• Sustainability & Education "big picture"

    Posted by Laurence on 24 June 2020 at 5:08 am

    GUIDING QUESTION: To what extent is education one of the primary drivers of unsustainability and how does this support/challenge our ambitions to reach the Sustainable Development Goals?

    Deleted User replied 4 years ago 7 Members · 13 Replies
  • 13 Replies
  • Kevin

    26 June 2020 at 4:50 am

    I enjoyed reading David Orr’s speech. His first myth about ignorance made me think about this TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_firestein_the_pursuit_of_ignorance?language=en. I do feel that ignorance has negative connotations and actually, ignorance can instigate a desire to learn. I also question his belief that knowledge does not imply morality. (3rd myth). I think that there is an ethical component to knowledge (thinking about this from a TOK point of view)

    I think traditional education (with its roots in the industrial revolution) was perhaps an instigator of unsustainability. I wonder if we have made progress since this speech in the 1990s. There is still a long way to go. The MDGs were a spectacular failure in many regards. But I believe there is a move to moving beyond the factory-like model of education. I may have a cognitive bias because of the schools that I have been working in. I take that point into consideration.

    • Ian

      26 June 2020 at 11:43 am

      Really enjoyed the TED talk. Thanks for sharing!

      • Rebecca

        27 June 2020 at 1:07 am

        Me, too…insightful!

    • Laurence

      27 June 2020 at 4:04 am


      I love that your response has an inherent message of positivity in it. I love too that you are questioning Orr’s thoughts, as this is the hope for this course. Much has actually changed since that speech but in many ways the problems still persist. I agree with your point about ignoranse and I hope that your point about the relationship between knowledge and morality. Though I have seen many knowledgable people happy to put aside their morality in order to reach a goal I have also seen much of the connection you describe. I suppose the important thing is that, as educators, we need to recognize that morality is part of the conversation and that having a larger perspective (the multiple lenses) is important in moving in that direction. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Katherine

    26 June 2020 at 5:50 am

    The quote from Orr’s speech that “education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom” stuck with me and highlights the importance of social-emotional learning in schools and how service-learning can be an avenue for incorporating more of that.

    Something else I thought about while reading was how easy it has become to obtain information and accordingly how easily misinformation and bias are spread in today’s technological and internet age. We are no longer forced to use problem-solving and critical thinking skills in the ways that were needed in the past. When we consider the original intent of traditional education, which was to impart knowledge on students, which is still the pedagogical approach used by many teachers and institutions around the world, and couple all that with the easy access to information on the web, many have become passive, apathetic and numb to learning. This does not bode well for the type of thinking and action that is needed to move towards a sustainable future.

    That being said, I do feel change is coming. Schools are becoming more progressive, individual subjects are being dismantled, classroom walls, removed, skills being the focus over content, partnerships with the community being formed, but is it happening fast enough?

    • Laurence

      27 June 2020 at 4:10 am


      Thanks for pushing my own mind in terms of your thoughts on technology and the type of thinking that it promotes. A very good point. I have two young(er) daughters who are just now getting into the world of computers and “googling” and it has been an interesting journey making sure that they can determine what an good source might be versus just a nicely presented biases one. As for the social-emotional learning there is a study that we used at ASD to frame our thinking in terms of more strategic planning (I’ll try to find it) that was created by one of these future think tanks. It talked about things like artificial intelligence and human-computer relationships and all this furturistic stuff. It also essentially said that jobs requiring manual labor and recurring skills will effectively become obsolete soon. It noted that the focus of education will have to be on social emotiona. skills, emotional intelligence, cricital thinking and analysis, all that kind of stuff. It really does make one wonder how much of an overhaul we need to make in terms of pure content of what we teach.

  • Ian

    26 June 2020 at 10:08 am

    Came across an article shared by ecologist and journalist, George Monbiot this afternoon, that is a nice update of Orr’s message for our current climate.


    Here are my thoughts from my workbook entry:

    During the time of a global pandemic, many people want the world to get “back to normal”. However, as David Orr discusses, normal is the problem. This time period is phenomenal. We’re seeing people’s voices being used and democrats being voted for, there is a shift toward anti-racism and anti-colonialism within curricula, and ESG investments and Green New Deals are being made.

    COVID-19 is serving as a huge alarm bell (and hopefully a catalyst/accelerator), because if changes aren’t made quickly, then our planet and its communities will ultimately face climate catastrophe.

    Education is at the center as we prepare citizens and leaders for our future world. Without the necessary changes in education, the next generation won’t be able to build a sustainable future (much like we are struggling). Students need to learn how to become problem solvers, how to connect and transfer understanding between traditional subjects, and how to communicate for change. Before all this can occur, a person needs to be well, in all senses of the word. SDGs 3 & 4 are at the heart of individuals as they grow. If our generation can provide solid foundations for the next generation through these 2 SDGs, then we will be far more likely to succeed on the path to 2030 and beyond.

    We cannot go back to normal. Quality education must be delivered to ensure that.

