Bringing Sustainable Happiness to Life
Who is transforming education?

By Catherine O'Brien • January 31, 2016

During my university sabbatical last year I spent the first four months just reading and mulling over everything I read about transforming education. Books by ‘thought leaders’ discussed creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st century learning, integrating technology, and so on. Very few of those books drew connections to student and teacher well-being, the importance of spending time in natural environments, or the broader perspective of sustainability.

As I read, my mind was filled with questions like: Is it possible that a focus on innovation, in the absence of sustainability, could lead to innovators who accelerate the development of products that deplete non-renewable resources? If children and youth continue to be disconnected from the natural environment, how will they develop a profound desire to safeguard the ecosystems that sustain us? Why aren’t we talking about the fact that how we teach is impacting student and teacher well-being?

Every one of us who has been schooled in formal education has developed countless assumptions about it and I knew that as I pondered what is needed to transform education I would have to challenge my own assumptions about its purpose. If Michael Fullan (2013) is right that education needs a complete ‘makeover’ does that mean that education, as we know it, needs to be entirely dismantled? Should we embrace unschooling, or just draw lessons from it? Should we look to the social innovators like Khan Academy to understand how to bring a world class education (Khan, 2012) to everyone? I interviewed social innovator, Michael Furdyk, one of the co-founders of TakingITGlobal to discover more about their truly extraordinary initiatives. What could we learn from the Green School Bali? How could I apply what I had learned from my doctoral research at the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India where more than forty years ago they had challenged their assumptions about education in rural communities and created internationally recognized and award winning education programs that were ahead of their time?

My intention was to disrupt myself as my assumptions were challenged, teased apart, considered critically, and combined with times of deep reflection. Quite frankly this led to an uncomfortable feeling of being ‘discombobulated’ – unclear of the way forward but that also told me that I was on the right track. In the process I found myself consistently returning to a conviction that education should be contributing to well-being for all, sustainably (Hopkins, 2013). It should help us to meet our global learning needs individually and collectively. From this starting point, we can see that creativity, innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset need to be part of a coherent well-being for all vision for education that enables people and ecosystems to flourish.

As I continued to explore these ideas it became evident to me that we can transform ourselves and education when we notice that who is teaching, what we teach, when we teach, where we teach, why we teach, and how we teach play a significant role in shaping education. Focusing on the ‘how’ part of this, I have been particularly inspired by the educators who are engaging in new pedagogies, challenging themselves to discover what happens when they try Genius Hour, flipped learning, real-world project-based learning, and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL). As I engage with this worldwide movement of innovative educators I’m feeling heartened by the generosity of teachers who are sharing resources, collaborating with colleagues, celebrating their students, taking risks, and openly inviting others to join them. They are enabling students to be choice-makes and change-makers. As Don Wettrick says, “innovation in education is education. You can and should be innovative in any classroom, whether you have a chunk of time called Genius Hour, or just a willingness to integrate new approaches to learning” (Wettrick, 2014, p. 15).

I began my sabbatical wondering how I could contribute to transforming education and along the way I’ve discovered that there are teachers and students across the globe who are already leading the way. The makeover is already in progress and everyone’s voice is needed. As Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi say about Genius Hour:

We need you dear friends. As you set out to create Genius Hour in your classrooms, please add your voice to the global conversation about Genius Hour. We need you to become resources for others because together we are smarter. It is time for you to share your genius in your own schools and with the world. Use all the social media you love and celebrate by posting all the wonderful projects and work of your students. However, we want you to dare to do more than that. That is, to tell your own story. Share how your own learning and teaching craft are being honed through the process and products of Genius Hour. We want to hear about your journey. (Krebs & Zvi, 2016, p. 87).

These days, my teaching practice is being influenced by educators like this. When I connect with Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr), Peter Cameron (@cherandpete), AJ Juliani (@ajjuliani), Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher), Hugh McDonald (@hughtheteacher), Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers), Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs), and Gallit Zvi (@gallit_z) I feel an urgent desire to share this learning with the pre-service and in-service teachers who are my students, inviting them to join the conversation. Together, all of us, with our students, are transforming education.

Coming soon!…Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being


Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hopkins, C. (2013). Educating for sustainability: An emerging purpose of education. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(3), 122-125.

