Teaching about Teaching Sustainability

David Shapiro, Cascadia Community College


This activity is an assignment, in-class activity, and ideally, service-learning option that develops in college students the ability to foster, in pre-college students, an awareness of challenges associated with getting human beings to agree upon and abide by practices that foster environmental sustainability. The intended design is that college students, through a series of in-class exercises, familiarize themselves with the dynamic behind a particular kind of human-induced environmental challenge and then develop lesson plans to teach this dynamic to younger students in a classroom setting.

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Learning Goals

The biggest of the "big ideas" in this activity is sustainability, but equally important, I think, is the importance of understanding how learning is fostered generationally. People often make a big deal about how environmental problems will only be solved if young people are given the tools to take them on; this activity is meant to help make those cross-generational connections that clearly are the key to the future of the planet and all living things on it.

This activity, as mentioned above, is intended to develop, in college students, an awareness of how many of the pressing environmental challenges we face as a society are a species of what game-theoretical social philosophers call "collective action problems." Specifically, they take the form of a large-scale iterated "prisoner's dilemma," in which the underlying motivational dynamic is recognized as one in which everyone collectively would do better if everyone cooperated, but in which it is always in the rational self-interest of any individual (or group) to not cooperate, (or as it is usually put, to "defect.")

So, for instance, we all know that if all the nations of the world could all get together collectively and agree to limit our greenhouse gas emissions, it would be better for everyone, but every single nation in the world knows that no matter what the other nations do, it is always better for its own economy to not abide by any agreed-upon (or even not-yet-agreed-upon) regulations. Consequently, not only is it extremely difficult to achieve any agreement in the first place, it's even more difficult (in lieu of harsh penalties for defectors) to maintain the agreements once they have been established.

Once the college students involved in this activity have developed that understanding, they are then charged with developing a lesson plan to teach this idea-and presumably, possible solutions-to students younger than them.

Again, as mentioned above, there are two reasons for this. First, because, as we all know, nothing teaches us something better than having to teach it to others. And second, since teaching about sustainability is so critical to our shared future, it is incumbent upon us, as teachers, to help others develop the skills to share the content with others; enlisting college students to be teachers and mentors to younger students seems like a reasonable means to do so.

Context for Use

This activity could be taught in several different types of classes. I am currently using it in a 200-level college Environmental Ethics and Sustainability class. I have also used something very similar in a university-level class called "Philosophy for Children" which teaches college students to work with pre-college students in the exploration of philosophical inquiry and which also ends up functioning, for the college students, as an introduction (or re-introduction) to philosophy through children's literature and other classroom activities.


The timeframe for this activity is about a week to do the initial in-class activities and readings, then about a week for students to develop their own activities, and then several weeks for them to deliver their lessons to pre-college students. In my environmental ethics class, we are doing the activity about halfway through the course, having developed a foundation in the basic concepts explored in the literature and practice of environmental ethics.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

College students develop a lesson plan to explore with pre-college students the concept of sustainability and challenges inherent in getting society-wide cooperation in the effort to protect the planet and its resources.

The primary skills I hope that college students will develop is the ability to effectively communicate ideas they care about and some fluency in sharing these ideas with others, interactively and dynamically.

Within the discipline of philosophy, I want the college students to grasp the notion of collective action problems and their underlying dynamic; in the larger arena of sustainability, I simply want college students to expand their appreciation of the critical and urgent call for sustainable practices in society by having the opportunity to explore these ideas with younger students.

The Learning Activities

I begin the overall exploration of this activity with a short in-class exercise called "The Red-Green Game," which I describe as follows.

Many contemporary philosophers, arguing in a broadly Hobbesian tradition, consider the purpose of ethical constraints on people's behavior to be in support of self-interest. We ought, for example, to be honest and fair because-in the long run-honesty and fairness enables us to get more of what we want out of life.

To illustrate this idea, a so-called "Prisoner's Dilemma" model is often used. In the Prisoner's Dilemma scenario, we see that straightforwardly acting in one's rational self-interest leads to an outcome that is less desirable for everyone involved. Ethical constraints on one's behavior-constraints that emphasize cooperation over competition-enable agents in a Prisoner's Dilemma to solve the dilemma in such a way that maximizes overall benefits for all parties involved.

This exercise is intended to demonstrate that principle in an interactive, engaging, and usually somewhat surprising way.

I begin by breaking the class into two teams of equal size. The teams line up facing each other. The player at the head of each line is given a card that is red on one side and green on the other. I explain to the students that each person in line will have a chance to compete against his or her counterpart in the opposing team's line. Players will stand back to back and show to me-standing in front of them-either the red side or the green side of the card. They will be awarded points depending upon the side of the card they show and the side their opponent shows. (I use the standard Prisoner's Dilemma matrix to award them.) Here's what I say:
  • If you show green and your opponent shows green, you each get 3 points.
  • If you show green and your opponent shows red, you get 1 point, your opponent gets 4 points.
  • If you show red and your opponent shows green, you get 4 points, your opponent gets 1 point.
  • If you both show red, you each get 2 points.
I then give the students two very simple rules for the game:
  • No talking except when I say there is.
  • Both teams try to score as many points as possible.
I make it a point to say no more than that, even when predictably, students want to press me as to whether I mean "both" teams or "each" team.

The game then starts.

In the first round, players tend to try a variety of strategies, sometimes showing red, sometimes green. As the round goes on, though, it becomes apparent to team members that it behooves them to not show green; it is always (as is the case in collective action problems like this) in their self-interested benefit to show red. Red dominates green in this game theoretic matrix. By the end of the round, therefore, most players are showing red, and if they don't their teammates usually moan.

