Education for Sustainable Living

What is Sustainable Living?

Sustainable living refers to the adoption of lifestyles or cultures that support healthy and prosperous communities and healthy ecosystems for present and future generations.  Lifestyles are shaped through education.  Education that allows students to interact with their environment and experience healthy, prosperous living is more likely to produce sustainable cultures.  This essay compares educational trends observed in the 1980’s and today, highlighting the impact of standardized testing and technology on student and teacher creativity, learning, and health.

Flashback:  Nineteen Eighty-Something.

Imagine teaching public school in New Mexico in the 1980’s.   Classrooms were introducing personal computers. Innovative teachers were using word processors and spreadsheets to write lessons or to calculate grades.  Rich kids hid their Sony Walkman (with or without other contraband) in lockers, and used Prodigy dial ups to share homework online.  Teachers enlisted in the war on drugs via professional development sessions that highlighted the rise in gang membership, multi-generational patterns of addiction, and the arrival of crack babies.   In vocational agriculture, doors were  slowly opening for women.  Jan Eberly of California became the first female national FFA president.  Diane Ratvitch summarized the decade in Education Weekly, stating, “…the overriding concern in the 80’s was the quality of American education. Study after study documented the poor performance of students in every subject area, in comparison both with those of the past and with those of other countries, or warned about the folly of failing to educate poor and minority children.”   These concerns were over-riding because we deemed them important.

Coming Back to the Future:  What’s Important Hasn’t Changed

Now, imagine boarding a time machine with Marty McFly, and landing in a public school in  United States in 2016. Digitized information dominates the classroom.  Role call, grades, student identification numbers, lunch counts, and lessons are all delivered online. Lockers, chalk, and blackboards are extinct, and every kid has an Android or an iPhone. This is fortunate, because the schools themselves have yet to provide enough computers for students to access even a fraction of the digital information that the majority of families can access in their own homes.  Books are an endangered species, and two months out of the school year are devoted to academically disruptive and statistically meaningless standardized tests.  Study after study continues to document the poor performance of students in every subject area, and highlight our failure to educate poor and minority children.  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Recognizing Education as a Dominant Driver of Sustainability Prompted a Return to the Classroom

My personal flashback experience began in August of 2016, when I agreed to a year of teaching at a public high school near the US-Mexico border.  I had been a public school teacher before, in the 1980’s.  I left teaching then, because I believed the mandate that all students attend schools which only meet needs of some students was promoting inequality and thwarting efforts to promote learning.  As bureaucrats of the time debated remedial strategies that included more standardized curriculum and testing, longer school days, longer school years, and programs for increasingly younger children, my observations were that students needed shorter school days, less testing, and more time to pursue creative projects of their own choosing.  I wasn’t in a position to change the system, so I left teaching and upgraded to a career in the sciences.

As a scientist, my understanding of the environmental problems threatening society today increased.  So did my awareness of brilliant solutions to environmental, energy, and agricultural concerns that have been proposed and senselessly rejected over the past century.  Over and over I was stunned to observe great solutions bypassed in favor of overarching policies supporting practices that exploit natural resources, reduce air and water quality, promote loss of agricultural lands, and concentrate resources in the hands of a few, at the expense of many.  Slowly, I came to recognize that government policies, ideologies supported through public education, and government service to special interests were the primary barriers to sustainable living.  When a program leader within my agency confided to me that the organization I worked for was only giving lip service to food security and sustainable technologies, I realized that a government research career in “sustainable technology” development could scarcely amount to anything beyond a tragic waste of taxpayer funds.  Sustainability would have to originate with empowered individuals.   These individuals would need to drive organizations.

As a scientist, this was a hard pill to swallow.  The only agencies in my community with funds to support the kind of work I did were supported by government funding.  Yet the more that I looked at our research legacies, the more I realized that the new technologies we were developing were never going to restore damaged environments,  increase food security, or serve those whose taxes supported us.  The reason for this was simple.  Technology was not the factor limiting our sustainability.  The limiting factors all involved human understanding and human behavior.  Furthermore, these factors of human understanding and human behavior, can only be remediated ethically through education.

