Chapter 4
Discussion, Implications, and Recommendations
re Transformative Environmental Education for Adults

During my master's research in environmental adult education, I discovered that sustainable development learning can serve as an enticement to environmental learning and action. This chapter of my thesis is a discussion of the implications and recommendations stemming from my research.

Johnston, J. D. (2003). Sustainable development learning as enticement to environmental action. Unpublished master's thesis. Antigonish, NS: St. Francis Xavier University.

Chapter 1 - The Focus of Inquiry

Chapter 2A - Review of the Literature on Barriers to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 2B - Review of the Literature Enticements to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 3 - Description of the Study

Chapter 4 - Discussion, Implications, and Recommendations

My study highlights the significance of sustainable development learning as an enticement to environmental learning and action, a notion not found in the literature on barriers and enticements. My serendipitous finding that learning about sustainable development can serve as an enticement to environmental learning and action opens new possibilities for environmental adult educators, particularly those who lament the lack of interest and dearth of opportunities in environmental education for adults.
— Julie Johnston

Chapter 4 - Discussion, Implications, and Recommendations


Relevance of the Key Findings

Reflections on the Facilitator's Role

Conclusions and Implications for the Field of Adult Education

Recommendations for Environmental Adult Educators


In this chapter, I examine the relevance of the key findings of my study in light of the literature reviewed in Chapter 2. I then offer my reflections on the role of the facilitator in sustainable development learning, as well as conclusions and implications for the field of adult education. I close with recommendations for environmental adult educators and for my own professional practice.


My research study confirmed or extended several of the barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action noted in the literature reviewed in Chapter 2. These connections involve the issue of peace, environmentalism as its own barrier, balancing despair with hope, placing community at the centre of sustainable development considerations, and using media literacy as an enticement to environmental action. My study also uncovered two new enticements: teaching sustainable development by applying adult learning principles, and attracting participants to environmental learning and action via sustainable development learning.

Harmony and Rapprochement

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) states, "Certain aspects of the issues of peace and security bear directly upon the concept of sustainable development. Indeed they are central to it" (p. 290). They explain that environmental stress — especially when it is combined with poverty and injustice — can be a source of conflict (p. 291), and that conflict can lead to unsustainable development (p. 294).

The findings in this study demonstrate that a well-facilitated forum for learning about sustainable development can lead to greater harmony and a spirit of rapprochement at the community level. Quinn, one of the forum participants, pointed out that "in spite of the fact that ... there were people of diverse backgrounds and interests [at the forum], there was a general feeling of harmony." Several participants agreed that for a community, sustainable development means harmony, connectedness, and working together.

One youth participant noted that the forum gave participants an opportunity to have their ideas heard and to discuss others' ideas. According to Forester (1999), "participatory and deliberative rituals … [enable participants] to listen and learn without forcing their attention so narrowly that they miss the richness of concerns and capacity that others bring to their encounters" (pp. 145-146). He describes the process as "inquiring and learning together in the face of difference and conflict, telling compelling stories and arguing together in negotiations, coming to see issues, relationships, and options in new ways, thus arguing and acting together" (p. ix).

Participants were invited, through the Three Hats Strategy, to listen to others' perspectives and to speak from other than the position they feel most aligned and comfortable with. This strategy contributed to the forum's advancement of harmony by keeping the discussion focused on the three pillars (economy, environment, and social equity), and by eliminating defensiveness, or even the need for it. Indeed, the participants at each table all spoke from the perspective of one pillar at a time, and everyone knew that all three perspectives would be heard in turn, in no particular order.

As Bolen (1999) points out, the "roundtable effect" (a term coined by two youth participants) creates an expectation of equality around the circle. I believe the roundtable participatory process shows participants that what they have to say is valued by the group, and that what the other people at their round table have to say will be of value to the group. Forester (1999) explains that ground rules are vital in a participatory process:

  • If the participants do not have some shared sense of the rules of the game ensuring safety in their meeting together, they may not be able to act together. If they do not have some sense of structure and process, of protocols of turn taking, of appropriate and inappropriate action (and storytelling) in this meeting, they may be too confused or threatened or shy or reticent to participate. (p. 141)

Participants noted that effective facilitation of the roundtable format was accomplished by table facilitators who encouraged positive peer pressure within ground rules of courtesy, openness, and fairness.

Environmentalism Acts as a Barrier

Sustainable development learning can help environmental adult educators reach an adult audience turned off or turned away by the term environmental. According to Wackernagel and Rees (1996), the very term environment (what I sometimes call huh environment to make a point) serves to create "mental apartheid" (p. 139) between humans and the rest of nature.

I discovered that it also keeps many people who might need to learn about green issues away from environmental learning events. For example, after offering to make an environmental presentation to a local business club, I was told the subject was not relevant to the club's membership.

In response to my lamenting the failure of my initial research project (taking an environmental citizenship workshop to community group meetings), a forum participant confided her belief that the term environmental is a turn-off for many people, perceived as an ideology they do not want to be seen associating with or supporting.

Similarly, Suzuki and McConnell (1997) confirm the perception that environmentalism and environmentalists are viewed — with derision and disrespect — as "other," conveyed by terms such as tree huggers or greenies. As an eco-nuance of the adult education literature that extols the importance of a safe learning environment (e.g., Vella, 1994), this is a reminder that non-environmentalists might automatically think they will feel unsafe at an environmental adult education event.

Fear of being labelled or identified as environmental keeps some people from attending environmental events or from breaking norms to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours. Button (1989) and Meadows (1989) note that societal norms discourage risk taking and the willingness to be first to make a change. Donnica mentioned lack of support (or the fear of lack of support) as a barrier, saying, "I mean, it's environment. Some people can get cranky and you know, there's lawsuits and stuff."

Aislinn said, "People fear putting themselves out there, being visible, putting their opinions on the line." This includes fear of being judged or sanctioned by their community; fear of confrontation, unpleasantness, and conflict; even fear of economic reprisals. Again, Aislinn explained, "They might fear having their livelihood impacted if ... they're considered to be too greenie."

McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) contend that social norms can build community support for environmental changes, and urge readers to "develop a new set of societal norms that support sustainable lifestyles" (pp. 72-73). Caffarella (1994) explains that if educational program design does not include follow-up support strategies, participants might be unable to overcome community forces that present rewards for not changing or societal norms that are not supportive of change.

Indeed participants lamented the absence of a follow-up plan or clear next step. Quinn was perhaps the most vehement, explaining that "it's all very well to say these things in this room, but if nothing ever happens, so what?"

What the literature does not mention, and what became the most salient conclusion from my research, is that sustainable development learning can serve as an enticement that overcomes the barrier presented by environmentalism. Participants did not mention conformity as a barrier to learning about sustainable development or attending a sustainable development event. As Sheadon explained, "If something was gonna happen ... if people didn't like it, they'd come and talk about it, and if people who did like it hear that, I think they'd come too."

Sustainable development still has a positive, or perhaps a neutral, and probably a non-confrontational connotation for the people in my community. Looking at the variety of participants who attended, I can say that community members were not afraid of being labelled greenie by coming to this forum.

Where the term environmental is itself a barrier to environmental learning and action for some adults, sustainable development can be an enticement to learning about how to make environmentally friendly choices and lifestyle changes.

A Magic Balance

Several authors (for example, Durning, 1992; O'Connor, 1995; Suzuki & McConnell, 1997) caution that guilt or doom and gloom alone will not serve to catalyze action. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) point out that threatening or fear-arousing messages need to be combined with clear suggestions regarding what people can do to reduce the threat. "If you are not able at the same time to engender a feeling of common purpose and efficacy in dealing with the threat, your message may cause people to avoid, rather than constructively deal with, the issue" (p. 92).

