June 17th, 2014

Essential Elements of Sustainability Education

By Jay Roberts

Roberts Jay JSE May 2014

Essential Elements of Sustainability Education Template


Learning Outcomes
Enduring Understandings/Big Ideas: Systems thinkingEthics “Critical sustainability”—race, class, power, identity issues. Multi-perspectival thinking. Adaptive thinkingIndividuality, sociality, and agency

Design thinking

Content Knowledge :  Education and curriculum theoryEconomics- micro and macroPublic PolicyCultural studiesEcology

Resource management

Organizational and individual change management


Skill Sets:  Quantitative literacyCommunity-based research methodologiesConsensus and collaborative facilitationGeographic Information Systems and other forms of digital literacyPublic speaking, written communication

Grant writing

Attitudes:  True “liberal” thinking- considering the possibility that you may be mistaken and the ability to change your mind.Anti-racist and keenly aware of privilege (yours and others)Capacity to have “hope without illusion”Pragmatism
Behaviors and Actions: Allowance that we all live lives of contradiction while simultaneously acting as ethically as possibleSPICE—Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Equality

The Classroom or Educational Setting
Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Practices Aligned With Learning Outcomes:Yes? Not sure what you want here but this should certainly be the case.
Characteristics of Authentic Engagement: Intrinsic motivationHolding contradictory evidence in tension with one anotherListening to and learning from othersAbility to critique and also to actExpression of emotions while learning- joy, laughter, sadness, anger, frustration, etc.


Favorable Conditions—Organizational Policies and Practices:  Institutional alignment toward “everyday” sustainability“Blended” approaches—both top-down and bottom-upSustainability aligned with mission and vice versaEvolution from petty “legalism” (recycling) to holistic, values-based action

Long term and creative financial modeling (beyond 1 year out cost-benefit analyses)

Student-driven learning


Characteristics of Institution-Community Partnerships:  Community engagement targeted at capacity building (beyond the one-off project to longitudinal work) Dedicated positions focused on partnerships and networking (constituent relations) 

Co-generated, long term goals and objectives between community and institution


Asset-mentality and not deficit mentality (community not seen as something to “fix” or “help” but rather as an equal partner with knowledge and skills to share.

I organized it the way that I did based upon my own values and ethics as a practicing Quaker as well as what I have seen that works and does not work in the educational contexts where I have worked. I believe there is too much simplistic idealism in much of EfS at the moment and not enough careful consideration of alternative points of view. “Environmental Folklore” such as localism, organic, free-trade, etc. predominates without interrogation as to the possibilities and limitations of these so-called “solutions.” Students appear to be taught to critique “the system” without a fuller understanding of what that system entails and how to go about making actual change at local, regional, national levels. Students also appear to lack the strong quantitative literacies necessary to be taken seriously by policy makers and societal leaders. Many of my students start out volunteering on a farm in the summer, for example, only later to realize they have to get serious about economics, law, policy, etc. If you want to be a farmer as your life-project I think that’s great. Really. And, we also need students willing to go into politics, econ, industry, etc.

As an experientialist, I am also a firm believer in authentic, problem and project-based curricula that occurs in context while placing this activity in dialogic relationships to more theoretical and conceptual orientations. It’s curious, by the way, that this form did not ask about pedagogical approaches—these are intimately connected, in my view, to content and skill sets.

The literature that informs my perspective philosophically is American pragmatism (John Dewey, Richard Rorty) as well as Critical Theory (Habermas, Freire, Maxine Greene).  In terms of educational approaches, David Orr, David Sobel, David Greenwood are strong influences. On the environmental side, Aldo Leopold, Thoreau, Will Cronon, Rachel Carson, Ramachandra Guha, R. Louv, and Scott Russell Sanders have been influential.

What distinguishes the approach? Trans-disciplinary thinking, the fact that it is a “Crisis Discipline”, the ethical imperative, the action orientation—these things come to mind. How do we know it is happening? This is where evaluation and assessment are really tough. We are after transformation. How do you assess a “turned soul”? This is difficult. And, especially when the change must be permanent and long-term. How do we assess this longitudinally? Is it just about behavior change? These are difficult questions that I continue to wrestle with.

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