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Learning to Change the World

Publié le 1 mai, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Today’s youth will be faced with very challenging decisions with regards to social equity and ecological sustainability. The Pembina Institute, a Canadian non-profit environmental think-tank, and Pearson College, an international school focused on peace and sustainability, are collaborating to develop an experiential field school for young people interested in taking leadership in ecological sustainability and social equity. Several unique design features – which have been developed out of research exploring youth perspectives on effective environmental and sustainability education – are discussed.

Old High Springs Elementary School
L.E. MacDonald, Old High Springs
Elementary School
, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Currently, there is a sense of urgency to address what many call the looming ecological crisis. We are at a critical point in time and we have a decision to make, now: Will we continue to court ecological crisis, or will we change our course and work collectively towards sustainability?1 As a long time activist and organizer, I have followed the various approaches and strategies that are employed to work towards a different world. From political lobbying through targeted advocacy campaigns, to market based activities, and grassroots uprisings, individuals are engaged at many levels in an attempt to create social change. Teachers and educators are among these groups, exploring the ways in which both formal and non-formal education contributes to shaping a healthy, just, and sustainable society. Effective education plays an essential role in creating opportunities for people to think critically, to reflect and expand their worldview, to gain skills and confidence for facilitating change, as well as to understand the responsibilities we have in being citizens of this earth. In the book The Courage to Teach (1998), Parker Palmer aptly quotes Vaclav Havel, the playwright, and revolutionary political leader of the Czech Republic:

“the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in […] human consciousness, nothing will change for the better, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed … will be unavoidable.”2

An education centred on the environment and sustainability is premised on the belief that a similar shift in human consciousness is needed. Reforming current systems will bring us along the path, but a revolution in the way we think and act is the broader goal. Education aimed at youth appears to hold particular promise, and several organizations are focusing their attention there.

Perhaps more than others, young people have the potential to lead a revolution towards the creation of a socially equitable and ecologically sustainable society. Youth are idealistic, creative, optimistic, and are willing to try new things. It is also during this stage in life that much of one’s perception of the world, oneself, and others is developed.3 It is in recognition of both the potential of education to enable a change in consciousness, and the fact that youth are already leaders in environmental and social justice movements, that a new leadership program for young people is currently being developed in British Columbia. Informed by recent research in environmental and sustainability education as well as ongoing consultations with youth activists, certain aspects of the program design process provides the opportunity to highlight new insights into leadership programs for youth.

Developing a Field School for Change

The Pembina Institute, a national non-profit environmental think-tank with offices spread across BC, Alberta and Ontario, and Pearson College, one of the United World Colleges with a focus on peace and sustainability, are partnering to develop a unique leadership field school for young people interested in ecological sustainability and social equity. It will be an experiential education program where students learn through direct experience: being actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, being creative, and solving real-life problems.4 The program seeks to reach young people through holistic, community-oriented learning, and engage them intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, as well as physically.5 Accredited by a Canadian post-secondary institution, the field school will include a mixture of site-based and backcountry learning in the interior of British Columbia and on the south end of Vancouver Island where the Pearson College campus is located. Field trips, action projects, service learning, nature immersion, and direct interaction with local community organizations and businesses are prominent features. It will consist of a cohort of about twenty young people, who will live and learn together for six weeks.

Education for youth is often developed without asking for the ideas and opinions of youth.6 However, they have valuable insight to offer in the design of education (as well as other important systems in our society). In order to design an effective youth leadership program, we decided it was essential to ask the youth for their perspective. The field school is being developed based on suggestions and insight gathered from a variety of sources: youth focus groups, interviews with youth activists, market research, and a program advisory committee including youth.

The focus group research was completed in 2006, followed by interviews with youth activists who had been involved in environmental and social justice leadership programs.7 These participants were asked to discuss learning experiences that have had a significant impact in enabling them to take leadership in creating social equity and ecological sustainability in their own lives and communities. They were also asked for their advice on the key features of design for a youth leadership education program. Research at this stage included an extensive literature review of current theory and practice in the fields of sustainability, environmental, experiential, holistic, and eco-justice education. While some recommendations made by our participants were not surprising, as they overlapped with existing research and practice in environmental and sustainability education, other suggestions raised new possibilities, and new challenges, for program design.

Real and Relevant Learning

Young people believe leadership programs should be participant-driven, which means involving youth in the program planning and implementation, and having flexibility throughout program delivery. This is a different approach to traditional curriculum design, where educators often decide well in advance what students will learn. Throughout our design and planning we have followed the suggestion for youth-driven youth education. All participants will share their learning needs and interests before entry into the program so that we can shape it to suit them. We are prepared to be adaptive and spontaneous, and allow for opportunities to make choices throughout. The skeleton of the program will be in place beforehand, but the body will not be shaped until we have participants registered and present.

Participant-driven design is a good way of ensuring that learning is real, relevant, and transferable – especially when the goal is to enable and empower young people to take action in their own lives and communities. Each individual and community is different and has unique challenges and solutions. While a variety of approaches, strategies, and skills for action can be taught, participants must also have the confidence to tackle the specific challenges of their own place. The holistic, experiential, and community-oriented nature of the field school assists greatly in ensuring participants will transfer their learning to future situations. While learning from a variety of bioregions and communities across southern British Columbia, participants will analyze and reflect on their own bioregion and community. Situating learning in this rich context assists with transferability to one’s daily life and community.8 We seek to motivate and enable young people to reconnect to their local surroundings, preparing them “to live and work to sustain the cultural and ecological integrity of the places they inhabit”9.

