Sunday, 6 October 2013

EDUCATION pathway to a Sustainable University (Part 1): curriculum content and delivery

As shown in the previous post, the contemporary literature indicated six pathways to a sustainable university, namely Education, Research, Outreach, Operations, Culture and Institution.


Today, let’s consider the first pathway, i.e. Education. Education Pathway has two posts and this post is Part 1. Part 2, the next post, will explore the opportunities available in universities for integrating sustainability across their curricula, considering both content and pedagogy.


In the context of a sustainable university, education aims to produce sustainability-oriented graduates empowered with sustainability competencies.


What are sustainability competencies? Raivio (2011) indicates four types of sustainability competencies:

§  Subject competencies (e.g. knowledge, concepts, systems)

§  Methodological competencies (e.g. skills, problem-solving)

§  Social competencies (e.g. communicating, interaction, citizenship)

§  Personal competencies (e.g. attitudes, values, ethics)


When it comes to key sustainability competencies, much disagreement is evident. Rieckmann (2012) has identified a comprehensive list following a study among ESD experts from Europe and Latin America: competency for systemic thinking and handling of complexity; anticipatory thinking; critical thinking; acting fairly and ecologically; cooperation in (heterogeneous) groups; participation; empathy and change of perspective; interdisciplinary work; communication and use of media; planning and realising innovative projects; evaluation; and ambiguity and frustration tolerance. These could also be added to this list: creative thinking (Blake and Sterling 2011); and self-awareness of personal values and a willingness to revise them (Sibbel 2009).


Do universities empower their students with sustainability competencies? In the context of education for sustainability in universities, there are two factors to be concerned with: What is taught and how it is taught (Jones et al 2008; Scott and Gough 2007). That is, the curriculum content and its delivery (or pedagogy).


Let’s take the curriculum content first. It is widely agreed that sustainability is complex and sustainability issues are interlinked and interdependent. However, the knowledge that universities impart on their students tends traditionally to be fragmented, partial and compartmentalised (Minguet et al 2011). The reason behind is the strong disciplinary specialisation in university curricula (Clark and Button 2011, Ferrer-Balas et al 2010, Lipscombe 2008), which as Lozano (2010: 637) puts, produces ‘unbalanced, over-specialised, and mono-disciplinary graduates’. When such mono-disciplinary graduates apply such fragmented knowledge in a joined-up world, results tend to be disastrous and such knowledge is partly responsible for un-sustainability too (Parker, 2010).


Sustainability is complex and addressing sustainability issues require holistic thinking and learning across discipline boundaries (Yarime et al 2012). Therefore, there is a growing belief that university curricula should be holistic and interdisciplinary in order to produce sustainability-oriented graduates (e.g. Hopkinson and James 2010, Jones et al 2008, Lozano 2010).


Having considered the curriculum content, let’s move onto its delivery, i.e. the second factor. Conventional instructional approaches focus on individual learning and treat knowledge as information and students as passive recipients (Bacon et al. 2011). However, sustainability requires a different type of education ‘that develops critical thinking skills, broad and integrated contextual knowledge and the desire and capacity to apply that knowledge’ (Sherren 2008: 251). Therefore, there is a need for pedagogic innovation, which tends to receive inadequate attention (Sterling and Scott 2008).


Falling in line with these two factors, the literature indicates two broad strategies to develop sustainability competencies among students:

§  Integrating curricula content across disciplines

§  Pedagogic innovation


The first strategy in education is integrating curricula content across disciplines. In higher education, there exists a tension between two sides; one is the complexity and interdependence of sustainability issues and the other is the fragmented, partial and compartmentalised knowledge (Minguet et al 2011). Such knowledge is inadequate to address complex issues. Therefore, sustainability problems require holistic thinking and should be addressed across disciplines (Yarime et al 2012). Consequently, a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to curricula is important for producing sustainability-oriented graduates (Hopkinson and James 2010, Jones et al 2008, Lozano 2010). Therefore, the first strategy could be summed up as interdisciplinarity, which enables education to address the complexity of sustainability by cutting across the disciplinary boundaries.


The second strategy in education is pedagogical innovation. Pedagogy is increasingly considered as a key issue in embedding sustainability in curricula (Djordjevic and Cotton 2011, Jones et al 2008, UNESCO 2012). For example, ESD literature in the past three decades indicates that the focus has been on teaching and learning methodologies and engendering of values rather than on imparting specific content (Sherren 2008). The literature identifies a range of innovative pedagogical elements for ESD, including:

§  Participatory (Rieckmann 2012, Savelyeva and McKenna 2011)

§  Problem/project-based learning (Bacon et al 2011, Hopkinson and James 2010, Lukman et al 2009, Parker 2010, Rieckmann 2012 and Sibbel 2009)

§  Praxis (i.e. theory-practice integration) and practical (Bacon et al 2011, Hopkinson and James 2010)

§  Collaborative/ interactive/ group learning (Bacon et al 2011, Hopkinson and James 2010, Lukman et al 2009, Parker 2010)

§  Reflexive (Bacon et al 2011)


Moreover, pedagogical innovation has the potential to link education and outreach (e.g. through informal curriculum) and education and operations (e.g. through campus curriculum) to impart sustainability competencies to students. More on this in the next post.


