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Inspiring Citizens: An Interview with Steve Sostak

Following 15 years teaching elementary and middle school on three continents, Steve Sostak founded Inspire Citizens, an independent educational organization working with diverse partners to reimagine schools as thriving community centers of transformative learning. Steve wears many hats in his work with Inspire Citizens. He guides administrative teams on future-focused strategic planning around transformative learning goals; co-designs Empathy to Impact units with both teachers and students; implements elements of the Global Impact School Self-Study to monitor student learning and agile systems needs; facilitates experiences connected to the Future Now student leadership toolkit; supports Global Youth Media member communities; and continues to offer professional workshops while leading the Inspire Citizens Master Teacher Endorsement, a 25-week deep-dive into the art of education for global citizenship and sustainable development. His goal remains centered on teacher creativity and enhanced student learning. He aims to enable youth to develop more compassionate empathy; think critically about information and global issues; solve problems creatively through the application of interdisciplinary skills and civic literacies; embrace the challenges of uncertainties and complexities; make ethical decisions; and take informed action. 

Zoe: This interview is being published on Earth Day, which seems perfect since you’ve been a leader in helping teachers embrace the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and embed them in curricula. Can you share some stories about the ways in which this work has helped students create more environmentally sustainable communities?

Steve: First of all, I wanted to say how fantastic it feels to be sharing ideas with you, Zoe. One brief story is that I saw you speak over ten years ago at an educational conference in Asia when I had just begun to plant seeds in my mind about the possibility of Inspire Citizens. You were so welcoming to my inquiry and took time to have some thoughtful conversations. You were (and continue to be) an inspiration and a supportive voice as I considered moving from the classroom into launching Inspire Citizens, including now as we have a greater presence internationally. So I wanted to start with that moment of gratitude. Thank you!

Regarding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we now have co-designed thousands of learning experiences with educators and students in our partner schools around the world helping embed sustainability concepts and tools for implementation into pre-existing units, projects, or fresh ideas. 

Some of our favorite highlights have been partnering with the Out of the Blocks podcast through Global Youth Media learning and publications around getting students into local communities with the goal of empowering marginalized voices through technology, interviewing, and compassionate storytelling. We have also been blessed to collaborate regularly with Salva Dut of Water for South Sudan in establishing age-sensitive, whole-school, project-based learning dedicated to SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. Of course, on smaller scales, we’ve been able to co-design thousands of learning experiences that integrate elements of the SDGs and Good Life Goals through utilizing our Empathy to Impact thinking framework. 

With this said, I think it’s worth mentioning how we have evolved in our work with the SDGs over the past five years. I would say there have been two important areas of growth in our approach: 

  1. The SDGs are absolutely a crucial set of goals and targets for the planet by which deeper learning and humane education can be developed. In the end, however, they are a vehicle, a set of targets, for deeper, transformative learning where young learners grow holistically. We’ve found that students thrive in action-oriented learning that amplifies critical thinking, global citizenship, creative problem solving, resilience, empathy, imagination, joy, agility, and so on. It is very important that while we teach SDGs, we go beyond surface-level awareness into the development of deeper cognitive skills and dispositions that transfer into life-long, personal, local, and global advocacy and action for the health of society and the planet.
  2. We’ve shifted away from using the SDGs as a starting point, seeing them more as outcomes of transformative learning. We now help educators and learners explore and apply meta-cognitive, common language for helping internalize skills and transferable concepts that are foundational to the implementation of the SDGs. For example, we work with students on the meta-cognition needed to articulate a rich understanding of harmony with nature, circular economics, social justice, holistic well-being, and humane technology which then launches student learning towards thoughtful solutions for SDGs.

Zoe: The 17 SDGs are so powerful and important. At the same time, they leave out animals, except in the context of protecting species. For example, Goal 14 calls for the protection of sea animals, but largely as a resource for people. In your work with students and teachers, does the question of protecting individual sentient animals arise? 