Krebs, D. & Zvi, G. (2016). The genius hour guidebook: Fostering passion, wonder, and inquiry in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Wettrick, D. (2014). Pure genius: Building a culture of innovation and taking 20% time to the next level. San Diego: Dave Burgess Consulting.

Sustainable Wellbeing, Creativity, and Innovation

By Catherine O'Brien • January 23, 2016

This is an excerpt from: O’Brien, C., & Murray S.E. (2015). Sustainable wellbeing, creativity and innovation. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity, and Change.

Considering the ponderous pace of change in formal education, shifting towards learning that fosters creativity and innovation, dislodging it from the ‘factory model’ that moves students along the conveyor belt of schooling through successive grades of prescribed content, is a formidable task. On a very practical level, trying to infuse creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship into existing education structures that favour conformity is destined to mute the potential positive impact of doing so. Ultimately, as Fullan (2013) has suggested, what is required is an extensive make-over of education systems. One element of that make-over process, he proposes, is the use of ‘new pedagogies.’ This makes sense if we look at the great hopes and expectations associated with updating education through greater use of technology. Simply adding technology to existing practice hasn’t been nearly as transformative as expected (Bain &Weston, 2013). Rather, Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) needs to be utilized with new pedagogies. Moreover, the new pedagogies and make-over need to be associated with a coherent vision of education that has challenged outdated assumptions about the very purpose of education.

Zhao (2012) advocates the benefits of developing an entrepreneurial mindset but, similar to the pitfalls of adding technology to encrusted modes of teaching, he questions whether an entrepreneurial mindset can be nurtured in a traditional school environment. Along with many others, he calls for a paradigm shift in education.

The vast majority of children in the world today still attend schools that attempt to instill in them predefined knowledge and skills in a lock-step fashion.

Worse yet, we are moving backwards. […] the world is moving toward more curriculum standardization as a way to fix the traditional paradigm. (Zhao, 2012, pp. 157-158)

Despite this severe critique of traditional school, Zhao believes that constructive change is possible and that taking the following measures will help: provide a school environment with more freedom and flexibility for students to develop and follow their interests and passions, create opportunities for students to be decision makers, offer diversity in physical space and access to learning facilitators (i.e. teachers facilitating learning and students also having access to talented mentors outside of the school environment). Additionally, he discusses the importance of designing learning experiences to develop a sense of agency in students as they take more responsibility for their learning and to express their unique voice in the world. This points to a crucial role for students as change-makers, not only as future global citizens but also as vital contributors to the ‘make-over’ of education. Can we assume, though, that any make-over is inherently good and at the very least will not increase harm to others and the environment? It has been questioned, for example, whether education is part of the problem or the solution to meet our global learning needs.

We are faced with a paradox: Is education the problem or the solution in working toward a sustainable future? At current levels of unsustainable practice and over consumption it could be concluded that education is part of the problem. If education is the solution then it requires a deeper critique and a broader vision for the future. Thus, whole systems redesign needs to be considered to challenge existing frameworks and shift our thinking beyond current practice and toward a sustainable future. (UNESCO, 2005, p. 57)

Optimistically, educators seem to be more open than ever to the realization that conventional education is outdated and diverse “alternatives” are demonstrating fresh new directions: expansive education, flipped learning, competency-based learning, social and emotional learning, and the gamification of learning, to name just a few. This is also a time in which various recommendations for transforming education are being offered beyond creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Recommendations vary from simple modifications for delivering existing content, to “add on” programs/toolkits, to complementary programs, to significant revisions of both curriculum and content, to abandoning formal education altogether with unschooling. For instance, in addition to competencies included within the various 21st century learning lists, there are advocates for greater attention to sustainability education/Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), social and emotional learning, Health Promoting Schools, enhancing student connections with Nature, and positive education (CASEL, 2008; Hopkins, 2013; JCSH, 2008; Louv, 2012; Morrison & Peterson, 2010; Seligman, 2011; UNECE, 2011). What is lacking at this time is a coherent vision of education that has the capacity to integrate the strengths of all of these recommendations while setting the foundation for a truly innovative approach to learning that will enable us to meet our global learning needs, sustainably (O’Brien, 2014). Hopkin’s (2013) view that repurposing education with a vision of wellbeing for all, sustainably will assist us with reframing our discussions.

Wellbeing for all, sustainably brings forth two key perspectives that are often absent in the innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and 21st century learning literature: sustainability and wellbeing.

