sustainability in the curriculum

for 21st century ecological literacy

Speculation, Speculation

Just before the fire, I had a conversation with a neighbor about the fickle investment of real estate developers in this part of east Kensington. “They’re selfish, and they don’t care about my experience” he said, “They care about the dollar”. This man lives in a row home surrounded by empty row homes, next to and adjacent to vacant lots. I understood his anger. Philadelphia is notorious for not coming down hard on tax delinquency – so you get a handful of investors who speculate about which properties are up-and-coming, buy them, and simply set them aside until land prices raise naturally. Then they sell the property and the back taxes to someone else. The problem with this model, as you might imagine, is that in the meantime, these neighborhoods, that have completely lost any real investment, become breeding grounds for criminal activity and illegal dumping. This is why the media has dubbed the Lichtenstein brothers (who’ve owned the bucks hosiery building since 2009 but not done a thing to renovate it, despite claims to do so) “Slum Lords”.The deaths of two firemen from Ladder 10 in the tragic early morning fire 2 weeks ago have sparked speculation from Philadelphia residents about whose fault the incident really is – and the list of suspects is large:

Many blame the Lichtenstein brothers:



 Others blame city officials and L&I


Some speculate that it was a squatter or scavenger who caused the incident :



 This person blames “socialism” for the tragedy. And someone else responds…



 Some blame the influx of new, wealthier residents in the area who are driving the real estate speculation on the part of investors:


It is interesting how much this debate varies. Collectively, the comments call for a change in the way Philadelphia manages its abandoned properties, but how this should happen and who should be responsible for preventing these (or promoting different) realities is entirely up for speculation.

Approaching The Question: “How does one teach sustainability?”

How to best teach sustainability?

There are many different definitions of sustainability used on a daily basis. Throughout my college career, I have become increasingly more wary of using the word because rarely is there a shared understanding of what it refers to (of what is being sustained). To explain. In the summer of 2010, I interviewed 200+ people in central park about their understanding of the concept. Each answer was different. This happens on campus as well. For those of us studying the subject, a common activity in our courses is to try to “define sustainability” ourselves. In the classroom, this group-oriented exercise usually results in a version of the brundtland report’s definition of sustainable development, with an idealistic, equal balance of economic-, environmentalist-, and social values.

However, one reading that I’ve found particularly helpful in advancing this critique of “sustainability” (to a point where students are evolving concrete development goals) has been “Supply-Side Sustainability”, by T. F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, T. W. Hoekstra. Rather than suggest a definition for the word, this book outlines a strong framework for thinking about the interplay of environmental and social systems. The authors stress that sustainability requires that our institutions of problem solving themselves be sustainable. It seems so obvious, but their attention to “monitoring and predicting” before “problem solving” for sustainable development is often one that get’s lost in the free-flying use of the word.

Establishing sustainability goals that specify the things to be sustained and the conditions in which they are desired is one of the main concepts this book emphasizes for creating explicit sustainability programs. The authors speak about how these goals should concern system contexts rather than outputs to eliminate management complexity.

Why the departure from the balanced economic- social- environmental- ideal definition? These Authors acknowledge that sustainability is a value-laden concept, constantly in flux.  Society’s understanding of “Sustainability” changes as the contextual factors that are important for society’s survival develop and change. As the Authors bluntly put it:

“Sustainability is maintaining or fostering the development of systemic values, at an acceptable cost, for as long as they are needed.”

Understanding system contexts so that one can know what to monitor and how to do so reliably is perhaps the most honest acknowledgement of what sustainability means to societies today. Another great quote:

“Sustainability is not an ecological condition so much as it is an interplay between a continuously evolving state of nature and a continuously changing state of mind “

(Allen, Tainter, Hoekstra 2003)

Teaching  how to Monitor and Predict

A focus on identifying the phenomena that are important to monitor, so that one may know whether the sustainability goal is being met, is the first lesson in problem solving that should be taught to students concerned with sustainability management. Predicting a trend of the contexts to be sustained based on data derived from monitoring and the knowledge of constraints are the next steps. Once they have been taken, a student will better be able to manage systemic contexts so that they stay within the state of range specified in the sustainability goals.

