30 SES 07 B, Student Learning Activities in ESE/ESD
Higher Education for sustainable development (ESD) aims to “develop knowledge, skills, values and behaviours needed for sustainable development” (UNESCO, 2018) among students. Openness and reflexivity are deemed to be key competencies for the agenda of sustainable development, allowing to „strengthen the individual’s ability to question practices, beliefs and knowledge that are taken for granted“ (Fischer & Barth, 2014, p. 198). Conversely, the conveyance of some sort of unquestionable truth opposes this very principle of HESD, as it undermines the cultivation of openness and reflexivity in the aforementioned sense.
When it comes to the problematization of environmental controversies, however, it seems that this principle is not always taken seriously in contemporary HESD. The debate on climate change exemplifies this assertion. There is, admittedly, overwhelming scientific evidence for the existence of anthropogenic climate change (Sezen-Barrie, 2017), and this evidence is largely accepted by the scientific community (McCright et al., 2013). Nevertheless, a non-negligible part of the Western population is either skeptical or even denies the human origin of climate change (e.g. Dunlap et al., 2016), and this fact has significantly increased its explosiveness since the American presidential elections in 2016 (Lubchenco, 2017). Scholars have suggested that climate change skepticism and denial should only partly be understood as a result of an information deficit, instead majorly being a product of underlying values and emotions leading people to accept the corresponding arguments (Norgaard, 2011). However, HESD often treats this phenomenon as an information deficit, intending to improve the delivery of content knowledge in order to extend people’s understanding of the topic (e.g. Sezen-Barrie, 2017).
The problem with that is the following: If values, emotions or other non-rational factors determine the acceptance of arguments in favor of climate change skepticism or denial, attacking these beliefs on an argumentative level is likely to stabilize or even intensify the latter instead of prompting their reconsideration (e.g. Haidt, 2001). As a consequence, a constructive discourse on the topic is impeded. The opposite of this tendency – and this seems to be the envisaged outcome of openness and reflexivity – is what Baron (2009) calls open-minded thinking: „It is ‛open- minded’ because it allows consideration of new possibilities, new goals, and evidence against possibilities that already seem strong. It is ‛active’ because it does not just wait for these things but seeks them out“ (p. 200). However, in order to develop the ability for open-minded thinking, it is first necessary to develop an awareness of one’s values, emotions, motivations and unconscious assumptions and an understanding of how these factors influence the way of dealing with arguments.
At Leuphana University, a technique called “Epistemic Recontextualism” (ER) was developed to systematically cultivate such an awareness and thereby promote open-minded thinking. It is rooted in the observation that the normative, emotional and motivational relation to a given subject will effect the way one assimilates new information on the latter. When it comes to controversial subjects – like climate change – this can result in different epistemic standards unconsciously mobilized to evaluate the quality of the corresponding arguments. Through the integration of mindfulness practices and elements of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), these epistemic standards can be made conscious, explicated and then applied to the antagonistic point of view, resulting in a radical shift in perspective toward the controversy.
This study is an empirical evaluation of a seminar in which the ER technique was applied. It focused on the topic of animal-based foods, epitomizing an ethically and environmentally highly relevant yet very controversially discussed topic (Frank & Fischer, in press).