The full text of this article is available at:

Coming soon!…Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being

Sustainable Happiness and 20% Time

By Catherine O'Brien • January 3, 2016

I honestly hadn’t heard of Genius Hour or 20% Time when I established an inquiry-based process for my Sustainable Happiness course, an elective in our Bachelor of Education program at Cape Breton University (CBU). Since the launch of the course in 2009, it has always included a project that encouraged students to apply sustainable happiness in the ‘real world’ – though I hadn’t explicitly viewed this as one of the new pedagogies that are transforming education.

Sustainable happiness is about well-being for all, inspiring people to find ways for everyone to thrive. My definition of sustainable happiness is:

Happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.

It integrates research from positive psychology and sustainability, reinforcing the fact that our happiness and well-being are intertwined with the well-being of other people and the ecosystems that sustain us. It can also be used as a roadmap to explore what truly makes your heart sing.

Over the past ten years there has been an escalating interest in happiness. Hundreds of books and studies have emerged to guide us toward finding the good life. Research is providing convincing evidence that it is vital for individuals, communities and nations to pay greater attention to happiness and well-being; helping us to understand how to flourish and become more resilient.

However, achieving personal happiness is only a part of the equation. To appreciate the missing part, we need to recognize that none of us exists in isolation. Our happiness and well-being are interconnected with other people, and the natural environment. When happiness is partnered with well-being and sustainability it takes on a whole new dimension – sustainable happiness. Here’s what the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen has to stay about it:

But perhaps the connection between sustainability and happiness is best illustrated by the concept
of “sustainable happiness,” which was coined by Catherine O’Brien, an associate professor of education at Cape Breton University, in Canada. Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being without the exploitation of other people, the environment, or future generations. When perceived this way, it is no longer possible to imagine a future where the pursuit of happiness is not somehow connected to sustainability. As the human species continues its quest for happiness and well-being, more emphasis must be placed on sustainability and the interaction between sustainability and happiness. (Happiness Research Institute, 2015, p. 16)

Through the lens of sustainable happiness we can see that our daily actions and decisions contribute to, or detract from, our own well-being, and that of others. Sustainable happiness is about enduring happiness and life satisfaction but it’s not only about individual happiness because the choices we make on a daily basis have an impact, for better or worse, on other people, the ecosystems that sustain us, and even future generations.

Pre-service teachers at CBU are learning how to bring sustainable happiness to life, personally and professionally. In addition to readings about sustainability and positive psychology, a significant portion of the course involves their exploration of topics such as gratitude, genuine wealth, connecting with nature, understanding interdependence, shifting consumption, and identifying their own sustainable happiness footprint. The course syllabus is available at: You will find a detailed discussion of the course and activities in “Sustainable happiness: Assisting pre-service teachers to understand the relationship between sustainability education and well-being” (O’Brien, 2014).

There is an underlying theme of inquiry throughout the course. One of the first assignments prompts the students to interview “the happiest person you know.” They set out to complete their interview without any preset definition of happiness. In fact, that is intentional. I want them to consider the attributes of a happy person. Is it someone who is generous? Always there for them, essentially a good friend? Is it someone wise, or humorous? Is it someone who seems content with life?

The interviewees have ranged from children to seniors and despite the apparent simplicity of the assignment, the learning is often profound. Typically, students discover that their happy person has overcome considerable adversity in their life and has grown through such life challenges. Relationships with family, friends and community are always described as a significant source of happiness. The interviews tend to reveal insights that are reinforced later in the course through readings on positive psychology research.

A twelve-week course can only highlight central themes so by the sixth week, students engage in their own personal inquiry into one of the topics that has intrigued them, investigating it in greater depth and sharing what they have learned with the class.

This sets the stage for their sustainable happiness project! It is an open-ended five-week project through which they determine how they will apply sustainable happiness to enhance individual, community, or global well-being (or even all three). The project plan is shared with the class at the outset to obtain any additional ideas that we could bring to their plan. If I have the impression that the project is not quite substantial enough to warrant the time that they are given to complete it, we negotiate options for adding greater scope.

