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Education for a Sustainable World: An Interview with Mike Johnston

Having directed an international school in Guatemala, been the principal of a middle school in Singapore, and taught in schools across the globe, Mike Johnston is currently an independent educational consultant and will be starting a new role as assistant head of school at Frankfurt International School starting in the 2020/21 school year. He has led workshops and given keynotes for educators around the world on sustainability, K-12 global curriculum, and how service learning should not just be what you do, but who you are as a school. As a member of the Compass Education team, he is part of a growing community of passionate educators aiming to equip schools as learning communities to educate and act for a sustainable future. He has dedicated much of his time not only to ensuring students are properly prepared for the world’s most pressing issues, but also inspiring them to take action. I first met Mike in Shanghai when I was keynoting an international teacher’s conference. I attended all of the workshops he led at the conference, frantically taking notes and following up in order to bring his wisdom, humor, and fantastic resources and activities to IHE. When I told Mike about IHE’s affiliated Ph.D. program in Organizational Systems with a specialization in Humane Education, he enrolled and was the first person in the world to graduate with this degree. Bringing what he has learned from his doctoral program, Mike leads schools through times of change and educational transformation.

Zoe: What do you think the purpose of schooling should be?

Mike: I believe the purpose of schooling is quite simple, and sometimes we over complicate it with competing interests not aligned with worthy pursuits. Schools should provide deep, personal learning for students that is individualized for each student’s needs. This learning should ultimately allow everyone to contribute to creating a better world through following their passions in many possible fields. 

Zoe: Some people are shying away from the term “sustainability education,” but you embrace it. Why are you dedicated to this concept and language?

Mike: I believe that sustainability is really the only word that actually captures what we are aiming for as humans. We are ultimately looking to thrive in balance with our surroundings. Many people with whom I have worked have misconceptions about the concept, and in some cases, hold a narrow view that only includes the environmental aspects, but I have worked hard to try to have people expand their understanding and application of sustainability. I don’t think it’s about finding new terminology; it’s about clarifying and truly understanding the concept of this word.

I am lucky enough to be a part of a nonprofit organization which educates for a sustainable future through training tools that tackle complexity, bring systemic approaches to understanding causal connections, and identify good leverage points for positive change. Compass Education works with teachers, students, leaders, organizations, and anyone who seeks to create a more positive future. The compass points on the foundational tool for which the organization is named are N – Nature, E – Economy, S – Society, and W – Wellbeing. By considering the systems conditions in relation to these compass points, we can aim for more holistic actions, come up with better leverage points for positive change, and mitigate unintended consequences. A sustainable future means flourishing in balance with other humans, the environment, and nonhuman animals, and requires building healthy political systems, personal well being, thriving economies, and healthy ecosystems. Over the years, I’ve noticed a dangerous misperception that in order to have a thriving economy we need to sacrifice nature and vice versa. This is not true, and working to shift that mental model is vitally important. There are many positive examples globally, and the sustainability movement is growing. It’s time to amplify the good work, put the tools in the hands of youth, and collaborate to build the future we all wish to see. 

Zoe: You’ve been bringing solutionary thinking and action to students in schools from Southeast Asia to Central America and soon in Europe. In your experience, what are young people capable of? What real-world solutions and actions have you seen them accomplish?

Mike: Students are capable of whatever they set their minds to. We need to help them develop conceptual understandings and competencies, and help them grow in character to achieve their full potential as stewards and changemakers. I have seen students change government policy, improve day to day operations of a school, plant millions of trees, and help a single family in need of a microloan break the cycle of poverty. Whether their actions have been local or global, small or far-reaching, it has been inspiring and motivating to support and witness their accomplishments. We cannot just tell the success stories, though. When young people attempt to create positive change and fail, they learn through this process, which often helps them have an even greater impact in the future. Young people need to know they are capable, not alone, supported, and that age should not hold anyone back from creating positive change for a better future for the planet, humans, and/or animals. 

Zoe: We share the same vision and goals, so my last question for you is what do you think gets in our way?

Mike: There’s so much we know about what to do to create this kind of education and these outcomes, but we haven’t removed the traditional educational approaches that are much less important and impactful. We need to ask ourselves this question regularly: What can we stop doing that is not high-leverage? There are so many competing interests in schools, which means that we need to decide what to let go to allow space for the kind of education I’m describing. 

For example, should students be spending time memorizing facts and dates in history, or should they be learning to conceptually understand political and economic dynamics, human psychology, and the far-reaching impacts of such things as migration, colonization, slavery, etc. that can guide them toward envisioning and building a more just and healthy future? If we focus on the latter, then students can take local actions that build more just systems. We need to make space for meaningful, impactful learning that matters.  

In my experience in schools over 20 years, any time we have carved out space to do passion projects, action planning, service learning, solutionary processes, integrated units, field studies, whatever you want to call them, students do amazing things. When they are given the time to conceptually grasp complex systems; the tools to understand and find leverage points for change; and the space to reflect, re-tool, and try again, the outcomes can be astounding.