Steve: As mentioned above, your question is a great example of why we need to support learners in experiences that enhance one’s harmony with nature, holistic well-being, and understanding of circular economics. Ostensibly, how can we ask kids to save the environment if they don’t love nature, see the beauty in it, feel a sense of oneness with it? Throwing the Life on Land or Life Below Water SDGs at the learners can be quite overwhelming and disconnected without meaningful personal experiences with nature, guidance in moving beyond cognitive empathy, and opportunities to act on these issues in local communities while wrestling with the systemic complexities. 

To answer your question more directly, in Asia there exists a concern for the growing amount of meat in diets as well as the environmental impact of land use for producing meat. We often use your True Price activity with young learners as a first step into deeper understanding of economic systems thinking and sparking greater wonder about our human footprint on nature, interdependence, and the importance of species diversity and the ethics of food. 

On the ground, we’ve often seen students take this first step in becoming more aware of animal rights issues and challenging school food providers to act more sustainably. We’ve seen success, but we also have seen providers and school administrations resist these student initiatives, leading us to questions around whether schools truly value student voice and agency in this complex world they are inheriting. If our schools claim to be future-focused and feel a sense of urgency towards sustainability, equity, and global citizenship, we need to be transparent and honest with both internal and external systems and the economic, social, and cultural influences that promote doing more of the same unsustainable things post-COVID.  

Zoe: If you were invited to add to or change the SDGs, what might you recommend?

Steve: I would add SDG 18: Critical Media, Technological Literacy, and Attention Economics. I believe we’re in the midst of a perilous social media and information landscape. In my opinion, it is absolutely critical that we face the ethical, sustainable, economic, equitable, and well-being complexities of media and technology. 

Inspire Citizens does a lot of work in this area via Global Youth Media and our work with other partners such as SIMA Classroom, Videos for Change, Keeping the Blues Alive, the aforementioned Out of the Blocks, ISTE Global PLN, and Soundtrap. However, though schools have identified Media Literacy as a thread, it’s often very pocketed, and we still see schools over-committed to literacy in a 20th century model. Because of this, learners are often left to vie for themselves in an unforgiving and unsustainable attention economy. 

I would challenge the United Nations to take a more forceful stance on how media and technological literacy has to be addressed in order to support the implementation of the other 17 SDGs.

Zoe: Can you describe your vision of schooling in 2030 and help our readers understand how we achieve it?

Steve: I’m going to try and keep this as simple as possible. If you go to the homepage of our website, you will see the green star and red heart that maps our vision of Global Impact School. This image should help your readers make our work with schools and our 2030 Vision quite clear.

How to: Start with the future-focused, transformative learning goals that your school has identified as the core cognitive skills and dispositions of a learner in 2021. From there, work with demonstrable, qualitative student learning outcomes that inform the school’s systems while capturing students’ stories as holistic humans and not just numbers or data points. In supporting this deeper, transformative learning, we see Global Impact Schools as community centers that remain flexible in growth and development. 

Our Inspire Citizens vision begins with five transformative learning goals at the center (but again, we guide schools to find their own):

  • Creative problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Global mindedness
  • Self-directed learning
  • Balance

From there we work with partner schools to bring that learning to life through 12 pathways, all connected to our Self-Study:

  1. Audit and integrate your community assets into teaching and learning
  2. Identify your common vocabulary for sustainable development, equity, and global citizenship
  3. Commit to effective practices in professional learning and teacher leadership
  4. Create a student impact profile
  5. Reimagine your curriculum: design learning experiences via Empathy to Impact
  6. Launch meaningful student leadership opportunities: Future Now
  7. Prioritize your integration of critical media literacy & humane technology: Global Youth Media
  8. Innovate your reporting, qualitative feedback, and data systems around your transformative learning goals
  9. Look internally to take informed action for sustainable development. Walk the walk.
  10. Foster holistic well-being for all your community members
  11. Amplify and embed your local, regional, and global partnerships
  12. Monitor & continually improve your school’s teaching & learning culture

Zoe: Thank you Steve! Your work is so inspiring, important, and powerful. We are so grateful for all you are doing to inspire citizens!