Every year, I am impressed with the commitment that students bring to their projects. Often, students have realized during the course that they have been neglecting their own well-being and consequently establish a healthy living plan that involves attending to what they are consuming, increasing physical activity, and getting sufficient sleep. This year, a number of students integrated several sustainable lifestyle components such as striving to purchase local products, reducing packaging, and limiting junk food (junk food is unhealthy for them and also generates considerable waste). One student expanded her project to include several friends and the group collected recyclable cans that were cashed in with the proceeds donated to a women’s shelter. One of the mature students discovered through her sustainable lifestyle project that getting enough sleep made a huge difference in her enjoyment of life and learning. These are critical lessons for aspiring educators who now have first-hand experience with leading future students towards healthier lifestyles. They are also keenly aware that their own well-being is a vital part of their effectiveness as a teacher.

Other projects have been more community oriented, such as the winter clothing drive to support families that struggle to keep growing children in warm clothes during our Canadian winters; the all-female community clean-up crew that called themselves Girls Against Garbage or GAG (they even had T-shirts made); an artistically talented student drew a picture that was auctioned off to support a children’s hospital; and two students introduced sustainable happiness to an elementary school using the Sustainable Happiness and Health Education Teacher’s Guide.

Learning about 20% Time through books by Don Wettrick (Pure Genius) and A.J. Juliani (Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom) have helped me to restructure the introduction of the sustainable happiness project. I have learned that some students need a little more guidance to understand the free-form nature of the process. One pre-service teacher told me that she had never experienced project-based learning and was bewildered about how to do it! Her comment reinforced for me that it is essential for teacher training institutions to model this pedagogy in our courses. Providing examples of sustainable happiness projects from previous courses gives them a more complete understanding of what is possible. For many of them, their prior experience of formal education has been far more linear with firm boundaries around what is expected. I tell them that I am deliberately making the project open-ended so that they will stretch themselves.

Discussions about 20% Time, Genius Hour, and other new pedagogies are teaching us that these new pedagogies are essential for fostering creative thinking and innovation. Equally important, new pedagogies are contributing to the well-being of students and teachers. We can expand this further by integrating elements of sustainable happiness!

If you have stories about 20% Time and well-being, please send them to:

Stay tuned to this space for more on Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being.


Happiness Research Institute (2015). Sustainable happiness report: Why waste prevention may lead to an increased quality of life. Happiness Research Institute and Danish Ministry of the Environment, Copenhagen.

O’Brien, C. (2014). Sustainable happiness: Assisting pre-service teachers to understand the relationship between sustainability education and well-being. In F. Deer, T. Falkenberg, B. McMillan, & L. Sims (Eds.), (2014). Sustainable well-being: Concepts, issues, and educational practices (pp. 157-172). Winnipeg, MB: ESWB Press. Retrievable from

Under the Spell of Spines

By Patrick Howard • March 24, 2014


I have always been aware of a sense of self that was anomalous.  At times, I have been acutely aware of my incongruous interests, but most often this incongruity was latent, manifesting itself as a tremulous tension subtly tugging the sinews of my being. I loved libraries and books.  As a child I would hide in the towering stacks of the small public library lulled by the smell of books, and quietly trace my fingers along the book spines as I moved along.  There was something profound about it all.

Under the spell of spines is the way I like to think of it now.  Clumsy fingers thumping along the vertical rows of neatly ordered books.  A title, an illustration catches the eye and the book goes to the floor.  Cowboys, dragons, knights and animals – always animals.  Later, around age ten or twelve, it was science, or more aptly, natural history, archaeology and paleontology that became my passion. The words, the illustrations, the drawings drew me in, and at the same time drew me out – outside, out-of-doors.

My mother tells of her frustration in taking her toddler for walks.  Every twig, stone and leaf was handled, examined and collected.  Crouching motionless by a mud puddle I have faint memories of stirring watery cumulus clouds of silt in endless wonder; my mother’s patience would sag.  Later, I collected insects and spiders in white plastic ice cream containers.  Caterpillars and sow bugs, crane flies and ants – always ants – two varieties – red and black.  Many summer afternoons were spent staring into the writhing mass as an emperor surveys his Coliseum.  The small wood behind our house was my world.  I knew the spiders and supplied their webs with hapless flies.  I marveled at the spiders’ speed, agility and the beauty of their silken and deadly designs.