Follow-up Support

This preparation not only means having relevant and transferable knowledge and skills, but also putting these into practice outside the program. Our program seeks to nurture connectedness and build long lasting relationships so that participants are supported by the learning community beyond the program. The program will therefore include means of follow-up and support. For instance, we have decided to include a mentor for one year beyond the program end date whose responsibility will be to assist participants in transitioning from the learning experience to their own actions in their community. The mentor will help young people network, find resources, align work experiences and funding, and be available for general support and counsel through email, phone, and face to face interaction. The mentor may also help organize and facilitate follow up gatherings so that participants have opportunities to reconnect and continue to learn from each other.

Walking the Walk

One of the focus group participants related the advice of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. “Being the change” challenges educators to set an example, and design learning experiences that actually model social equity and ecological sustainability in action. Young people suggested that the learning process and facility for our program be ecologically sustainable, or even self-sufficient. This means being conscious of the food, energy, and materials used. Food can be local and organic. Energy can come from renewable sustainable sources, and the materials used can be deliberately selected based on social and ecological implications. Materials should, where possible, come from local small businesses instead of large multi-national corporations. The ecological footprint of the entire program can be assessed and minimized. Providing a living example of sustainability in practice – actually living the change during the education program – is critical to enabling youth to create such changes in their own lives. It provides hope and motivation, and confidence and support for healthy and ecologically conscious living. We need direct experience with what a re-imagined world feels like.

Learning Must be Fun

Something else we learned through our focus group research and interviews with youth is that learning can be and must be fun. Fun was of fundamental importance to the youth we talked to, but there was little mention of it in the review of literature on environmental and sustainability education. Youth love to have fun, and educators are encouraged to design learning experiences that are truly enjoyable. Fun, in the learning setting, means challenging the status quo, being wild and creative. It often means letting go of current practices, and thinking way outside the box. For example, one participant suggested that even the way participants are woken up should be fun. Toss away the alarm clock, and bring out some drums and songs to start the day! Another participant commented that using the arts is an excellent way to learn to create social change and have fun at the same time. It was an arts-based youth education program, and particularly gumboot dancing, that started one participant on her path to taking leadership. In the program currently under development, making learning fun may include social activities, humour, arts and theatre, dancing and singing. Changing the world is certainly difficult, and a serious endeavour, but it can also be playful and pleasurable.


I am learning, and continue to be inspired, by the wisdom of youth. At each stage of program development young people have been involved and have offered extremely valuable insight. My research reinforces Anthony Weston’s10 call for educators to “go wild” with education. In designing environmental and sustainability education programs, we can build on our long-standing, effective practices, but also consider radically new philosophies and approaches. Youth have expressed their needs and interests for knowledge, skills, and support in creating change, and are seeking powerful, action-oriented, and enjoyable experiences to guide them. The Pembina Institute and Pearson College are now developing the finer details of our curriculum, seeking exceptional youth and adult facilitators and instructors, and determining logistics to ensure our program sings the essence of ecological sustainability and social equity. The first cohort of young people will shape our leadership field school in its pilot during May-June 2009 in southern British Columbia. This will be one of many cohorts, among one of the many ways, in which we can help young people learn to change the world.


1. Wright, R. (2004). A short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
2. Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Page 20.
3. Arnett, J. J. (2004). Adolescence and emerging adulthood: A cultural approach (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Pearson Education.
4. Experiential learning has developed significantly in recent decades, building on the success of Outward Bound and other organizations. Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound and originator of the United World Colleges, was a visionary who believed that experiential education could instil a sense of leadership in young people, equipping them to affect what they believed to be right, and empowering them to speak with conviction and compassion. (Scippa, M. T. (2000). The 1999 Kurt Hahn address: Catalysts for change: The healing power of experiential practices. Journal of Experiential Education, 23(1)
5. Luckman, C. (1996). Defining experiential education. Journal of Experiential Education, 19(1), 6-7.
6. Several authors’ contention including: Close, C. L., & Lechman, K. (1997). Fostering youth leadership: Students train students and adults in conflict resolution. Theory into Practice, 36(1), 11-16; Fletcher, A. (2003). Meaningful student involvement: A guide to inclusive school change. Olympia: The Freechild Project; and Hart, R. A. (1999). Children’s participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care. New York: UNICEF.
7. Focus group research was conducted through Master’s thesis research at Royal Roads University: Raynolds, N. (2006). Catalysing Change: Focus Group on Education that Enables Youth to Create Ecojustice. Individual interviews with youth alumni of environmental leadership programs were conducted as follow up through a grant from the Green Street Youth Engagement Program.
8. Uzzell, D. (1999). Education for environmental action in the community: New roles and relationships. Cambridge Journal of Education, 29(3), 397-413.
9. Woodhouse, J., & Knapp, C. (2000). Place-based curriculum and instruction: Outdoor and environmental education approaches, ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Washington DC: Charleston, WV.
10. Weston, A. (2004). What if teaching went wild? Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 9, 31-46.

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