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Teaching and Learning about the Circular Economy: An Integrated Learning Approach

“Many students learn best when they are actively doing things and not only studying ideas in the abstract: when their curiosity is aroused, when they are asking questions, discovering new ideas, and feeling for themselves the excitement of these disciplines.” – Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica (2015)

As has been highlighted in the recent articles in this same series about the Circular Economy by Rozanne Henzen and Noah Schaul, respectively, circularity is here to stay, but education still has quite some catching up to do.

Specifically, from the learner’s point of view, reference was made to three different types of competences that require development:

  • Technical competences: Knowing and understanding the basic foundational concepts and frameworks relevant to the Circular Economy;
  • Valorization competences: Being able to apply these foundational concepts and to make judgements about potential courses of action;

  • Transversal competences: Sometimes also referred to as 21sr century skills, which cover 'softer' aspects such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, and so on.

In this article, I’d like to elaborate on how the circular economy can be approached in a learning environment by teachers and learners in what I call the “Integrated Learning Approach”, which addresses each of the aforementioned competences in one holistic design.

The Integrated Learning Approach builds on the principles of experiential learning, with Kolb’s Learning Cycle of experiential learning as well as his notions of learning styles and team learning as the main conceptual foundations (Kolb, 2015)

NB: In the blogpost  Mastering the Supply Chain. Why experiential learning is crucial I have addressed the main reasons why I believe that experiential learning is a very appropriate way for learning about Supply Chain Management. The book  Mastering the Circular Economy is from a later date, but I do believe that the points made in the blogpost are very much valid for the topic of circularity.

An Integrated Learning Approach for the Circular Economy

NB: A more extensive whitepaper about the concept of the Integrated Learning Approach and the foundations on which it’s built can be requested at  InChainge.

The Integrated Learning Approach has one important starting point: the generic goals which, if possible, I would like to achieve through any course on any topic I design.

They represent the benefits of a course from the perspective of the learner and as such, they provide the guidelines for defining the specific learning objectives for a specific course. With these generic goals as a starting point, the Integrated Learning Approach then also contains content building blocks, aspects of course design and, of course, the learners in question:


Figure 1: The Integrated Learning Approach: learners, generic goals, building blocks and course design

So, what would application look like for a basic course about the Circular Economy which, ideally, would provide the conditions for the learner to train their technical, valorization and transversal competences?

Step 1: An overarching storyline

To connect all of the individual (sub-)topics to be addressed in the course. Throughout my courses, I would make sure that this storyline appears on a number of occasions in every session: it glues the various elements of the course together and keeps everyone in sync of where in the course we are. But more importantly, the chosen storyline and catchphrase(s) transmit the central message, serving to create one coherent integral topical whole and have learners remember the ‘backbone’ much better.

For my courses about the Circular Economy, this is the story of the “Corporate Circular Imperative: narrative and numbers”, which expresses that successful implementation of circularity at the company level requires a narrative to get people involved and engaged, but also requires a lot of attention for the numbers. In the end, circularity and profitability are a possible, but not an automatic, combination: they need considerable thinking and finetuning.

Step 2: Connect the storyline to the topical content

Circularity is a multi-faceted topic and the course should be an expression of that. As you can see in the image below, I’m dealing with circularity from a diversity of perspectives, from the wider context business and environment, to core corporate topics such as purpose, strategy and business models, to the perspective of leadership and the perspective beyond the company boundary.


Figure 2: Circular Economy: the story of 'narrative and numbers' (the corporate circular initiative)

Step 3: Choose methodologies and design sequence and sessions

Typically, I would choose to ask participants to study the main basic theoretical frameworks before coming to the first session, on the basis of articles, a textbook and/or some instructional videos. This would at least get everyone up to a certain level of understanding of the topic of the course before kicking off the first session.

Then in the first sessions, I would ideally choose to work on teaching cases and/or workshop-type activities, to get the learners practically acquainted with the topic of circularity.

For example, activities on context and purpose, and a “deconstruction workshop”, in which teams analyze a specific product in terms of the applicability of different circular strategies, on the basis of predefined templates, thus providing the key insights into feasibility and viability of circular strategies in function of the characteristics of product and market. Such activities focus on training technical competences, providing the required basis for the valorization and transversal competences, which come afterward.

During the next steps, I would introduce the use of a business simulation. The major added value of such simulations is that they allow for a real deep-dive in the ‘numbers’ part of the story of narrative and numbers.

In addition, the gamification element of simulations provides a great vehicle for learner engagement. In order to prepare for the simulation, I would use another practical team exercise. Such an exercise would ideally meet a number of different objectives: practice one or more specific techniques relevant to the course topic, such as mapping a value chain and make an assessment of the initial situation of the problem at hand in the business simulation and potentially already define first ideas about what to change once the simulation starts and get to know the content of the simulation without having to study a detailed user manual.

After this, the simulation can start, in which in a number of iterations the same sequence is followed, in which the technical, valorization and transversal competences will be trained:

  • Play a round of the simulation, i.e. implement decisions, which implies e.g. applying conceptual frameworks, analyzing data, exchanging views with teammates (valorization, transversal);

  • Reflect on the round of gameplay, i.e. what happened and why? In other words, putting results into the perspective of decisions made, look from a distance at the decision-making process that took place during the gameplay, and so on (valorization, transversal);
  • Link to theory and conceptual frameworks, either theory that was dealt with already, or by bringing in new concepts, thus reinforcing or adding to the technical competences (technical);
  • Analyze the situation in the business simulation by taking into account the learnings from the reflections and the additional theory, in other words, learn from the previous iteration and improve on it (valorization, transversal).

Combining overarching storyline and session design would then give the following picture:


Figure 3: Sequence of activities and choice of methodologies with overarching storyline

After the last iteration with the simulation, it’s time to bring the journey to a good ending with final reflections and, preferably, a final team and individual exercise based on but beyond pure gameplay, for example about the implementation of the transformation from linear to circular. This would be the starting point for further individual learning by the learner once the course ends.

Capturing the Integrated Learning Approach: Mastering the Circular Economy

Our recently published book,  Mastering the Circular Economy, captures the entire Integrated Learning Approach, the story of the Corporate Circular Imperative: narrative and numbers, including 300+ references to literature, 90+ exercises and the corresponding templates.

I wish the reader a lot of success and, above all, a lot of fun on their own educational learning journey!


Kolb D (2015) Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and development, second edition, Pearson Education

Kolb, D and Peterson, K (2019) The Team Learning Report, EBLS and the Institute for Experiential Learning

Peterson, K and Kolb, D (2017) How you learn is how you live: using nine ways of living to transform your life, Berrett-Koehler

Robinson, K and Aronica, L (2015) Creative schools: revolutionizing education from the ground up, Penguin Random House

Weenk, E (2019) Mastering the Supply Chain. Principles, practice and real life applications, Kogan Page

Weenk, E and Henzen, R (2021) Mastering the Circular Economy. A practical approach to the circular business model transformation, Kogan Page

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