Sustainability mindset 101


We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them

The quote often attributed to Einstein perfectly explains why it is the mindset which needs to be targeted if we want our students of guest-oriented vocational skills to act more sustainably. Put another way:

nothing changes unless mindset changes

And Tom Barrett makes a good case here that mindset only changes slowly through changing habits and ways of thinking. So there is a strong case for paying close attention to uncovering students’ thought processes as an entry to affecting their mindsets.

So it should be no surprise that at the core of the Prof E Sus project is the idea of nurturing a sustainability mindset.  Primarily we are promoting a sustainability mindset in vocational trainers of hospitality skills such as cooking, cleaning and care of textiles.

Ultimately the aim is for these vocational trainers and teachers to then instill a sustainability mindset in their own students.

Over the course of the project so far we have realised that mindset is a very slippery concept that is difficult to define, observe and measure. So let us take it step by step

  1. What is a mindset?

Henriques  has defined mindset as:

a set of beliefs attitudes and expectations about the world accompanied by habitual feelings and emotions.

Another way of looking at this is to say that mindset is what we do by default.

  1. What is a sustainability mindset?

Using the above definition we could say that a sustainability mindset is a set of beliefs attitudes and expectations about the world that lead us to make our default actions, especially in the workplace, those that use resources carefully, mindfully and with respect to social justice.

Already there is an obvious contradiction in the phrase sustainability mindset because, on the one hand mindset implies default actions, and yet on the other sustainability standards are forever changing (hopefully in an upward direction) and that implies active mindfulness about what we’re doing rather than automated default reactions.

In the hospitality sector for example the use of the three R’s, Reuse, Reduce and Recycle, is a way of promoting a sustainability mindset but demands an active consideration of how you approach your work. How can we resolve the contradiction of mindset as default action and sustainability as a way of striving continually to find ways of working more sustainably? Perhaps the answer lies in looking to automate as much of the sustainable approach as possible while at the same time developing the attitude of asking regularly how the work can be undertaken in a more sustainable way.

  1. How can we see a sustainability mindset?

The short answer to this question is that we cannot and therefore we must look for indicators of a sustainable mindset. For teachers and hospitality trainers this could include looking at how they source the materials for the students, whether the feedback they give to their students refers to sustainability elements and whether sustainability issues are something which are often included in the learning activities rather than getting a special mention two or three times a year.

  1. Fake it til you make it

Some will argue, ‘but what if the teacher is including sustainability aspects but does not really believe that it is necessary and is only doing it because it’s expected’?  Does that matter?  Well it would be difficult to assess how genuinely a teacher was implementing sustainable approaches in their classroom.  So maybe we should be looking at the end result only. And if it looks sustainable then it is sustainable.  The old adage of fake it til you make it tells us that acting in a way that you don’t feel really represents you over a longer period of time, can eventually lead you to taking on the role which you previously were faking.  So theProf E Sus course may be the start of a process, the end of which we cannot see within the short period of the course.  It could be that the sustainability mindset kicks in much later and then the training acquired in theProf E Sus course can finally be fully implemented.

In the project we have worked a great deal with the concept of developing competencies and one thing we have learnt about competences is that they take a great deal of time to develop especially to the higher levels.  During the course, our participants will meet a great many options without the opportunity to immediately put them into practice.  We should not be surprised therefore if expertise takes a while to develop.

  1. Indicators of a sustainable mindset

Given the uncertainties and challenges described above  it has been difficult to decide how to choose the indicators we will use.  A key part of the course will be the development and trialling of an action research project in the classroom. In the spirit of sustainable collaboration, we will be asking our participants to give peer feedback on each others plans.  To support this we are providing a learning activity template  that includes indicators of a best practice lesson plan to aid peer feedback.

We will also be asking every participant to keep a comprehensive learning diary in an attempt to make explicit their thoughts and assumptions and also to track their learning journey.

And finally we will be making extensive reference to the UNECE competency framework for education for sustainability. In particular we will be making a special reference to the fourth level of competences which all start with the phrase:

‘The educator is someone who…’

We believe that this fourth level is the one that really addresses the mindset issue.

6 Learning activity plan Indicators

The learning activity plan (LAP)  template is meant to guide our participants in their planning of a lesson or other training activity. The template has been developed to prompt educators to always include sustainability competencies in addition to the professional competencies right from the beginning. This means that sustainability is integrated from the start every time.

And when it is time for our course participants to give feedback on each other’s templates plans they will find a checklist of indicators to guide them in their feedback. These indicators are divided into two; must haves and nice to haves. So one must have is that the LAP must include sustainability competencies, while a nice to have might include that it is a collaborative activity or that it includes external stakeholders. One trap that we hope our participants won’t fall into is thinking that the planned activity must include all the nice to haves. That would probably not lead to a good outcome. However, if one is thinking in the long term, then a teacher could plan to include a different nice to have element in each of the lessons over a longer course.

Quality indicators of a best practice learning activity:

Must haves

  • 2 – 6 lessons or training sessions
  • Professional and sustainability competences
  • Student feedback
  • Indicators of mindset shift (What signs will you be looking for in your students that they are working more sustainably?)
  • Risk assessment – what could prevent you from achieving your sustainability goals for this session?

Nice to haves

  • External contact
  • Group collaboration
  • Flexible
  • Creative
  • Case studies real/realistic situations
  • Learning approach
  • Inter-disciplinary
  • Deeper learning
  • Active learning
  • Green pedagogy:

o confrontation with an important problem
o problem (analysis)
o reconstruction (research)
o intervention/provocation/irritation
o interaction/analytical discussion
o deconstruction/optimised results
o reflection/evaluation

7 Suggested activities

The LAP with associated indicators is our main tool for integrating sustainability in every learning activity. But we also have a few intro actvities to help our participants begin to understand what a sustainable mindset means including Sustainability Bingo and the 4-Step process adapted from the Growth Mindset guru, Carol Dweck. We also advocate the frequent use of real or realistic case studies that include a sustainability element.

Returning to the Barrett article at the start of this post, he proposes a set of questions that can be useful for tackling problems:

  • What was the mindset that created the problem?
  • What new information is available to us that we did not have when we started doing things this way?
  • How can we incorporate the new information into how we tackle the problem now?
  • How will we think differently as a result of using the new information?
  • How is the new thinking changing our mindset?

It would be worth exploring the answers to these questions with students on big issues such as how we deal with waste or consumption.

8 Is this ethical?

Nobody has asked yet, but it is a possibility that you can ask whether it is ethical to try and change the way somebody thinks. What for example should a teacher do if they have one or more climate deniers in their class? Given that we have argued that it is not possible to know what is going on in somebody’s mind and that we will simply be looking for indicators of sustainability then this objection does not hold up.

Research suggests that it is easier to get people to act more sustainably if you give them hope and a positive message, so this points to a way forward in the classroom too. There are few people who would argue against work procedures that are economically efficient, socially just and kind to the environment.

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