Environmental quality and food security are limited most by human understanding and human behavior, it can best be remediated through education and empowerment.

Suddenly, the problems I’d left behind in the world of education were jumping to the forefront of my purpose as a scientist.  I realized that fixing our broken education system was not only paramount to raising productive citizens, it was also the solution to ecosystem decline and to the associated health and economic problems that stem from excess use of natural resources.

As a career scientist, I had been out of the world of education for so long that I hardly felt qualified to explore this new insight without spending some time in the classroom.  So when a job vacancy appeared in a nearby high school, I seized the opportunity for hands on learning, dusted off my expired teaching license, applied for a renewal, and found myself teaching high school biology.  The school that hired me was located in an agricultural community classified as economically disadvantaged.   I liked the location enough that I tentatively considered making the job a second career. Many students were English language learners.  About half of the students planned to attend college.   The other half had their sights on various vocational schools, and a number of students had visions of entrepreneurship.

Nothing Could Have Prepared Me for the Absence of Humanity Dominating Data- and Policy- Driven Classrooms.

In the days following job acceptance and my first day of school, I was swallowed by the bureaucracy.  When I began teaching in the 1980’s, I simply provided copies of my teaching certificate and my college transcripts, filled out a few forms, and was good to go.  In 2016, after interviewing with the principal and being offered the job, I was sent to the district office to fill out a few forms.  There, I was isolated in a closed room with a mountain of papers reminiscent of closing on a new home.  When I buy a new home, I am generally guided by an agent who explains the highlights of each form. Questions about the forms signed in the school district were largely deferred to the Almighty Google, because the staff members at the district office either did not know the answers, or were spread too thin to take time answering.  I was sent for finger-printing, interrogated, and photographed in a manner not unlike a thief in a police line up.  Niceties like “How are you?” or “Welcome to Anytown School District” were missing from the experience, and my attempts at small talk were systematically curtailed.  Among the ominous forms was a list of professional development courses I would have to attend.  I learned that I would have 2 years in which to complete an additional 12 college credits, because teachers in the district were required to have a TESOL certification.  I signed that I would provide proof of enrollment by January of 2017.  I also signed that I had filed for a license renewal, and had the qualifications required to renew.  And so I was hired.  Provisionally.

I was having second thoughts about this learning adventure when I returned to the high school to pick up my keys and my room assignment.   Fortunately, the high school staff was more welcoming.  Classes had started weeks before I arrived, and staff were anxious to have a teacher on board.  In addition to their own work, they had been providing lessons for the substitute to deliver.  None of the work the students had done in the weeks since classes began had been graded!

The room I was assigned came equipped with one computer, whiteboards, some lab sinks and tables, and a pathetically empty storeroom.  Class lists with names of students were all computerized.  It would take two weeks before my own account was online, so I was running behind from the start. There was a classroom set of badly worn textbooks, and it took me a few weeks to track down beakers, graduated cylinders, and other basic lab equipment that was floating around the department.  The room was oblong, and the whiteboards were difficult for students to see, so I was advised to request a smart board.  It seemed this would improve visibility.   Besides, we were “supposed” to be implementing technology in the classroom.  This meant a few weeks of back and forth requests with over-worked IT staff, but soon I was delivering lessons from my computer that were projected on a smartboard screen for students to see.

The benefits offered by the smartboard came with clear tradeoffs.  Downsides to the technology were legion.  The projector produced a spotted image that was difficult for students to read, the pens designed for writing on the board had batteries that didn’t hold a charge.  It took 8 weeks of searching, with the help of the department head and the IT staff, to find the proper remote control.  The octopus of wires needed to connect the computer, projector, smartboard and other required gadgets was both an eyesore and a safety hazard.  The repairs needed on the projector would require shipping it to a remote site, with an estimated 8-12 weeks waiting time during which I would not have a smartboard, so I was advised to make due until summer, because, “we really needed to be using technology in the classroom.”

