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In a much celebrated article entitled, Twelve Places to Intervene in a System, Donella Meadows wrote that the power to transcend mindsets or paradigms is the most upstream place to intervene in a system to make positive systemic change. The mindset or paradigm itself is the second most upstream place. Fostering metacognition and the development of higher order thinking skills is the responsibility of all educators. Though what defines the field of Education for Sustainability (EfS) as we currently understand it is a whole system of dynamic and interconnected elements including Big Ideas, Applied Knowledge & Actions, Higher Order Thinking Skills, Dispositions, and Authentic Place Based Community Connections. In honor of the power of Dr. Meadows’ insights, and their relevance to us as educators, this article will focus on the Higher Order Thinking Skills section of the EfS Benchmarks.

As we wrote and edited the EfS Benchmarks, our scholars and authors continually expressed their discontent with the fact that the individual thinking skill sets in the list below, cannot, on their own, be considered uniquely EfS. They each have an independent body of literature that defines and provides in-depth descriptions for each of them. For example, one can be a creative thinker, and not contribute to sustainability. One can be reflective and not contribute to sustainability, and one can use design thinking and certainly notcontribute to a sustainable future, and so on. On the other hand, we can also argue that to move toward a sustainable future, we need, at the very least, to be creative and reflective design thinkers and more. As discreet thinking skill sets and dispositions they do not define the field of EfS or distinguish it from other educational frameworks. They are, however, interdependent on each other and on the Enduring Understandings/Big Ideas, Applied Knowledge & Actions, Dispositions, and Authentic Place Based Community Connections, and are necessary to achieving our goals. That is why they are listed as a collection of essential thinking skills in the EfS benchmarks.

One of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes is, “the significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same thinking we used to create them.” The following thinking skill sets frame the “the whole of the different way of thinking” that characterizes EfS. They were independently articulated again and again and thought to be essential by authors and scholars in the field. They reflect a kind of collective consciousness. Our capability to think in all these ways is vital to our ability to thrive over time. These thinking skills can be taught discreetly and will be useful to learners who want to contribute to a sustainable future when they are operating in context and in consort with one another and integrated with EfS Big Ideas, Applied Knowledge Domains, Actions, and Dispositions. These definitions have been specifically written, selected, and adapted to reflect and illuminate the whole system of thinking that defines education for a sustainable future.


Futures Thinking is based on the premise that “the best way to predict the future is to design it” (Buckminster Fuller’s adaptation of Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”). We can consider that futures are aspirational, and that we are in a position to create futures instead of accepting futures. It involves discussing how people in the past affected our options today, and how we now affect the options of people in the future. This requires us to recognize different theories of how futures emerge. It prompts us to observe emerging trends and their potential future trajectories, and to consider the range of possible future scenarios (Utopian, dystopian, possible, probable, and desirable) so that we can design for the future we want. This includes the potential future consequences of inaction in the present, often referred to as the “no action” scenario.

We are compelled to envision desired futures and contrast them with our current reality (i.e., the present status quo, as a means to produce structural and creative tension that compels us to build strategies to get from here to there, often referred to as “backcasting” or “backwards design”). Appreciating all the while the process by which the solutions of the past have become the problems of today, and anticipating how the solutions of today might become the problems of tomorrow. All of this requires imagining, the use of geospatial tools to visualize current and preferred futures, modelling the potential unintended consequences, both positive and negative, of our human activity, and successively approximating and managing our activity to progress toward a sustainable future. (Warren et al, 2015; Newman & Jennings, 2008; Our Common Future, 1986; Kuhlman, 2001; D. Robinson et al, 2011; J. Robinson et al, 2011; Norton, 2005; Bergstrom, 2016; R. Fritz, 2017)


Metacognition is “cognition about cognition”, “thinking about thinking”, or “knowing about knowing.” It comes from the root word ‘meta’, meaning beyond. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem finding and problem solving. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner. Since thinking drives behavior and behavior causes results, the recognition that our cognitive frameworks (mental maps/mental models) are guiding constructs that change over time with new knowledge and applied insights has proven to be essential to educating for the future we want. Our ability to re-appraise/reframe our thinking to increase our understanding of, and ability to perceive, the results of our actions on our ability to thrive over time is paramount in an ever changing, diverse, and complex world. (Adapted from The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, Wikipedia, NeuroLeadership Institute)