The next post will explore the opportunities available in universities to embed sustainability in curricula, covering both interdisciplinarity and pedagogical innovation.


Useful Resources

Books and Reports

2014 (to be published)

BOOK: Higher Education and Sustainable Development: A model for curriculum renewal, by Desha, C. and Hargroves, K.


BOOK: The Sustainable University: Progress and prospects, by Sterling, S., Maxey, L. and Luna, H. (editors)



BOOK: Journeys around Education for Sustainability, by Parker, J. and Wade, R. (editors)


BOOK: Values in Higher Education, by Robinson, S. and Katulushi, C. (editors)


BOOK: The Sustainability Curriculum: The Challenge for Higher Education, by Blewitt, J. and Cullingford, C. (editors)


BOOK: Key Issues in Sustainable Development Learning: A Critical Review, by Gough, S. and Scott, W. (editors)


BOOK: Sustainable Education – Re-visioning Learningand Change (Schumacher Briefing No 6), by Sterling, S.


BOOK: Education for Sustainability, by Huckle, J. and Sterling, S. (editors)

Websites, web pages & blogs

Education for sustainable development (HEA)

Sustainability Education - The University of Gloucestershire

Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education - Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability: Strategic Approaches to Quality Enhancement project

Education for sustainable development (ESD) – The Higher Education Academy

Greener Curriculum: Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) – National Union of Students (NUS)

Embedding Sustainability into Teaching, Learning and Curriculum in the learning and skills sector - Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)

Embedding sustainable development in the curriculum - EAUC

A Pedagogy for ESD? - Bill Scott's blog

Sustainability and Pedagogy – Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, US

Effective pedagogy in education for sustainability - Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI), New Zealand

Resources on Sustainability Curriculum - Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

References & Bibliography

Bacon, C.M., Mulvaney, D., Ball, T.B., DuPuis, E.M., Gliessman, S.R., Lipschutz, R.D. and Shakouri, A. (2011) The creation of an integrated sustainability curriculum and student praxis projects. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(2), pp.193-208.

Blake, J. and Sterling, S. (2011) Tensions and transitions: effecting change towards sustainability at a mainstream university through staff living and learning at an alternative, civil society college. Environmental Education Research, 17(1), pp.125-144.

Clark, B. and Button, C. (2011) Sustainability transdisciplinary education model: interface of arts, science, and community (STEM). International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(1), pp. 41-54. 

Djordjevic, A. and Cotton, D.R.E. (2011) Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(4), pp. 381-394. 

Ferrer-Balas, D; Lozano, R; Huisingh, D; Buckland, H; Ysern, P; Zilahy, G (2010) Going beyond the rhetoric: system-wide changes in universities for sustainable societies, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, pp.607-610. 

Hopkinson, P. and James, P. (2010) Practical pedagogy for embedding ESD in science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 11(4), pp.365-379.

Jones, P., Trier, C.J., and Richards, J.P. (2008) Embedding Education for Sustainable Development in higher education: A case study examining common challenges and opportunities for undergraduate programmes. International Journal of Educational Research, 47, pp.341-350. 

Lipscombe, B.P. (2008) Exploring the role of the extra-curricular sphere in higher education for sustainable development in the United Kingdom. Environmental Education Research, 14(4), pp.455-468. 

Lozano, R. (2010) Diffusion of sustainable development in universities' curricula: an empirical example from Cardiff University, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18, pp.637-644.

Lukman, R., Krajnc, D. and Glavic, P. (2009) Fostering collaboration between universities regarding regional sustainability initiatives – the University of Maribor. Journal of Cleaner Production, 17, pp. 1143-1153. 

Minguet, P.A., Martinez-Agut, M.P., Palacios, B., Pinero, A. and Ull, M.A. (2011) Introducing sustainability into university curricula: an indicator and baselines survey of the views of university teachers at the University of Valencia. Environmental Education Research, 17(2), pp. 145-166. 

Parker, J. (2010) Competencies for interdisciplinarity in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 11(4), pp.325-338.

Raivio, K. (2011) Sustainability as an educational agenda. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, pp. 1906-1907. 

Rieckmann, M. (2012) Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44, pp. 127-135.

Savelyeva, T. and McKenna, J.R. (2011) Campus sustainability: emerging curricula models in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(1), pp.55-66. 

Scott, W. and Gough, S. (2007) Universities and sustainable development: the necessity for barriers to change. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 11 (4), pp. 107-115. 

Sherren, K. (2008) A history of the future of higher education for sustainable development. Environmental Education Research, 14 (3), pp.238-256.

Sibbel, A. (2009) Pathways towards sustainability through higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 10(1), pp.68-82. 

Sterling, S. and Scott, W. (2008) Higher education and ESD in England: a critical commentary on recent initiatives. Environmental Education Research, 14 (4), pp. 386-398. 

UNESCO (2012) Education for Sustainable Development [Online] Available from: (Accessed 27 November 2012). 

Yarime, M., Trencher, G, Mino, T., Scholz, R.W., Olsson, L., Ness, B., Frantzeskaki, N. and Rotmans, J. (2012) Establishing sustainability science in higher education institutions: towards an integration of academic development, institutionalization, and stakeholder collaborations. Sustainability Science, 7 (Supplement 1), pp. 101-113. 

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