Reorienting Education Towards the Heart of Sustainability
This piece highlights learning across conversations held between a gen z student and
gen z teacher here at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. We focus primarily on
what we believe education should be about, to really contribute to sustainability. It is largely philosophical rambling, where we actively decided to keep it a bit vague so that you can think about these topics in relation to your own experience. We openly invite everyone to join us in this conversation!
Tim: ‘When we were able to shape the project in such a direction where we believed we could add value to the existing knowledge, I got a much deeper understanding of the topic. Through this more research-based learning process, we had the freedom to find creative solutions that we felt passionate about. When it comes to sustainability challenges, I believe the level of creativity and passion of students are very important factors to consider. If all learning within this organization was based on this level of trust and freedom, imagine how much more we could learn while making this world a little better.’
Both of us are passionate about sustainability, so we decided to sit down for this conversation. One question guided us our conversation: How can we re-orient learning towards real sustainability? We talked about the implications of sustainability-oriented learning and the role that education has to facilitate the transition towards a sustainable world. This article emerged based on collaboration between a student and teacher for over a year, culminating in a co-designed course with room for personal development and creativity.
Education has been relatively quick in adding the cognitive, and technical sides of sustainability into curricula. But the heart (feeling) side of sustainability is all but lost. What does sustainability mean for you and me? What does it mean for the region? What does sustainability mean for the way we look at learning and teaching? We believe that in order to really contribute to the required transitions, sustainability should have a much deeper impact on our learning cultures. We cannot transform society without transforming ourselves and we can only do that through learning about sustainability from the heart, hand, and head. Real change emerges from a change in our values, thinking, mindset and being. This extends to the very foundations on which we base our educational design, learning, grading, and culture. The complexity and challenges involved in this reorientation is frankly, equally terrifying and exciting. Above all, we believe that sustainability-oriented learning is a source of hope, innovation, and an open call for meaningful change. What’s the issue?
Tim: ‘During my time at THUAS, I have always surrounded myself with people passionate about sustainability themselves. However, to me this always felt like a relatively small part of the entire organization’. If as an organization you want to be taken seriously about sustainability, it should shine throughout. How can you expect your education to breathe sustainability if the organization itself does not openly support this mindset?
There are so many creative people here who have a heart for sustainability. A lot of educational programmes are designed so that students are engaged with sustainability. But this often neglects their hearts, leaving the emotional and value aspect of sustainability disregarded in our learning. How can we strive to educate young people to be agents of change if we don't teach them the importance of the heart of sustainability?
Learning for sustainability that goes beyond CO2 calculations, business or policy and dives into the emotional and value-laden aspects of sustainability.
Because of the disconnect between the sustainability ambitions of the organization as a whole and the efforts of pioneering students, researchers, and teachers at times we feel disappointment. There are a lot of great initiatives hidden throughout THUAS, particularly for circular economy (also linked to the Circular Business research group). Usually, these are limited to courses and minors, exclusively as cognitive knowledge. Often based on older ideas of teaching (sending information instead of co-creating new knowledge as equals). However, sustainability is not frequently, if ever, the foundational core of learning. As such, we believe that the organization can never truly live and breathe sustainability unless the transformation that you can start to see on the outside (curricula, courses, new catering) is internalized (hearts) in all.
In the Process & Food technology programme we have experimented with a type of learning which we believe is closer to sustainability-oriented education. While we don’t argue that this is the only or even the right way, we openly invite anyone to join us in this thinking and re-design learning with sustainability as its unshakable core. While there were other factors for sustainability-oriented learning, we focus on two, which are intricately intertwined trust and power, purposely leaving them context-free so that you can reflect upon them from your own learning perspectives.
Pedagogy of Trust
Neoliberal values are seeped through our learning, focusing exclusively on measuring learning as final deliverables. Severely limiting your ability to re-shape and re-orient projects and challenges that we work on so that they can be more meaningful and valuable to us. Often, we have to answer predefined questions when more interesting ones may appear during our learning processes. While the structure is nice, it can limit the room for creativity, while creativity is precisely what we need to achieve sustainability! We believe this is fundamentally due to a problem of trust, not trusting students to have the creative capacity and potential to deliver good work or a lack of trust in oneself as the grader to deal with multiple contexts.
Sustainability is fluid, contextual, highly dynamic, and requires a different type of creative problem-solving. Sustainability-oriented learning should allow for this openness, complexity and chaos, giving all learners involved (student and teachers) the opportunity to reorient and co-design the learning processes. To derive meaning and value from complexity and relations.
Tim: While at times the freedom to pivot, re-orient and change goals continuously was frustrating, we learned much more from this process of learning and there was room for students to further develop - and include their passion into their work. Engaging as co-learners in collaborative processes based on trust where new knowledge and meaning is
Hierarchies of Power
Generally, in our experience, the hierarchy of power is already quite balanced when you enter a stage of true collaboration, where students and teachers co-design learning processes for sustainability. The combination of expert know-how and fresh learner creativity can lead to novel discoveries and more meaningful learning. This also has a huge impact on the learning environment, with a high level of trust (not being afraid to share ideas, to participate, or to change goals and directions based on student recommendation) and low hierarchies of power. This is, we believe, where true sustainability-oriented learning can take place.
Bas: In order to fully contribute to sustainability, a pedagogy of trust together with hierarchies of power must be looked at in perspective to the educational system. Because of a lack of trust and imbalanced power, we are not creating as much sustainability transformation (both personal and social) as we could. I fundamentally believe that tackling sustainability transitions requires creativity, which thrives in environments of trust and balance.
While this piece is short, and we have learned much more about sustainability-oriented learning, we believe trust and power are the two main factors to consider in relation to education. We would like to leave you with the following: Imagine what the impact would be from re-orienting education, based on trust and equality, for meaningful, heartfelt sustainability learning. What could your learning experience have looked and felt like? And how much more could you have learned in the same time?
By: Bas van den Berg & Tim den Hoedt
Tim den Hoedt is a final year Chemical Engineering student interested in all the aspects of the transition towards a sustainable/circular society, especially politics and policy. In his free time, he loves playing volleyball and doing CrossFit and he is always open for chats about (international) politics, sustainability, or probably any other topic.
Bas is an activist, researcher, and teacher. He is a bit of a weird duck in the organization. As a former student, back in the system, and still (barely) generation Z, he is trying to create change from the inside. He teaches for Process & Food Technology, works for the Circular Business research group and is responsible for linking Mission Zero with education. In his free time he enjoys video games and weightlifting and is always interested in chatting about sustainability. Currently, he is designing a new minor based on the ideas in this article and openly invites anyone, student or staff, to help him!