Sustainability: how can you implement this into your teaching practice?
Many of the current societal challenges such as climate change and growing social inequality are wicked issues. This means that there is not only a scientific discussion about these issues (What factual knowledge is there about that theme? What exactly is the problem?), but also a social discussion. In the latter case, questions arise such as: In which world do we want to live? In which systems do we want to function? Neither discussion is value-free. Prejudice plays an important role, often unconsciously, both in framing the problem and in choosing the most desirable solution.
Integrating sustainability issues into your course unit is therefore challenging. You have to teach students to deal with uncertain knowledge and opinions, familiarize them with the complexity of sustainability issues and introduce them to multiple change perspectives.
This education tip teaches you how to introduce sustainability as a theme in your course unit, how to write out sustainability competencies, how students acquire them with suitable teaching and learning activities and how to test them in a thorough way.
Why is sustainability relevant in your course unit(s)?
Climate change, globalization, increasing social inequality, loss of biodiversity, economic and health crises etc.: the current social problems are complex. Its cause is related to ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust structures, cultures and practices. Internationally, solutions are increasingly sought after by looking for a more sustainable interaction with the world.
Education in general and higher education in particular are assigned a role in this. “Sustainable development begins with education”, as stated by UNESCO. Ghent University is also committed to an ambitious sustainability vision and wants to integrate sustainability into its education, research, social services and business operations. Moreover, sustainability is one of Ghent University’s six University-wide Policy Choices (UBKs).
As a teacher you can play an important role here. You have the freedom to integrate sustainability issues into your lesson content, whether or not explicitly, to mention sustainability competencies in the final competencies of your course unit, to use specific working methods (e.g. group work, discourse analysis, future thinking) or working methods (i.e. interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work). Together with other teachers and/or the study programme committee, you can strive for a strong integration of sustainability in the study programme, for example through a learning track.
What does sustainability mean at Ghent University?
Sustainability has many interpretations. In essence, sustainability is about the relationship between ecological boundaries, social justice and (sustainable) economy. It is therefore a guiding concept with which you can test social choices against the (combination of) social and ecological consequences.
You have undoubtedly heard of one or more theoretical models that describe sustainability. We list the most well-known ones below.
- The Triple P model is based on the balance between three dimensions of sustainable development: people, planet and profit. In practice, however, the economic pillar in that model often prevails: in other words, the economy becomes a goal in itself. Therefore, we can call this a ‘weak’ interpretation of sustainability.
- The nested model defines a sustainable society as a society that uses the economic system (prosperity) for a just society (people) and which is limited by the ecological capacity of the earth (planet). Because of the position that the economy will have, we can call this a ‘strong’ interpretation of sustainability.
- The Donut model visualizes the planetary ceiling (planet) and the social basis (people) in the form of a donut (lifebuoy) in which humanity shapes a safe and just society in which they can thrive. That is the available space for economic development or ‘the safe and just space for humanity’. Just like the nested model, this model is in line with a ‘strong’ interpretation of sustainability.
- The 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) of the United Nations are global goals. The SDGs contain a lot of interesting substantive starting points for incorporating the theme of sustainability in your lessons. Please note: the SDGs also have a number of pitfalls. First, they are so broadly formulated that it is difficult to find a social objective that does not fall under them. Second, there is a risk that ‘sustainable change’ will be reduced to ticking off a colourful SDG box. Therefore, it is important to always consider the SDGs in their mutual relationship: after all, progress for one SDG should not be at the expense of another. Depending on how you use the SDGs, they are more in line with a ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ interpretation of sustainability.
Ghent University has resolutely opted for the strong interpretation of sustainability.
How do you implement sustainability into final competencies?
Do you want to strengthen students’ sustainability competencies and formulate them as final competencies of your course unit? Always keep in mind that these are refinements of study programme competencies. You will also find extensive examples in this illustrated Ghent University competency model.
By working on competencies that are important for sustainability, you will work on generic competencies that prepare students for a meaningful, engaged role in a complex society. It is therefore logical that we also find such competencies in the 21st-century skills (for example critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving skills, cooperation, communication, intercultural skills). Many skills and attitudes play an important role in other educational themes.
In recent years, a great deal of research has been conducted into precisely which competencies are important in the context of sustainability education in higher education. This has led to the description of a number of specific competencies, such as systems thinking or normative competency. You can read more about this in the section ‘How do you work on sustainability in your course unit(s)?’
