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Why Dream? Vision and Sustainable Schools

14 / 02 / 2022
By Jaimie Cloud, Founder, The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education

In our work with schools, Metanoia invites students to envision a future version of their school as a sustainable community. Despite their capacity for imagination and creativity, most students find this exercise challenging. Indeed, most adults do too. Yet without a clear shared vision of our sustainable future, the path we travel will be needlessly long and circuitous.

When it comes to education for sustainability, we have a double challenge: not only are we called upon to envision the sustainable future, but also to re-envision the kind of schools required to get us there.

In this guest blog, Jaimie Cloud writes about the importance of a shared vision of the kind of schools that will graduate students who are equipped to help us co-create the future we want.

Visions help us mobilize around something we care about. They help us to focus our attention and our energy on where we want to go—regardless of whether it is possible or probable (Senge, Fifth Discipline, 1990).  Visions are not designed to solve a particular problem, ease pain, or fix something that is broken. Creating a shared vision can lead to long-term results while addressing problems as intended consequences of moving toward the future we want.

It is not what the vision is, it is what the vision does.

It is the impact of the vision we put forth that matters, not the vision itself.  If the things we do and do not do are intentionally carried out in the service of our desired future, then our vision of that future can help us make strategic choices.  The vision can provide a benchmark by which to measure progress and help us know how close or far we are from where we want to be.

To quote the systems scientist and organizational development author, Peter Senge, “It is not what the vision is, it is what the vision does. (Senge, 2007).

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge posits that if any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, “it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create” (Senge, 1990, p. 9).  Such a picture or vision has the power to be uplifting – and to encourage experimentation and innovation over time.  When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.

Personal vision vs. shared vision

But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization.  In these cases, what is lacking is the skill for creating a shared vision, not a ‘cookbook,’ but a set of shared principles and guiding practices.

The practice of shared visioning involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and engagement rather than compliance.  In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.

Shared visions spread because of a reinforcing process.  Increased clarity, enthusiasm, and commitment rub off on others.  “As people talk, the vision grows clearer.  As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grow” (Smith, 2001 quoting Senge, 1990, p. 227).

How a school’s shared vision of educating for sustainability is shaping its daily life

An example of how shared vision can play out in a school setting can be found at three-year-old Compass Charter school in Brooklyn, New York.  Compass uses balanced literacy, inquiry-based learning, and place-based education as pedagogical practices.  The school is an intentionally diverse school – reserving 40% of their open seats for children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – and an inclusive school – providing services for children with a range of learning needs, including children who are academically advanced, as well as those who need short and/or long-term academic and/or social-emotional intervention.

Early on in the planning of their elementary school, co-directors Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters, and Todd Sutler envisioned that their school would educate for sustainability:

“In an ever-changing world, we believe that it is crucial for our students to learn to meet the needs of the present generation while simultaneously keeping the needs of future generations in mind.  To cultivate this thinking, our students will study their relationship with the world using a lens of sustainability.  Our students participate in integrated projects focused on the living world, social justice, and economic justice.”

The founders did not exactly know what that would entail at the time, but by making sustainability and education for sustainability a core component of the vision for their school, it compelled them to do the necessary research and begin to make decisions that carved the path forward.  Amidst all the distractions and complementary priorities of the school, they continue to make decisions about teacher recruitment and professional development that are based on the direction of their vision.

Decisions about curriculum, instruction, and assessment are made using the Cloud Institute’s EfS Enduring Understandings, Standards, and Performance Indicators as the through-line for their K-5 scope and sequence, and decisions regarding performance reviews and orientations for new teachers are more and more influenced by the faculty’s commitment to educating for sustainability.  They use the thinking of education for sustainability in their day-to-day work and are constantly practicing its thinking to problem find and problem solve along the way.

Creating a school from the ground up is as energizing as it is daunting.  “We are riding the bicycle and building the bicycle at the same time,” explains Kirsten Beneke, faculty member and sustainability coordinator.  “It’s a challenge, but from it we will create something beautiful.”  “It’s the centerpiece,” says Peters.  “EfS brings it all together.”

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else”

When Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline, he was named a ‘Strategist of the Century’ by the Journal of Business Strategy.  The Financial Times said it was one of the five most influential management books of all time, and in 1997 Harvard Business Review said it was one of the seminal management books of the preceding 75 years.

Ten years later he wrote Schools that Learn, published in 2000.  It presents many examples of schools that were building learning cultures based on Systems Thinking, working with diverse mental models, and building shared vision.  It has been a best seller for years now, but at first it did not sell.  Why?

