We measure what we value | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 10 Min Read

May 17, 2024

The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

William Gibson

We might find comfort—even some excitement—when we witness schools unveil and roll out their sustainability programs. We hear about fresh new solar panel installations, commitments to reduce printing by 50%, the deployment of carpooling schemes to get vehicles off the road, and promises to be net zero carbon by 2040 or 2050. It feels quite good knowing schools are taking action. 

Let’s not get too comfortable. Let’s not settle in quite yet. 

A moment of pause: If I were to tell you there was an organization out there that had implemented a recycling program, set thermostats to turn off air conditioning at 23°C (73°F), and committed to meatless Mondays, would you know if I were describing a school, a Walmart, a Citibank, or a John Deere factory? 

It’s fantastic that schools are devising sustainability programs and creating positions for Sustainability Coordinators, but when sustainability is kept in the hands of adults (e.g. boards, management, outside experts), it usually doesn’t amount to much more than the operationalization of sustainability.

It isn’t really about education and certainly not about transformative change. It’s about accounting for carbon footprint, an operations play. It’s the low hanging fruit—which is all the more concerning because, no matter how low, it is still out of reach for many schools. Important stuff, yes, but only part of the puzzle, and if we’re not careful, it might actually be the wrong piece. Now when compost bins, procurement policies, and water drainage projects (or any of the other initiatives listed above) are co-designed with young people, this promises to be a different proposition. This might be the basis for a strong and responsive living curriculum that nourishes learning-doing—learning by doing and doing so as to learn, oscillating at such speeds that they become indistinguishable. With young people working shoulder to shoulder with educators and practitioners, we are looking at the possibility of a resilient sustainability program. Moreover, ownership, decision-making power, contribution… all of these make it so that young (and not so young!) people develop approaches [to/as/with] the world that are sustainable and sustained. This is education and it allows schools to be spaces of learning, without the compartmentalization of operations and building management[1]That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t involve young people in the creation of programs outside of schools–this is a worthy conversation to have. I am trying to sidestep the rabbit hole of whether … Continue reading.

Yet even when we involve young people we risk being ineffective and tokenistic at best, insidious and insincere at worst.

If experiences are limited to after-school programs, we won’t spark the transformative changes the planet and our civilization need. Eco-committees may set out with the best intentions, but unless they have the strategic backing of leadership, they might become afterthoughts or marginalized, perpetually at risk of disappearance after marketing uploads photos to the website. Events forgotten more quickly than they pop up—like planting a tree, turning off the lights for Earth Hour, or making kites out of plastic bags—are phantasmal attempts to raise awareness, with very little long-lasting effect for change. Worse still, the organizers’ and participants’ goodwill and energy dissipate into nothingness when structures of power have no interest in disrupting the status quo. If we could capture that positive energy for real change, we’d be onto something powerful.

Here is another entry point into the problem: Educating about sustainability isn’t the same as education for sustainability. Learning about the dangers of microplastics and methane emissions, deforestation and fossil fuels, and pesticides and mercury contamination, all from the dead pages of a book (or printouts and worksheets) won’t lead to the transformative change we need.

Everyone who has been through the school system in the Global North over the past 50 years knows all the statistics of climate breakdown, can explain the effects of greenhouse gasses, and has seen the photos of birds suffocated by oil washed up on beaches. 

And yet here we are. Still here.

No, not still here actually; accelerating toward ecological breakdown. We’re getting closer, faster, every day. 

Educating for sustainability isn’t learning content about sustainability; it means transforming our approaches to the world to be more sustainable. Of course we still need content, but only insofar as it nourishes stronger relationships with ourselves, others (including other-than-humans), and the planet. Educating for sustainability is one node of the civilizational change that might help us avoid ecological breakdown. There are other nodes, all interconnected, none separate: changes in public policy, patterns of production, transportation, and consumption, among others. 

We will never get anywhere if we modularize sustainability, teaching it here and there with an off the shelf curriculum, and then once that’s done, returning to our regularly scheduled program. Another sideshow that makes us feel good won’t have the power to transform. 

Again, there are so many educators willing and wanting transformation, but they are most of the time powerless against the powerful; they are resisting, yes, but resisting a system that tells a story so familiar, we have trouble believing it’s just a story: work hard in school and you’ll get into a prestigious university and then get a prestigious job and live a prestigious life full of comforts. 

And so working hard really means being successful in a few key areas: math and hard sciences, and often language arts. Governments would never consider cutting spending on math, but the Creative Arts—which cultivate imagination and creativity, two critical forces we need to get ourselves out of the metacrisis—are always the first to go.

There is a saying that we value what we can measure. I think it’s the other way around. We measure what we value. 

We can measure in many different ways, and each measurement will tell part of the story: numeric, observation, and embodied feelings. Yes, that’s right, you can assess just how good something is by the way it makes you feel. Listen to Amanda Gorman or “Queen of the Nightand notice the sensations in your body. Or think of your own favorite band or author. Do you need a rubric to tell you they moved you? I don’t need to be a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan to appreciate the quality of the guitar solo in “Freebird.”

“Ah!” I can hear you react, “Am I supposed to just feel that I should give a B? That’s not objective!”

We measure what we value and our dominant (academic) culture values objectivity above all else. Our dominant culture believes that some fortunate individuals—whom we call experts—are able to leave Plato’s cave and find Truth, objective and real. Our dominant culture values the tangible and what it can see. This is ontological. But it hasn’t always been this way. When Humanism did away with God, we became suspicious of anything that wasn’t based in objectivity[2]Perhaps we might consider more post-Humanist futures, where objectivity isn’t absolute, but rather, a temporary and formless negotiation between actors in entangled networks of reality. For … Continue reading

We measure what we value, or at least we are forced to measure what the system values.