Several participants pointed to the dual nature of enticement as a solution to this problem. For example, Aislinn thought that "some kind of magical combination of frightening [people] and inspiring them" or "some kind of balance of the wake-up call and a measure of hope" might be most enticing. Brower and Leon (1999) express this idea when they suggest, "Strike a balance that suits your conscience and your needs" (p. 83).

Community as the Seat of the Three-Legged Stool

The WCED (1987) talks of "a concern for social equity between generations, a concern that must logically be extended to equity within each generation" (p. 43). One of the concerns I had while scanning the audience during the forum was lack of participation by those aligned with the social pillar (one of the three pillars of sustainable development) of the community. Afterwards, during my interviewing phase, no one could recollect seeing a representative of the social action group, the volunteer registry, the food bank, nor any of the churches.

My concern stemmed from the idea that the integration of all three pillars— environment, economy, and social equity—is a vital principle of sustainable development; if social concerns are not spoken to and considered during the roundtable process, the three-legged stool falls over. The WCED (1987) explains that sustainable development is a process in which economic and environmental changes are "all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations" (p. 46).

This lack of social representation remained a concern for me until I began the data analysis and discovery process, and made a visual diagram of my data categories. This diagram conveyed very graphically that almost all the quotes I was attempting to categorize and analyze related somehow to community. Much of what participants had shared with me concerned the social fabric and dynamic of the community.

I realized then that the participants, whether they aligned themselves with the environmental pillar or the economic pillar, placed the health and well-being of their community (including their immediate families and future generations) foremost in their considerations, as if community is the all-important seat of the three-legged stool. After all, what use is a stool if you cannot sit or stand on it?

I learned that sustainable development does not necessarily attract people who view themselves as caring for social aspects of the community. I believe that sustainable development still suffers from the misconception (commonly held) that it deals only with the tension inherent in economic versus environmental issues. For example, Aislinn was pleasantly surprised to come to a "closer consciousness that the social inequity/inequality stuff ... is within the umbrella of sustainable development." But the social pillar was indeed there, represented by concern for the community.

Community, I concluded, is still the frame of reference through which people view economic and environmental issues, reflecting Orr's (1992) notion that "the constituency for global change must be created in local communities, neighborhoods, and households" (p. 31). Suzuki and McConnell (1997) advise citizens to protect the vigour and diversity of local communities. "The social unit that will have the greatest stability and resilience into the future is the local community, which provides individuals and families with a sense of place and belonging, fellowship and support, purpose and meaning" (p. 213).

My research concurs with the literature, and I conclude that, with reference to sustainable development, although all three pillars are supposed to be equally considered, the social (human community) pillar provides the site, the reason, and the foundation upon which to discuss the other two.

I realized … that the participants, whether they aligned themselves with the environmental pillar or the economic pillar, placed the health and well-being of their community (including their immediate families and future generations) foremost in their considerations, as if community is the all-important seat of [sustainable development's] three-legged stool. After all, what use is a stool if you cannot sit or stand on it?
— Julie Johnston

Including Media Literacy

I asked participants to tell me, from their experience, what barriers keep people and communities from taking environmental action. Although the range of responses was impressive, no one mentioned a major barrier affecting everyone in North America and, increasingly, around the world: media inculcation (Ryan, 1999, p. 4). I was surprised (but perhaps should not have been) that advertising and other media messages were not suggested by participants as barriers.

I was also surprised that although some authors (Orr, 1992; O'Sullivan, 1999) point to the influence of media, specifically television, as a barrier to environmentally friendly behaviour, none of the references I reviewed mentioned the teaching of media literacy, per se, as a possible enticement. The conspicuous absence of media or advertising issues in participants' comments helped me see that media literacy needs to be part of sustainable development education.

Adult Learning Principles Applied

Organizing my facilitation barriers and enticements around Vella's (1994) 12 principles for effective adult learning helped me see how pertinent adult education theory is to sustainable development learning. For example, Vella points out that adult learners "need to see the immediate usefulness of new learning …. We want to spend our time studying that which will make a difference now" (p. 16). She calls this the principle of immediacy.