What all this meant for students was that time I might otherwise have spent planning and delivering instruction was spent rebooting computers, modifying lessons to match broken technology, looking for spare parts and other resources to improve the computer function, and seeking ways to finance the many repairs and resources that the budget didn’t cover.  No matter how simple a task looked from the outside, it was difficult to complete within the school.  Ordering basic supplies could take multiple trips back and forth to the office to obtain proper signatures from officials who were simply too busy to meet with you.

“…time I might otherwise have spent planning and delivering instruction was spent rebooting computers, modifying lessons…looking for spare parts…and seeking ways to finance the repairs and resources that the budget didn’t cover.”

While I began the year confident that my license renewal would be a simple procedure, I soon learned that the State of New Mexico had lost records of my former teacher exam test scores.  Even though I had my expired certificate in hand, and even though I’d been told years ago that my certificate and work records were all I would need to renew,  it took 5 months, and intervention from officials in two school districts, to persuade the state that my bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Education, my master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, my PhD in molecular biology and toxicology, and my 5 years of successful service in the public schools qualified me to teach high school biology.  They didn’t even want to hear about my decades of research in the life sciences, my past service on a school board, or my authorship of textbook chapters.  All they wanted was proof that I had taken an exam which no longer exists-an exam that was required by law when my original certificate was issued.  In the end, I don’t know if the state office found my records, or actually did make a judgement call.  Five months and numerous phone calls later, a renewed license magically appeared in the mail.  By that time, January had come and gone, and I had not enrolled in TESOL courses.  Why invest in more coursework if I couldn’t even get a teaching license?  I would finish the year I was contracted for, but I would not return.

The number of professional development meetings scheduled were astonishing!  In one year, I not only renewed my teaching licence for the next decade, I also picked up certifications to use clickers, teach reading, report child abusers, hide from armed gunmen, and monitor several kinds of standardized tests.   I mastered 15 new software packages, opened perhaps a dozen new online accounts, and when time allowed, prepared, delivered and evaluated science lessons or communicated with parents and students.   While it is simple to list each of these dubious accomplishments, the fact is that each item took time to complete–time that teachers in the 80’s devoted to students.

The impact of all this technology on the school environment is tragic.  While any one piece of technology could be a time saver and a useful teaching tool, the fact that so many applications are imposed on the system by decision makers in federal, state, and district offices means that the teacher in the classroom is essentially powerless to demonstrate wise and appropriate use of technology in the classroom.   Instead of empowering students, students and teachers alike become slaves to technologies.

Teachers in the department were incredibly helpful-offering lesson plans, equipment, and survival tips.  However, it became evident all too quickly that despite best intentions, these teachers were spread far too thin to provide the kind of team work and support that was expected among teachers of years past.  Nor did I have time to participate.  The spirit and intent were there.  The time to commit was not.  Stress levels among teachers were high.   So was turnover. Morale was low, and evaluation criteria did nothing to take into account the unrealistic demands being placed on staff and students alike.  When I told a co-worker that I felt like I was teaching class from inside the vortex of a tornado, she gave me a weary smile, nodded, and said, “Just wait till testing starts!”

The Trouble with Testing

Much has been written on the hotly debated topic of standardized testing.  Those who support testing value the demonstration that students have mastered selected pieces of information some higher power (federal government, state boards of education, the College Board, etc…) deems important.   Those who oppose standardized testing recognize that for every piece of knowledge measured and qualified in a standardized test, there are other bodies of knowledge that are discounted as unimportant.  For example, when we ask a student to master the knowledge that Columbus discovered America in 1492, we are discounting the equally important knowledge that America was not at all lost to the millions who lived in the America’s in 1491.   When we evaluate a student by his or her PARCC or ACT scores, we do nothing to measure her ability to balance a budget, negotiate a fair trade, build meaningful relationships with community leaders, care for the environment, grow food, or sustain his/her own health and nutrition.   In other words, despite all our testing, we provide no realistic measure at all of a student’s ability to sustain him/herself or his/her family and community.  While tests are costly to administer, all they are really designed to do is promote and highlight those skills that foster dependence on institutions over dependence on one’s self and one’s community.  This is not sustainable.

