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Value The Unseen – Embracing the Intangible in Sustainability Education

In a world that often prioritises the tangible, quantifiable and the seen, it’s easy to forget the profound influence of the emotional aspects of our lives. Compass Education outlines that sustainability education encompasses a holistic approach that fosters ‘Sustainable Habits of Mind’. These habits encourage individuals to engage with the world in a way that supports longevity, equity, and ecological health. 

I witnessed an unexpected event in the school cafeteria during a school lunch break. A group of 3rd-grade students performed a flash mob to show their commitment to reducing plastic waste in the school. They had researched the effects of plastic degradation and, through their dancing, music, and song lyrics, inspired the school to eliminate laminating and remove all laminating machines from resource rooms. This was a great example of transdisciplinary learning. The performance positively impacted the adults who saw it, including me. I have not laminated any sheet of paper since then and have advocated against laminating in the subsequent schools I have worked in. The unseen emotion provoked an action I and others have sustained for over a decade.

flash mob pic

Value the Unseen is a call to action to acknowledge and appreciate the emotions that significantly shape our experiences. After all, the unseen, such as our beliefs, values, and mind models, drive our actions and ultimately shape our identity. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear states, “The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.” Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery, 2018.

‘Value the Unseen’ invites educators and learners alike to consider those parts of life that defy measurement but hold immense value. This includes the fleeting beauty of a sunset, the joy in laughter, and the peace in moments of silence. These experiences, though intangible, are the threads that weave the tapestry of our existence, adding depth and colour to our lives. 

In sustainability education, the focus is often on quantifiable evidence – data on climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution levels. While these facts are critical for understanding the scope of our challenges, ‘Value the Unseen’ reminds us that the impetus for change often comes from a deeper place. The emotional connection to the world around us fuels our passion for sustainability and drives action. As a course facilitator and certificate reviewer for Compass Education, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the wide variety of actioned examples of the course participants, from lesson/unit ideas that have led to students effectively reducing the use of garbage bin plastic bags by strategically removing the garbage bins in specific locations around the school to environmental action, such as beach and park clean-ups, all driven by the intrinsic motivation ignited in what we like to call the ‘Changemakers’.  

These unseen emotions can be a powerful motivator. They encompass the feelings and beliefs that propel us forward, the values that guide our actions, and the personal convictions that give us the strength to advocate for change. When we value the unseen, we acknowledge the full spectrum of influences that affect human behaviour and decision-making.

Integrating Intangibles into Education

Incorporating this habit into education means creating space for students to reflect on their feelings about the natural world, explore what sustainability means on a personal level, and recognise the impact of their actions on the physical environment and the emotional and spiritual well-being of themselves and others. 

Educators can encourage students to reflect on questions like: “How does a walk in the forest make you feel?” or “What emotions are evoked when you learn about environmental degradation?” This opens up a dialogue about the importance of nature’s intangibles and their relevance to our lives and decisions.

Recognising Unseen Influences

In our journey toward sustainability, it’s essential to acknowledge the cultural norms, societal values, and historical contexts that subtly shape our environmental interactions. These unseen forces inform a holistic view of sustainability and our individual contributions.

Beyond the measurable energy that powers our lives, there’s an intangible energy in our zeal for sustainable practices. Our language and mindset, influenced by concepts of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), can drive impactful behaviours for environmental stewardship. NLP research suggests that by reframing our narratives around sustainability, we can create more impactful and positive behaviour patterns. Additionally, epigenetics shows us that our behaviours not only affect our gene expression but can echo through generations, underscoring the need for sustainable habits that benefit us now and in the future. By understanding these concepts, we can harness the unseen energy of our thoughts and actions to foster a more sustainable world.

The habit of ‘Value the Unseen’ also implies cultivating positive emotions like joy and happiness as part of a sustainable life. By finding contentment in simple, non-materialistic experiences, we can reduce the relentless demand for natural resources and appreciate a life that is rich in experiences, not possessions. 

The Systems Iceberg illustrates how our unseen relationships and beliefs underpin a community’s commitment to sustainability. These form the basis of a shared vision for the future. ‘Value the Unseen’ encourages a holistic view, blending empirical evidence with emotional resonance. This approach fosters respect for the unseen forces that influence our world, grounding sustainability in humanity, not just in science or statistics. It’s more than data; it’s about the intangible qualities that enrich our lives. As educators and learners, recognising and respecting this balance is critical to nurturing a sustainable world for future generations.


Picture of Elaine Reimann

Elaine Reimann

Elaine Reimann is an experienced International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme educator with over two decades of global teaching expertise. She specializes in curriculum coordination, sustainability, and systems thinking. Elaine's multilingual skills and experience across four continents enhance her cross-cultural understanding. She holds a Harvard Certificate of School Management and Leadership (CSML), a Graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning, and a Master’s in TESOL. Elaine currently works for an international NGO in Thailand, focusing on educational initiatives and organizational effectiveness.

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