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View from the Lectern: Sustainability as a Cohort

“It’s just too complex!”

How can one person master all the material related to sustainability?”

“Advanced classes in my area of study are available only after taking years of prerequisites; how can I gain expertise in all the other areas of sustainability?”

These are legitimate concerns and questions about higher education programs that purport to teach sustainability (and there are a growing number of these programs. See the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education list for an update).

I’ve begun traveling to DC to teach in an Executive Masters program focusing on sustainability.  Students come from around the country, representing a wonderfully wide range of backgrounds including lawyers, civil engineers, ecologists, business consultants, and government administrators.  Some have thirty years of professional experience, a few have been out of school only a few years, all are engaged in relevant careers.  The dynamic and diversity is amazing.  But how do I teach such an eclectic group?   How does this program build the necessary competencies when people are starting from so many different places?

We use the cohort model: a group of students that engage the material together in an accelerated and compressed time frame. They begin the program at the same time, form working teams and get trained in teamwork, take the same classes at the same time, travel together on the same field trips, and assist one another in projects (and life).

This model of education is perfect for sustainability because cohort members bring enormous expertise to the learning enterprise.  The cohort itself becomes a functioning learning network that directs perspective, content, and resources where needed when needed.

My job as a professor is different in the cohort model than what I do back in my traditional university system where every semester I teach a new crop of students who have all learned (and supposedly remembered) core concepts and methods from past courses leading up to mine.  In the cohort model I know the students know different things: that is their strength. But they lack a common language and common tools.  My job becomes one of building capacity to help them see and share the diversity of perspectives and solution-sets relevant to sustainability, to empower the capacity in the cohort to define problems, to teach them to find resources to solve problems, and to have the willpower to craft and apply solutions.

Yes sustainability is complex, too complex for any one person, profession or discipline to master.  That does not mean higher education should ignore it.  It means higher education needs to develop new strategies.  The cohort strategy shows promise.

Posted on: February 17, 2011, 9:00 am Category: View from the Lectern Tagged with: ,

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