Education for Beauty and Sustainability

In a recent survey of the higher education supplement published in The Guardian, half of the academic staff is suffering of mental illnesses. So if that’s right, half of my colleagues at the university may be in risk of stress, depression and overwork. However, stress and well being are elements that are not necessarily included or discussed when we talk about education for sustainability (EfS), which is the topic of this presentation. What we want to do today is to talk about our journey, if you want this is an action research journey of how we have developed some ideas on EfS and how we have managed to survive and evolve.

So let’s commence with a bit of the context. First of all, I would like to introduce my partner in these adventures: Romas Malevicius, he is a PhD researcher on EfS doing a learning history of our project GoGreen and also working with the Global Sustainability Institute. Romas and I have been working together in the development of a major project called GoGreen, which most of you have heard about, which is all about promoting action learning and practical experience for students, academics and organisations interested in improving their environmental practices.

It all started with an ongoing question: how to teach sustainability in a way that is practical, transformative and fun? We believe that sustainability is like learning to swim: you can read many books but only when you get into the swimming pool then you learn. So the first element of our approach is ACTION LEARNING. During this time we have tried to bring activities that help the students to practice and to implement in real life the changes toward sustainability. We have worked with the university in evaluating their efforts in applying the Green Impact ( a pro environmental program created by the National Union of students, which is practical and rewarding!), we have also students implementing an environmental management program in their own houses (with all the problems and the challenges of convincing their housemates and families in joining in, thus developing communication skills, leadership skills, quality management skills, etc.). In 2011 we had a mini pilot in which 4 students worked with 3 companies of the motorsports industry applying the Green Impact supported by a team of academics. This experiment showed us the potential of action learning, because the students found interesting jobs after this and overall we all were so benefited from the experience. From there, we developed the GoGreen Pilot’12 having 12 students working with 12 organisations of the third sector applying the Green Impact.

GoGreen Pilot’12 was a superb experience, we finished it on time, we were nominated to some prestigious awards (like the Green Gown Awards and we won the VC Inspire Award), the organisations were happy, the students were very enthused and the funders (Higher Education Academy) could not praise us more! But we ended up completely knackered, tired and ill. The effort was too much, I had to take stress leave; and all of that made me wonder, what happened there?All I can say is that we underestimated the amount of resources that were required and we were not really trained into a lot of admin requirements that somehow were “expected” from us. That added to the stress of the situation. I think also that we were victims of our own enthusiasm: we tried to do so many things, we wanted the project to be perfect (and it was somehow) but it cost us a lot. So now we are trying to advance very slowly and also to be realistic on what we can do.

We hope now to apply both the hard lessons and the nice ones into a new module called STEP: Sustainable Transformation and Environmental Practice.  This blog, in fact, is part of an effort to create a memory and ways of reflecting. And this is particularly important for me, because I am starting to merge my two worlds: the world as an artist, and the world as educator, which has been a great part of my life.  I believe in the power of art for changing attitudes and bringing the best of each person… in other words, education!

While designing the GoGreen project, even from the very beginning we wanted to make it fun for the students but also for ourselves. The team was creative and very visual, we worked with the fantastic Ann Rippin, academic quilter and pioneer of art-based methodologies in organisational research. Also Romas is all about technologies, applications, design, and I am more about creativity and art based methodologies, so this was an element of BEAUTY AND AESTHETICS that we have developed since then. We have used films, also drawings; and Ann designed a number of workshops like the postcard exercise, and another one of making dolls to talk about leadership. All the time we have kept the element of PLAY in all we do.

Throughout this process, and also now working in the RawTag project, I’ve been developing a theory of “living beautifully:” and this include also living in beauty with the environment and also living beautifully with ourselves, thus, including the element of WELL BEING. And here we hope also to maintain a healthy attitude and avoid drowning in the constant institutional complexities, and moreover, to succumb to in our own risks of unrealistic perfectionism and ambition.

The other element here that we want to highlight and it is of BENEFITS. We think that apart of the very complex and sometimes abstract Learning Objectives in module guides – which the students frankly hardly read- we need to offer participants something tangible. In the new module STEP we continue with the idea of the students developing an environmental management system (EMS) for their households and when applicable on their offices. We know that they can save money (in previous module we have had an average of £30-£50 savings in electricity bill, and recently one of the students say that he is saving approximately £60 a month because now he walks to the university instead of taking taxis!) Also we think that while doing this EMS the students will have to apply lots of skills: communication skills, leadership skills, total quality management skills, time management, etc., so we hope that these skills also feed into a sort of EMPLOYMENT opportunities. Specially because we know that more and more sustainability is becoming a key distinctive advantage for graduates, as many of our students have said, thousands of graduates present their up-to-date CVs, but how we can distinguish one from each other?

Also, this apply for the team in terms of WHAT IS IN FOR US? And we are trying to write our articles and develop our careers in terms of teaching and education, and art as well… thus, we are now trying to merge the idea of art based methodologies, with transformational processes and behavioral change. We are really exciting that perhaps RawTag is another avenue to do this (watch this space!).

That’s the story so far! We think that the elements of action learning, playfulness and beauty, tangible benefits and well being need to be highlighted at all times. And I think that this is not only for sustainability but for any other type of enterprise we are committed with.

We are still evolving, learning, sharing. We are happy to disseminate what we’ve done with people interested, and we would like to hear from your experience using technologies, big groups, keeping the spark of fun and beauty alive and avoiding falling into stressful situations or avoidable risks.

Thank you very much,


Presentation for the Learning and Teaching Conference, at Anglia Ruskin University. June 30, 2015. Cambridge. United Kingdom.

Featured Image: Drawing by Natalie Eldred. Event Artist.







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