Teaching Sustainability

I have been greatly impressed by Richard Sennett’s description of how a craft is learned in his excellent book The Craftsman. My experience of sustainability suggests that—although both science and art are important in its development and propagation—it more closely resembles a craft. Sennett includes a short but extremely valuable chapter on how to instruct a person in craft learning; how to overcome the difficulty that much of the knowledge that makes a craftsman expert is tacit.

Community farmer holding onion setsHis guiding principle is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ on the basis that ‘Whoever has tried to assemble a do-it-yourself bookcase following written instructions knows the problem. As one’s temper rises, one realizes how great a gap can exist between instructive language and the body.’ (p. 179). Written instructions, especially those that are technical and make no attempt to impact the tacit knowledge that the craftsman holds as his own, are dismissed by Sennett as ‘dead denotation’ (p. 182): ‘The challenge posed by dead denotation is precisely to take apart tacit knowledge, which requires bringing to the surface of consciousness that knowledge which has become so self-evident and habitual that it seems just natural’ (p. 183). This is what we must avoid if we are not to alienate our students, no matter how zealous they are to save the planet when they arrive at our doors.

The emphasis with craft learning is on learning as relationship, epitomised by the archetype of the apprentice, whose learning is undertaken in physical proximity, on a daily basis, with his or her master craftsman. This is a direct challenge to the modern academy, two of whose most feted developments of the moment—internationalisation and e-leaning—are utterly invalidated in the face of this suggestion that personal, shared, bodily learning might be important in sustainability education. How can they be made compatible with Sennett’s suggestion that, to learn a craft, ‘You both have to be in the same spot; learning becomes local’ (p. 179). Sennett also identifies the weakness of this style of learning which assumes that the apprentice can learn ‘by osmosis’ (p. 181).

The green economist

Perhaps the most important lesson of craft learning is that of the importance of relationship with your materials, and hence relationship with the natural world from which all those materials originate. I have experienced this in the case of basket-making, where each willow is curved rather than straight: it has a ‘belly’ and a ‘back’. To achieve a particular shape in a basket you need to work with this shape that has grown into your material. Fighting the willow demands an enormous amount of strength and often results in snapping it. Squarework, where curved willows are forced into shapes that match A4 paper to make filing trays, is extremely demanding and educational, as you balance your desire for order against your material’s willingness to ‘go straight’.

My conclusion is that teaching sustainability must be done ‘in practice’ and that learning will be shared within a community of practice. We took some exploratory steps towards such a practice with Stroud Communiversity, and I have also found the Walking the Land experiences in nature to be valuable practice in sustainability as Education as Re-Embedding powerpoint (pptx, 3622 K) in the environment.

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