How Do We Connect The Circular Economy and Our Students? | Harbord & Khan | 4 Min Read

May 5, 2022

Planned obsolescence has been a traditional feature of design (linear systems) in the creation of products and services. We buy products and throw them away to buy better, newer, and faster ones. From the perspective of time, we could perceive schools as linear systems from childhood to graduation. Although many use innovative practices and iterative cycles of learning such as Design Thinking, once we leave school, we often don’t look back on our learning. How can we change this perspective?

In design, there has been an embrace of change. One common strategy designers use for a more sustainable approach to change is to shift the starting point to disassembling the product. Another strategy is ‘matching the shelf life of the product to the shelf life of the packaging’ by developing edible packaging made from seaweed, so there is no waste. Change is also reflected in a call to develop products that users can easily fix themselves—the ‘Right to Repair’ movement. One of the movement’s goals in the U.S. is ‘to require companies to make their parts, tools, and information available to consumers and repair shops,’ which can lengthen the life of a product. 

The Circular Economy, as proposed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, offers us an innovative take on the idea of product circularity, which is based on three principles: Eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature.” At every stage, materials have value and purpose, as opposed to being treated as waste: they are always resources. MUD Jeans, for example, is a company from the Netherlands whose business model is based on the Circular Economy. They reject the concept of make, buy, wear and bin. Their customers lease jeans from MUD and then return the jeans to the company when the jeans are worn out or the customers are sick of wearing them. MUD then repairs or recycles the jeans. By keeping the jeans out of landfills and reusing them, the materials do not get discarded and become waste.

Tim Marlow, Director of the Design Museum, London, comments that “…waste is not just a damaging by-product, it’s also a resource, and one that we need to learn to value and utilize.’ As educators, we can gain some insights through an exploration of waste and the Circular Economy. What does purpose and value look like at every stage in the student learning experience? What does ‘waste’ look like in our classrooms? In learning, waste is a subjective concept and can vary among teachers and students. At times, it can feel like students are wasting our time and energy, and at other times, students can feel like we are wasting their time and energy, especially if we give them ‘busy’ work. Regardless, we need to keep a balance among purpose, value and waste because it is important for students to have time to daydream.

However, shifting our perspective to think about time and energy as potential resources raises some intriguing questions. Is the time and energy we spend on unused ideas wasted? Through collaboration and the power of diverse and collective thinking, we can also learn from others’ successes and failures. Learning from failure is a valuable aspect of the student and teacher learning experience. Opportunities might also be wasted: in our case, in making interdisciplinary connections between Design and other subjects. 

Our students were creating infographics (which were studied in the previous term in another subject); however, when asked to define an infographic, we were met with silence. From about 50 students, there were just one or two who recognized there was a connection. What was missing for them was context. When we reminded them about the earlier work in another subject, the definition gradually dawned on them. Students often silo their learning because interdisciplinary learning is still quite a new approach, so they are missing out on wasted learning opportunities.

Giving students more agency in designing value and purpose into their learning experience, a ‘Right to Purposeful Learning’ (modeled upon the ‘Right to Repair’ movement), while still meeting the required standards is something we can aspire to. We can use imagination, creativity, and innovation to think differently about our time and energy; if all schools prepared us to think about our learning from a different perspective of time, could we enter an alternative cycle as lifelong learners?

One way of supporting purposeful learning could be to examine ideas about ‘long term thinking’ as outlined by Roman Krznaric in his book The Good Ancestor. Krznaric advocates decision-making and problem-solving inspired by thinking about the benefit of our actions for future generations. Strategies include ‘Legacy Mindset,’ ‘Intergenerational Justice’ and ‘Cathedral Thinking (planning projects beyond a human lifetime).’ These are challenging concepts for many adults as well as students. However, thinking about their future self at the end of the lesson, the unit, the school year, the next ten years, etc., could support students in developing a different perspective about their learning. We leave school behind, but can we take a long term perspective with us? Moving the focus from a starting point of how could this help me today to how could I help others tomorrow and beyond, generates one of the greatest resources of all, human compassion.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *