Friday, April 22, 2011

Place-Based Education - Creating Bio-regional Economies

Image from Friends of Tarrywile Park 
With the arrival of Earth Day I started thinking about how we might best achieve what the day symbolizes.  That got me thinking about articles I've seen highlighting new perspectives on our educational system, how it contributes to a sustainable future (does it?), and how we might modify it to achieve agreed upon social goals while preparing people for the economy in which we live.  Complicated?  Nah...here are a few ideas...

The founder of Fair Trade Sports and BGI marketing instructor Scott James penned a blog post on Forbes.com offering some ideas that made sense to me:
Not everyone...aspires to attend a four-year degree program. In fact, some of the brighter high school students are wise enough to see the amount of debt they would be saddled with after a four-year program, and take a pass on it. As more motivated and smart students opt out of the four-year college program altogether, the idea of a re-skilling college seems more viable. 
Think of a reskilling college as a new, hyper-local version of the defunct trade school, focused on teaching the specific skills needed to thrive as entrepreneurs in this age, tailored to the unique aspects of the bioregion (Washington State companies will be different from Florida companies). The world may currently be flat, but when cheap energy goes away, life (and our companies) will become much more regionally focused.
Regionalization makes a lot of sense; (ideologically, I'm on board) and economically, if one assumes that rising energy prices will crimp global supply chains (as is already happening) "re-regionalization" is going to happen.  Why not plan for it now?

Then I saw this from Carol Sanford on the BGI Sustainable Business Blog looking at the concept of sustainability in business.  Why did I think about this is the context of education?  These concepts must be integrated in our educational curriculum from start to finish, including business education if we're to have meaningful long-term change. 
First: We have to stop working on saving, protecting, conserving, and restoring the environment. These ideas are not based on living systems or on creating healthy ecosystems.  Instead, we have to understand the working of Life-sheds and how we can engage with Life as an integral player in the ecosystem to support self-regenerating capacity. We have to stop thinking of Life-sheds as environments outside of us that we are responsible to steward, and know instead that humans and businesses are included in the working of Life, inside their ecosystems, not outside of them. 
Second: We have to stop using market and customer research, classifying buyers by demographics and generally effacing the lives of the individuals we seek to benefit. We have to build champions inside our businesses who know and care for the lives of stakeholders outside our walls. Then we can be deeply responsible for the health, vitality, and fulfillment of people who trust and count on businesses to do what they cannot or do not want to do for themselves. 
Third: We have to stop using the concept of suppliers and employees, especially as we conceive of their roles now. We have to re-imagine them as co-creators in the pursuit of beneficial effects in the lives of customers and other stakeholders.  A responsible business’s offerings flow continuously from Earth to Earth—from concept and resources all the way to reinvestment of “waste” into something of higher value than downwardly recycled compost. When we know that businesses are living systems within other living systems, then we understand that there are no supply chains. There are no chains, period. There are only value-adding processes.
The "Life-sheds" Carol referred to might be considered the bio-regional economies as Scott referred to them, or maybe that's too limiting.  Either way, I find it fascinating to think about bio-regional "states" that leverage their inherent resources to provide goods and services within their boundaries as a hedge against disruptions in the global economy.

This wonderful news from the NYTimes on the problem of skating through undergrad business school caught my attention, as it ties into the "why" of higher education.
Scholars in the field point to three sources of trouble. First, as long ago as 1959, a Ford Foundation report warned that too many undergraduate business students chose their majors “by default.” Business programs also attract more than their share of students who approach college in purely instrumental terms, as a plausible path to a job, not out of curiosity about, say, Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm. 
“Business education has come to be defined in the minds of students as a place for developing elite social networks and getting access to corporate recruiters,” says Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who is a prominent critic of the field. It’s an attitude that Dr. Khurana first saw in M.B.A. programs but has migrated, he says, to the undergraduate level.
Certainly, emerging from an educational institution with skills applicable to the economy in which one functions is important.  Yet, if we're simply churning out pegs to insert into functional holes without adding critical thought to the process and the education, are we adding value to society as a whole?

What about the physical spaces in which we learn? They influence how we experience education in subtle ways we may not quite fully appreciate. I was fortunate to experience what might be considered and "alternative" learning environment at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island...and loved it. This Fast Company feature from last year offers some interesting insights into design of facilities we call "schools".  They're akin to learning factories...how might we design these spaces to foster the learning we seek while instilling a sense of responsibility to the world we share?

The ultimate question is (no, not that!), what are we seeking to accomplish with our educational system?

This is a complex issue and I am sure there is more to add to the conversation...please add your thoughts. 

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