Those who oppose standardized testing recognize that for every piece of knowledge measured and qualified in a standardized test, there are other bodies of knowledge that are discounted as unimportant. 

In an educational system more heavily characterized by free choice, well educated teachers are empowered with the autonomy to think independently and to develop unique, locally relevant lessons and assessments.  Students empowered with choice will select teachers who best align with their interests, and teachers empowered with autonomy will find schools in communities whose philosophies align with their own, so teaching becomes naturally relevant. After all, every student wants to become an independent, contributing member of their community, and every student is blessed with an innate set of gifts with which to contribute.  Every teacher prefers self motivated students who arrive in class ready to learn.  Students who come by choice are always self motivated.  Schools that empower these natural instincts don’t need tests to assess success.  Success simply evolves from the natural synergy that develops between eager students and passionate teachers.  In this sort of free learning system, success can be palpated by the percentages of students who are being placed in colleges, finding jobs in local businesses, and establishing their own income streams through innovative avenues of entrepreneurship.  Teacher evaluation becomes simple too.  Teachers who are working with parents, students, and community members to maintain excellence in their established area will be the teachers students choose.

Unfortunately, when standardized testing is mandated, and teacher evaluations are based on student test performance, a teacher who wants to keep his or her job must teach content from the predetermined perspective that allows a student to pass the test.  Since students in a standardized system get the same message, regardless of who is teaching them, learning becomes little more than an organized propaganda effort that precludes critical thinking and defies the very concept of education as a democratic process.  Instead of empowered, students become enslaved within the informational paradigms of the system.

This universal truth of standardized curriculum and testing becomes even more dark in a low income arena. Standardized tests are costly, and must be administered on computers.   Due to computer shortages, tests that take a day for a student to complete may be ongoing for weeks, collectively speaking, as time is allocated to various rotations of students on computers.  Teaching time is being minimized the most in schools where learning time is most precious, because external access to learning is most limited.  Thus, standardized testing serves to increase the gap between schools of poverty and schools of privilege.

Standardized testing serves to increase the gap between schools of poverty and schools of privilege.

As a parent, I have not been blind to these testing concerns.  I saw my own children lose interest in learning as a result of excessive testing.  I heard the complaints of their teachers, and felt my own intervention efforts fall on deaf ears.  But all the best learning is experiential, and my appreciation for the depths of the problems created by our standardized testing obsession expanded by leaps and bounds when I witnessed this nightmare from within the classroom.  I saw students who already hold regular jobs in construction, horse training, and automotive repair, students who interact comfortably with adults in two languages, and negotiate simple business deals on a regular basis, be assessed as failures by standardized tests! I also saw students who quit trying, and cared so little about the tests they were given that they simply filled in numbers on score sheets without even reading the questions!  These students were holding on to the few liberties that remained in their lives.  They were refusing to play the game.

Is this really the outcome that the test advocates are seeking?  How will those leaders who have imposed such hardships on students, teachers, and families take responsibility for the waste of human resources they have created?  I can only wonder why every parent is not shouting their demands to eliminate this dreadfully demotivating, anti-learning process.

Effective Teaching Should Require Effective Planning-Not Effective Documentation of Planning.

In a data driven world, administrators increasingly request digital documentation and assessment of seemingly every task.  While the problem is not at all unique to teaching, only the impacts on teachers and students will be discussed here.  This documentation and evaluation takes time and consumes resources that would otherwise be applied to teaching. When so many aspects of the job each teacher and student performs must be documented, evaluated, and assessed, there is little time left for the creativity, common courtesy, building professional relationships with students, or inspiring positive morale.  Yet it is this desire for building people that draws most teachers into the profession.

