Working on the Right Things

by Richard Grogan

Have you ever felt that you are working on the wrong things? As I look back on my educational experiences, I remember many points where I felt as though I was learning something I should know, but I failed to see the connection to any larger purpose.

I see Educating for Sustainability as a critical way to build that connection, as well as meaning, pursuit, and purpose into everything we teach, and everything we learn. Sustainability is a perfect target because it is a moving one; there is no ability (or excuse) to stop learning, because both the theory and practice of sustainability are in a perpetual state of change.

Many of the world’s great problems are rooted in sustainability. Conflicts emerge over intolerance, or scarce natural resources, and while armed, open conflicts based on these issues are less common in “western” countries, the political arena in which they take place in the U.S. and elsewhere have similarly disastrous outcomes.

The problems described above are often called “wicked problems,” but I instead endeavor to teach students of all ages that there is great beauty to be found in complexity; I see this as one of the most important lessons in education for sustainability. While there are no easy answers to these situations, there are patterns, feedback loops, and other joyous discoveries, and in my experience, when you identify complexity it means you are asking the right questions.

Whether personally relevant to each of us or not, it strikes me anecdotally that we increasingly don’t see ourselves as pursuing any common goals – no matter how broad. In the U.S., we are plied with platitudes such as the pursuit of “liberty” or “freedom,” but this is often operationalized through things like tax cuts or military spending. And that is what I mean by working on the wrong things; those are simply tactics, devoid of vision or long-term strategies guiding us towards a “better” world in the future.

Peter Checkland's landmark book "Systems Thinking, Systems Practice"

By contrast, sustainability is itself a vision. While we are reluctant to put a final point on a single definition, we know that it is often explained by referring to complex systems, which paint, as Peter Checkland would call it, a Rich Picture of interconnectedness, and hence feedback impacting others based on our actions, and impacting us based on others’ choices.

The sooner that a vision of all of us working together, impacted by each other, is integrated into the earliest educational environments (which include how we treat each other…in the worldwide classroom), the sooner we can understand why even working on what feels like the wrong things leads us to the pursuit of a greater good.

  1. chad braden said:

    I love your thesis. I have experienced similar feelings about my learning path in life. Ultimately I have come to feel as you do, that there are no wrong things to learn as long as we connect them to the things that matter. This broader and enlightened picture has much to teach us about the impact of each decision we make and how to evaluate it. The lens of sustainability offers that “moving target” you speak of and a constant reminder to make space to continue our learning of how everything is connected (and impacted) by everything else. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Rich Grogan said:

      Thanks Chad! I think that sometimes the fluidity of sustainability can turn people off. I’m happy to hear that you have embraced it, and I hope that you will continue to engage others with your enthusiasm…

  2. John R. White said:

    Rich, I will simply “ditto” Chad’s comments as right on. (He always did get the last word anyway, as I recall from our encounters over bagels. Hah!) I recently got involved with the coordinating group for Transition Amherst (MA), and as I learn more about how the inner dynamics of the Transition Towns (TT) movement is designed I am beginning to see this view expressed in your blog in practice on a community-wide scale. It isn’t a perfect representation, of course, but it appears to be one of the core values and I think it plays an important role in why people are attracted to TT and why it is spreading across the globe. Thank you for your thoughts. It is always good to be reminded of this positive outlook, in an effort to carry it in daily consciousness.
    – John White / MBA ’10

    • Rich Grogan said:

      Thanks John. If you have links or more information about TT where you live, could you pass it along?

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