    Here is an infographic displaying the positive impact SDG4 Quality Education can have on the other SDGs:

    Infographic SDG4’s Positive Impact

    • Laurence

      27 June 2020 at 4:15 am

      Ian this is good stuff! I love the fact that you are forward thinking and positive, and recognizing the value of all these questions that are being raised in order to make the world a better place. You are very right, of course, with regard to COVID-19 having really put things in perspective. It reminds me of the causal loop diagrams that we will discuss in module 6 regarding reinforcing and balancing feedback loops (more on that later today). When something keeps happening and there is increasing data to suggest that it’s not working it tends to create a crash of some sort…. it’s a sign of unsustainable practices. In the case of Green New Deal we are perhaps focusing on the conomic and nature categories of the Compass. In Black Lives Matter we are focusing on society. Either way, we have evidence that the current systems are not sustainable in their present form and are ready for a shift. As educators we play a huge role in that shift and so your words, the article you shared and the infographic all fill me with hope. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jeremiah

    26 June 2020 at 11:36 pm

    David Orr’s speech reveals the dilemma faced in today’s world. In our pursuit of knowledge to create a better future, such as the developing things for comfort, technological or even health advancements, responsible use of resources and care for the environment becomes sidelined. Education that is supposed to serve the needs of the people take precedence over care for the Earth, lead to an ecological imbalance and possibly an unsustainable future. As Orr puts it, ‘education did not put an adequate barrier to barbarity’. He reiterates this by dispelling the notions that education will change things and solve problems. Although this might seem as a challenge to building a sustainable future, there is an increasing awareness that our practices have to change. In Orr’s words, ‘knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world’. Hence, even as we attempt to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, education can be the driver to support these ambitions if the knowledge gained is used responsibly. Reaching the UN SDGs can be supported by education as we come to a better understanding of the balance required in the environment and communities and the practices that need to be undertaken to achieve a more sustainable future.

    An example would be The Good Life Goals project, https://sdghub.com/goodlifegoals/, which seeks to use education to support individuals and organizations to reach the UN SDGs.

    • Laurence

      27 June 2020 at 4:20 am


      Thank you for highlighting the need for taking responsibility for the planet. The current educational system, remember, was created essentially for people to be given information at scale and to prepare them for the “professions” or to follow directions. In many parts of the world this is still exactly how it’s done. In boxes. Isolated from other classrooms. Everyone doing their own thing. Transferring information which is becoming more readily available to more and more people. The shift in education starts with all of us and in so doing we are able to generate the converstions, and skills, that are essential for a sustainable future. And, by the way, I don’t know if you were able to see the module 3 presentation yesterday but I followed your lead and discussed the Good Life Goals just a little bit as they are a great and very practical starting point. As I said in the session, there are probably 50 service learning ideas in those examples!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Rebecca

    27 June 2020 at 1:19 am

    “Ignorance is not a solvable problem, but rather an inescapable part of the human condition.”

    Love, love, love this! I do my best with my elementary students to model “adult behavior” in the world…including mine. Let me begin with social/emotional learning. Think about the last conflict/challenge/frustration YOU had lately…home life or work…doesn’t matter. Did you handle it perfectly? Did you apply all of the “desirable characteristics” that we instill in children?

    Perhaps you did and I’m still just a 50-year old kid trying to learn human interaction skills myself. Perhaps I don’t come from a elementary/high school environment that taught/modeled these skills for me. Maybe I make bad job choices and I am not surrounded by people who can build me up.

    My point? I firmly believe that no individual wakes up and says, “How can I make the world suck today? What can I go out and destroy?” My mission revolves around Barr’s quote above. “Bad things” happen over time as an accumulation of all the small moments in our life.

    Going back to SEL, when something happens to me (the teacher) that I didn’t handle to the best of my availability, I use that as a discussion point for my kids. 1) To teach them empathy 2) To model that adults deal with the same sort of issues kids face and 3) That life long learning requires constant daily reflection of “How can we do better?”

    I understand that a lot of learning designers think of sustainability and systems more so in the natural world of things. I, however, use it to apply to the human condition.

    • Laurence

      27 June 2020 at 4:25 am


      Thank you for sharing this. I LOVE that you are focusing on the human side of things. Certainly it’s just as unsustainable for humanity to treat each other like dirt and the present political state of the world (all over the world) is a difficult pill to swallow as more and more leaders turn inward and more authoritarian in their approach. Typically this is a sign of unsustainability as well. In the microcosm of a classroom the same applies. Of course we are not perfect, and we make mistakes, but as you mentioned, we need to deal with them in a constructive way and recognize the power of empathy, inter-connectedness and collaborative problem solving. Providing voice to stakeholders is an important piece of sustainability and, as it turns out, to a happy classroom too. :-). It’s hard to tell what is more important – the human condition of the planetary condition – but my approach is to try to make the right decision in all those small moments so that, over time, I can tell myself that, given what I knew and understood at the time of the decision, I made the most good and least harm. Thank you for making the connections to the lives that we touch as educators. It’s.a very important thing to remember.

  • Deleted User

    Deleted User
    27 June 2020 at 5:40 am

    I also enjoyed reading this speech!

    At my school, we had 5 weeks of online learning where only children of essential workers attended school. The following 5 weeks of school were a slow return to “normal”. Staff ‘water-cooler’ conversations over the last 5 weeks have been focused around how can we keep the best things about online learning and not just revert back to the way things were.

    We teach in innovative learning environments and one thing we have often discussed is that we are attempting to educate students for the 21st century using mostly methods and facilities that have been around for decades. Is this global pandemic a catalyst for change?

    As schools/school districts realise the need to teach sustainability and to embed it into their curriculum this will support ambitions to reach towards the SDGs. Bringing this back to my school context, if I went to school after the mid year break and said “Let’s embed sustainability curriculum into our units!” I would not be very popular. The main objection I would get is that the curriculum is overcrowded, already we don’t have enough minutes in the day to get through what we have to get through, etc, etc.

    At present, education both supports and challenges efforts to reach SDGs. My hope is that some things (not everything) can change after living through this pandemic. I would hate to see things return to pre-Covid19! If this pandemic is not a catalyst for change, I don’t know what will be!