Sustainability in Curriculum: A Pathway to a Sustainable Future?

The integration of sustainability into education is more than a trend; it's a vital response to the grand environmental and social challenges we face. As educators grapple with how to weave sustainability into their curriculum, the question arises: What does it mean to teach sustainability, and how can it be effectively implemented within existing curriculum?

Educational programmes are most often implemented in the design and execution of curriculum, thus, an important starting point for our discussion on Education for Sustainability (EfS). This was the topic of a seminar series during Winter 2022, called "Sustainable Teaching & Learning in Higher Education". The seminar series was hosted by the Division for Higher Education Development (AHU) at Lund University. In the first of four seminars, speakers and participants explored how to conceptualise and integrate sustainability in curriculum.

In the context of higher education, curriculum encompasses the entire planned educational experience. It includes not only what is taught (content) but how it's taught (methods) and why it's taught (purposes). When we talk about sustainability in curriculum, we're referring to a holistic approach that infuses sustainability principles, values, and practices into these aspects of the educational experience.

The seminar featured insights from Dr. Barry Ness, Associate Professor at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), as well as Marco Riekmann, Professor of University Didactics at the University of Vechta. Speakers shared the history of sustainability in curriculum, by introducing sustainability competencies, ethical and political considerations, and tangible pedagogical suggestions.

History of Sustainability in Curriculum

Sustainability in curriculum is not a novel idea but rather a concept that has evolved over time, reflecting the growing awareness of the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation. The roots of this awareness can be traced back to the early 1960s, with works like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and the 1972 report "Limits to Growth," commissioned by the Club of Rome, which emphasized the need for a sustainable global equilibrium.

This awareness grew together with the environmental movement of the 1970s, which led to the world's first intergovernmental conference on environmental education organized by UNESCO in cooperation with UNEP in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1977. The subsequent Tbilisi Declaration interpreted the environment in its totality and formulated goals for environmental education that went beyond ecology in the curriculum. It emphasized the development of greater awareness and concern about economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence.

In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro gave birth to Agenda 21, which emphasized education as a means of implementation towards sustainable development. The United Nations initiated the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), emphasizing the need to integrate sustainability into all levels of education, including curriculum development. Subsequent international meetings and milestones led to the introduction of the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 4, which aims to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all."

Throughout this time, concepts like environmental education (EE), education for sustainability (EfS), and education for sustainable development (ESD) have emerged to capture the transformative learning approaches that equip individuals with the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to shape a sustainable future. Rather than viewing education as merely a transfer of information, these approaches emphasize active learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving. They foster an understanding of the complex interconnections between social, economic, and environmental factors, challenging students to consider the broader global systems that influence sustainability and society, regardless of their field of study.

Over the years, the shift from environmental education to a broader understanding of sustainability in education reflects the growing recognition of the interconnectedness of our global challenges. Today, the integration of sustainability into the curriculum is seen as a vital step towards achieving global sustainability goals. It's about more than just adding content; it's about transforming the way we teach and learn, fostering critical thinking, problem-solving, and responsible citizenship.

Sustainability Competencies

Sustainability in curriculum has evolved to recognize the importance of specific competencies that enable individuals to engage with complex sustainability challenges. These competencies are not merely about acquiring knowledge but about developing the ability to apply this knowledge in various contexts. Speakers introduce various frameworks to understand sustainability competencies, suggesting eight key competencies:

  • Systems-Thinking Competence: The ability to analyse complex systems and sustainability problems across different domains and scales, including understanding dynamics like cascading effects, feedback loops, and inertia.

  • Futures-Thinking Competence: The ability to anticipate future states and dynamics of complex systems, including how sustainability action plans might play out in the future.
  • Values-Thinking Competence: The ability to identify, negotiate, and apply sustainability values, principles, and goals to assess current and future states of complex systems.
  • Strategies-Thinking Competence: The ability to construct and test viable strategies for interventions, transitions, and transformations toward sustainability.
  • Implementation Competence: The ability to put sustainability strategies into action, including design, implementation, adaptation, transfer, and scaling.
  • Interpersonal Competence: The ability to collaborate successfully in interdisciplinary teams and involve diverse stakeholders in advancing sustainability transformations.
  • Intrapersonal Competence: The ability to avoid personal health challenges and burnout through resilience-oriented self-care.
  • Integration Competence: The ability to apply collective problem-solving procedures to complex sustainability problems, developing and implementing viable sustainability strategies.

