What the Master Class is like …

dec2012coverphoto[Note: The Center for Sustainability Transformation used to be called ISIS Academy. We changed the name in 2014, when “ISIS” became associated with a very different approach to change.]

In February, ISIS Academy will be coming to the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University for our next Master Class in Change for Sustainability, and our first such course in the United States (click here or click the image to download the brochure). What is that? you may be wondering. What is a Master Class?

These days, the term “Master Class” has become a common way to describe a sort of high-level workshop, of any kind. But the origins of the term were (to my knowledge) in music and dance. Talented and experienced performers would study with people who had become well-known for their work. Such classes were short and intensive and designed to help the students — who were themselves already professionals, often with students of their own — lift their abilities to a new level.

When we launched the first ISIS Academy Master Class, in 2009, the phrase seemed natural. Master is exactly what these classes are designed to do: to help sustainability professionals, from newly minted to highly experienced, master a new set of tools and skills quickly, while also deepening their own sense of personal mastery over their own capacity and development path.

We who teach the class are under no illusions that we know everything. Sustainability has grown dramatically in recent years, in both breadth and depth. There is too much information and knowledge for anyone to master. That’s why having good tools, good habits of mind, and a good sense of one’s one edges — whether polished or rough — is so essential to success.

What we do have is experience. A lot of it. Our purpose in these classes is to use our experience to help participants make better use of their own experience and wisdom … and other people’s as well.

Of course, there are some technical things to learn. We go deep into both the theory and practice of ISIS, and show how virtually any sustainability process can be understood and improved by looking at the indicators, systems analysis, innovations, and strategies that are in play.We do this with a mix of presentation, discussion, case study, interactive exercises … even games. There are lots of ways to learn, and we try to use all of them!

We also make sure everyone there feels comfortable not just with our tools (Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba and the like) … but with the whole concept of what it means to use a tool. Any tool. How to choose the right tool for the job, regardless of whether its ours, or someone else’s.

We take frequent pauses to point not just what we are teaching, but also how we are teaching it. We want participants to be able to take home as much as possible, including the methods we use … so that they can use them too. And teach others with them.

And of course, we spend ample time making sure the participants are learning from each other. We take a good long look at the interpersonal, and inner/personal, side of sustainability work. A key skill we try to impart is the skill of coaching, that is, being able to help each other with good listening, great questions, and insights that build the other person’s strengths.

One of our participants once called the Master Class “the missing piece in my sustainability education.” We don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but we do aim to help people achieve that feeling of completeness:  that they are full masters of what means to tackle the joined-up challenges of designing and envisioning sustainable systems, and moving the people and organizations in that the direction of that vision.

Finally, while I have been writing mostly about what a Master Class is like from a participant’s perspective — because that’s what a Master Class is all about — I have to confess that for us who to teach these classes, they are pure joy. To spend some days with a group of people who care a great deal about improving this world we live in, who are working very hard to both advance themselves, and to advance the great issues that we group under this word “sustainability,” is such a privilege. Indeed, it’s inspirational, and we tend to leave these classes just as recharged and reinvigorated to do the work as are the so-called “participants.” Truly, we all learn from each other.

Actually, we have three Master Classes coming up in early 2013: India in January (with Axel Klimek and CEE India); in Arizona in February (see brochure); and in the UK in March. There will will likely be another one in Germany in June, as well. Interest has grown since that first Master Class gathered in Stockholm in 2009 — and that is a very good indicator indeed.

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