Sustainability education for adult learners implicitly and explicitly forms an important component of participatory sustainable community development programs that have become commonplace as part of international development practice. Community-based sustainability education programs for adults vary in their focus on content and process. Defining learning as making meaning that leads to action, we use a critical learning cycle model to analyze learning processes in two water conservation programs in Jordan, one of the world’s most water scarce countries, where sustainability education is an important part of the national water management strategy. In this model, which incorporates inspirational learning and experience-based learning, learners integrate insight and experience to create meaning and to take action. We present the findings from detailed case studies of the two programs, one of which takes a content-oriented approach to sustainability education and the other a more process-oriented approach. We used qualitative research methods including ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with program managers and participants that we analyzed through emergent thematic coding and validated with member-checking and peer review. We observe that the process-focused program was more successful in fostering individual-, household-, and community-level change than the content-focused approach. We conclude with recommendations to develop community capacity to address complex environmental challenges including process-oriented approaches that incorporate internal learning processes and multiple cycles of experience-based experimentation. In these approaches, learners are able to apply what they have learned and test ideas as they develop a more thorough understanding of the problems at hand and their potential solutions while engaging in culturally appropriate forms of expressive self-reflection to make new ideas meaningful.
The field work for this research was supported by the Fulbright-Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, and could not have been successful without the support of Alain McNamara, and a host of Jordanian development professionals who shared their expertise and learning throughout the research process. The write-up was supported in part by the following sources: the National Science Foundation under award number SES-0924210; the Gender, Justice, and Environmental Change Program at Michigan State University (MSU), and a dissertation research completion grant at MSU.