Dr Sean Weaver – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Dr Sean Weaver (Senior Lecturer, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington) – a Sustained Excellence winner 2008
Senior Lecturer, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington
Sean describes his students as “my favourite colleagues”. Sean’s dual career in education and environmental management over the past 20 years has enabled him to be the cornerstone of the Environment Studies undergraduate major. He brings to his classes “the commitment of an environmental activist and married with it the discipline of a very good scientist”. This means that his teaching is led by both research and practice in his discipline. Sean believes that 80% of good teaching is encouragement, for which he has many strategies. He also concludes that “action without reflection is ineffective, and reflection without action does not do anything”. To this end he draws on his diverse background, including work in Vanuatu and Fiji, the Education for Sustainability Contract funded by the Ministry of Education, and, policy consultancy to develop current case studies for his students. Sean’s leadership and many contributions have been recognised by students and the university through a number of teaching awards over the past five years.
Two sides: One Coin
I have a dual career: education and applied environmental management. These two complement each other in many ways, with one informing the other in an ongoing cycle that has lasted 20 years so far. Only recently have I become more conscious of the remarkable synergy between these two dimensions of my work, and why I have never settled with just one or the other. My practice enriches my teaching and my teaching enriches my practice.
My approach to teaching is underpinned by the words of one of my own teachers: “80% of teaching is encouragement.” I have used this notion as the motif of my professional work in a sphere commonly plagued by messages of “gloom and doom” about the state of the environment. Of course it is true that there are many environmental problems in the world, and some of them very serious. My teaching is designed to inspire people into action and in my experience action arises more effectively from positive emotional drivers.
Part of encouragement is to foster student confidence in their own abilities. One thing I know as an environmental management and policy practitioner, is that everyone is capable of doing great things – even with the capabilities they bring to the very beginning of a learning process. Everyone in society has skills and capabilities sufficient to make a positive difference for a more enduring and prosperous future (in the face of significant resource management challenges), if only we decide to do so. Education for sustainability is a process of building on that foundation and providing people with the opportunity to practise, sharpen their skills, learn from experience, and improve their effectiveness.
Another aspect of this environmental pedagogy is that people do not need to be converted to any particular way of thinking – that is the way of “environmental proselytism” which I do not practice or encourage. There is a wealth of existing values and knowledge to draw upon for the kind of sustainable future so many people talk about. The key is to apply those values and that knowledge to the task protecting the things we value, which include a wide range of essential ecosystem services provided to society by nature for free.
I do not attempt to merely fill up a collection of minds with facts and concepts. Instead I try to coach students to use information to design solutions to the problems that they already see.
This makes use of facts – plenty of them. This is why my work is science-based: it is important to understand how the physical system functions if we are to present convincing arguments as to how to align our collective and individual behaviors’ to the flows of the Earth System.
We live in a society where ancient lore is not enough. The people who make resource management decisions demand credible answers to their questions, and my job has been to train students how to answer those questions. What is defined as “credible” these days aligns closely with evidence and scientific explanations, and with the big issue, scientific consensus. So be it. And in the process we learn the wonderful and fascinating things that science can teach us, through the work of those who have sharpened their awareness by undertaking detailed observations of the dynamic process of what we call “nature.” The stories arising from these careful observations are compelling if only they could be understood more easily by those more interested in consuming science than producing it. This is my job: translation.
The rest of my job is to inspire. This is more likely when people get a sense that they are respected, capable, competent, and powerful. So, I spend a lot of time trying to help students see this in themselves.
Medium and Message
There are a lot of opportunities in teaching environmental studies to become a messenger of big problems. The evidence is compelling and in many cases does not make happy reading. The “bad news” storyline has characterised environmentalism over the last few decades, and as a result has cultivated a negative attitude. While it is important to bear witness to the global resource challenges we face (e.g. water security, food security, oil prices, biodiversity loss, climate change), if we want to turn problems into solutions we need to instil a sense of common purpose, empowerment and a “can-do” outlook. This, in my experience, is far more capable of motivating people into action than doom and gloom. Picking up any environmental science textbook can be a sobering experience, leading to course
content that wears people out. I feel a responsibility to engender a sense of hope in my courses, and this means concentrating on solutions more than problems. I have a friend and teacher who is a counsellor and he once shared with me his view that a healthy interpersonal relationship needs about 80% positive messages so that necessary negative messages have a strong container. If the negative message gets beyond 20% the relationship begins to erode. I apply this principle to the design of my course content and teaching delivery in terms of the ratio of positive and negative stories.