It’s not that there isn’t a will to change the system in K-12, it’s that not much change has happened after over 100 years of trying (since Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and so many more). Often, what starts off as a Quixotic quest turns into a Kafkaesque quagmire. This is why alternative transcripts and credentialing systems have had so much trouble making inroads into university admissions. This is why the SAT is making a comeback. This is why high-stakes exit exams remain the most important factor in university admissions in most countries. 

This is why sustainability is so often a process of operationalization in schools (buildings, power bills, and recycling boxes next to printers) or a bolt-on set of lessons that aren’t connected to what schools, governments, and universities really care about, math and hard sciences. We measure what we value and we don’t really value educating for sustainability, else we would change the way we educate (not just what we educate about). 

There is no functional reason we should value math and hard sciences over eco-literacies. There are only cultural (systemic) reasons, that is, our culture doesn’t value eco-literacies as much as math and hard sciences. There are a host of reasons why this may be so, including the race for military and economic dominance, but the end result is that math, hard sciences, and frequently language arts are the ticket to climbing the meritocratic ladder—or keeping our spot at the top. 

I don’t need to link to articles and videos telling you that we are close to climate collapse, to unimaginable biodiversity loss, to ecological breakdown. You know about all of this already. You can already place bets on the summer of 2024 being the hottest on record. After all, the past 12 months have been the hottest 12 consecutive months on record (at the time of this writing in April).

And yet, we continue to measure the same things in schools even though we know we know better. When we continue to value (and thus measure) the same things, it’s no surprise we are heading faster and faster toward a 2.5, 3, or 4°C average temperature increase. Changing values is not easy and requires us to write a new collective narrative. 

If K-12 schools are unable to change quickly enough because universities have narrow admissions requirements, then it’s maybe time universities take responsibility and initiate change in what they look for in candidates. Maybe it’s time universities require students to demonstrate a certain level of eco-literacies just like they need to demonstrate a certain level of numerical or written literacies.

Maybe it’s time universities appreciate that generative and general AI are making it that much more obvious that old measures are obsolete, absurd, and laughable, and that today demands that we approach sustainability not (just) through its operationalization, but as an approach [to/as/with] the world. 

Because it’s no longer about preparing students for the future. We all need to prepare for the present so that the possible futures that unfold mitigate against ecological breakdown.

We measure what we value, so there is no reason to fetishize the measures we currently use. Functionally, there is no reason we need to use the same metrics that got us in this mess.

Education for sustainability is learning to live sustainably, not completing a worksheet, a spreadsheet, or a balance sheet. It is about our relationships. What are our relationships with our neighbors (human and other-than-human), our food, the land on which we live? What might we do to ensure its healthfulness and live healthfully in these relationships of reciprocity? What relationships are we not cultivating and how might we explain this?

Education for sustainability is not a modular bolt-on unit that we do before getting back to the “important stuff.” It is not a sub-unit, a special lesson, or a popcorn event. Education for sustainability might not even have its place in the traditional high-stakes exam system. Education for sustainability is a way of being–or better, of becoming—that values life and is aware that we don’t need to throw everything away, but we do need to come together—now. 

Education for sustainability is sustainability as the living curriculum, not a sideshow. And the curriculum becomes alive when it has a purpose, to cultivate ethics of sustainability, approaches [to/as/with] the world that recognize our interconnections, to contribute to the thriving of life. We don’t have to get rid of math, hard sciences, or language arts (though we do need to bring back the artists). We need to re-purpose them for sustainability through participation and embodied experiential processes.

We measure what we value, so maybe if we start to embrace different values, if different things start to matter, we will measure different things. How much does our learning-doing contribute to the thriving of all life? That is the measure because life is what we value.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. for Intrepid Ed News.


1 That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t involve young people in the creation of programs outside of schools–this is a worthy conversation to have. I am trying to sidestep the rabbit hole of whether schools are still fit for purpose or whether we should put the word to rest—perhaps in favor of places of becoming or another emerging notion.
2 Perhaps we might consider more post-Humanist futures, where objectivity isn’t absolute, but rather, a temporary and formless negotiation between actors in entangled networks of reality. For post-Humanists, ideas are figurations of thinking with different levels of intensity that act as forces to [re]-create affect. These are the forces that move us and become embodiments with/in this specific space and time.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, an advisory that supports schools and learning organizations to co-create, co-develop, co-stress test, and co-implement ideas that nurture the conditions for emergent learning. Benjamin is also the Head of Upper School at Green School, Bali. He was previously the Whole School Leader of Learning and Teaching at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Thailand. He was the Academic Coordinator at Misk Schools, one of the most prestigious and high-profile school in the kingdom. In 2018-2019, he was also the Head of Upper Primary and Middle School at Misk. Prior to this, he was Vice-Principal of the Middle School and High School at the Harbour School in Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, an MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Affairs. Benjamin was born and grew up in Paris, France. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 and spent 11 years there in different cities before living in the U.K., Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and now Bali, Indonesia. He started his career in consulting for Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, working with people whose ambitions were no less than to change the world. This experience had a profound effect on Benjamin's outlook on education, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

One thought on “We measure what we value | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 10 Min Read

  1. Nice essay. I appreciated your calling out performative environmentalism, which seems to fit nicely with performative DEI, performative free speech, performative democracy, and even performative education. What we really value—our uber-value–is unfettered capitalism, which measures success by the size of an individual’s portfolio, and all portfolios are threatened by actual environmentalism, actual social justice, actual free speech, actual democracy, and actual education. Sad to say but the deck is strongly stacked against making fundamental changes in any areas in which the status quo supports big industries and huge profits. And so the fear and loathing at the center of the world continues on its doomed trajectory. Despite the urgency of your call to educate for sustainability. I hope I am wrong.

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