we’re all teachers now – so what do we do?


by Bill Scott : Comments Off on we’re all teachers now – so what do we do?

Whether we like it or not, we’re all learners and teachers now.   Learners and teachers?  Really?  Well, yes.  We’ve got used to the idea that learning is something we don’t just do at school and college (on a good day), but is something that we humans go on doing from our first to our dying breath.  To be human is to learn – to learn about all sorts of things: from the trivial to the profound; the simple to the complex; and the ephemeral to the life-long.  And all this transcends that subject stuff that we came across in school whose artificial boundaries became immediately obvious once you were ten steps away from the school gates, if not sooner.  This is not to knock schools, far from it, because we learn all sorts of useful things there – including, if we’re really lucky, the importance of learning, how to do it effectively, and how to work with others in that.

And given that the only way to make sense of sustainable development is to see (and live) it as an emergent social learning process that can be continued indefinitely, that’s just as well.

But are we really teachers too?  Well, we are in an informal, everyday and very unpaid sense, although we don’t always use ‘teach’ to describe this.  Over the past week, how often have you found yourself, at home, at work, on a walk – anywhere – explaining, illustrating, showing, exemplifying, discussing, questioning, supposing, proposing, etc?  More than once or twice I’d say if you’re anything like the people I come across.   All these words have two things in common: they all describe techniques that ‘proper’ teachers use all the time, and they all give rise to learning one way or another: often building on and confirming what we already know, think and feel – sometimes subtly undermining this, which can lead in time to significant re-thinking and re-valuing – and sometimes creating openings for entirely new insights, understandings and skills.

And although much is made of what schools and colleges can do to foster sustainable development, in truth it’s what adults come to know about this that is more important in the immediate future, given the economic and social power we exercise, and the influence we exert through how we live.  Again, this is not to gainsay the value of teaching and learning about all this at school; it’s just that the adult world is more immediate, and we all have lived experiences, ideas and values to contribute.

But how do we set about this in ways that are helpful – that assist learning?  Sadly, not everyone is content to trust and respect individuals to come to their own judgements about what they think and value in relation to the great matters of the day such as sustainability.  Not everyone who claims to understand how learning really works finds it possible to live this out with others.  Too many are so sure in their own certainties that they are keen for others to share their prejudices and beliefs.

I’ll look at some of these issues by setting out seven unhelpful tendencies that, sadly, are all too commonly found.

The tendency to …

1 … think that you’ve nothing to learn yourself. This is hardly ever the case; much better all round to begin with this thought and prepare for surprises.
2 … convince yourself that if only people had your own knowledge and values, then all would be well with the world. That may be so (although it’s doubtful), but that’s a judgement for others to make, not you, and you should not presume that anyone’s listening anyway.
3 … forget that everyone else lives in the world as well as you, and come to conversations with experience, ideas, values and convictions. Beginning with others’ experiences and ideas is not only a way of engaging them on their terms, it also usually gives you insights that you can use, and starting points for discussion.
4 … portray individuals as being responsible for the problems of the world – and their solution. As individuals, changing what we do makes little difference, but working with others to bring about social change does, as everything we do is socially and economically embedded
5 … over-simplify complex issues so that they become a caricature or stereotype Often things are complicated and to pretend otherwise is foolish (but all too common).  There is a real distinction between being simplistic and taking a simple approach.
6 … believe that some ideas, practices and values are so important that they need be promoted uncritically. Selling anything is usually a tough challenge; coming to change through sharing and critical exchange is usually much more effective at bringing about useful learning.
7 … focus just on changing behaviour at the expense of understanding and skills acquisition. Changing behaviours can be helpful, but knowing why you’re doing this, and what the limitations are, will help to embed the change.


None of these are specific to sustainability, but that does not diminish their relevance to it.

Finally, judge your success in terms of the quality of the conversation and how much you have learned, rather than in terms of the number of converts to your cause – no matter how noble and vital you really do believe this to be.

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