- We are in a perfect storm for a major transition

  • Arjen Wals
    Photo
    Ingrid Eikeland

In many education systems today there is a hidden curriculum of unsustainability, says Dutch professor Arjen Wals. He thinks it is reamarkable that four Norwegian schools have committed to integrating sustainability as part of their educational program through NMBU’s university school programme. 

- We are in a perfect storm for a major transition

- Schools tend to glorify qualities like taking care of yourself, competing with others, being entrepreneurial and successful as an individual. Those are qualities that is useful in an economic perspective where we create flexible, lifelong workers who generate income and spend them on consumer goods, but if you also consider the planet it is not particularly sustainable. In some ways there is in many educations a hidden curriculum of unsustainability, Wals explains.

The internationally acclaimed professor was appointed a guest professor position at the Norwegian university of Life Sciences (NMBU) from November 2019 to 2022. Here, he will be following NMBU’s university school project, where participating schools are working to promote education for sustainable development.

After three years he hopes that the collaboration with the university schools has provided high quality experiences and data that when analysed will help both practitioners and academics around the world in understanding what it takes to become a sustainable school.

- Not only in terms of teaching, learning and curriculum, but also in terms of professional development, school-community relations and a on how a school works on reducing its own ecological footprint and expanding its ecological handprint. 

For future generations

Arjen Wals believes many schools today communicate a reverse ethic that centres on personal growth and employability in a globalizing world.

He says ethics dealing with future generations and our relationship with other species, where qualities such as care, empathy and learning how to create change, must receive greater attention within our schools and universities.

Fortunately, he already sees some changes in the way schools think about sustainability.

- Some schools are already beginning to engage in sustainability issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, animal welfare, migration and intercultural aspects of life as well as the connections between them. In part this is the result of dedicated teachers who are able and willing to look beyond their conventional school subject area, but also because of concerned students who are worried about what the future might be bringing and want to learn how to create a more sustainable world, he explains. 

Sharing NMBU-knowledge

Wals’ previous work and research on education for sustainable development made him a very attractive candidate for NMBU.

Norwegian chocolate and apple jam are helping Arjen Wals feel at home in Norway.

Norwegian chocolate and apple jam are helping Arjen Wals feel at home in Norway.

Photo
Ingrid Eikeland
- My expertise is education, learning and capacity building for sustainable development. When I was told about the project funded by the school district and NMBU, where the explicit task is to develop and implement a whole-school approach to sustainability, I thought this is a unique research opportunity, Wals explains.

In his position at NMBU he gives guest lectures to groups and employees in the region and assists PhD students researching the topic. The work also largely consists of analysing and re-evaluating experiences in discussions with researchers and participants in the project.

- Sometimes I can recognize situations from previous work and bring in ideas that might work here. We need to reflect a lot on what works and what doesn’t. At the same time, I too learn from how these university schools work towards sustainability, and I aim to share those lessons with others elsewhere in the world, he says.

Moving forward

Sustainable development was recently added as an overall interdisciplinary theme in the curriculum renewal in Norway. He believes this among other things, contributes to a long-lasting change in the school's development towards sustainability.

- We are in the perfect storm for a major transition, partly accentuated by the current COVID-19 crisis which I consider as manifestation of a deeper crisis that has to do with the disturbed balance between humans and the Earth.

- Now, the challenge for us as teacher educators is to examine what sustainability, inclusive of good health and equitable sharing, means for the professional development of teachers. What kind of skills do they need to practice a way of learning that invites complexity, diversity, seeing connections, anticipating different futures, being critical and taking action? How can a teacher facilitate a type of learning that is much more explorative and ethical than the academic style many schools practice today? These are new questions that will be important for our department to reflect on, he says.

Published 10. May 2020 - 15:35 - Updated 10. May 2020 - 15:37