Senge’s research into that question resulted in one basic insight: in most schools, no one agreed on the goal.  As the legendary baseball coach Yogi Berra put it, echoing Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

Envisioning schools that educate for a sustainable future

What if we envision that schools are designed around how students learn for a healthy and sustainable future?   What do such schools look like?  How do they function?  What is the impact of attending these schools on the individuals?  On society?  On the Earth?

Today’s education systems were designed to meet the needs of the late 19th century.  Traditional schedules for the school year and school day are still based on the agrarian calendar, and daily schedules are broken up into relatively short blocks of time, each of which is the same length.  The physical environment is organized in self-contained classrooms with a few special function spaces such as a gym or performance center.  Grouping of students is by age and grade level, and grouping of professionals in core subjects is by grade level or department (Jacobs and Alcock, 2017).

This structure was fashioned on the principles of mass production and designed to prepare students to be productive workers in the factory system that boasted efficient assembly lines for uniform products.  But we are not going down that road anymore, so what path should we take?

In the green school’s movement, we envision schools that graduate students ready to co-create a sustainable future.

What to preserve and what to change?

In their book, Bold Moves for Schools (Hayes and Alcock , 2017), Prakash Nair suggests the authors “have taken away every last excuse to resist change from educators and the education establishment”.  The questions Hayes and Alcock put on the table are the same questions we ask ourselves as we create green, healthy, sustainable schools: “What do we cut?  What do we keep?  What do we create?  What does learning look like now?  How does the contemporary teacher determine what to hold on to from the past?”

To thrive over time in an ever-changing and interdependent world, we have to be continually vigilant about asking what to preserve and what to change.  Unfortunately, the default for too many schools we have seen, is to change what should be preserved, and preserve what needs to change without thinking through the intended and unintended consequences of our choices.

In addition to these questions, we must also ask: “What experiences should we create to keep learning fresh and vibrant, resonating with the times in which we live?  How can leadership transform previous versions of schools into new, dynamic learning systems?”

As we think and dream about what is possible in the green schools movement, envision the following:

  • Schools designed around how students learn for the future we want. There is a shared understanding that schools have a responsibility to contribute to our individual and collective potential, and to that of the living systems upon which all life depends.
  • Schools are learning organizations in which everyone is encouraged to keep thinking, innovating, collaborating, talking candidly, improving their capabilities, self-correcting, and making personal commitments to a shared future.
  • Schools unleash the potential of having all our children, with their teachers and mentors, during the most favorable time for learning, honored with transformative learning experiences that prepare them to participate in, and to lead with us, the shift toward a sustainable future.

Designing schools for the future we want

To design a school around how students learn, contemporary school structures will have responsive and fluid scheduling, use physical space imaginatively, group students by characteristics other than age, and group faculty by interests and teaching strengths (Hayes and Alcock, 2017).

To design schools around how students learn for the future we want, (and why educate for an un-sustainable future?) they also need to be anticipatory, based on the premise that “the best way to predict the future is to design it” (Buckminster Fuller).

Schools that educate for a sustainable future think of futures as aspirational, and understand that we are in a position to create futures instead of accepting futures (EfS Benchmarks).  They foster emergent and complex thinking in students, faculty, administrators, and the greater school community, and they create favorable conditions for mindfulness in everyday life.

Today and tomorrow, students will continue to need a broad set of skills to be effective – first in problem finding, and then in problem solving.  Working in teams with diverse membership will help them to adapt to change, increase resilience, and enhance creativity and neuroplasticity (Scientific American 2014).

Effective global citizenship, including but not limited to employability, requires students to see themselves as part of an interdependent whole.  They will continually be challenged to grasp how the global economy works, so that they can play a role in shaping its contribution to healthy societies and ecologies.  They will regularly inquire about what is required to be vital and build respectful relationships and communities that are regenerative, healthy, and sustainable.

At the Lovett School, an Independent K-12 School in Atlanta Georgia, sustainability work has evolved from “greening” the campus to understanding the necessity for an integrated approach addressing campus operations, teaching and learning and campus culture. Initial steps focused on energy, waste, food, water, and transportation issues, but it quickly became clear that curriculum and instruction, behavior and culture needed to be addressed for lasting change.