One way that I do this is to package the necessary facts of our condition in a fun way that does not take it all too seriously. I am a big fan of the way Ben Elton uses comedy to make challenging social and environmental issues palatable, and I see the wisdom in this communication strategy. It is important to keep learning ears open, and they will close up if the medium and the message are too dour.
Another way that I build happy associations is through a laughing workshop with my 300 level class (Global Environmental Issues) early in the course. I invite students to lie on the floor in the lecture theatre and then I take them through a laughing exercise that produces about 10 minutes of unmitigated raucous mirth.
I only teach one thing really: the world is interconnected. I find many different ways to express this because the interconnected world presents a constant supply of examples, from the hydrological cycle through to economic externalities, environmental problems, and solutions. I explore with students some of the implications arising from a loyalty to an interconnected theory of reality: how could there be a boundary between Nature and Culture? How could there be a value system that cares for Nature more than it cares for people?
This theme of interconnections is something I explore in a spiralling hermeneutical that slides down a rabbit hole from ecosystem dynamics to the political implications of no-boundary between self and other. I teach applied interconnectedness, and so I consistently invite students to find ways to discover and expand their passion and then press this into a professional form capable of taking into the workforce.
The way I do this is best illustrated in my 300 level Global Environmental Issues course which is divided into two parallel curricula each worth half of the final grade. One focuses on a holistic outlook presented in lecture content to cover the breadth and depth of the field of interconnections as a discipline underlying an inquiry into global environmental issues. The other is a training programme in literature-based research and analysis, designed to coach students to drill precisely and deeply into an issue. The focus of the former is broad, whilst the focus of the latter is narrow. Both the broad outlook and the sharp focus are reconciled as core components of the skill-set of an effective environmental professional, capable of seeing the forest and the trees.
My plans for the future are to spend some time in the ‘practitioner space’ as a climate change policy and carbon markets consultant, also offering educational services to the business, policy and management sector (and some contract teaching at the tertiary level). I have projects in Vanuatu and New Zealand and do international climate-policy work at the UN and World Bank. I will never stop being a teacher because teaching is in my blood, but my focus at this stage in the educator/practitioner cycle is to direct my educational capabilities into working more closely with decision makers and leaders.
Peer and Student Comments
Sean Weaver is a uniquely gifted individual who exhausts himself every year because of the energy, passion and excellence he brings to his teaching. He is the cornerstone of the Environmental Studies undergraduate major, and its growing success at Victoria University is in no small measure due to his inspiring contributions. I am constantly encountering students who voluntarily offer unstinting praise for the course content and the way the material is taught. If there is one quality which I think distinguishes Sean’s teaching and marks him out as worthy of a national award, it is the passion and conviction he brings to the subject.
Richard Willis, Acting Head of School, School of Geography Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington
The most important gift Sean offers is to inspire students – to learn, to do research, and to get active. He adds skill and capability building to inspiration, to create an awesome and persuasive mix. But he also encourages many to go on to graduate study, so that they can hone their skills and make an even more
powerful contribution in their careers. In doing these things, Sean has had a very clear and major impact not only on individuals but on a whole generation. I am not surprised that Sean is consistently praised by his students and sought after to supervise postgraduate thesis work.
Ralph Chapman (Associate Professor), Director, Graduate Programme in Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington
Sean has a real ability to convey the key messages of complex issues in ways that are interesting, understandable to ‘lay persons’ and have a relevance to those persons’ everyday lives. In short, he engages his audience. It is clear to me that he does this in the classroom as well. This is because I
have seen how his candidate Masters and PhD students look up to him and pursue their work. They are engaged in the subjects of their study with such a passion that it is clear to me they have taken on some of Sean’s passion for the environment and environmental education. To me this is the mark of a great
Murray Ward, Principal, GtripleC, an international consultancy, formerly, Manager Climate Change, New Zealand, Ministry for the Environment.
I can confidently say that I learned more from Sean’s Environmental Studies paper than any other course I have taken. While the focus of the course is ostensibly to study the many environmental problems faced by the inhabitants of this planet, Sean’s teaching extends significantly beyond this, illustrating the vital links between social issues, informational problems and importantly, the common gap between environmental science and policy. This latter concern provides the core focus of the major assignment of the course; that being a comprehensive policystyle report which incorporates an environmental issue, related policy and recommendations. This report and Sean’s assistance with it, has more than anything else in my degree, helped me develop the necessary skills required for post-graduate study or work in the area of research or policy.
Pat Horsley, 3rd Year Student