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Learning, Psychology, Sustainability

To add or subtract, that is the question

A common excuse in education for not using active learning strategies in a course is that there isn’t enough time because of the amount of content that needs to be covered. This never sits well with me. I fully admit that I can’t cover everything and l make tradeoffs if I want to include something new. This doesn’t seem to be the norm though. Most of the time people seem to want to add and never want to subtract.

In sustainability too, this seems to be a common thread. What can we add that will make something greener or more socially equitable. We never ask if we should just take something away. An example might be a busy road. To make it less busy we add lanes, to make it safer for pedestrians then we have to add lights and overpasses. But is adding the lanes in the first place the best solution? What if we took away a car lane to use as a bike path? It could make people feel safer and more willing to bike, getting them out of their cars and achieving the original goal of reducing traffic.

Adams et al (2021) examined whether people were more likely to choose additive solutions compared to subtractive ones or if they were less likely to come up with solutions that involve taking something away in the first place. Unless the participants were cued to consider subtractive solutions they were significantly more likely to search for potential solutions that involved adding something.

Obviously, as a new study, there is more investigation to be done but this work could have far reaching applications from sustainability to curriculum design. I’m also thinking about implications for personal health and wellbeing. One of the assignments that my intro to sustainability students can choose is what I have called the “Unthing”. To complete the assignment they give something up for 72 hours. They then reflect on a number of questions including what did they gain. Across many of the different unthings people have chosen I consistently hear about gaining time, money, connections with friends and family.

It seems as though we are conditioned to see taking something away as negative, as a loss. Does that make us more likely to search for additive solutions? What could you take away the next time you have a problem to solve?

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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