Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

New Zealand Curriculum Online navigation


Thinking about sustainable food preparation

Focus key competencies: Thinking (systems thinking), participating and contributing

Learning area context: Health and physical education (home economics)


An article by Canadian home economics expert Dr Mary Smith (2008) really got this teacher thinking about ways to redevelop some tried and true practical activities for her year 12 unit on sustainable food preparation. Dr Smith outlined a simple four step process for refocusing a current unit of work, or typical favourite practical activities, so that a sustainability dimension was built-in. One of her examples challenged typical consumerist approaches to selecting and using small kitchen appliances based on price and function only, and paying no regard to more systems-related issues pertaining to the whole life-cycle of the appliance. For the teacher this was something of an epiphany. She really liked the idea of taking good practical activities and refocusing them to add challenging dimensions that required students to think in systems terms about the sustainability of a range of common food preparation tasks and actions, and to explore the types of values that underpin “throw-away” use of appliances.

The teacher knew that this sort of thinking was likely to be unfamiliar to her students. She planned ways to build a lot of practice and scaffolding into the unit, so that students would be well prepared by the time they faced an NCEA assessment task at the end of the unit. She also knew that practical activities and familiar contexts would create the “hook” to get her students interested and committed to the challenges they were about to face. The unit centered around a series of practical activities around which the systems-thinking challenges were built:

  • First the students preserved some seasonal fruit by bottling it. This is a tried and true practical activity and a useful skill in its own right. The teacher introduced the sustainability focus and challenged the students to think about how sustainable bottling fruit really is. To help them get started she gave them a lively newspaper article called “Bottling Blonde: preserving like a woman possessed, Lynda [Hallinan] pays a price for the pleasure of stocking the pantry” (Sunday Star Times, 3 April, 2011). They discussed the story and created a graphic organizer of all the questions that would be relevant to deciding how sustainable preserving by this method really is.
  • Next the class tested out their questions and ideas on different methods for two preparation steps in making an apple-based dessert: peeling the fruit (using different methods and devices) and beating the butter and sugar together (using either a fork, a whisk, an egg-beater or a hand-held electric beater). Again, students practiced their systems-thinking by developing a range of questions about how sustainable each method really was. This time they were scaffolded to develop their written arguments by using a “hamburger paragraph” visual planner.
  • For their assessment task, students investigated all the ways an electric sandwich press could be used and then researched the sustainability of using this type of appliance. The wording of the actual assessment task that followed this research stage was as follows:
    • Using your research from task one, draw a conclusion around the social, economic, and environmental implications of buying this appliance.
    • Would you recommend buying this appliance? Include in your discussion the benefits and limitations of buying this appliance for: families; communities; protecting our food heritage; and global environment. [Students completed a table with benefits and limitations in each category, and indicated for each reason given whether it was social, economic, or environmental.] 

The teacher noted that almost all the students experienced success in their assessment, even though they initially found this type of systems thinking very challenging. One student, whose poor literacy skills were hampering his overall progress, became extremely interested in the whole topic and did particularly well in the assessment. At the time of developing this story, he continued to refer to his learning from this unit, even though it was a year since it was completed.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

Home economics is one of several subjects under the umbrella of the health and physical education learning area. This subject provides specific opportunities in the context of food and nutrition to look critically at the actions people take to enhance and sustain home and community environments (p. 23). In this example students were supported to practice and demonstrate systems thinking. Like values clarification, this type of thinking requires deliberate effort: getting better requires lots of practice and opportunities to reflect on the thinking being done.

The students also built their competencies to participate in and contribute to sustainable food preparation practices (in the context of year 12 home economics), with the aim of building attitudes and values for responsible citizenship in their future lives. The learning described in this story was assessed using NCEA Achievement Standard 91302 (or 2.4): Evaluate sustainable food related practices.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Researchers have pointed out that all higher order thinking (such as systems thinking) is effortful and challenging. Many students need specific sorts of encouragement before they are willing to try (Alexander et al., 2011). The sequence of learning experiences used to explore sustainable food-related practices met all of the researchers’ criteria for task design that maximises chances students will want to think in more complex ways. These criteria are that the learning should be:

  • Ÿdemanding (the thinking is not habitual and able to be done by reflex)
  • Ÿnovel in some way (already familiar types of tasks cue familiar types of thinking)
  • Ÿintriguing and enigmatic (not commonplace and ordinary)
  • Ÿunconventional and surprising in some way (not routine) (Alexander, et al., 2011).

The whole unit of work was also structured to help the students make multiple connections:

  • Ÿbetween a series of seemingly disparate kitchen preparation skills (all of which entailed choices about more or less sustainable ways of achieving the task at hand)
  • Ÿto future actions and choices as responsible citizens of Planet Earth
  • Ÿbetween otherwise seemingly disconnected parts of the whole life cycle of common kitchen appliances and equipment (that is, systems thinking).

Discussion starters: The sum and the parts

One of the much-quoted characteristics of systems thinking is that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. In what ways does this story illustrate this characteristic? Why did this teacher value systems thinking? How important do you think systems thinking is as one aspect of thinking competencies more generally?

The next year’s year 12 students did not want to explore sustainable use of appliances because they had already encountered the idea of sustainability in several other subjects, but the teacher did not think they had looked at this from a systems perspective. How important is it for teachers to plan together so that they can discuss the specific contribution made by the different subjects to complex issues such as living more sustainably?

Like several other stories in this collection, students were supported to participate and contribute in the immediate classroom context but the teacher also had their future participation as informed citizens in mind. What can teachers and schools do to ensure that the future-focused potential of such learning is more likely to be actually realised in students’ futures? Should this even be something they should think about? Why or why not?


Alexander, P., Dinsmore, D., Fox, E., Grossnickle, E., Loughlin, S., Maggioni, L., et al. (2011). Higher order thinking and knowledge: Domain-general and domain-specific trends and future directions. In G. Schraw & D. Robinson (Eds.), Assessment of Higher Order Thinking Skills(pp. 47–88). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Smith, M. (2008). Sustainable Development and Home Economics Education. M. O’Donoghue & S. Wahlen (Eds.), Global Sustainable Development: A Challenge for Consumer Citizen, Vol.1, ebook produced by the Consumer Issues and Family Resource Management Section of the International Federation of Home Economics.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014