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ThreeC: Creating Competencies for a Circular Economy

A maturing circular economy will face three big challenges, as Walter Stahel frames it. The challenge of ‘Re-‘ that is the challenge to perfect re-using, re-manufacturing, re-designing and all the other ‘re-‘ actions that need to occur to keep resources at their highest value for the longest possible time. Secondly follows the challenge of ‘De’, when products can no longer be re-cycled in a value-adding way: ‘de-constructing’, ‘disassembling’, ‘de-taching’. The third challenge comes with a capital K – Knowledge. Education about the circular economy framework and the crucial knowledge for it, such as technical and economic understanding, as well as ‘materials-literacy’, needs to permeate every level of society, not just c-suites and experts. Every high-school and university graduate should be equipped with such knowledge so that every single one of them can help their company to ‘become circular’.

But how can we best incorporate these competencies into mainstream education? Educators have trouble deciding which kind of didactical strategies are effective in preparing young people for their active role in a circular economy, let alone how this learning could be assessed.

In search of answers to these questions, an inquiry into circular economy competencies and didactics begun. In 2014, a group of secondary and vocational schools, educational organisations and teacher training institutes, started a European project linking Circular Economy and education, called ThreeC: Creating Competencies for a Circular Economy. Following that inquiry, 15 schools in 5 European countries ran pilot projects with their student community, led by a range of intriguing questions.

Inquiry-based learning

Did you ever think about circular chewing gum for example? Students in a secondary school in Tilburg (the Netherlands) did. They were challenged by their teacher to analyse the production of chewing gum and its waste management. Local policy makers got involved as contractors. Eventually, students came up with alternative production processes and smart tools for waste collection and recycling of chewing gum.

At another school in the Netherlands, students studied the economic transition of their region that used to rely on sugar production. Due to dwindling production subsidies, the market for sugar beets waned. In parallel however, demand for bio-based materials rose. Having studied this regional transition, students thought up relevant and circular applications for bio-based materials, guided by an expert on that subject.

In Portugal, students of a secondary school investigated the challenges of the cork-producing region. With the increasing production of synthetic materials, demand for cork is falling. Yet, cork’s material characteristics make it a promising material for a circular economy. Students thus redesigned consumer goods based on circular economy principles, using cork as their primary material.

In these examples, students worked on case-based projects, with foci closely related to their life or their environment, in most cases together with a contractor or an expert. They analysed the specific matter and thought about alternatives, from the perspective of a circular economy. In this inquiry-based learning process, they developed specific competencies instrumental to working in a circular economy context.

Circular economy competencies

Some authors, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Kops and Bukman and Het Groene Brein, have already written about such competencies. Following some desk research and interviews with experts, the team behind ThreeC identified systems thinking and design thinking as central to circular economy competencies. Approaching challenges from multiple perspectives is also essential, as complex transitional processes rarely have one single solution. Consequently, learners need to be aware of the fact that there are always other viewpoints, opinions or perspectives, depending on different values and worldviews.

Figure 1

The partners of the ThreeC consortium collated these insights into a competence matrix for Circular Economy Redesigning [link]. The matrix distinguished between different levels of depths of understanding and sophistication of thought, evolving around different ways of learning: knowing, doing and feeling. Systems thinking plays into the knowing and doing dimension; Design thinking informs the doing dimension; and multi-perspective thinking instructs the feeling dimension (figure 1).


Transformative learning

Withal, quality education for a circular economy does not only depend on ‘what’ you learn, but ‘how’ you learn it. Therefore, the ThreeC initiative also looked into the didactics and pedagogy underpinning the successful development of these competencies. It highlights interesting concepts like social transformative learning and ‘Head, Hands and Heart’, as explored by Sipos, Battisti and Grimm in 2008. This strategy is simple: integrate learning processes rooted in learners’ head, hands and heart. The goal of this integration is to affect change, the ultimate goal of transformative learning.

Transformative social learning includes space for alternative paths of development, new ways of thinking, pluralism, consensus and respectful disagreement, autonomous thinking, self-determination and contextual differences. It can be conceptualised as ‘a learning system in which people learn from each other and collectively become more capable of dealing with setbacks, stress, insecurity, complexity and risks’.

Crucial to any learning process, but engagement with the circular economy in particular, is the first step. It needs to connect students to the subject. Of course, that can be done in many different ways. Based on the competence matrix and learning principles, a didactical approach was developed for ThreeC, visualising the learning process in eight more steps (figure 2). These nine steps are simply a roadmap to ensure that learners experience all  relevant aspects of the learning process related to the competence matrix Circular Economy Redesigning (figure 3).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Figure 3
Figure 3

outcomes and challenges

Although not all projects have been evaluated yet, it becomes clear that ‘circular economy education’ is meaningful, but not easy.

To encourage the development of a the learning environment that is as authentic as possible and that motivates learners to come up with solutions to real problems, ThreeC projects involved collaboration with an external contractor: a local government, a non-governmental organisation or a company. Schools found it difficult, however, to find organisations or companies willing to collaborate. Even if this first barrier was crossed successfully, collaborating parties often had very different expectations that needed to be managed. Finally, maintaining the relationship with the collaborator beyond the initial project requires resources, too. Scarcity of time and monetary resources were often barriers to collaboration on both the school’s as well as the company’s side.

A second difficulty was the aspect of systems thinking. Teachers struggled to create assignments for students that applied systems thinking to the focus of their project. For most teachers, systems thinking was completely new. Perhaps it should be part of teacher training programmes, if society expects schools to prepare young people to think about complex issues in an integrated way.

At the same time, it will be challenging to train students in systems thinking in a varied way. In a few projects, where systems thinking was introduced well, students didn’t like the learning activities related to systems thinking very much. ThreeC provides an overview of learning activities and teaching strategies as a starting point to developing systems thinking, but this is a field of education that deserves further attention.

Overall, students were positive about the ThreeC projects. They liked the strong emphasis on the design-process as a positive way to create alternatives to existing linear production processes. They also appreciated the collaboration with contractors. In addition, the projects sharpened students’ awareness of existing, unsustainable production processes and consumption patterns.

The ThreeC project will come to a close by the end of 2016. Before that time, you’ll have possibilities to join us. On June 6 for example, a conference on Circular Economy and Education will be organised in Porto (Portugal). More information can be found on this website. Email Martin de Wolf ( if you’re interested in participating in this conference. Alternatively, you can join a course on Circular Economy and Education, taking place on November 6-11 in Tilburg, organised by Fontys University of Applied Sciences. More information can be found here. If you’re curious about the ThreeC didactical approach, check out the online course or visit the website

This article is part of series that explores questions around education ‘about’, ‘for’ and ‘in’ a circular economy. Maybe you have something to say about the question of education in a circular economy as well? Do join the discussion, share the article and get in touch to contribute yourself!

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The Author

Martin de Wolf

Martin de Wolf

Martin de Wolf is teacher trainer at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and member of the ThreeC consortium, an EU project focussing on understanding how to develop and assess competences for the circular economy.