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.