Later, I was permitted to venture to the ocean’s edge spending countless hours on the community wharf steeped in the smell of brine and tar staring into the depths until the reflected sun hurt my head.  In the tide pools, seas in miniature, sponges encrust the rocks, each hungrily drawing in through its myriad mouths the nutrient-laden water.  Starfish, sea anemones and prickly urchins were common. In these pools I stooped and spent the day until the chill of the North Atlantic anesthetized my feet and lower legs.  But I did not notice, for once again, I am a child under the spell of spines of a different order.

Inevitably, the science of my childhood, of collecting and observing, of imagination and wonder was replaced by another kind of science – the science of the academy, of middle and high school. It was a science of abstraction and generalization far removed from my experience. I lost interest and drifted away.  I pursued my love of literature into the English classroom and relegated the spiders and tide pools to the stuff of childhood.  Childhood wonder banished to the attic of my life.

Science reduces; reductionism is invaluable to scientists; it is what they do.  It is indispensable to all of us.  As Wendell Berry reminds us, there are times we must know the composition of things, how they hang together, what laws and principles govern their behaviour.  But most often what happens in dissecting the owl pellet is that the owl disappears, the mouse that was her meal disappears.  In the quest for empirical certainty, in reducing an entity, a species to its constituent parts, it disappears in abstraction.  The creature, the being is lost – the individual and the unique are lost.  The trees are lost to “forestry,” the skeins of fog and misty droplets to the “water cycle.”  In a sense, life is lost.  Science cannot show the life in the life cycle of the owl.  Its life is a wholeness inherent in its totality of experience in a place. Yet, our children need this connection to keep the inherent wonder of childhood alive and to strengthen the affiliation with the living world that comes naturally to them.

Things cannot survive as abstractions, but only as unique, individual creatures, entities living in place. We must find ways to infuse our science with poetry and our poetry with science, to build on the natural wonder of children and immerse them in the life and mystery of the places they call home.

Patrick Howard is a professor of Education at Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia. He is interested in the intersections between language arts, literacy and Education for Sustainability.  To contact go to;

Your Happy List

By Catherine O'Brien • March 23, 2014

Sustainable Happiness is…My Happy List2 copy

Happiness that contributes to individual, community, and/or global wellbeing and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.” (O’Brien, 2010)

Sustainable happiness links happiness and sustainability together. It reinforces the fact that we are interdependent with one another and the natural environment – that our mutual wellbeing is interconnected. It can also be used as a roadmap to explore what truly makes your heart sing.

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (authors of How We Choose to Be Happy), who interviewed hundreds of very happy people, found that the happiest people know what makes their heart sing and they consciously weave this into their life.  For example,  if you enjoy going for a walk in a wooded area, make time to do so as often as possible because this is something that replenishes you. Rick, Greg and I have teamed up to offer workshops and courses and the Happy List is adapted from an activity they created. (We also co-developed an online course on sustainable happiness, along with film maker, Ian Murray).

Your Happy List

Some people like to set a timer for the Happy List activity. If that appeals to you, set one for four minutes.

When you’re ready, with a piece of paper and a pen, start making a list of all the things, people, places and activities, that make you feel happy. Just speedwrite without censoring yourself. Let the ideas flow until the time is up, or beyond. If you still have more to add keeping writing even after the timer goes off!

Once you’re done, take a look over your list and revel in what makes your heart sing.

Then, consider if there is anything on your list that you are already doing and things that you would like to do more often, integrating your Happy List more fully into your lifestyle.

You can refine your list to be a Sustainable Happiness List by reflecting on those things listed that make you feel happy but may not be contributing to your wellbeing, or possibly even harming other people and the environment. For example, some people enjoy taking a long drive. They find it relaxing. However, we know that most of our motorized vehicle emissions are destructive to human and environmental health. With sustainability in mind, we ought to be reducing car travel. Consequently, it would be beneficial to develop other options for relaxation.

If you are interested in cultivating your Sustainable Happiness List, recreate the list with only those things (and some new ones if you like) that contribute to sustainable happiness. You may want to post this on your fridge as a reminder of your commitment to sustainable happiness.

(Excerpt from Lessons in Sustainable Happiness)

International Day of Happiness

By Catherine O'Brien • March 11, 2014

Om Koi Thailand012
Ian Murray

On March 20th people across the globe will celebrate the International Day of Happiness! Some may hear about the day and lump it into the happiness buzz that emanates from advertisements, blogs, books, magazine ads and talk shows that promote the secrets to happiness. However, the event grew from the UN Resolution on Happiness and Wellbeing – a resolution that was endorsed unanimously by UN member states. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and wellbeing should be considered in the formulation of national policies.

