What you can’t measure still exists!

Human ideas, experiences, and intentions are not objective things like molecules and atoms. Nevertheless, like their colleagues in the natural sciences, many educational researchers attempt to use objective methods that allow for control, predictability and the ability to generalize. The scientific method has long been claimed to be a value-free tool of inquiry, allowing many social scientists to create dichotomies between themselves, their methods and their research. This separation is a dangerous one, for it gives scientists a false authority of truth.

Knowledge and human interests are interwoven, as reflected in the choice of methods and the ends to which such methods are put. The idea that there is a world that can be totally analyzed, predicted, and controlled — the world of positivistic science — is frightening. Unless we reflect on the ends to be served by science, we risk that prediction and control and their associated methods might exclude other ends such as: improved understanding among people, release of human potential and formation of a sustainable relationship with our surroundings.

Many educators and researchers of education have tried to structure educational content matter and the way it is presented to students using hierarchical levels of universal goals and objectives – even environmental educators and sustainability educators tend to do this. Outside experts determine what students need in terms of knowledge, attitudes, values and skills; design a curriculum that consists of measurable/quantifiable goals and objectives; implement the program; test to what extent the goals and objectives are realized; modify the program and reinstruct the teacher. In the worst case scenario, the students, sometimes referred to nowadays as ‘clients’ or, even worse, “throughput,” become a database, the teacher an implementation instrument who is constantly held accountable using checklists, indicators and associated reporting mechanisms.

What is supposed to be a culture of learning becomes a culture of accountability… Only the researcher, who gets an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, stands to benefit.

This widely used positivistic approach to education research and development often results in the ignoring of students’ ideas, experiences and mini-theories, as well as the teacher’s own classroom experiences and expertise. Teachers and students are not viewed as capable to determine the content of their own education, to set their own goals and objectives that are compatible with the community they live in and, finally, are not allowed to evaluate their own teaching and learning. Alienation between researchers and school community (but also between school managers and their own teaching staff) and disempowerment of teachers and students who have been denied a role in shaping and evaluating their own education, often is the result.

Is there a way of doing research that is less alienating and more supportive a “culture of learning”? One research approach that provides some answers has elements of Action Research and Phenomenology. The traditions of Action Research and Phenomenology use — although not exclusively — qualitative research methods such as field research, descriptive research, and ethnography in which the researcher takes the role of observer/participant and interpreter. Research here is more than a data collecting activity in that it actively seeks to understand as well as to improve the school and its community through simultaneous action and reflection with all parties involved. (See Journal of Environmental Education, “Education in Action: A Community Problem Solving Program for Schools.” Summer, 1990.)

The emphasis in research is no longer on finding causality, generating generalizable results and predicting the future with statistical accuracy. Instead the emphasis in on documenting and describing human experience and intentions, using diagnostic instruments, one’s own observations and those of teachers and students; interpreting these with all involved participants; relating the results with the foundations, goals and objectives of education (for human development); and discussing ways to adjust the curriculum and classroom practice as a result of newly obtained insights. The main objective is not to find out the kinds of changes that occur in the learner as a result of an educational endeavor, but to find out whether the design of such an endeavor, the way it was guided/facilitated and supported, and the institutional setting in which education is embedded, provided for such change in the first place!

A researcher has the moral obligation to work for and with the participants in his/her study. EE research should have a pedagogical end in the sense that the participants somehow benefit from the research. Thus, research should not just be an attempt to learn about people, but to come to know with them the reality which challenges them.

I have only scratched the surface in introducing an alternative paradigm for doing EE research. Before uncritically accepting the dominant positivistic paradigm, we have to consider alternatives. It is my belief that it is the same world of positivism that allowed for environmental deterioration at its current pace and scope in the first place!

Note: an earlier version of this post was first published when I was a student at the University of Michigan in Environmental Communicator , November/December, 1990:12) – some minor changes have been made.

Blurring Boundaries and Expanding Horizons – Re-thinking education and learning in an era of (un)sustainability

Although technological advances, new policies, laws and legislation are essential in moving towards sustainability, it is not enough! Ultimately, sustainability needs to emerge in the everyday fabric of life – in the minds of people, organizations and communities, and in the values they live by. Such emergence depends on how and what people learn, both individually and collectively. A central question in my work is how to create conditions that support new forms of learning that take full advantage of the diversity, creativity and resourcefulness which is all around us, but so far remains largely untapped in our search for a world that is more sustainable than the one currently in prospect. This question was also the focus of a two day seminar organized in The Netherlands a while back with Rietje van Dam-Mieras (a UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainable Development and ICTs) and the able assistance of Rebekah Tauritz.

Fortunately the persistent call for a more sustainable world continues to influence policy-making, governance, public debate, business decisions and lifestyles. Nonetheless we are still searching for adequate responses to manifestations of unsustainability which are manifold (e.g. the depletion of natural resources, the rise of unnatural disasters, human-induced climate change, marine toxicity, and rising inequity). This search is marinated in complexity, uncertainty and controversy. After all, governing, consuming, producing and living inevitably takes place in rich social contexts with actors representing innumerable vantage points, interests, values, power positions, beliefs and needs.

‘Learning in one form or another is increasingly seen as a key in transitioning towards a more sustainable world. Learning-based change, anticipatory learning, collaborative learning, community problem-solving, and social learning represent just a few of the many ideas and concepts that are connected to the quest for sustainability. It is through various form of learning that a more reflexive society can emerge, one in which creativity, flexibility and diversity are released and used to deal with the challenges posed by sustainability, one that has the capacity to challenge existing routines, norms and values and one that has both the desire and the ability to correct itself.