Several participants highlighted the barrier of the (inadvertent) lack of immediacy (but did not use that term) when they expressed regret that there was no follow-up after the forum. The youth, however, took follow-up into their own hands and within months had an indoor skateboard park designed, approved, funded, and built. Immediacy for them at the forum was in having their voices heard and their desire for more recreational opportunities validated.

According to Caffarella (1994), program content must be relevant and practical, building on participants' previous experience (p. 111). Participants distinguished between immediacy and relevance. They spoke of wanting more relevant examples of community-based sustainable development in the presentations. (Very few Canadian examples of sustainable development — based on integration of the three pillars as the model for community development — exist; my community can now become an example for other communities.)

Donnica reiterated that local examples are empowering and motivating, and she thought that talking about local issues in the roundtable discussions enticed learning. "When you use something that's really familiar to people, it gets them interested and it keeps them interested because it's about them." Adults want to talk about their own communities and hear about success stories of other, similar communities.

Another aspect of Caffarella's (1994) planning for successful transfer of learning is ensuring that "participants' organizational and community context [is] receptive to change, offering ... support from key leaders" (p. 111). Forum participants were pleased to see three of four local politicians in attendance; they saw this as one feature of the event that provided a sense of hope.

Describing motivational adult teaching, Wlodkowski (1999) says that adult learners expect success, plus choice, value, and enjoyment. The forum provided most participants a sense of success (again, a definite follow-up strategy could have increased this perception), a choice of topics and group presentation formats, a valuable way to spend an afternoon, and some fun.

Wlodkowski also talks of five pillars of effective, motivating instruction (p. 25). Participants indicated that the forum provided all five: expertise (with the keynote speaker); empathy (with the roundtable approach); clarity (with informative introductory presentations); enthusiasm (Ingrid said, "I think the passion of the speakers and the organizers was evident and was contagious"); and responsiveness to diversity (with a wide range of participants there, including babies, youth, and seniors).

The key to effective instruction, Wlodkowski explains, is to evoke and encourage the natural inclination to want to be competent, as Aislinn confirmed when she said the forum "simplified some of the information but also still provided a level of detail that was useful ... some core principles that can be part of the road map to a solution."

Using popular education techniques is another way to infuse sustainable development education with adult learning techniques. According to Clover and her colleagues (2000), environmental adult education weaves together ideas from adult, feminist, indigenous, environmental, and popular education. Popular education "encourages creative expression and collective action for change, links local and global contexts, and is highly participatory" (p. 15). They suggest using humour and passion to help bring about fundamental transformation in human/Earth relations, saying "we are all artists, poets, storytellers, songwriters, dreamers, and more" (p. 23).

Amidst laughter and joking, forum participants used drawings, song, and poetry to present their roundtable findings to the whole group. Facilitation that honours mutual learning and the creation of new collective knowledge (Clover et al., p. 15) serves as an enticement.

I conclude that roundtable discussions, facilitated in a way that respects adult learning principles, could be a very viable path to environmental learning and action for adults. Participatory techniques, as recommended by several authors (Clover, Follen, & Hall, 2000; Forester, 1999; Hart, 1997; Slocum, Wichhart, Rocheleau, & Thomas-Slayter, 1995), are an integral part of the sustainable development process.

At the forum, participants most enjoyed the roundtable discussions. This preference supports the principle that critical reflection through discussion (dialogue) is central to personal and social transformation (Scott, 1998, p. 103).

Naming Sustainable Development Learning as Adult Education

My review did not reveal literature that named sustainable development learning as an area of adult education, although the term "sustainable" is increasingly used in environmental education literature. However, the authors of environmental education literature who mentioned "learning for a sustainable future" or "education for sustainability" were writing about the education of children. My study extends the literature by moving sustainable development learning into the realm of adult education.