In the 80’s, lesson planning involved coming up with creative ideas (time intensive), and producing a written objective and a few vague notes aimed at reminding the teacher what he or she needed to cover that day (not-so-time-intensive).  The lesson plans I was asked to prepare last year were more like digitized legal documents that detail the purpose of every proposed classroom action, and analyze every outcome.  No jobs teachers did in the eighties have been removed to make time for the new demands imposed by the state’s voracious need to document every action.  As a result, essential every teacher I dealt with shared beliefs that the joy of teaching was gone, and the job itself had become a drudgery.  While the school I worked at may have  perhaps experienced the pain of this pathway more deeply than others, I heard teachers from districts throughout the state lamenting the same loss of creativity, autonomy, and potential to interact positively with students.

Technology has Eliminated Teaching Time. What Is this Doing to Students?

How are students responding to school environments dominated by standardized curriculum, rapidly changing technology and overworked teachers?  Some of my observations were surprising.  While the kids shared a diversity of traits common to any group of teenagers, I was pleasantly moved by the scarcity of certain angry, vengeful, or vindictive students I remembered from my classes in the 80’s. While this more recent generation of students arrive in class wired to their iPhones, and many failed to bring basic writing materials or homework to class, the aggressive defiance of rules and the pranks aimed only at upsetting others were remarkably rare.  Many students were extremely polite and helpful.  As with any group, there was a percentage of leaders that were easy to teach and were clearly bound for success in whatever they sought to achieve.  There was also a group that did no work whatsoever, regardless of interventions.  As a whole, however, I was so enchanted by the overall sincerity and cooperation among these kids that I honestly considered staying, despite the administrative chaos. My belief that by staying, I was implicitly condoning the system in which the students were entrapped, and my hope that I can do more for their cause outside the school than I could ever hope to do from within were among the reasons I chose not to renew my contract.

Stressed school environments inhibit learning before and after school

Beyond their good behavior, the students I worked with manifested various levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.  Worries about jobs, college, and limited future options were real.  So was the impact of constant schedule changes, staff changes, and procedural changes.  This stress is itself counter productive to learning (see Vogel and Schwabe). Needless to say, our student’s performance on the almighty standardized tests were poor.

I initially attributed the student’s cooperative behavior to the strong family ties of their culture, and I have no doubt that this played a part in their good manners.  But as I considered the chaos of day to day survival within the school itself, I began to wonder if the chronic stress was also contributing to the atmosphere of support and respect that characterized the environment.  Afterall, people bond together in times of trouble.  Shared trauma promotes cooperation.

As an experienced professional with a long resume, I felt demoted to just one more number by the administrative bureaucracy my first week on the job.  By winter break, I knew that a career in that high stress environment would be hazardous to my long term health.  How then, does a teenage veteran feel after 15 or 16 years of being pushed, prodded, and evaluated within a system so guided by policies and data points that even the most caring teachers have little time to invest in compassion?  Why should students put away the iPhone that shows them life on the outside, only to jump through yet another arbitrary hoop, designed by someone they’ve never met, to achieve a dream that the student cannot share.

A majority of public school teachers grow up attending consolidated public schools, and enter the profession, as I did the first time, directly out of college.  This means that throughout their life, they have worked within the confines of an impersonal institution.  The bureaucracy becomes their paradigm, and it becomes challenging to imagine a world void of remote administrative dictates.  When failures arise, fingers are invariably pointed downwards-at students, at parents, and at teachers.  The institution itself is too often accepted “as is.”

An advantage I had upon re-entering the classroom, after working in both public and private sectors, was that I could more clearly recognize the regulatory barriers that were inhibiting teaching and learning, and guiding participants towards further dependence on the system.  I was able to quit blaming students, teachers, parents, and even individual administrators for our failed learning systems.  Instead, I began to look at the guiding principles upon which our schools were developed.  I continued questioning the very notion of compulsory education as a tool for building democracy.   The great education reformer, John Dewey, considered education a process of liberation that is essential to democracy and to life itself.   Is it not a great contradiction to make the path to freedom compulsory?  Aren’t those who regulate what students must learn interfering with the student’s unique path to self actualization?  In doing so, they are directly interfering with the life and liberty of our future.