Cities are looking at opportunities to boast that they are the happiest city and many are trying to determine how to enhance the happiness of their residents. There are serious attempts to interpret the implications of research about social engagement, trusting neighbours, liveable cities, walkable communities, and access to natural environments with the aim of planning for happiness and wellbeing. gil and wheelchairsThese efforts will be further advanced when municipalities examine their policy and practice through the lens of sustainable happiness – considering how to build sustainable prosperity so that the happiness and wellbeing of their communities have not come at the expense of exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations. Copenhagen is a world leader, demonstrating that a high quality of life can be achieved with sustainable lifestyles. This Streetfilms video shows us how!

The International Day of Happiness provides the impetus for deeper conversations about the role of happiness and wellbeing in our lives and our schools. Children growing up in North America over the last ten years are being immersed in a culture that is enthralled with happiness. From happy shampoos to happy pet food, commercial products are being associated with happiness. Coca Cola’s “happiness truck” and Cadbury’s campaign to capture the sounds of joy in New Zealand are capitalizing on the popular fascination with happiness. Is this the only source of education about happiness that we want for our youth? What counterpoint are schools offering? How can we assist students to differentiate commercialized happiness from the kind of happiness that leads to enduring life satisfaction?

Formal education curricula are transitioning to adapt 21st Century learning competencies but most schools are not yet teaching students about positive psychology and the lessons from happiness research. Yet, concerns about student mental health in K-12, colleges and universities suggest that we need to offer more instruction about mental wellbeing, resilience and happiness skills. I believe that incorporating sustainable happiness into formal education would assist students (and teachers) to appreciate that our happiness and wellbeing are interconnected with the happiness and wellbeing of other people and the natural environment. We can create experiential learning opportunities for children and youth to explore what happiness means to them (and that happiness is not the only acceptable emotion), how happiness is portrayed in the media, and how their daily choices contribute to, or detract from, the happiness and wellbeing of other people. They can discover new options for living happily and sustainably.

Many educators have shared inspiring stories about the lessons they have used from the Sustainable Happiness and Health Education teachers guide. It’s an ideal (free) resource that can be used to involve students in the International Day of Happiness. Please tell your teacher friends!

For higher education instructors, I encourage you to view the syllabus for the sustainable happiness course that I teach at Cape Breton University. Many of the course activities are also available on the University tab of this web site. College students are signing up for the online sustainable happiness course and using the Directed Study Guide to accompany their learning journey.

Wishing you a day of sustainable happiness Sustainable Happiness Poster2on the International Day of Happiness! Please feel free to use this poster.

Living Schools

By Catherine O'Brien • November 26, 2013

In a previous blog post I shared the inspiring story of the Schoolyard Market Garden, a collaborative project between Vancouver Technical Secondary and Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society.  The garden is an example of the kind of education that models Living Schools, an essential concept to consider for anyone who is interested in reforming or transforming education. Living Schools can integrate the many progressive visions for revitalizing education – Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), 21st century learning, Health Promoting Schools, entrepreneurship education, social and emotional learning, along with a creative culture that nurtures the passions of children and teachers.

Through this one schoolyard garden project students learn practical skills that help them feel connected to the community and nature, and that connection is likely to bring an experience of well-being. They are actively engaged in a healthy endeavor that teaches them about sustainable lifestyles. As a market garden, they’ll learn entrepreneurship skills. The project is also complex enough to draw upon diverse learning styles and passions, from construction to promotion. And they spend time outside!

This schoolyard market gardenVancourver Schoolyard garden copy is not an isolated example. David Thompson Secondary also launched a garden last spring, working with the Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society. In Australia, there is a Living Schools organization. In Europe, the Living Schools Lab explores applications of information and communication technology (ICT) for social learning. It’s a network of 12 Ministries of Education.

Why Living Schools?

I hear almost daily from teachers, administrators and education consultants that there is an urgent need to create more positive and innovative school cultures. They ponder questions about 21st century education – what education practices ought be retained? What new ones are needed?