At the end of the first round, I tally up the teams' scores. I then remind students of the goal of the game and give them one minute to talk with their own team members to strategize for a second round. After doing so, I again prohibit them from talking and the second round begins.

The results are fairly predictable. All players show red, and as a result, their scores, both as individual teams and as a group, tend to be lower than round one. (Here, they are averaging 2 points per interaction, whereas in round 1, since sometimes they scored 1 or 4, their average is usually closer to 2.5)

I demonstrate to students they are actually doing worse the more they play. How, I ask them can they maximize their scores? Here, I remind them again of the goal of the game: for both teams to score as many points as possible.

I now give teams one minute to strategize not only with their own team members but with members of the opposing team. At the end of this, talk is again stopped and we play a third round.

Generally, in this round, all players show green. Teams average 3 points per interaction and players see how their team does better by cooperating with the other team.

We then debrief the game in two ways. First, we discuss situations in "real-life" that have this sort of dynamic. Usually, students bring up all sorts of classic collective action problems: adherence to pollution control standards, limits on fishing, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, refraining from cheating on tests. We talk about how individuals and group in such collective action problems can work together to maximize their collective benefit.

I then ask students to perform a brief writing project that answers two questions:
  • What did you learn in this game?
  • How can you use it in your life?
Students take five minutes or so and write down their answers. They then each have the option of reporting their answer to their classmates. Most do, and their answers tend to be quite moving, as they explain ways in which they can do better by cooperating with others in the future.

I have played this game with students from fourth grade through college. While the discussion in the debrief tends to be more or less sophisticated, it's my experience that the "aha" that students get about the value of cooperation is equally powerful at all of these levels. A very clear principle emerges from the game and discussion: by cooperating, we are more likely to get what we want than by single-mindedly pursuing our limited self-interest. This principle represents a strong underlying foundation upon which to build further ethical understanding as well as a workable principle to apply in choosing between alternatives in real-life.

It also models, quite clearly, the dynamic that exists in the attempt to get people to cooperate on issues of sustainability, whether those issues be something like a shared fishery or pollution controls, or even driving in the HOV lane on the freeway. This then, establishes a good conceptual underpinning for further readings, exercises, and discussion.

Afterwards, we read and discuss a number of standard texts in environmental ethics that explore similar ideas, notably, Garett Hardin's famous "Tragedy of the Commons." Offering a somewhat opposing, we also look at Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." And then, for a bit of an uplift, we look at Wendell Berry's "Solving for Pattern," which doesn't offer any solutions, but does provide superb criteria for what a good solution would look like.

I now put students through a second in-class exercise, this one an activity I developed in conjunction with my fellow teacher in a summer philosophy program for 5th and 6th graders at the University of Washington, Jean Hansen.

In this activity, students are split into two "tribes" of people who live around a lake and take their sustenance from the fish in those waters.

After splitting students into the two tribes, I draw out a lake on the floor of the classroom using masking tape. Into the lake, I put a bunch of wrapped candy, about twice as many pieces as there are students in the activity. Student are given the basic background of their situation and asked to choose a designated fisherperson for their tribe. It is then explained to them that in a moment, the fishing season will begin and that in order for tribe members to survive the year, their designated fisherperson much catch at least one piece of fish (candy) for each member of the tribe.

The wrinkle here is that the only tool that the designated fisherperson has to catch fish is a set of chopsticks; fisherpeople are only allowed to "pluck" candy and they cannot go into the water to fish.

I start the fishing season and it lasts 20 seconds. Depending on the skill of the fisherperson with the chopsticks, it usually happens that most, but not all of the tribe members get a piece of candy and "survive" into the next year.

I then replenish the lake with candy, adding a piece or two into the lake for each piece currently in it.

A second 20-second fishing season is then "opened;" this time, though, fisherpersons can put one foot into the water, and they can also "brush" fish from the lake. Typically, this is more efficient and usually, enough fish are caught to feed all tribe members. Again, afterwards, I replenish the lake and usually, it's still pretty healthy with fish.

A third fishing season is "opened;" this time, fisherpersons are each given a cup into which they can shovel fish with their chopsticks. Typically, this is far more efficient, so much so that they level of fish in the lake is depleted so much that it doesn't fully replenish.

Then it's time for a fourth season; this time, fisherpersons can go into the lake and scoop with their cups; typically, the fishery is devastated, so that it doesn't replenish and when the next, fifth season comes around, there aren't enough fish for tribe members to survive.

At this point, we talk about strategies for what we could have done differently in the fourth season to avoid this calamity and how we could have made sure that people abided by those strategies.

To test that out, I replenish the lake to fourth season levels and open another season. About half the time I do this activity, depending on the students, they behave sustainably; the other half of the time, the same original mistakes are committed. Either of these outcomes leads to interesting discussions about sustainability, collective action problems, and environmental degradation.

Having completed this activity with college students, I then ask them to begin developing a lesson for pre-college students that might similarly explore environmental issues. To set them on this course, we read and discuss Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.

Another option for the game is to start with a single fisherperson per "tribe;" in order to expand their tribes' membership, fisherpersons have to catch a sufficient number of fish in each round to add tribes members. This can add a dimension of competition to the game as teams try to maximize their membership; it also simulates a common real-world dynamic as, for the most part, the size of social groups does tend to expand to meet the available food resources.

In any case, following is the assignment and rubric I give college students to develop their own lesson. Students who have fulfilled this assignment have come up with a number of different lessons, most of which tend to explore individuals own resource use and consumption patterns. I look forward to modifying this assignment somewhat and using it in future classes.

Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Nov8 11)
Assignment Outcome Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Nov8 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources

  1. Berry, Wendell, "Solving for Pattern," in Gift of the Good Land (North Point Press, 1982)
  2. Geisel, Theodore (Dr. Seuss), The Lorax, (Random House, 1971)