Classes in designing a new society (Day 8 of Learning road trip)

The next day I led a workshop for the School for Designing a Society on “How do we know we have population-environment problems? A journey from simple models to multiple points of engagement to contribute to change.”

People consume resources and pollute the environment, so the more people, the more environmental problems we have–right? Not so fast! In this interactive workshop you will disturb that simple model. By the end you will be mapping multiple points of engagement through which you contribute to change in your particular circumstances. Along the way, you will consider how people marshal scientific knowledge to persuade others of the seriousness of the population problem, how inequalities among people qualitatively alter how “we” respond to the title question, how you can bring in social considerations to explain or interpret the directions that are taken in science, and how you can work with a perspective of being partly and jointly responsible for what is happening in society and the environment.

Although we had yet not participated in an SDaS class, the idea was to learn from SDaS’ers response to the workshop.  The handout, included at the bottom of the post, had two sections.   The discussion was so active during the first section that we didn’t get to section II.  It was in that section that I hoped to extend a class I have taught many times so as to connect with the SDaS spirit of design what you desire.

That evening we joined in a session, led by Susan Parenti, in which the topic was the “incubation of a new performance ensemble.  (They had an ensemble in the 90s, but it dissolved with the death of some SDaS founders.  In response to the theme of articulating desirable consequences, someone stated that this would take the form of “Our theater enabled this radical change to happen.”  My notes include the following points: Show the context of confusion (about what next to do); Pivots from one mode to another; What is the “going backwards” (a theater technique) for the capitalist system?  (A schema that seems to be related to this project appeared later on the SDaS blog.)

The next day included a class called The Gaze.  That day, people listened to an OpEd from the Nation about the execution of Troy Davis, wrote for 10 minutes then shared their writing.  The participants had been active in drawing attention to shortcomings in the judicial process and had clear, powerful thoughts to convey.


“How do we know we have population-environment problems?”

Questions for the audience posed during part I of the session or left for homework:

0.  What’s your initial answer to the question?

1.  On the basis of this science [population data & projections]:

What is to be done?

What more would you like to know than this science shows?

2.  On the basis of these projections and given your position in society [on island B]:

What things might you do?

What more would you like to know than the science—the projections—show?

3a.  What kinds of places could different people do something now in light of this history [of soil erosion in Oaxaca]?

3b.  Pick one of these places/people and on the basis of this history and analysis:

What things might people in this place do?

What more would they like to know about the situation?

4.  In what ways, if any, would your answer to 0. change in light of the above sequence of science and its interpretation?

Critical thinking themes about environment, science, and society developed during the session:

A.     The analysis of causes and the implications of the analysis change qualitatively if uniform units are replaced by unequal units that are subject to further differentiation as a result of their linked economic, social and political dynamics.

B.  Preferences for certain social arrangements and actions are built into the ways nature and society are represented.


Further material on critical thinking about environment, science, and society:

Science in a Changing World graduate track,

Peter Taylor, Graduate Program in Critical & Creative Thinking, UMass Boston,;

II. Multiple points of engagement in intersecting processes

1.  Sense of place map

Identify an issue where you are (or want to be) engaged in changing society or the environment.  In relation to this issue, create a picture of whatever form occurs to you that addresses the three questions:

* Where am I?

* Where have I come from?

* Where am I going?

2.  KAQF chart:  What arises from this map that I want to learn more about?


Assumption: In a school, we can emphasize inquiry and learning even we are strongly committed to taking action to make changes.  The KAQF chart helps you organize your thinking and inquiries keeping an eye on Actions, i.e., what you might do or propose or plan on the basis of the results.

What do I Know? (or claim to know)

* (Q: How do I Know that? — What is the evidence, assumptions, and reasoning?)

What Actions could people pursue on the basis of accepting this knowledge?

* (Q: Which people or group?)

Questions for Inquiry: What more do I Need to know—in order to clarify what people could do (A) or to revise/refine/support the knowledge claim (K)

How to Find this out? (Methods, Steps..)

* (Q: What alternatives methods are possible for inquiring into this Question? Will my method of research best enable me to Find this out?)

Start with a Knowledge claim OR with a proposed Action OR with a Question for inquiry you wish to consider.

Then fill in the rest of the KAQF that connects with that starting point. E.g., if you entered a proposed Action, then write down what Knowledge claim(s) this Action is based on.

Then move forward to identify Questions for Inquiry that follow and how you might Find out the answer to the Question.

When you have completed all four items—the K, the A, the Q, and the F—as well as you can for one starting point, draw a line underneath this and start another KAQF set.

Do not mix KAQFs from different starting points into one omnibus sequence; that does not help you keep clear how a specific K matches a specific A matches a Q matches an F.

3.  Historical scan: Fill in the context in which we will be operating in taking action to make change.

The first step is to think about this context having a past and a possible future and operating on three levels: “local,” “regional,” and “global.”  The “global” is the largest view relevant to the project, which may be the world, but may also be the profession. The “local” is the personal perspective gained in the immediate unit [family, workplace, …]. The regional is the specific arena in which the project operates, e.g., the management of water resources [in an environmental context] or the state educational system [in the context of improving school outcomes].)  Identify these levels.

Further material on processes of research and engagement:


(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 9)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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