Universities, colleges, schools and institutes of vocational education have a key role to play fostering these types of learning and need to figure out the possible consequences for the way they structure their curricula, for the kind of research that is needed, for the kinds competencies they need and wish to develop in staff members and students, and for the way they interface with the community. The latter is crucial in times that demand increased permeability between disciplines, cultures, institutions and sectors.

Key questions we need to address include:

  • How can schools, colleges and universities participate meaningfully in trans-boundary learning projects that are rooted in (local) sustainability issues?
  • How can we utilize the change potential of diversity in co-creating new visions and more sustainable ways of living and working?
  • How (and to what degree) can such learning be designed, supported and facilitated?


Change we can believe in and beliefs we can change – a personal journey

In the end transformative learning is about changing people: changing the way they think, act and the things they value in life. When I started to study Environmental Studies at Wageningen University (www.wur.nl)  back in the eighties of the last century, I thought differently though. I naively thought that technology would clean up the world, in combination with strict environmental laws and legislation. The rapid decline of our natural resources, the chronic and acute disasters happening across the globe demanded quick and swift action, and if necessary an ‘eco-totalitarian regime’ to make sure that the Earth could going with us human beings still around.

It took me about a year or two as a student to realize that, although important, if only to buy us more time, new technologies, laws, legislation, etc. are quick-fixes and end-of-pipe solutions that do not really address the root causes of un-sustainability, environmental decline and ecological disasters. This realization led to a gradual move from the natural sciences towards the social sciences. I started taking all courses taught there with the word ‘environmental’ in it: environmental sociology, environmental communication, environmental history, environmental psychology (which unfortunately became extinct in Wageningen), etc. and ended up doing an internship in environmental education (teaching environmental sciences in a Chicago suburb) and a thesis on ‘systems thinking and constructivist approaches of learning in the context of environmental education’. The questions that intrigued me then and still do today included: how do we reconnect people with their (non-virtual) environment? How can people become critical of their own lifestyles and the giant forces that shape their material values (900 billion $ is spent on advertising per annum globally)? How can people begin to see the intricate ways in which the way they life affects the lives of others elsewhere and, indeed the lives of other species? How can we bridge the gap between awareness (knowing that we need to change) and action (actually making changes in our everyday lives?

One thing that I did back then in Chicago during my internship at Oak Park & River Forest High School, was to help start a network of high school students and teachers who wanted to do more against environmental degradation and the loss of nature: caretakers of the environment international (www.caretakers4all.org). This network reached its 25th anniversary in the Summer of 2001 and has involved and inspired thousands of teachers and students around the globe. It not only gave me that ‘yes, we can feeling’ it also taught me the power of passion and connectivity. For me personally it provided a launching pad for my academic career. After I graduated in 1987 I was determined to get my PhD at a university with a strong reputation in Environmental Education at the time: The University of Michigan. I was lucky to get a Fulbright scholarship and moved to Ann Arbor.

At the University of Michigan I also experienced the power collectives and community engagement.  My advisor Bill Stapp always considered everybody an expert in something and counted on everyone’s ability to make a statement. Before you knew it you were the one speaking to a group, an audience, a seminar, etc. He hardly every took the center stage himself, always putting his students in the middle. I am still grateful for that because it gave me the opportunity to become comfortable when speaking in public or presenting something. He too had this ‘yes we can!’ attitude that was borderline naïve but at least it led to science with societal impact (as opposed to science merely for impact factors high ranking journals…). Perhaps the most ambitious plan he had was to start a global network of schools monitoring the quality of their watersheds. We spent an entire six ECTS graduate course designing this network, including on finding the funding to get it started. And we did: a few months layer the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) was launched on four continents and almost every student taking the course became engaged in a number of teacher workshops in places they had not imagined ever going to. This network still exists and is run by a USA-based NGO called Earth Force (www.earthforce.org)

But in the end I returned to the valley of the Wageningen Social Sciences in hopes to start my own strand of education and research in the spirit of Bill Stapp. I got a job as researcher within the Agricultural Education Group (now Education & Competence Studies) teaching environmental and sustainability education courses and doing research on a range of topics including: action research & community problem-solving, whole school approaches to sustainability, biodiversity education, multi-stakeholder social learning, and sustainability in higher education. Eventually this led to a Professorship in Social learning and Sustainable Development supported by UNESCO. I still try to fumble my way towards a more sustainable way of living, although the gap between theory and practice is still way too big, also in my personal life.

I figure if I can reach five students a year in a meaningful way that orients their careers towards sustainability (instead of towards becoming more effective vandals of the Earth, as David Orr suggests, which most careers unwillingly contribute to…) and if those students will go on to effect those around them in this direction as well then I have real impact however modest it may still be.

Recent interviews and speaking events

“Universities and Environmental Sustainability”
Keynote held at the University of Oslo at UNICA Green Academic Footprint – Universities Committed and Connected towards Environmental Sustainability on 3rd and 4th of May 2011. Podcast to be heard at: http://uv-net.uio.no/wpmu/hedda/2011/05/27/podcast-on-universities-and-environmental-sustainability/

Interview with SWEDESD (Swedish Decade of Education for Sustainable Development on SWEDESD TV –  (October 2010) on the meaning of social learning in the context of sustainability.

“The prius-effect in ESD – Accelerating sustainability through hybrid learning, some examples from The Netherlands”
Leuphana University, Germany, Sustainability Lecture Series, January 20th, 2011. A snap-shot of a much longer lecture that starts with the phenomenon of “green washing”

Interview with the European Training Foundation on the role of Education for Sustainability in Technical and Vocational Education and Training and in Entrepreneurial Learning (September 2011)
held in Torino, Italy in August of 2011.