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The College Brain: Why Sustainability Must Be Taught During this Critical Period

What is so special about college? Or more to the point: what is happening in the brains of 18 - 24 year olds that makes college such an important time of cognitive development?

With regard to educating business students about the relationship between commerce, society and the natural environment, this is of particular importance. Some argue that we can leave it to companies to provide the proper training on particulars and we should just stick with the fundamentals. But this ignores important insights from cognitive science.

Critical Periods: Learn It Now...or it Only Gets Harder

In cognitive science, "critical periods" are unique stages of one's life during which a particular skill or characteristic is believed to be most readily acquired. Although debated about how rigid the boundaries are around these periods of time, research has suggested that, for example, the brain most readily absorbs language when we are infants and toddlers.

Source: Hensch, 2005 (Nature Review)

Source: Hensch, 2005 (Nature Reviews Neuroscience) and image from here.

There are certain periods of time when certain learnings are of utmost importance. Miss language development in your childhood and it can be much more difficult later. Similarly, I believe college is a "critical period" for teaching business students sustainability. If we miss the opportunity, it will be more difficult later.

This is mainly due to the development of the worldview, a cornerstone of what allows us to make sense of how the world works and of our place in it, is deconstructed and reconstructed in college--and in the college brain.

College as a Critical Period for Sustainability Education

William Graves Perry, an educational psychologist at Harvard in the early 1900s, did some of the pioneering work in understanding cognitive development in college students. He found students passed through three stages which he called:

  • Multiplicity - The student enters college and have my views and am exposed to a multiplicity of other perspectives--but remain planted with my previous, more superior outlook

  • Relativism - College "enters" the student through constant exposure to different views in and outside the classroom and I struggle to become open to other outlooks and begin seeing them as equally valid as my own

  • Commitment - Student leaves the college having made a commitment to a certain worldview and mental models

You can observe this in students. I think of these stages as: clarity, confusion and commitment.

Traditional age students come with a clear, simple view of the world, assuming they will learn THE truth from professors and other adults. Then they experience the plurality of perspectives from different disciplines (and friends, staff, coaches, instructors, classmates) and learn that truth or reality is not a static thing, but something they co-create with others (and that faculty aren't the all-knowing sages). This can lead to confusion, an important moment when things aren't as black-and-white as one thought previously. This awareness then requires a personal commitment. In short, we choose our worldview upon leaving college. "I am going to work in finance" is not just a statement about an occupation but a worldview.

And worldviews are hard to change. Mark Twain famously said that "the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." A person with a view of how the world works and the "why" they want to achieve has convinced themselves of a story they won't easily forget.

Well Begun is Half Done

When is the best time for students to learn about the inextricable link between business, society and the environment? Surely it is between 18 and 25. You might say, "Or earlier!" and I would agree with that. But college is when the worldview is torn apart and reconstructed with a higher level mind. This is the critical period.

As the mind completes itself by the age 25, a worldview that includes social and environmental responsibility must be woven around the neural pathways and gray matter. The worldview is built a little at a time and each step is an opportunity. While the accounting equation is poured in, you mix it with environmental accounting principles. When the four Ps of marketing are framed out, you secure them with a commitment to respect, equity and human well-being. And when the discount cash flow models are built, you consider the future flows of cash but also of the flows of rivers, streams, and aquifers under our feet.

That is what is so special about college. The old saying attributed to Aristotle is that "well begun is half done." By educating all business students to take people and planet into all decisions, we are already halfway to a new world.

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