Systems Imagination in Environmental Ethics

My current approach to teaching environmental ethics puts a heavy emphasis on awareness of systems, as I’ve noted before, more than once.

I’ll post something tomorrow about the scaffolding I’ve started to develop to help students in my current section of the course, but in the mean time I’d like to note one of the motivations for putting less emphasis on the profusion of ethical frameworks that characterizes the field of academic environmental ethics.

I have for some time now been dabbling in education assessment, working with colleagues to conduct quasi-experimental studies using quantitative instruments, some already established (like the DIT-2), some we developed ourselves.

I was, for various reasons, not terribly satisfied with the results from those instruments, so I attempted a smaller, qualitative study of my own, focused on a single section of environmental ethics and without a control group.

This small study resulted in an article published in Teaching Philosophy in 2008, titled “Teaching for Moral Imagination.”My focus in the paper is on moral imagination, but my conclusions suggest that the more important gap in students’ cognition, and the one that seemed most resistant to change in response to my approach to teaching the course at the time, might be called systems imagination.

Here’s how I describe the methods of the study:

The heart of the assessment procedure for the course was a simple pre-test/post-test setup. Students completed a take-home writing assignment at the beginning of the course, and again at the end. I graded the assignment each time it was submitted, simply on the basis of the effort put into the writing. As it happened, all students who completed the assignment received full credit. Here is what I asked students to do:

Where will you be ten years from now? Briefly describe your future home and its setting (immediate, local, and regional); briefly describe a day in the life of your future household.

I intended this assignment to elicit students’ moral imagination in its various functions. It certainly calls on students to be creative: they are to project the narrative of their lives forward ten years, to create an image of their situation either as it is likely to be or as they would like it to be. It also calls on their awareness of what is possible and what is likely and, for some students at least, some critical perspective on their own choices.

Students submitted all of their take-home assignments electronically through WebCT, a set of online course management tools. This made it a simple matter to set aside clean copies of the “Home” assignment for later analysis.

Several months after the semester ended, I carried out a qualitative comparison of the pre-test and post-test of each student who completed both. I will refer to the pre-test and post-test from an individual student as a “set.” In each set, I looked for evidence in the form or the substance of the writing that students’ perspectives on themselves and their environmental context had changed in a way that would indicate an enrichment of moral imagination. In particular, I was interested in students’ awareness of what is possible and what may be at stake in their choices, the degree to which they could take a critical perspective on their own assumptions and values, and their creativity in projecting their own future life.

Reading through the pre-tests and post-tests, I marked key descriptive passages as well as passages that reveal something of each student’s priorities, motivations, and ways of framing the choices before them (e.g., what they pay attention to, what they do not). I then created a spreadsheet with three columns: 1) observations on and passages from the first version of the assignment, 2) the same from the second version and, 3) my own observations on the differences between the two versions. In a fourth column, I categorized each student’s set as showing little or no change, minor change, moderate change, major change, or a change in the approach to the assignment that makes comparison difficult.

For example, a complete change of setting for a student’s future home from the pre-test to the post-test would count as a major change, especially if it is accompanied by a very different set of considerations and priorities. If the setting remained the same but the student nevertheless introduced significantly different considerations and priorities into the assignment, that would be an example of a moderate change. The distinctions I drew will become clearer in the discussion of results, below. Again, in keeping with the objectives of the course, I did not evaluate students’ visions of their own future environment in terms of whether I agree with or approve of their values and their choices.

I also had students complete an anonymous exit survey consisting of a series of open-ended questions.

While I did note some change in students’ thinking about their own choices within and about the built environment, I also noted ways in which the course did not succeed in helping students to reach the objectives.

Looking at the results in more particular terms, especially those from the exit survey, reveals some ways in which the course did not succeed. Here again, though, I do not yet have a way of determining the degree to which these shortcomings may be attributed to the design of the course, to my teaching, or to other factors including students’ capacity to change their ways of perceiving and thinking. To get at this, I would have to repeat the study with either a different course design or a different teaching style.

One apparent shortcoming I would like to correct in revising the course would be to dwell more on the complex intertwining of factors that shape the built environment. The objective will be to get the students to see the environment as a system with diverse components, nested in and intertwining with natural systems. This will go some way toward addressing another apparent shortcoming, drawing students’ attention to the character of ecosystems and to the problem of sustainability [emphasis added].

This last observation, about seeing our built environment as a system nested within systems, may well mark the first turn in my thinking toward a notion of systems imagination.

I have plans to repeat something like this assessment study in the near future, perhaps in Fall 2015.

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