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Society & Culture

Overcoming Obstacles to Sustainability Education in China

Nov 26, 2014
  • Guo Dong

    Director of the Earth Institute China Initiative, Columbia University

Chinese education has traditionally placed heavy emphasis on rote learning and test-taking skills. While the merit of this approach is debatable for general education, such an approach is hardly appropriate for training middle-level managers on environmental sustainability.

Formal Chinese education is highly centered on indoctrination, and so the Chinese generally perform better when they are simply told what to do. This works considerably well if there is a clear set of end goals that are concrete; in the field of sustainability, however, the goals are more abstract, and sustainability improvement has yet to demonstrate a clear link to immediate, tangible outcomes. Capacity building, or training that seeks to determine personal values and priorities, is often proposed as an approach for educating on sustainability and accomplishing those more abstract targets. The deeply-instilled concept of formal Chinese education, however, is slow to embrace this idea.

Many international NGOs working on sustainability in China have run into this problem. China’s increasingly strenuous environmental problems and recent designation as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter have drawn the attention of many environmental organizations. The manufacturing industry has been specifically targeted because of its huge contribution to emissions, resource use, and waste in an effort to achieve more sustainable supply chains, starting at the factory level.

Many of these organizations have taken a capacity-building approach, focusing on recruiting groups of middle managers who, after training, could become leaders on sustainability initiatives within their respective factories. These so-called “champions” would be highly motivated individuals that can drive change, and middle managers are ideal candidates, as they are in ideal positions to translate organizational values of sustainability into day-to-day tasks, as well as communicate and reward performance.

In practice, however, this bottom-up approach turns out to be against Chinese social norms and culture. While NGOs focusing on sustainability tend to believe in the training of quality individuals or champions, Chinese culture doesn’t place great emphasis on individualism, but instead on collective opinions. As such, Chinese education models tend to prioritize training of technical skills and conceptual knowledge, rather than individual advancement.

This difference is apparent in the way that local partners (mostly Chinese universities) operate in contrast to their NGO counterparts. Given cultural dissimilarities and the apparent belief that China is on the lower rungs of technological know-how, local institutions tend to believe the focus should be on fostering general understanding of technical knowledge of sustainability—and to train as many personnel as possible. Along with brands and suppliers, many local trainers see this as a prerequisite for training individuals on any leadership skills. Unfortunately, this results in students gaining technical knowledge, but failing to acquire the drive, skills, and personal development that can be turned into practice for real change on the factory floor. This reluctance toward leadership training from trainers—and oftentimes trainees themselves—is most likely embedded in the strong and historical hierarchical culture in China, which inhibits flexibility and mobilization of middle managers in a company.

For NGOs, if the mission is to implement a bottom-up approach through effecting change on the factory floor by training middle managers, a key question emerges: How do we identify, and then best foster, the kind of leadership quality that is essential to change, but within a Chinese cultural context that typically downplays the importance of individualism?

Much of my recent research has been focused on addressing this question. Preliminary results of my team’s work has uncovered that individual participants receiving technical sustainability training have been rather passive in fostering factory floor changes. Based on informant interviews with some of our Chinese partners, 96% of the reason a firm enacts change is either government or client pressure. Lacking these, just 2% of changes are brought about by workers’ requests. Therefore, what is first needed (and what has not been satisfied so far in many of the present sustainability training contexts) is a consensus on training goals and values among NGOs, their local partners, and participants.

Instead of solely filling students up with skills, it is important to also clarify why they should learn. The motivation for people to act often comes from the value of strengthening one’s capacity to determine their own values and priorities. On such premises, students will actively seek tools (leadership skills, technical skills, communication skills, etc.) that might enable them to take action and spread the important information to colleagues and friends. In other words, the training should emphasize creating or addressing the needs, rather than purely selling the tools.

The contradiction between many NGOs’ perspective towards middle management and China’s hierarchical culture seems to stand in the way of reaching consensus between NGOs and local partners that have begun the much needed international effort towards promoting sustainability, It is important for NGOs that work in China to understand the mentality of their Chinese partners and participants, and work with them to refine methods that may guide students to understand their significant roles in management and their capability in triggering change. Capacity building, at its heart, is a path to learning to recognize the real importance and priority of one’s own development, and set off to grasp knowledge accordingly.

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