Students are resilient.  Most will graduate, and most will have some skills and understanding that benefit their futures. I argue that these same students would have attended school by choice, and would have gained more benefit because their learning would not have been interrupted with distractions created by those who do not wish to learn. It is those who do not wish to learn what the school is trying to teach that need to be considered in a new light.  We have spent far too much time assuming that failing students are unable to contribute to society, because their square pegs don’t fit our round holes.  We spend too little time exploring the gifts these “failures” do have, and allowing them the freedom to develop their talents. This virtual imprisonment of an entire segment of our population not only consumes precious teaching time and resources, it also creates stress, resentment, and emotional scaring that marks some students for life.

Too many school policies deny the individual freedoms that foster learning. 

If we want a generation of schools that is characterized by its educational success rather than by its learning failures, and if we want students who enter adulthood ready to thrive, sustain, and contribute to their community, we need to consider what students might learn in an environment where freedom, creativity, innovation, and inspiration override regulation, oppression, and standardization.

Teaching for Sustainable Development

My father, M. Reyes Mazon, was a teacher educator who spent much of his career promoting student centered learning.  He did not believe in grading at all.  My mother shared these ideals.  Growing up under their influence, I was taught that my enthusiasm and natural interests should guide my career.   These principles allowed me to read fluently by the age of four, graduate in the top percent of my university class, work for what is arguably the world’s largest agricultural research institution, publish scientific papers and textbook chapters, and wet my hands as an entrepreneur.  However, in public school, I was taught to sit still, follow directions, wait for the class, and eat school lunches.  No doubt, I learned writing and arithmetic,  a little Spanish grammar, chemistry, physics, and the FFA creed in school.  These successes became my focus (I got excellent grades and took pride in receiving them), but my tendency to comply, embedded in my psyche through years of public schooling, eventually placed a glass ceiling on my career.  Breaking through this ceiling has required unlearning many behavior patterns that were originally developed and rewarded in public schools.

When I was 20 and ranked in the top percent of my college class, I was annoyed by my father’s insistence that schools were not teaching students to think.   Afterall, if I wasn’t thinking, why was I getting such good grades?  But as my career progressed, I came to see that I was not really presenting new ideas.  I was “regurgitating” information I’d obtained from authorities.  Unfortunately, I was not alone.  I realized that  in a world of declining natural resources, increasing food insecurity, epidemic levels of nutritionally related chronic disease, increasing disparity between rich and poor, and mounting political instability, too many of us are acting without original thinking.  Too many of us are sitting still, following directions,  and waiting for others to make decisions for us.  These behaviors, ingrained in our students through 13+ formative years of over-regulated, institutionalized living, are the drivers we must reverse if we are to sustain our futures and our freedom.  This freedom is key to our sustainability.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard school leaders argue that policies which control students and teachers are necessary to ensure quality education.  Yet more than a century of educational reform has failed to produce schools that succeed with all students.  A philosophy of freedom and empowerment over control and regulation could reverse this tragedy by transferring resources devoted to oppression and control into tools that foster personal growth and innovation.

No doubt, deregulation and empowerment, while liberating, can also create frightening and unstable periods of transition.   We know from past revolutions and liberation movements that the years after regulations are lifted are challenging.  Change produces uncertainty.  But this should not be a reason to continue supporting a system that is clearly broken.  Using more regulations to “fix” problems caused by too much regulation can only produce continued failure.  It is important to instead seek tools that foster smooth transitions into educational models that liberate students and teachers, and that spark innovation.

Alternative solutions we are exploring within our expanding network of local growers and alternative health entrepreneurs include development of sustainable agricultural and health networks that engage learners, foster entrepreneurial development, promote healthy lifestyles, and ensure sustainable futures.  Readers can learn more about these efforts by visiting our website.

M. Lucero, PhD is a systems biologist, environmental scientist and consultant.   She combines biorestoration principles with educational and economic development efforts to build sustainable healthy food systems.


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