I am sitting at the Boston International Airport (USA), in a coffee shop waiting for the check-in to open. I am in transit to my next destination – Paris– to go back home to Mauritius. I decide to use my waiting and transit time as my personal check-in before I move forward.
I came to the USA to give a presentation at the 2014 Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling Conference for K-12 Education, and to learn how to apply System Dynamics Modelling in Education. The Conference was organized by the Creative Learning Exchange. My presentation focused on application of Systems Thinking and Eco-System Design principles in the Education for Sustainability programme that we developed in collaboration with the Catholic Schools in Mauritius. Click here to see the presentation.
The conference brought together a great variety of educators, System Dynamics Modellers, and academic researchers. It was a honour to meet and exchange as well with some of the founders of the Field of Systems Thinking and System Dynamics, such as Prof Emeritus Jay Forrester, Founder of the field of System Dynamics, MIT, and Prof Emeritus George Richardson, University at Albany, SUNY (who also happens to be an amazing guitarist and country singer), and those who took it further like Peter Senge, MIT and the SOL Education Partnership (well known for his role in applying Systems Thinking to create Learning Organizations and foster business innovation), and Linda Booth Sweeney, Systems Educator & award winning author.
So what are some of the memories that I take home with me? What did I learn through my meetings with all these people, including the bartender who is the only American I met on my trip who is fluent in French and loves Paris!!
First of all I learned why and how in the USA the issue of Climate Change and Sustainable Development is seen as a political issue and not a basic human rights issue that requires bottom up and top down integrated approaches and solutions across all levels of the system. Many Americans believe that Global Warming (or Climate Change) is true or not true depending on the political perspective one takes and depending on which figures and models one believes (or which news stations one taps into). I also learned that one very cold winter can be sufficient to decide that Global Warming is not happening.The video below showcases in a rather extreme way the kind of thought processes and assumptions (mental models) of some of these ‘political’ climate deniers.
I also learned that one State somewhere in the South-West (nobody could provide me with the exact details) passed a law that it is forbidden to teach education for sustainability since this would make the ‘children’ unnecessarily worried and it would undermine the free-market economy.
I was fortunate to connect with a few very forward-thinking women, who have been advocating hard to get education for sustainability onto the agenda, within schools, at policy levels and in the educational networks. Yet, unfortunately these efforts are often met with skepticism and resistance. Most take the approach that it is good to teach children how to recycle and save water, yet linking social justice & human rights, with ecological economics models and environmental issues is largely absent. Linking of environmental issues with social justice is starting to happen, yet the economy is still not included in this and sadly it are the economic models that are driving these social and environmental issues. Sustainable development requires the integration between social, economic, and environmental dimensions of human activities and impacts
This was my third time that I am visiting the USA, twice before in 2005. Once again it was amazing to see the amount of food and heavy consumption of sugar and meat that was supplied in insane proportions. When I inquired with the bartender what happened to all this beautiful luxurious conference food that was left, he told me that sadly it all goes to the bin and staff is not allowed to take it home or distribute it. It appears to me that education for sustainability, healthy life styles, and social-economic innovation are linked. The world provides plenty of examples for this. Now it is time to further leverage, upscale and interlink these individual and local initiatives to catalyse transformative change; and Systems Thinkers are critical to that change.
The highlight of the Conference was the fireside chat with Professor Emeritus Jay Forrester (now 96 years old), retired from MIT and the founder of the System Dynamics Field. I had the fortune to ask him a last question as part of the audience. My question to him was: “You have lived for such a long time and you have seen so many changes in society. If you think of the future for humanity, what is your greatest fear or concern for humanity, and what is your greatest hope for humanity.” He answered by stating that the world is having many problems today because the people who make the decisions are clearly not System Thinkers; they do not understand and see how things are linked and the consequences of their actions across time and space. If enough System Thinkers would be in power, and 10 percent would be sufficient for significant change, the world and future would look very different. His fear was thus that the people in power lack the basic skills and competencies for steering society in the right direction, and his hope was that through all this work in System Dynamics that enough Systems Thinkers would be trained to become the 10% critical mass in the right places.
Feedback and reflections on our EFS programme
My presentation and our Education for Sustainability programme were very well received. Many people took a great interest in the publication that we recently launched together with the BEC and the EFS pilot schools. One of the most common feedback was that people were impressed by the full spectrum that we cover through our programme and in our approach: from foundations of learning & development for EFS, to social justice, ecological footprint analysis, engagement & communication for EFS, and social innovation. Another reflection that I received, that was very valuable, is that it is a great advantage that our work from ELIA is focussed on private sector, public policy, education, and personal development. By having direct experience in each of these fields we bring a perspective to the table and into the schools that is required to innovate the educational systems and programmes.