There has been much (perhaps too much) discourse in the literature (see Jickling, 1994, for example) on the concept of sustainable development, but very little research on how to teach the concept in a way that leads to, well, sustainable development. My experience extends the literature by applying adult learning principles and knowledge of environmental adult education barriers and enticements to sustainable development learning.

My study also succeeds in highlighting the significance of sustainable development learning as an enticement to environmental learning and action, a notion not found in the literature on barriers and enticements. My serendipitous finding that learning about sustainable development can serve as an enticement to environmental learning and action opens new possibilities for environmental adult educators, particularly those who lament the lack of interest and dearth of opportunities in environmental education for adults.

There has been ... very little research on how to teach the concept of sustainable development in a way that leads to, well, sustainable development. My experience extends the literature by applying adult learning principles and knowledge of environmental adult education barriers and enticements to sustainable development learning.
— Julie Johnston


I believe that the facilitator's role in sustainable development learning is key to a successful participatory and transformative educational experience. The facilitator can design a learning process that respects the principles and practices of both adult learning and sustainable development, by linking theory to practice, ensuring credibility, highlighting a sense of harmony, developing the three pillars into a mantra or jingle, encouraging small steps, offering a compelling vision of sustainable development, and framing talk as action.

Linking Theory to Practice (Praxis)

I will continue to show the short video on sustainable development in Curitiba, Brazil; participants pointed out that highlighting success stories, even from another culture, is inspiring and enticing. And I am searching for local examples of successful sustainable development initiatives to share with future participants, in order to help them see the relevance to their own communities.

I will also continue to advocate the principles of sustainable development during a theoretical introduction to the topic, and then engage participants in putting theory into practice during the group roundtable discussions. The youth participants, in particular, wished for a second roundtable session so that they could learn more and spread their voices to other table topics; the addition of another session could contribute to participants' opportunities for "doing with built-in reflection" (Vella, 1994, p. 11).

As Vella points out, appropriate learning tasks "give people the chance to practice new ideas or skills or attitudes and immediately to reflect on them, making practice praxis" (p. 12). In a future forum or workshop, I will add a reflection component in the closure section, naming again the principles that participants have heard about and used, and have them name the personal and community significance of these principles.

To ensure immediacy, I will make time for groups and individuals to decide the next step in their learning process: how to share their findings with others in the community, and whether and how they want to remain involved.

The principle of integration of the three pillars of sustainable development was perhaps the most visible at the forum, because of the hats I had made for each table, to represent each of the pillars. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) emphasize the importance of communications that are "vivid, personal, and concrete" (p. 156).

I will repeat the Three Hats Strategy, as I believe it was a big factor in the forum's success. Next time, I will better clarify for both table facilitators (ahead of time) and participants the purposes of the strategy (to maintain harmony in the group; to ensure that discussion integrates all three pillars).

To help participants work comfortably within the ambiguity and overlap of the three pillars, I might say something like, "Highlight one hat at a time; you will probably find that there is overlap, but try to focus on and exhaust just one hat in the time allotted before moving on."

Ensuring Credibility

Credibility is an enticing feature of sustainable development learning that I had not thought of. It was merely a hunch of mine that I had better bring in an outsider (and a video, too) to present the why and the how of sustainable development. I presented the who, what, when and where — the "story" of sustainable development.

The why and the how are the big ideas, the tough sells, and I did not want to be perceived, due to my connection with the conservation group, as representing only one pillar of sustainable development. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) explain that using a credible source can have a dramatic impact on how a message is received. "Ensure that whoever delivers your message is seen as credible. Individuals and organizations tend to be viewed as credible when they have expertise, or are seen as trustworthy" (p. 157).

Highlighting a Sense of Harmony

The evening before the forum, I experienced a crisis of conscience, suddenly realizing that I had planned the forum's group activity as an adversarial role-play, which featured participants wearing different hats. One of the goals of sustainable development is conflict reduction. The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) notes that, "in its broadest sense, the strategy for sustainable development aims to promote harmony among human beings and between humanity and nature" (p. 65).