This approach is rooted in systems thinking – a way of approaching the world as a study of complex adaptive, social-ecological systems. Rather than focus on the outputs or objects that systems might produce, this approach includes a decidedly holistic thinking about relationships and the contexts that preserve them. Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra’s sustainability framework understands the problem of diminishing returns on  the social-ecological systems in place as a problem with our fundamental problem solving to support them. Efficiently eliminating complexity, this framework allows students to identify what dysfunctional systems lack… and supply only that. Deploying ecological processes to subsidize management efforts rather than conversely is the backbone of this approach.

Whitehead “The Aims of Education” Chap. 1,2

“There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees. That difficulty is exactly the point which I am enforcing. The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees”

– Whitehead, The Aims of Education, pg. 6

I decided to begin my literature review with Whitehead’s “The Aims of Education”, a book well renowned for addressing the education problems of its day… I’m going to argue that it address the education problems of our day, still. The essays that make up this book are by no means current literature (published in 1929), however they are often cited by today’s science education scholars for their contemporary relevance, and have much to offer to discussion of our questions.

Chapter One shares the title of the book. Immediately Whitehead confronts the problems of education, which he acknowledges to be “the pedantry and routine nature of schools of learning, which are overladen with inert ideas”. He stresses that the main ideas introduced in a child’s education be few and important, and that they be “thrown into every combination possible”. “The child should make them his own, and should understand their application here and now in the circumstances of his actual life”, he writes. Today, we refer to this concept as “real world learning”. Theoretical ideas should always find important applications within the pupils curriculum. Whitehead speaks about the importance of a child’s “joy of discovery”, ” the point at which general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through his [or her] life”.

Specifically addressing the scientific and logical side of education, whitehead argues that emphasis should be placed on utilization of ideas – they must be related to the unique sense of perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and mental activities which form our lives,  rather than to be “proved” right or wrong. If you can utilize an idea, he argues, you have proved it.

Whitehead explains the half-truth in the traditional saying “The mind is an instrument, you first sharpen it, and then use it”. The mind is never passive, he argues, “it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. you cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it”. Whitehead introduces his “golden rule of education” as such:  “Whatever interest attaches to your subject-matter must be evoked here and now; whatever powers you are strengthening in a pupil must be exercised here and now; whatever possibilities of mental life your teaching should impart, must be exercised here and now.” Whitehead believed that education should mentally engage the student’s individual’s strengths and interests. Why? Well,



Over the course of the semester, I will be confronting three main questions about earth science education and sustainability within the curriculum:

1) Can an intro course teach “Science literacy” ?

2) How does a department know it is achieving the objectives for majors?

3) How does one teach sustainability?

Of course, within each of these large questions lie many, many more.

During the past three years of my taking Environmental Studies courses I have, as most students do, developed several opinions about learning, teaching and being taught. The internet – and the gadgets that tie the newest generation of students to it –  make the sharing and acquisition of quality information extremely accessible. Social networks and blogging tools tie interested persons around the globe in collaboration and provide a place for advanced dialog and learning. It is now possible to find hundreds of individuals involved in the discourse of one’s personal study with just a quick click of a mouse or a google search.

Much of the knowledge about my individualized field of study I have gathered, daily, from online articles and twitter feeds of interested professionals and scholars throughout the world. There is so much information available on the web-  much of it submitted by qualified experts who may even teach at universities themselves. Which begs the question: How can university experience advance a student’s intellectual progress in ways that web-research and -dialog cannot? More generally: How might the university best use its position to advance students’ intellectual progress in preparation for the problems of today’s world? Although the original three questions (1., 2., 3. ) above have been proposed by Dr. Jane Dmochowski, our ENVS undergraduate director, I believe these questions about 21st century access to knowledge are embedded within.

The focus of our study will be on environmental education: effectively communicating systems thinking about earth science and sustainable  development to students at Penn. The detrimental effects of big industry and a booming world population on the earth’s resources and the wellbeing of our ecosystems are obvious. However, knowledge of innovative approaches for mitigating these rapid changes are not as developed. As a new generation of environmental science scholars dedicates it’s study to treating 21st century, global environmental health, academic institutions around the world are developing their approaches to best prepare them. This blog is meant to serve as a “feed” of  literature reviews and commentaries, conducted in order to bring us closer to the current understandings and discussions on this topic.


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