It’s evident that a transformation of education is essential, for the benefit of our students and for society. It’s daunting for teacher education institutions, educators and administrators to determine what vision to follow. If we embrace 21st century learning competencies we will supposedly prepare our students to be successful and competitive in a rapidly changing global context. Yet these competencies don’t always embrace sustainability in the vision. One could argue that a 21st century learning vision without ESD would be modernizing education to support an unsustainable trajectory. Furthermore, teachers are reporting increasing incidences of student mental health challenges and struggle with concerns such as bullying, substance abuse, and anxiety.  The need for preventive measures is paramount and the exemplary work of Health Promoting Schools (HPS) offers a valuable framework and resources. In Canada, the Joint Consortium for School Health developed a Positive Mental Health Toolkit for educators to assess and plan for positive school health.

How could educators possibly implement all of the diverse visions for transforming education? Each one on its own has tremendous merit but no single one addresses all of the factors that must be considered if education is going to genuinely contribute to student well-being and sustainable societies.

My recommendation is for educators and education policy to find the ideal nexus where these diverse principles, competencies and visions converge. Living Schools illustrates how this can happen and how this is already happening. You likely have examples of a Living Schools initiative in your region (even though it may not have that label). Please share those with me and I’ll spread the word. Email:

Who is Teaching Us about Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being?

By Catherine O'Brien • November 17, 2013

Abstract. The growing recognition Who is Teaching Usthat happiness and well-being are intertwined with sustainability is leading to new opportunities for enhancing happiness and well-being, sustainably. The education sector has a critical role in advancing this work but has been slow to incorporate sustainability education and applications of positive psychology. The concept of sustainable happiness (happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment or future generations) (O’Brien, 2010a) offers an innovative perspective to re-invigorate sustainability education and shape priorities for 21st century learning – contributing to resilient, sustainable happiness and well-being for all.

Children growing up in North America over the last ten years are being immersed in a culture that is enthralled with happiness. From happy shampoos to happy pet food, commercial products are being associated with happiness. Coca Cola’s “happiness truck” and Cadbury’s campaign to capture the sounds of joy in New Zealand are capitalizing on the popular buzz about happiness. Thousands of books, magazines, blogs and talks shows discuss the secrets to happiness, building on the research from positive psychology and happiness studies. Beyond the pop culture, happiness research has attained sufficient credibility for many governments to acknowledge that happiness and well-being should be considered in the formulation of national policies (CIW, 2009; Helliwell et al, 2012; Stiglitz et al, 2009).

Read more in the Journal of Health, Culture and Society

Of BIG questions in education…

By Chris Adam • November 10, 2013

At a recent world conference of environmental educators, I discussed the notion that institutions of higher education produce much important research, but that it is not balanced with as much important action that make a positive contribution to the community. Where are the Big questions like how do we, as an institution modeling change and meeting societal needs, become carbon neutral in 10 years?, or how do we increase urban agriculture by 25% in our town by the time the incoming cohort of students graduates?, or how do we identify and implement 50 projects on campus that benefit local wildlife, increase biodiversity and act as living labs for students in various disciplines?

BIG questions are complex, interdisciplinary by nature and require considerable problem solving. They involve the deconstruction and construction of ideas, norms and existing societal structures, exactly the creative and critical thinking skills we want in graduating students. In addition, these competencies are imbedded in many subject areas needed to solve BIG questions. In the form of authentic projects, BIG questions promote literacy of all kinds, exercise the action-based research we know lends itself to meaningful learning and builds community through the need for interdisciplinary input.

Because BIG questions are bold, and because engaging youth with modest life experience to tackle any complex challenge is bolder still, these questions can lead to places an institution did not expect to go, create unanticipated responsibilities and turn over stones that some do not necessarily want overturned. However, if bold questions lead to a reflective process where we individually or collectively evaluate our values – the very values that direct behaviour –  then change can take place. This shift in thinking and behaviour must be viewed as positive change that doesn’t dwell on the negative notion of “you didn’t do this properly.” This has farreaching consequences when evaluating outcomes and maintaining stakeholder engagement.

Positive and fresh outlooks excite people and attract internal and community input.

Managing interpersonal space with strong group facilitation and clear expectations is the difference between big failure and big success in projects. Positive outlooks increase intake of learning by students and increase teacher engagement. Group leadership, therefore, from directors meetings to the smallest student committee, is of the utmost importance to ensure productive outcomes. This is vital in overcoming the potential barriers of regulations, traditions and egos that may not support change.

