model for how to think about “business as un-usual”

  1. Emergence of a dislocatory moment: The teacher needs to realise they are happening (for example noting a trembling voice, or hesitation, or anger) to find out where exactly the confusion comes from. Which guiding principles don’t hold any more?
  2. Closure of a dislocatory moment: Does the student find other arguments, logics, … to cope?
  3. Change of guiding principles/logics: During this painful and exhausting step, the teacher needs to “stand by” the student and give them enough time to process. And maybe even follow up with them later and check in?

And with this, we have reached the book’s last chapter, by Tryggvason and Mårdh:

Political emotions in environmental and sustainability education

The authors define “political emotions” as those bodily experiences that a person is aware of, that deal with a) the us/them boundary and b) very different versions of what society should look like. In contrast to a diffuse mood, emotions are directed at someone.

As teachers, we need to deal with emotions that students experience in response to our teaching, and trying to suppress them is not a good idea. However, they can also not take over everything all the time, so what can we do? The authors suggest two strategies, simplification and circulation.

Simplification is a strategy for getting students into feeling their political emotions as to get students (more) engaged in discussions and possibly carrying them beyond the classroom. Simplification is really about reducing the complexity of the discussion by taking moves that simplify

  • the conflict by drawing a line, thus creating two opposing positions of what different groups of people might want (for example, describing the Deepwater Horizon disaster as “accident” vs “environmental crime” as two main positions, in contrast to giving more nuances at this stage; or people vs profit as an either/or conflict, not “on the one hand, … on the other …”)
  • the complexity by equalising differences, meaning rearranging perspectives so that they can be seen “as being of the same kind”, so if the teacher wants to talk about the Deepwater Horizon case as an accident, then it could be discussed together with other accidents. Whereas if it is to be seen as an environmental crime, other cases might be brought into the discussion based on that.

But of course, both those moves and more generally, what decisions a teacher makes, come down to the teacher’s values etc, and are in the end executing power over what opportunities for learning are presented to the students.

But there is this second strategy:

Circulation is a strategy for keeping students’ political emotions alive, to maintain and orient them into a direction that the teachers deep constructive for the discussion. Here, the author suggests two types of moves:

  • Moves that confirm the intensity of students’ emotions, for example when there are positive emotions about solar power, pointing to when nuclear power plants failed.
  • Moves that historicise students’ emotions and (re)orientate them toward other objects, by pointing out how we for example have become used to, and attached to, eating meat, but how a happy life could also be caused by eating something more sustainable. So the point here is that emotions towards objects are not static and natural, but have grown over time and can continue growing and changing in the future. This move really resonates with me!

And with this, we have read the whole book! Phew! Feels like an achievement, even though it was totally meaningful all the time, to the point where I kept reading despite a lot more important and urgent tasks piling up.

So my plan are two next steps, which I am sharing for accountability:

  • Summarize this whole book in one blog post
  • Reading another book on sustainability teaching that has been on my desk for far too long already, and writing summaries of that one, too

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

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