Some Ghent University examples that concretize sustainability competencies:
- analyze environmental problems and sustainability issues and have an independent vision on subjects and issues of international and European environmental law. (final competency in the master’s programme in Law, course unit International and European Environmental Law (B001699))
- students use the term ‘sustainable development’ in a clear way and manage to translate it into the concrete practice of various stakeholders. (final competency in the bachelor’s programme in Bio-engineering, course unit Sustainable development in production and consumption systems (I002434))
- critically assess the various theories, concepts and approaches proposed within the humanities to attempt climate change. (final competency in the master’s programme, course unit Language and Literature, course unit Modern English Literature III (A005259))
- This is just a small selection of the many courses that integrate sustainability in one way or another, but there are more Ghent University practical examples.
How do you tackle sustainability in your course unit(s)?
Focus your (existing) learning content on sustainability
For many course units, substantive starting points with sustainability themes are not that difficult to find.
The easiest way to integrate sustainable knowledge into your study programme is to orient the existing learning content (more) toward sustainability or to add new sustainable content.
- Look at an example or case explicitly in from a sustainability perspective by highlighting the ecological and social consequences of a proposed solution.
- Example: a lecturer in Economics shows companies with a sustainable business model; students then have to work out a sustainable alternative in group for an existing non-sustainable business case.
- Pay attention to the complexity of a sustainability challenge by making your thinking process more explicit. Ask important questions out loud: which stakeholders are involved in a sustainability challenge, which elements play a role in it, which steps can you take towards possible solutions?
- Example: a teacher from the Medicine study programme offers insight into the various problems in the field of health and well-being and the increasing inequality in illness and death, depending on the target group to which a patient belongs.
- Give a number of classes about sustainability in a course unit.
- Example: a teacher from the Social Sciences study programme explains Kate Raworth's donut model in their course unit, thus framing sustainable development.
A more radical way of working on sustainability is to have a complex sustainability problem recurring as a common thread in your course unit(s). Explain the complexity of the problem; clarify connections with other themes, courses, disciplines; let the students do a reflection assignment.
Focus on a specific sustainability competency
If you want to work more specifically or more thoroughly on specific sustainability competencies such as the anticipatory or self-awareness competency, you will certainly find inspiration in the table below. For each competency you will receive a concise description and a list of suitable teaching methods. Intrigued by working methods you do not know? Go to ‘Want to know more’.
Examples of work forms
|System thinking: students acquire knowledge about sustainability challenges and their complexity, they learn to see connections.||
Mindmap:a graphic representation that helps to visualize relationships in a flexible way.
Expert panel: provide a large panel of experts (whether or not from experience) to whom the students can ask questions.
Relation circles: visual teaching method that teaches students to recognize, name and visualize the variables that cause change in a system.
And further: sorting, PESTLE, research on assumptions, mapping the online system
|Normative competency: students learn to look at the world with a critical eye and to question it, they develop the ability to question the prevailing norms and values within the system concerned.||
Role play: students explore other opinions by taking on a role
Stimulate critical thinking: small activities that show how easily we get stuck in our own perspective.
And further: starting a dialogue, world café, discussion group, group work/jigsaw, cases, simulations
Anticipatory competency: students can imagine the future and how that future could best evolve in the interest of sustainability. They learn to set up future scenarios for this.
Drawing up scenarios:: stories describing alternative ways for the future to develop.
Driver mapping: learn to identify the political, economic, social, technological, legislative and environmental (PESTLE) aspects.
And further: horizon scanning, 7 questions, Delphi technology, envisioning, scenario analysis, from future thinking to backcasting.
Strategic competency: students learn how to tackle sustainability challenges, they learn to collectively plan strategies towards sustainability.
Backcasting: process in which you analyze backwards, in particular from a desired vision of the future to the current situation.
Design thinking:a method to come up with solutions in an iterative and co-creative way.
And further: idea mapping, wicked problem plaza, solution focus circle, community service learning, action research
Interpersonal competency: students learn to empathize with the positions and arguments of others, they learn to cooperate and negotiate with those others.
Community service learning: students apply the theory during a concrete social engagement within or outside the university walls.
Fishbowl: opens up discussion and increases participation.
And further: empathy walk, simulations, public event, group work/jigsaw, storywall.
Self-awareness competency: students learn to relate to sustainability challenges, they learn to reflect on their own unique role in society, they learn to motivate and evaluate actions and deal with emotions and desires.
self-reflection: different methods of learning reflection (as used here in the context of Community Service Learning).
Additionally: photo workshop, I-report, hindsight.
Choose inter- or transdisciplinary education
Interdisciplinary collaboration is required to understand and tackle a complex sustainability problem or wicked problem. Sustainability education should introduce interdisciplinarity; conversely, sustainability challenges offer unique opportunities to work interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary work can be done with other disciplines or with stakeholders.
- Interdisciplinarity in education can be achieved through an interdisciplinary team of teachers, but also through interdisciplinary student teams (from different directions).
- Interdisciplinary student teams that work together with stakeholders on a sustainability issue have proven to be good educational practice for acquiring sustainability competencies. Such a collaboration of an interdisciplinary student team with non-academic actors around a shared problem is called transdisciplinary student research.
