Analogies for Sustainable Development

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Project Mission[edit | edit source]

To collaboratively develop and curate a collection of analogies that offer insight and practical value in understanding, teaching and addressing the complex challenges of sustainable development from the individual to the global scale. This Wikiversity Learning Project is being developed as a resource of the Global Education for Sustainable Development ( learning community.

Why do we need analogies for sustainable development?[edit | edit source]

Sustainable development is a complex topic, and it is a topic that people discuss often and with passion. Conflicting worldviews are central to sustainability discourse. Amidst this persisting controversy, education for sustainable development has emerged as a global movement and UNESCO-led program with the ambitious aim to "reorient education and learning so that everyone has the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to sustainable development"[1]. Furthermore, ESD programming asserts that “Sustainable development requires changes in the way we think and act” and that “Education plays a crucial role in bringing about this change” [1].

Analogies, metaphors and narratives are powerful tools that drive and steer the way we think and act. They drive our intuitive understanding of new phenomena in the world, especially when these phenomena are abstract, complex, and otherwise difficult to grasp. They do this by connecting to patterns more familiar and graspable to us. Every new situation and problem is unique, but we also intuitively compare novel situations with our prior knowledge - how is it similar to something we know and how is it different. Educators call this transfer of learning. In fact, the word metaphor comes from the greek metaphorá meaning transfer. “Human beings are skillful pattern recognizers and use metaphors to help them understand and reason about the world. Saying that something resembles or has qualities of something else enables us to quickly, and in just a few words, grasp the essence of a complex phenomenon.” [2].

We use analogies and metaphors all the time and often without even being conscious of it[3]. Think about the use of the words "grasp" and "graspable" above. We talk about grasping an idea, intuitively understand what it means, even though it is clear that we are not really, physically grasping something out of the air. Similarly, we use analogies every time we say it’s like…, for example…, it reminds me of … etc. One may have heard analogies as "The Earth is like an organism", "human society is like an organism", "human groups and cities are like beehives". Environmentalists may claim that humans are a cancer on the planet, that corporations are neo-colonial wealth extractors from developing nations, and that mother nature can teach us how to live sustainable lifestyles. A counter narrative frames corporate profit-seeking as the engine of the invisible hand steering a global economy towards growth and prosperity. That the freedom to pursue innovation and wealth is built into us as a species (homo economicus), and this rational selfishness can lead to a sustainable common good. Mother nature, in this narrative, is a harsh teacher to be overcome by the dignity and ingenuity of human kind.

So which analogies and narratives are right? Or is each one "throwing out the baby with the bathwater" (a metaphor!) in its own particular way? How can we decide, and how can we communicate with people that buy into narratives we don't agree with? The key is understanding the nature of analogies. Analogy is simply describing one thing (the target) in terms of something more familiar (the source). We use such analogies all the time when we talk about sustainability, but often we do so with limited or no conscious reflection on the narrative nature of our claims. After all, analogies are hardly ever exactly or obviously the same as the concept that we use them for. It is therefore important to always be clear about which aspects of the analogy are the same and which are different to the phenomenon they refer to. Systematically comparing, verbally or visually, the features of the analog and the target is called analogy mapping[4].

Failure to explicitly map the features of phenomena can be quite unhelpful, misleading or even harmful to further learning and understanding. This goes both for regarding analogies as identical to the phenomenon we compare them to, when in fact they are not, and for regarding them as having some similarity, when in fact their elements are identical. This incorrect generalizing between concepts can therefore lead to negative transfer: “Negative transfer is inappropriately transferring likenesses that should not be transferred because they are not in fact the same. It’s the flip side of positive transfer. Such transfer is the result of overgeneralization…The negative transfer of our analogies of experience can lead to serious misunderstandings.”[5] For example, economic theorists in the 19th century were largely inspired by the advances of physics at the time and strived to be able to explain the economy in just the same and precise mathematical way as the field of physics succeeded to describe the motion of planets. This lead to the analogy of economic systems being just like physical systems. Modern economists assert that this led to a multitude of false assumptions that were not based in reality and lead the whole field astray, lasting to this day [2].

To avoid that analogies are used in a way that lead to misunderstandings and negative transfer, this learning project provides a toolkit to collaboratively explore and develop global analogies for sustainable development across disciplines in a more detailed and explicit way through analogy mapping. Analogies may turn out to be weak, strong or neutral, but as long as these connections are discussed and made explicit, crucial aspects of phenomena may be learned, understood and taught in a more productive way.

Teaching Cooperation Science for Transfer in Global ESD[edit | edit source]

Global ESD frames sustainable development as fundamentally a challenge of human cooperation and collective learning occurring across multiple scales of social organization. Recognizing this means that one of the central aims of ESD should be focused on teaching cooperation science in a way that empowers students to transfer their learning from the classroom into their personal lives and communities.

Cooperation science is a transdisciplinary field of studies spanning the biological, psychological, and sociocultural contexts. For this reason, we have found that many popularized analogies helpful for understanding multilevel cooperation are fundamentally rooted in evolutionary theory. These interlinked evolutionary analogies form a foundational base of understanding for cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary cooperation around the challenges presented along the road towards sustainable development.

Rules for Inclusion of Analogies[edit | edit source]

  • Link to sustainability contexts of environmental, social, or economic well-being (or by Sustainable Development Goal)
  • Link to the Core Competencies of Global ESD
  • Link from naturalistic scientific understanding to culturally meaningful narrative explanation (science-to-narrative chain)
  • Weak or misguided analogies are welcome as long as flaws are made explicit in analogy mapping and discussion
  • Metaphors, parables, and narratives are welcome as long as they are framed as elaborated analogies

The Collections[edit | edit source]

This is the heart of the project, sets of curated collections of analogies for sustainable development. This is a collaborative project, we need your help! Please learn how to contribute and add your favorite analogies for sustainable development to the collection.

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Subpages[edit | edit source]

Further resources[edit | edit source]

  • Aubusson, P. J., Harrison, A. G., & Ritchie, S. M. (2006). Metaphor and Analogy in Science Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
  • Day, S. B., & Goldstone, R. L. (2012). The Import of Knowledge Export: Connecting Findings and Theories of Transfer of Learning. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 153–176.
  • Eirdosh, D. (2016): What was Darwin Thinking. Evolution - This View of Life Online Magazine. Evolution Institute.
  • Gentner, D., Holyoak, K. J., & Kokinov, B. K. (2001). The Analogical Mind. Perspectives from Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
  • Schwartz, D. L., Chase, C. C., & Bransford, J. D. (2012). Resisting Overzealous Transfer: Coordinating Previously Successful Routines With Needs for New Learning. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 204–214.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 UNESCO. (2014). Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development. Paris, France.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Beinhocker, E. D. (2006). The origin of wealth. Evolution, complexity, and the radical remaking of economics. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.
  4. Glynn, S. M. (2008). Making science concepts meaningful to students: Teaching with analogies. In S. Mikelskis-Seifert, U. Ringelband, & M. Brückmann (Eds.), Four Decades of Research in Science Education: From Curriculum Development to Quality Improvement (pp. 113–125). Münster, Germany: Waxmann.
  5. Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of Learning. Cognition, Instruction, and Reasoning. Academic Press.