Yet here I was heading for conflict production. With a quick shift, I determined that each table would get one set of three hats and the table facilitator would choose one hat that all participants would discuss at a time.

The Three Hats Strategy was successful as a collaborative (rather than confrontational) facilitation technique. I believe that because of it, the greatest contribution the forum made in my community was to create a sense of common ground that can act as the backdrop or basis for a rapprochement between individuals, groups, and institutions who have traditionally allied with different pillars of sustainable development.

The Three Hats Strategy was not seen as playful, as I had hoped, but it did seem a compelling and, from my experience, innovative departure from some typical roundtable situations. It helped participants avoid the conflict that comes from entrenching oneself in one perspective or aligning oneself with one pillar, and feeling the need to defend it. The Three Hats Strategy achieved this by allowing all participants to reflect and comment on all three pillars, together, in turn.

Vella (1994) says that "nonjudgmental discussion, like open dialogue, is not easy to design and implement" (p. 72). But learning about sustainable development showed several participants that it can serve as an integrated framework for ensuring that all views are heard and considered. And I believe the revised Three Hats Strategy moved the roundtable activity to a process more in keeping with the spirit of integration of the three pillars of sustainable development. My sense is that this strategy went a long way toward ensuring nonjudgmental discussion, and a sense of harmony within each group.

Developing the Three Pillars into a Mantra or Jingle

When interviewed, some participants were able to name the three pillars of sustainable development, although several more needed prompting to remember them. The integration of the social, economic, and environmental pillars seems to be the most inviting principle of sustainable development, in terms of attracting people with different views and goals to meet and talk.

For this reason — to ensure that all three pillars are always included in sustainable development considerations — I want to reinforce the integration principle and the pillars of sustainable development by turning the pillars into a mantra or jingle that will be easier for participants to remember.

McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) point out that communicated messages should be clear, specific, and easy to remember. They suggest using prompts to assist people in remembering (p. 157). "People can create a simple memory device, or heuristic, to guide them in remembering ...." (p. 94). The mantra or jingle of the three pillars could serve as that memory device.

At the forum, the pillars were highlighted by the Three Hats Strategy and by a labeled three-legged stool that was used as a prop. I want to experiment with having future participants perhaps chant the three pillars ("social equity, economics, our environment" or "people, planet, profits") perhaps in different rhythms, as a fun mini-break during the forum and again as part of the closure.

In addition, I wonder if the hats strategy might have greater impact if I make more of the hats-as-identity metaphor, akin to the metaphor of walking in another person's shoes. Integration of the three pillars can be a gift to many consultations, deliberations, and proceedings, hence it is a gift I want to be sure participants receive from me. Also, I might put the three pillars on a refrigerator magnet to go home with participants.

Encouraging Small Steps

None of the participants expressed a sense of sacrifice. Of interest, however, is the word "little" used in four examples of post-forum environmental action. Ingrid said, "Just getting together, without any clear action, can … inspire people to go ahead and bother to take little actions they may have been thinking about anyway." She added that she has "started to get a little bit more in tune with what she believes by buying more organic food and driving less.

Neil said that the forum made people aware that "if I just take that little extra step, it's not going to be too much for me to do." He is "a little more conscious now at home of the recycling and making sure we're not leaving the water running." Aislinn said, "I'm going a little further out of my way" to reuse and recycle.

And Norah told me that several influences since the forum have contributed to making her feel that "every little thing" she does will be helpful. Perhaps this signifies that I should point out to future learners that little steps are what we all start with, that little steps can lead to bigger steps, and that little steps are nothing to be ashamed of.

McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) explain the potential impact of small steps: "The adoption of new behaviors … frequently occurs as a result of friends, family members, or colleagues introducing us to them" (p. 96). This process of social diffusion means that everyone's little steps could add up to some major improvements in individuals' collective environmental impacts, and might bring community members greater social harmony and economic prosperity at the same time.