- Transdisciplinary student research can contribute to solutions for both the own institution and society’s sustainability issues.
- If students are carrying out an assignment for or gaining practical experience with an external stakeholder, it is best to include the external experience of that stakeholder in the assessment. Therefore, let the student make a final product that is immediately accessible to external parties: a summary, recommendations, a video, a lecture, etc. However, it is the lecturer who determines the exam mark, external parties can only provide information.
- Is an interdisciplinary approach not possible from an organizational point of view? Perhaps your other interdisciplinary perspectives can still be addressed in your lesson through guest speakers, company visits, literature or role plays.
- In the education tip on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education you will find concrete handles and preconditions for integrating these working methods into your teaching.
How do you assess sustainability in your course unit(s)?
Choose a suitable form of assessment
Sustainability competencies include knowledge and understanding as well as skills and attitudes. The final competencies always concretize what the course unit is aimed at. Use a suitable mix of assessment forms to properly cover the wide range of sustainability competencies (ranging from knowledge about sustainability models, skills such as the critical analysis of wicked problems to attitudes such as willingness to engage) in the assessment throughout the programme.
- To test knowledge and understanding of sustainability competencies, 'classic' exams are the obvious choice: a written exam with open questions, an oral exam or an exam with multiple choice questions.
- To test skills or assess attitudes, more suitable options are: observations, (reflection) papers, (group) assignments, projects, self-evaluations, peer assessment, portfolio or presentations.
- Assess interdisciplinary collaboration.
Use clear, observable assessment criteria to test the more complex aspects of sustainability competencies, especially attitudes. In these, you make clear, explicitly, what you mean by those sustainability competencies. Work with slightly broader assessment criteria, based on your learning goals, supplemented with levels or standards that indicate to what extent each criterion has been met. Rubrics conveniently represent the combination of assessment criteria and levels or standards.
Include attention for sustainability as a criterion in assessment forms for a master’s dissertation or work placement.
In the master’s dissertation and work placement, prospective graduates demonstrate that they can apply the acquired knowledge and skills in an integrated manner. That is why both assessment forms are an excellent starting point for making connections with wicked issues such as sustainability problems.
How do you build a Sustainability learning track?
- Your course unit(s) is (are) a link in the study programme that is designed and monitored by the study programme committee. The greater the coherence and the step-by-step structure within that programme, the better you can attune your course unit to other course units and the greater the learning gain for the students.
- As a teacher you can achieve a lot by integrating the theme of sustainability into your course unit. Working on sustainability in the study programme in a more structured way can be done via a Sustainability learning pathway. This way, students gradually acquire the sustainability competencies. Do not hesitate to speak to the chair of the Education Committee of your study programme about this.
- Read more about how sustainability can be included in a complete study programme in this education tip Sustainability: how do you make use of it in your study programme?
On this webpage you will find all possible examples bundled – in this education tip you will find a selection.
Want to know more?
- Leen Van Gijsel, education support Sustainability, societal impact & Community Service Learning, e firstname.lastname@example.org, t +32 9 331 00 55
- Discover the digital learning path Leren voor en over duurzaamheid (NL), developed by the five Flemish universities, together with Duurzaam Educatiepunt (the sustainable higher education programme of the Flemish government).
- Introduction: why education in sustainability
- Chapter 1: different theoretical frameworks, a historical perspective and detailed examples of complex sustainability challenges.
- Chapter 2: sustainability in educational practise
- Chapter 3: education for sustainability and the transition of higher education institutions
- Block, T. SDG’s in research and education at Ghent University: short note that clarifies how Ghent University wants to deal with the SDGs. With concrete and practical tips for teachers who want to use the SDGs in their education.
Read the sources on which this education tip is based:
- Sustainable development guideline as a compass in the format of learning outcomes, Flemish government, Environment department, March 2014
- Note committee of sustainable higher education, Flemish government, Environment department, June 2019
- Rieckmann, M. (2018) Learning to transform the world: key competencies in education for sustainable development
- Wiek, A., Withycombe, L. & Redman, C.L. (2011): Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6, 203–218
- Integratieproef 'Businessplanning': up-to-date en duurzaam
- Introducing Sustainability Through a Cross-Curricular Project
- Projectgebaseerd onderwijs: proces boven product
- Sustainability Put into Practice: a “Relay Course”
- Klimaatverandering: een literaire benadering
- Interdisciplinary Group Work: an Oxford-style Virtual Public Debate
- Living Lab on Sterre Campus: a Scene for Sustainable Co-creation
- Developing Visions for the Future: Visual-creative Group Work
- Discoursanalyse: een interdisciplinair keuzevak over duurzaamheid