During an interesting conversation with Peter Senge (MIT and the Society for Organizational Learning), he mentioned that innovation in education as a deliberate intention is often lacking in the educational sector. He stated that this is in contrast to the business sector, where innovation and design for innovation is understood as essential for businesses to survive and thrive. The EFS programme in Mauritius is designed for innovation in education. Dr Honourable Vasant K. Bunwaree, Minister of Education and Human Resources acknowledged this as well during his speech at the EFS launch event of 18 June 2014. When I shared with Peter Senge how some of our EFS programme sponsors are also our corporate sustainability clients (like Terra Ltd and Omnicane Ltd) he was pleasantly surprised. He further suggested that this would also provide great learning opportunities for the students of the EFS schools to get internship opportunities with these companies to better understand business sustainability strategies.
Having had the chance to compare the work we have been doing in Mauritius with what is happening internationally (and in particular in the USA), has been very encouraging. Many educators and educational programme developers from the USA have asked to learn more about the EFS programme with the intention to replicate some of these principles, practices and approaches in their programmes and initiatives. The EFS programme is a clear demonstration and real-life example of how schools from conventional educational systems with the right approach and guidance can become amazing learning & practice communities for sustainability and social innovation.
So what is next?
Before going to the USA it became clear to us that the next step in the EFS programme requires the development of an evaluation and monitoring system for EFS. This systems needs to serve several purposes:
- It needs to provide feedback about the EFS competencies of teachers and students in a way that is meaningful to the learning process of these teachers and students;
- It needs to provide feedback on programme implementation and development.
- It needs to provide input to EFS research and documentation.
- It needs to impact on conventional evaluation and testing mechanisms with the intention to embed conventional testing in a larger system of evaluation, and in such a way that the negative impacts of conventional testing become reduced.
This kind of evaluation system with progress & development indicators that provides feedback in a way that is meaningful to the learners (e.g. students, teachers, management, etc) is in stark contrast to conventional testing procedures that tend to trap learning efforts in test score objectives. These attempts to achieve the necessary testing scores drains energy and resources for enhancing and sustaining learning competencies, e.g. learning and teaching becomes directed to achieving results on the basis of ranking through tests. These test results provide no real feedback on the process of learning and competency development.
Manar Shibly, our research intern at ELIA working on the EFS programme has been working with me over the last months to conduct a scoping research to find out whether EFS evaluation systems exist of the nature described above, and whether the need for EFS competency evaluation is seen as an important requirement for EFS. Manar developed a questionnaire that we sent around through various networks, like Eco-Schools International and the Global Coalition for Green Schools. We received input from 24 schools and we are now compiling the results. Dr Andrea Bassi, who is very experienced in System Dynamics Modelling and a long-term partner of ELIA, is collaborating with us on this research to showcase the results through a Casual Loop Diagram. The results of this scoping study will be published internationally. The larger research of the development of an EFS evaluation system with EFS indicators will be carried out through a 3 to 4 years PhD research project. I am currently looking for the right University from where to conduct this research. We are also setting up an EFS research team, with collaborators across various fields and different countries.
It was very interesting to learn from the many people at the Conference that the development of this kind of evaluation system, whether for EFS or for Systems Thinking and System Dynamics, is needed everywhere and is for almost everybody the next step. Very interesting research is being carried out by the System Dynamics networks for schools to look at a systemic level why current evaluation methods are so disruptive for teachers and students. I am positive that together in partnership by collaborating across different disciplines we can carry out significant research for the development of this evaluation system for EFS and other applications.
I return to Mauritius grateful for the amazing partners that we have: Gilberte Chung (Director BEC), the EFS pilot Schools (Loreto College Curepipe, St Mary’s College Rose-Hill and BPS Fatima Goodlands), the programme sponsors, the resources persons, our recent collaborator from Seychelles Michèle Martin (Sustainability for Seychelles) and the many new collaborators that I met at the Conference in the USA. This is also such a great feedback for the pilot schools; I look forward to share with them all the good news and let them know how many people they reached with their efforts of the last years. We may live on a small Island in the Indian Ocean, but our impact is now planted as a beautiful little seed across the ocean. We carry a message of hope, as said by one of the EFS mentors from Loreto College Curepipe Zaahirah Hosenbocus: “I is an alphabet that stands alone, and alone we cannot achieve much. On the other hand there is WE, ‘we’ is powerful and it brings people and ideas together and has always proved to give better results….the path we have chosen is full of obstacles. For all those who wholeheartedly devoted their time and energy to this programme, we have learned to transform each obstacle and criticism into a new challenge, and we keep faith in a a positive outcome.”