Questioning is characterized by intellectual curiosity, and is a major form of human thought and interpersonal communication. It involves employing a series of questions to explore an issue, an idea, or something intriguing. Questioning is the process of forming and wielding that serves to develop answers and insight, to solicit better questions, and to create knowledge and understanding when necessary. As happens in much of the core content of EfS, we have a lot of questions. In fact, our questions lead to other, better questions before they lead to answers, and the answers often lead to new and better questions. (Such is the fate of the life-long learner.) The questions are rich, essential, and in some cases, relatively new to our public discourse. We define better questions as those that trigger higher order, complex, and lateral thinking, and that inspire us all to think about the world, our relationship to it, and our ability to influence it in an entirely new way. (Adapted from Webster’s Dictionary, Wikipedia, and The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education)

Reflective Thinking is the ability to take time to contemplate on our experience and knowledge, and on how things are going. It helps us keep track of our progress, and, if needed, make adjustments and improvements. It involves the processes of analyzing and making judgements about what has happened. Dewey (1933) suggests that, “reflective thinking is an active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge, of the grounds that support that knowledge, and the further conclusions to which that knowledge leads.” As Plato once said, “The life without examination is no life.” (Adapted from the University of Hawaii, Solent, Responsive Classroom, and NEA)

Transference is the effective extent to which past experiences and prior knowledge affect learning and performance in a new situation. It is the ability to demonstrate understanding independently and in a novel context (i.e., to extend what has been learned in one context to other contexts). It is the ability to use knowledge in many different rapidly changing situations. It is the intelligent use and adaptation of what we “know.”

Transference allows us to utilize what we have learned in new situations and to learn related information more quickly. It requires learning for understanding and learning that is applied in authentic contexts. Learning that contributes to our ability to thrive over time must be continually applied, improved on, and transferred to different contexts over time. (Adapted from Byrnes, 1996 and Grant Wiggins)


Lateral Thinking is concerned with the generation of new ideas – breaking out of the concept presence of old ideas. This leads to changes in attitude and approach; to looking in a different way at things which have always been looked at in the same way. Liberation from old ideas and the stimulation of new ones are twin aspects of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is generative. (Edward De Bono)

Creative Thinking is a way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first). Creative thinking can be stimulated by an unstructured process, such as brainstorming, and by a structured process, such as lateral thinking. (Adapted from Business Dictionary, Creativity at Work)

Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions for clients. Design Thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning to explore possibilities of what could be — and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user. Ecologically Inspired Design includes the study of ecological worldviews, systems dynamics, and applied complexity theory alongside the philosophies and practices of permaculture and biomimetic design. Regenerative Design introduces into Ecological Design at least two additional streams—the Science or Art of Place, and the Science of Living Systems. (Adapted from Schumacher College, Regenesis Group)


Critical Thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It pre-supposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It involves disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. (Adapted from the Foundation for Critical Thinking)

[Living] Systems Thinking is a holistic approach to understanding the dynamics of living systems. Living systems are the context for life, decision making, defining and solving complex problems, and for fostering more effective learning and design. Living systems thinkers look at the pattern of the whole and think about shifting the underlying pattern to develop the system to another level. Instead of working at the level of what exists right now, systems thinkers work at the level of potential. We are encouraged to think in terms of interrelationships, patterns, dynamics, and connectedness, and to understand how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. The systems thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements. (Adapted from The Center for Ecoliteracy, Linda Booth Sweeney, and Joel Glanzberg)

In addition to these thinking skills sets, the process of self-regulated learning, though also not a distinguishing characteristic of EfS, is critical to our endeavor because it effectively enables life-long learning, and involves the self-awareness, self-motivation, and behavioral skill to implement knowledge appropriately. Life-long learners must believe they can learn, whatever the task before them, and they need to be motivated. They need to learn how to learn, and to manage their learning at every stage. This involves self-evaluation and “causal attribution,” which refers to beliefs about their contribution to the outcome. They need to recognize when they have failed, but then focus on how they can fix what went wrong. Continually analyzing tasks, setting goals, developing plans, selecting strategies to attain those goals, personally adapting and deploying specific learning strategies or methods, and then observing how well those strategies and methods are working by monitoring progress, self-evaluating the methods selected, restructuring if the goals are not being met, and then adapting future methods based on what was learned…and being prepared to do it all over and over again indefinitely, is what is required of learners for the future we want.

About the Author

Jaimie P. Cloud is the founder and president of The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education in New York City. The Cloud Institute is dedicated to the vital role of education in creating awareness, fostering commitment, and guiding actions toward a healthy, secure, and sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations. This story was originally posted with the Green Schools National Network and republished with permission. See the full original story with citations and references online.