This led Lovett to partner with The Cloud Institute in 2015 and begin the process of “sustainabilizing” the K-12 curriculum. Since then, over 100 faculty and administrators have found ways to educate for sustainability. The impact on students has been significant as faculty have introduced projects and problem-solving units and consciousness about sustainability has grown.

One student, Jamil Atkinson, exemplifies Lovett’s focus on EfS. Jamil’s interests in sustainability are broad. He leads the school’s Environmentally Responsible Investment Group, a student club that researches and invests real money in renewable energy companies. After a student trip to Siempre Verde, (a cloud forest reserve in Ecuador) Jamil learned that indigenous people in Ecuador are losing their land and livelihoods to mining and forestry corporations. Determined to do something, he helped developed a fair trade exchange between Lovett’s campus store and a group of indigenous Ecuadorian artisans.  As a senior, Jamil is undertaking an independent study with Lovett’s Director for Sustainability, Sandra Switzer, to research cutting edge technologies in sustainable architecture with the end goal of designing a new community center for the campus.

Schools as regenerative, interconnected communities

To meet needs like these, schools themselves must begin to function as adaptive and regenerative learning communities interconnected with the world outside their doors.  School culture will reflect the responsive and adaptive cycles of growth, re-organization, and renewal.  Priorities will not compete with one another, but will be mutually beneficial; catalytic and servant leadership qualities will be developed in all members of the school community, and mechanisms will be designed, implemented, and sustained to visibly track progress over time.

Schools and communities will be resources to one another. They will learn and work together in partnership; the schools’ contribution to sustainable community development and the community’s contribution to successful schools will be visibly tracked, measured, and communicated, and they will celebrate and reflect together about what to preserve and what to change to thrive over time.

When this happens, a world of transformative learning opens up for all students as they discover meaning, value, opportunity, and a sense of place and purpose.

Disclosures:  Compass Charter School and Lovett School are clients of the Cloud Institute.


Works Cited

Beneke K. (2014). School Interview.

BFI. (2017). Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge Application [Letter]. New York, New York.

Cloud, Jaimie (Eds.). (2017). “Education for A Sustainable Future, Benchmarks: For Individual and Social Learning.” Journal of Sustainability Education.  Nativeweb. Retrieved from https://www.susted.com/wordpress/special-project-education-for-a-sustainable-future-benchmarks/

Healy M, Peters B., Sutler T. (2014). School interview.

Jacobs, H. H., and Alcock, M. (2017). Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments. Alexandria, VA, USA: ASCD.

Phillips, K. W. (n.d.). How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. Retrieved 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

Senge, P.M. (2017). Personal Interview

Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1st ed.).  New York, NY: Doubleday.

Smith, M. K. (2001). Peter Senge and the learning organization. Infed. Retrieved from www.infed.org/thinkers/senge.htm.


Author Bio

Jaimie Cloud is the founder and president of The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City. The Cloud Institute is dedicated to the vital role of education in creating awareness, fostering commitment, and guiding actions toward a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations. The Cloud Institute monitors the evolving thinking and skills of the most important champions of sustainability, and transform them into educational materials and a pedagogical system that inspire young people to think about the world, their relationship to it, and their ability to influence it in an entirely new way.

Metanoia is partnering with the Cloud Institute to offer workshops and professional learning in Education for Sustainability to teachers and school communities in APAC and the Middle East.

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Emma graduated with distinction from Rhodes University with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Biochemistry. Since graduating, she has worked in the education sector throughout Asia.

She has experience in Nature-based Solutions for Disaster and Climate Resilience, SDG-Academy. In Emma’s spare time she wrote for an environmental think-tank, covering topics ranging from sustainable diets and lifestyles to biodiversity loss and conservation initiatives. Through her work at Metanoia, Emma is fulfilling a lifelong ambition of working in sustainability for education. She is currently working on applied sustainability audits in schools with the aim of helping them become net-zero institutions.

Her areas of interest include sustainability education, biodiversity loss, sustainable diets, and plastic pollution.

Kiran is an Environment and Sustainability masters graduate from Monash University, Australia. As a former digital marketer, she has experience in project management, campaign execution and brand development for multiple start-up companies.

Through Metanoia, she has applied her knowledge in sustainability communications and stakeholder engagement to drive behaviour change and whole school engagement within schools across Asia. Kiran also brings waste expertise to the team from auditing, reporting and providing innovative and circular solutions. Outside of work, Kiran likes to engage in environmental activism; from working with non-profits to reduce plastic pollution, to advocating for animal rights.

Her passion lies in water sanitation and sustainable agricultural practices.