The seminar “How to deal with arguments - Epistemic recontextualism exemplified on the consumption of animal-based foods” will be held at Leuphana University Lüneburg from April until July 2018. It addresses 30 bachelor students from different academic backgrounds. It consists of two intensive weekend sessions each lasting eight hours per day. In order to prepare the first meeting, students will be asked to prepare two opposing texts regarding the environmental impact of animal-based foods in written form (Hedenus et al., 2014 & Keith, 2009). More precisely, they are asked to summarize the contents of the texts, work out their central claims and evaluate the epistemic quality of both papers. Based on a thorough discussion of this work, students will be introduced to mindfulness practice and NVC. Equipped with these practices, students will again read opposing articles on the environmental impact of animal-based foods. This time however, they are asked to systematically document occurring emotions and reactions to the texts read. In group work, they will work out their underlying epistemic assumptions and emotions to both articles, thereby identifying their epistemic standards (unconsciously) held when reading. Finally, they will try to apply the epistemic standard from the one text to the other. For the examination, participants are asked to repeat the task of reading and discussing opposing papers and apply the ER technique, though this time reflecting the ethical controversy of consuming animal-based foods. In addition, students need to write a personal reflection on the seminar experience. The evaluation foresees a quantitative and a qualitative part. A pre-/post-survey will be undertaken with seminar participants in order to evaluate the students’ position toward the topic and their moral standpoint on the consumption of animal-based foods. Furthermore, it includes items on their self-estimated knowledge and certainty on the matter as well as questions related to their ambiguity tolerance. The qualitative evaluation consists of a content analysis (Kuckartz, 2016) of the written examination – in comparison to the written preparation in the beginning of the seminar – and the personal reflections on the seminar experience.
During winter semester 16/17 and summer semester 17, two similar seminars were run at Leuphana University Lüneburg. In these seminars, students also dealt with opposing arguments concerning the consumption of animal-based foods and used mindfulness practices to observe their inner processes stimulated by the confrontation with the theoretical ambiguity. There is empirical evidence that such a format increases the students’ awareness of their inner processes and unconscious assumptions, as well as their influence on the way they dealt with arguments (Frank & Fischer, in press). Furthermore, students tendentially demonstrated more openness toward opposing arguments and expressed their impression of having more constructive conversations with people holding antagonistic points of view. The here-presented format is the advancement of these seminars, the ‘epistemic recontextualism’ technique directly emerging out of the teaching experience and evaluation processes. Since the previous seminars have already been successful, I also expect this format to stimulate a significant increase in students’ awareness of their inner processes when facing opposing arguments and how these processes influence the way they deal with them. Moreover, there is reason to assume that the ER technique will enable students to systematically open up new perspectives on antagonistic points of view and cultivate their open-minded thinking abilities.
Baron, J. (2009). Thinking and deciding (4. ed., reprinted.). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. Dunlap, R., McCright, A.M. & Yarosh, J.H. (2016). The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 58 (5), 4–23 Fischer, D., & Barth, M. (2014). Key Competencies for and beyond Sustainable Consumption: An Educational Contribution to the Debate. GAIA, 23(1), 193–200. Frank, P. & Fischer, D. (in press). Introspektion und Bildung für nachhaltigen Konsum:: Ein Lehr-Lern-Format zur systematischen Selbsterforschung in der Auseinandersetzung mit Argumenten zum Konsum tierischer Produkte - Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. In W. Leal (ed.). Nachhaltigkeit in der Lehre: eine Herausforderung für Hochschulen. Wiesbaden, Springer. Haidt, J. (2001). The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgement. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834. Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S. & Johansson, D.J. (2014), The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets in Climate Change, 124, pp. 79 – 91 Keith, L. (2009), Political Vegetarians. In The vegetarian myth. Food, justice and sustainability. Crescent City: Flashpoint Press Kuckartz, U. (2016). Qualitative Inhaltsanalyse. Methoden, Praxis, Computerunterstützung (3., durchgesehene Aufl.). Grundlagentexte Methoden. Weinheim, Bergstr: Beltz Juventa. Lubchenco, J. (2017). Environmental science in a post-truth world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15 (1), 3. McCright, A.M., Dunlap, R.E. & Xiao, C. (2013). Perceived scientific agreement and support for government action on climate change in the USA. Climate Change, 119 (2), 511-519 Norgaard, K.M. (2011). Living in denial. Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. Cambridge, MIT Press. Sezen-Barrie, A., Shea, N. & Borman, J.H. (2017). Probing into the sources of ignorance: science teachers’ practices of constructing arguments or rebuttals to denialism of climate change. Environmental Education Research, 0-21 UNESCO (2018). Education for sustainable development. URL: https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-sustainable-development, accesses 12 January 2018
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