As Donnica explained, the forum showed that small steps can make sustainable development happen, that "even the subtlest stuff can make an enormous difference."

[NOTE: Ten years of global inaction on the climate change emergency since I completed this research has made me realize that "small steps" are not enough. JJ]

Offering a Compelling Vision

Participants noted that coming to see how sustainable development relates to their own lives was enticing. For example, Ingrid discovered that "it's not just an abstract thing … it's going somewhere, [and] people have made positive steps." The more practical a concept seems to learners, the more compelling it becomes for them.

This notion adds to the suggestion that it is easier to motivate people by presenting a compelling vision of the future (Dauncey & Mazza, 2001). Whereas Wlodkowski (1999) explains that "most people's motivation to learn is released by a vision of a hopeful future" (p. 60), forum participants point out that this hopeful vision must include practical applications and connection to their own lives.

Framing Talk as Action

Does attending a forum on sustainable development constitute learning or does it constitute action? The answer is, both. Vella (1994) subtitled her book The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. "One basic assumption in all this is that adult learning is best achieved in dialogue," she explains (p. 3). McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999) coach social marketers to emphasize personal contact: "The major influence on our attitudes and behaviors is … our contact with other people" (p. 95), they assert.

Making the effort to voluntarily attend a learning event can be viewed — and acknowledged — as a positive action. Coming away with any amount of new knowledge, skill or appreciation is learning. Participating in the forum's activities is praxis, or learning in action.

Because by definition a forum is a venue for discussion, perhaps the true question is: Can talk lead to learning and action? As participants pointed out to me, the answer is yes. Although talk can be used as a way to put off action, dialogue in the roundtable process was seen by most participants as an effective way to learn about sustainable development principles and processes, and as a prelude to environmental action. Talk. As a community, can we get to action without it?


There is an important place for sustainable development learning for adults under the umbrella of environmental adult education. I discovered that learning about sustainable development, especially in an informative and well-facilitated community-based forum, can serve as an enticement to environmental learning, and can sometimes serve to catalyze action by raising awareness and consciousness, and by linking up community members of like mind and heart. Three other conclusions, explained below, flow from this significant insight.

A Path to Reconnecting with Nature

I concluded at the end of the literature review that the most important (but certainly not the easiest) barrier for environmental adult educators to take on is probably the Western belief that humanity is separate from the rest of nature. If so, the challenge remains to entice adults who are not normally drawn to environmentalism or environmental learning to reconnect with the natural world.

Sustainable development learning can help achieve this feat in several ways: decorating the meeting venue with nature art; facilitating a nonthreatening and fun nature break activity; emphasizing and ensuring the integration of all three pillars (not leaving environmental concerns out of the presentations and discussions); and, honouring the principle of intergenerational equity.

This last strategy, by definition, could naturally nudge people to consider nature, because human beings cannot ensure a healthy legacy for our descendants without considering the health of the Earth and its ecosystems.

A Path to Harmony and Conflict Reduction

Since the forum, I have noticed the beginning of a sense of rapprochement in dealings with local politicians and others who used to see the conservation group as "the other side." I realize that the forum was only a moment in the life of this community, but, nevertheless, I believe that through the Three Hats Strategy and the roundtable process used at the forum, participants came to share the view that the well-being of our families and our community is the common good.

I see a possibility that sustainable development learning could, just as it did in my small community, lead to peace and accord elsewhere. At a time clouded by the spectre of war, I can think of no greater contribution to the field of adult education than to offer up what I have learned about how to facilitate sustainable development learning in a way that opens a door to rapprochement and harmony. For the sake of all the children, of all species, for all time.

Operationalizing the Principles of Sustainable Development

Because of my fascination with, respect for, and commitment to the principles of sustainable development as outlined in Our Common Future (WCED, 1987) — my policy is, why reinvent the wheel? — my contribution to the field is my experience of operationalizing these principles in adult education practice.

