A couple weeks back I attended “math night” at my kids’ school- when the parents hear about the math curriculum they can expect their children to be following in the coming year. (Bear with me- I promise this is relevant to green building.) The major focus of the evening were changes that will be required by New York State’s adoption of what are called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics. The CCSS are a state-led effort to develop best practices guidelines for teaching mathematics across the country. When I first heard that we were about to review the findings of an enormous committee of state bureaucrats I kicked myself for not bringing a book to the meeting. I presumed that we’d be subjected to a nearly illegible mess of obvious and/or irrelevant platitudes- all delivered in bureaucratese, crammed onto Powerpoint slides in chunks of 3-400 words.
Imagine my surprise when the items presented to us were clear, instructive and, almost unbelievably, intellectually invigorating. What I found most astonishing as we walked through the standards was that they were so sound and so deeply fundamental that they could be applied to almost any discipline. In their own way, the standards are systems thinking at its most effective.
The common core standards are below, along with my thoughts on how they can be applied to the sustainability and green building fields:
1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
I like the implication here of making sense of a problem before searching for the solution. Often the way a problem is presented to us obscures the core issue. Taking a moment to ask if the question being asked is the right one can help us ensure that we are not slaves to habit and inertia- the forces most powerfully aligned against change.
2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively
For me the emphasis here is on the “and.” Any problem can benefit from being thought of from both the abstract and the objective perspectives. The field of green building is at something of a crossroads on this point. In the last few years we have focused overwhelmingly on data, especially with regard to energy conservation. This was a much needed shift. For years we have relied too much on anecdotal evidence of performance- gathering and using data to inform our strategies is a huge step forward. At the same time, we need to remember to step back from the spreadsheets from time to time and “see the forest.” The data is a tool, not an outcome in itself. Some abstract thinking needs to compliment our new-found focus on the quantitative.
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Despite our best intentions, there is a lot of group-think in our community. We have a tendency to relate anecdotal stories that aren’t backed by the data, and we are too slow to question the reasoning of our peers. We need to shake things up if we are going to keep the ball moving forward.
4. Model with mathematics.
In a general sense, you could take this to mean that we need to look at how solutions actually impact performance- rather than simply assuming the benefits of prescriptive measures. On a more specific level- many are unaware of the many modeling tools now available to help us with early design decisions.
5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
As I say above- there are new tools available- but we need to be circumspect about their use. Often we use tools like energy modeling as a means to avoid difficult questions or the hard work of critical thinking. Instead we should be using computer modeling as one of many tools in our arsenal. LEED, come to think of it, is just a tool. One that needs to be applied strategically, when it is most helpful, and left by the side when not.
6. Attend to precision.
Our community is in desperate need of precision. There are a lot of fuzzy anecdotes out there that need to be sharpened up with some actual data.
7. Look for and make use of structure.
Here the math folks are wanting the kids to fundamentally understand the “base ten” system- and that the system is a human construct. If we had 6 fingers on each hand we would use a “base twelve” system. The sustainability community, and design professionals in particular, need to be similarly aware of the context of each problem, its underlying structure. Ignoring the fixed variables surrounding any given project (budget, etc.) will only lead to grief.
8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
I would file this under “don’t reinvent the wheel.” Rather, develop a process that ensures understanding before action and then make sure you apply that process to each project, problem or challenge.
So, a rather long post on an obscure subject. I intend to use this remarkable little list as a touchstone- something to return to every so often to remind me of fundamentals I might be forgetting (and, just perhaps, as a pleasant reminder that I never have to take algebra again.)
Whoever was on the CCSS committee should be carried around on some shoulders in public. Find out more about the standards here.
Photo credit: Mike Hammerton