Wynn Calder – 6/19/18

In the spring of 2017, as a mid-career graduate student in counseling psychology at Framingham State University, I took Dr. Anne Lutz’s course, Solution-Focused Fundamentals and Practice. In thinking about what I might do for my final project, a light bulb went off: Solution Focused questions could improve my sustainability assessment interview process. They could build on the content-oriented questions of my Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) and help foster a more strength-based narrative.

As an educational consultant and former teacher, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how schools work and how they change. Institutions are collections of people and they present many of the same challenges as individuals when it comes to figuring out what they want to become, what’s making them stay the same, and how I to help them change. I attempt to help K12 schools (mainly private and independent) become more sustainable in their teaching and operations. My primary service has two parts: a sustainability assessment followed by a collaborative process to develop a long-term sustainability plan. This article suggests that Solution Focused questions can enhance an institutional assessment process, just as they have been shown to be effective in the therapeutic realm.

A comprehensive definition of sustainability in education, given in the questionnaire introduction, reads: “The concept of sustainability – which, at a minimum, addresses how humans can live on the planet over time in a manner that protects cultural and biological diversity, recognizes and appreciates ecological limits, offers just and accountable governments and economies for all, and draws on the human capacity for adaptive learning and innovation – offers a tremendous challenge for education. It requires educational institutions to rethink their missions and to re-structure their courses, research priorities, community outreach, and campus operations. By preparing students – and the whole campus community – to be more adept decision makers in the increasingly complex, dynamic, and uncertain future that we all face, integrating sustainability into all of the major activities of educational institutions also presents a tremendous opportunity.”

When I conduct a sustainability assessment, I typically visit a school campus for one to two days and interview both individuals (like teachers and staff members) and groups (like committees and student groups) using the SAQ as my guide. The questionnaire is divided into five sections: Curriculum; Campus Operations; Community Service; Student Engagement; and Administration, Mission & Policy.

It includes questions such as:

• Indicate the extent to which sustainability is a focus woven into traditional disciplinary education in science, math, English, history, the arts, etc.?
• What do you see when you walk around campus that tells you this is an institution committed to sustainability?
• To what extent are student groups on campus directly involved in sustainability initiatives?
• Please describe the key factors that support the advancement of environmental and sustainability issues on your campus?
• What factors do you think account for resistance to or lack of responsiveness to these concerns?
• What “next steps” do you feel ought to be taken?

Based on what I’d learned in Professor Lutz’s course, I generated a set of SFT questions to supplement the SAQ and organized them into four groups:
1- questions for a faculty or staff member with a positive orientation toward sustainability;
2- questions for a faculty or staff member with a negative orientation toward sustainability;
3- questions for a student environmental or sustainability group; and
4- questions for an environmental or sustainability committee.

Here are some examples:

Faculty/staff member with positive orientation:
• What are your best hopes for this conversation?
• How can I be most helpful for you today so that this conversation is worthwhile?
• What are your best hopes for this school in sustainability over the next several years?
• How do you see yourself playing a part in that vision?
• On a scale of 1-10, how empowered do you feel you are to contribute to that vision?
• What makes it not lower?
• What would it take to raise it by one or two points?
• On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is that you’re fully satisfied with your contribution to sustainability at ________, and 1 is the opposite, how would you rate yourself?
• What makes it not lower?
• What would it take to raise it by one or two points?
• What have you tried to do that has been most helpful for the school?
• What else have you tried?

Analyzing a recent success (Example: An advisor to the student environmental group is helping them articulate their goals and successfully work toward them):
• Looking at your recent success, how was it different from other efforts you’ve made to enhance sustainability at ________?
• How else?
• How did you do it? How else did you do it? (Let’s list these things so you can make use of them going forward.)
• On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is you are confident you could do this again and 1 is the opposite, where would you say you are now?

Analyzing a recent setback (Example: A teacher is attempting to get her history department colleagues to start mapping sustainability content that is relevant to history, and to consider ways of incorporating key issues into the existing curriculum):

• How did you cope with what this setback? What did you learn from it?
• Where do you get your resolve to move forward?
• What do you think you would do differently next time?
• What else would you do instead? (Let’s list these things so you and I can make use of them going forward.)
• On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is you are very confident in your ability, as a history teacher, to reach your goals and 1 is the opposite, where would you rate things now?

Faculty/staff member with negative orientation:
• What aspects of sustainability are most appealing to you?
• If you were tasked with trying to improve the school in those ways, how would you go about doing that?
• Etc.

Student Environmental or Sustainability Group:
• What are your best hopes for this group?
• What does it look like to be successful and effective?
• What have you tried to do that has been most helpful for other students? For the school?
• What else have you tried?
• Who are the most important people in the school for enabling you to achieve success in environmental or sustainability action? Who else?
• What do you most appreciate about them? How are they helpful to you?
• On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is that you’re making the most use of these important people, and 1 is the opposite, where would you rank the group?
• How can you engage these individuals in your future efforts?

Environmental or sustainability committee:
• On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is that you’re fully satisfied with the progress of this committee, and 1 is the opposite, how would you rate yourselves?
• Etc.

In addition to supporting individual and group strengths in the context of school sustainability, the SFT questions help uncover the personal, motivational and relational dimensions of taking action and trying to affect change. In retrospect, the Sustainability Assessment Questionnaire has been overly focused on “what” someone accomplished rather than “how” they did it, or “how” they handled a setback. In other words, understanding the power of motivation, patience, resourcefulness, and creativity, in this context, can be illuminating for thinking about what might be tried next, or how to proceed differently to get different results.

In reviewing the SAQ for this exercise, I discovered that it already includes some SFT-oriented questions. But the supplemental questions above illustrate a level of strengths-based inquiry that I had not considered. Since last spring, my interview process has been enhanced in a couple of ways. In addition to providing new insights into how to improve sustainability at schools, I’ve noticed that the SFT questions help people become more animated and interested in discussing these issues. Perhaps that is because they’re asked to delve deeper and to shine a light on their strengths and successes.

Wynn Calder

We were thrilled to have Wynn join us for our online certificate course in 2017 and are excited to share his article for our Summer 2018 Inspirations Newsletter. William (Wynn) Calder directs Sustainable Schools, LLC, which helps schools and colleges improve their teaching and practice of sustainability. He is also currently pursuing an MA in counseling psychology. See www.sustainschools.org. Wynn can be reached at wynn@sustainschools.org.