For example, the term intergenerational equity might sound like "policy wonk" to some people. But hearing that the forum included participants from 6 months to 86 years of age — with youth especially invited to attend — and specific table discussions for youth concerns and seniors' issues, clarifies what the principle of intergenerational equity can look like in practice.

Furthermore, I predict that this model is replicable with few resources if organizers and facilitators keep in mind that the story of sustainable development is compelling in itself. The highlight of the forum then is simply giving people a chance to talk with their neighbours and fellow community members in a focused way. We were able to provide this forum (including all expenses) for $6.00 per participant, a cost covered by donations at the door.


As I move into a career of consulting in environmental and sustainable development education for adults (and children), I am coming up with many ways to integrate learnings from this research into my practice. (These are aside from remembering to be completely organized and ready for any number of attendees, with audiovisual equipment and a visible agenda — which includes a nature break activity — suitable for groups of any size.)

  1. Ensure "principled dialogue" (a term I have coined to mean dialogue based on the most important principles of sustainable development) by topic group.
  2. Ensure integration of the three pillars during roundtable discussions. Use an integrating facilitation technique, such as the Three Hats Strategy. Use the three pillars (social equity, economy, environment) as a framework to guide discussion, not as interests to defend.
  3. Reinforce intergenerational equity. Explain the definition of sustainable development (development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs). Ensure that table facilitators keep the future in focus during the roundtable discussions.

    Make a deliberate effort to invite participants of all ages (youth through to seniors, with childminding for the very young). Entice them with promises that their interests and concerns will be dealt with. (Youth might be interested in recreational opportunities in the community, seniors with health or other issues.) Respect their need for safety, for fun, for adequate heat, light, and sound levels. Listen, and ensure that their voices are heard.

  4. Introduce the concept of intragenerational equity. Show participants the plight, and the strengths, of people in other parts of the world through audiovisual media. A video on the successful implementation of sustainable development strategies in a less advantaged country can be both moving and motivating. Stress this principle with examples of global interconnectedness, in order to help participants see the consequences of their actions in other parts of the world.
  5. Facilitate a roundtable approach. Rent, borrow, buy, or make tables that are round. (In North America, many patio tables are round, and can be covered with table cloths.) Help participants feel the sense of equity and equality that a circle can serve to create. Find a way to meet and brief the roundtable facilitators beforehand to ensure their comfort with the Three Hats Strategy and the roundtable process.
  6. Credibility is an enticing feature for adult learners. If at all possible, invite a reputable keynote speaker. Someone representing a government agency or non-governmental organization will not charge a large speaker's fee. Or invite someone from a neighbouring community that has gone through a sustainable development process.
  7. Choose a venue with a "good vibe" and positive symbolic value for the community. Find a way to bring nature into the venue, so that the natural world has a place at the forum.
  8. Promote the idea of a simple community lunch (brown bag, or soup with bread and fruit) before sitting down to talk. Organizing a community potluck dinner, open mike event, and Earth dance for the same day as the forum is too much work for one person. Support efforts of other people to organize celebratory events.
  9. For better promotion, make a point of sending out personalized invitations (instead of deliberately not inviting anyone specific). Specifically invite social agencies to send participants. Ask everyone who registers to entice and register one other person. Use the words of past participants to promote sustainable development learning events as "feel good" opportunities to be involved and to have a say in community sustainable development.

My original research question was whether I could create short, transformative adult education experiences that lead to environmental action. Operationalizing the principles of sustainable development through a simple and inexpensive learning and sharing forum helped me answer my question. Whether in a government consultation, a community development process, or an environmental education event for adults, sustainable development can be viewed and facilitated as a consultative process of learning together through principled dialogue — roundtable discussion focused on the important principles of sustainable development.

There is an important place for sustainable development learning for adults under the umbrella of environmental adult education. I discovered that learning about sustainable development, especially in an informative and well-facilitated community-based forum, can serve as an enticement to environmental learning, and can sometimes serve to catalyze action by raising awareness and consciousness, and by linking up community members of like mind and heart.

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