Colleges and universities are sitting on a human resource that has not been nearly engaged enough to solve the societal, economic and environmental challenges that sustainability education defines itself by.  Research is essential, but too much research and too little action is inexcusable. We can‘t be in an educational rut that fills the information bucket at the expense of community building, polarizes disciplines when solutions scream for integration, and separates knowing from feeling in the classroom. This recipe of education is the breeding ground for apathy. Fortunately, apathy runs for cover where there is hope, and BIG questions entrusted to faculty, support staff and students combined with adequate support builds ample amounts of it!

BIG questions often involve conflict – that is what makes them big.  Well-managed classrooms where students can experience and learn about this conflict is the real-world learning that they benefit from most. We need to let them field-test their action skills and experience the consequences of their behaviour first hand. BIG questions are often moving targets that invariably produce pockets of failure, consequently a dedicated  group connected individually to a challenge can dig deep when needed to continue the process. We need to guide their enthusiasm and deep desire to help, channeling this incredible potential of good will right back into the communities they come from. This is where their loved ones are, where their sense of history is anchored and where memories of childhood adventures are associated to local physical geography. It is an all-powerful relationship that can drive learning forward when it may otherwise stall.

Who is bold enough to pick one of the many BIG questions society needs answered and teach in an institution that is confident enough to let its community take it to academically rich places it hasn’t yet visited? The challenge is ultimately not a question of lack of finances, human resources, or policy, but one of human will and spirit. It’s the challenge that leads to Bold Education.

Chris Adam is the Executive Director of the Earthvalues Institute and teaches at Dawson College in Montreal.


Techno-Fast with a Twist

By Catherine O'Brien • November 3, 2013

It’s a real joy for me to learn from my students and I particularly enjoy the occasions when they bring a creative spirit to their assignments. This term I have a retired teacher, Asta Antoft, in my Sustainable Happiness class. Her experience and wisdom enrich all of us.

As I mentioned in my previous post (Buy Nothing for a Day?), one of the course assignments is to select a Shifting Consumption activity. Asta chose to take a Techno-Fast – with a new twist. Here’s her story.

It has been my experience that most environmental and sustainability education (EE) activities are built on either gaining knowledge, usually through participant observations, of what is going awry, or in seeking solutions, frequently through some version of group brainstorming. Little is included that involves more than token commitment to changing personal behaviours, or of celebrating actual change.

While building awareness and seeking solutions are part of defining and resolving the global issues facing the planet, I believe that this is not enough. Every issue reduces down to the actions of the individual; therefore it is critical that EE includes a relevant component of behaviour change. However just encouraging change is not enough and every activity must include a  defined action plan that can be easily understood and incorporated into an individual’s lifestyle.

With the goal of adding a defined action plan that may lead to a permanent change in my own use of technology, I added an exchange activity to the intent of the Techno-Fast and renamed this project, Fair Trade. First, I listed all the tech gadgets I use. This included the TV, PVR, cell phone, land line phone, microwave, digital cameras, computer, tablet, stereo, radio, blender, paper shredder, hair dryer, auto shut-off kettle, toaster, and the car, which I then sorted by frequency and duration of use. The winners of the most used for the longest time contest were the computer/Internet and the TV/PVR.

At this point I could have decided not to use any of these tools for a day and written this paper on how that felt. But when I reflected on doing just that, I realized that it would be merely an exercise in delayed gratification, that I could easily find some other activity to fill the day that would not use any technology.

So I listed those activities that I really enjoy and that I wanted to spend more time doing. This included drawing, gardening, walking, and photography, most of which have low to nil negative environmental impact. Using a cost based approach, rather than an earned based plan, I gathered a mechanical egg timer and set it beside the computer or TV and gave myself either half an hour or an hour of screen time. At the end of this time I had to spend an equivalent amount of time doing one of the things listed under enjoyment right then and there. I did not allow myself any banking of either screen time or enjoyment time; it had to be a straight trade. I continued with this fair trade activity for two days.

This challenge proved to be more difficult than I thought. Despite having pencil and sketchbook beside the computer, it was challenging to shift from the immediacy of the internet to the slower, more contemplative action of observational drawing. It was an obvious exercise in left to right brain shift! Going from TV time to gardening was much easier.

This project has proven to be a worthwhile exercise in both changing my own patterns of behaviour and in testing out my thoughts on EE.

Asta Antoft