Likely, these competencies are present within existing curriculum, only requiring translation or articulation to make connections explicit to sustainability. Otherwise, educators may introduce progression of sustainability competencies from disciplinary, professional, or general academic competencies. Disciplinary competencies are skills specific to a particular field or subject, such as policy analysis, economic modelling, or life cycle assessment. Professional competencies, like project management and communication, represent skills essential in a professional setting, often involving collaboration, leadership, and effective interaction with others. Finally, general academic competencies are abilities that apply across various disciplines and are foundational to intellectual development, such as critical thinking, creativity, and listening. Recognizing and harnessing these competencies within the curriculum can pave the way for a more integrated and effective approach to sustainability education, thus, supporting students in work and life to navigate our complex sustainability challenges.

Ethical and Political Considerations

Ethical and political considerations play a crucial role in the integration of sustainability into the curriculum. Riekmann emphasized that sustainability education is not merely about imparting knowledge or developing competencies; it's about fostering a sense of responsibility and ethical awareness. This involves encouraging students to critically reflect on their values and the societal norms that influence decision-making in sustainability. It's about understanding the power dynamics, cultural contexts, and ethical dilemmas that often underpin sustainability challenges.

Furthermore, Riekmann highlighted the political dimension of sustainability education. Teaching sustainability is inherently political, as it involves choices about what kind of future we want to create and whose interests are prioritized. It requires an understanding of governance structures, policy frameworks, and the role of various stakeholders in shaping sustainable development. Educators must navigate these complex political landscapes, balancing different interests and perspectives, while fostering a sense of agency and empowerment in students to engage with these issues actively and responsibly.

Integrating Sustainability in Curriculum

Integrating sustainability into the curriculum requires a shift from traditional teaching methods to more innovative and participatory approaches. Both Ness and Riekmann emphasized the importance of active learning, collaboration, and real-world problem-solving in sustainability education.

  • Problem-Based Learning (PBL): Ness highlighted the use of PBL, where students work on complex, real-world problems related to sustainability. This approach fosters critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity, allowing students to explore solutions from various perspectives.
  • Interdisciplinary Teaching: Sustainability challenges often span multiple disciplines. Riekmann emphasized the need for interdisciplinary teaching that brings together insights from different fields, encouraging students to see the connections between social, economic, and environmental aspects.
  • Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Engaging with local communities and working on real sustainability projects can provide valuable experiential learning opportunities. Ness suggested that this approach helps students understand the practical implications of sustainability concepts and builds empathy and social responsibility.
  • Reflective Practice: Both speakers advocated for reflective practices that encourage students to think deeply about their values, beliefs, and actions related to sustainability. This can be facilitated through journaling, group discussions, or reflective essays.
  • Use of Technology and Simulation: Reikmann mentioned the use of technology, such as simulation tools, to model complex sustainability scenarios. This helps students visualize the long-term impacts of decisions and explore various solutions in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Considering Ethics and Values as part of Education: Integrating discussions on ethics, values, and social justice into the curriculum helps students understand the moral dimensions of sustainability. It encourages them to consider the ethical implications of their choices and the broader societal context.
  • Collaborative Projects and Teamwork: Working on collaborative projects fosters teamwork and communication skills. It allows students to learn from each other and develop a shared understanding of sustainability challenges and solutions.

These suggestions offer a good starting point for any educator looking to embed sustainability in curriculum. However, this is not solely the responsibility of individual educators, but requires a whole institution approach. This means engaging not only faculty but also administrators, staff, and students in a shared commitment to sustainability. The institution's policies, culture, and resources must align to support the integration of sustainability principles across all aspects of education, including curriculum development, research, community engagement, and campus operations. Collaboration between different departments and stakeholders can foster a more cohesive and effective approach to sustainability education, ensuring that it is embedded in the very fabric of the institution.

In conclusion, integrating sustainability into the curriculum requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond traditional lecture-based teaching. It involves creating engaging, interactive, and reflective learning experiences that equip students with the skills, knowledge, and values needed to contribute to a sustainable future. The methods suggested by Ness and Reikmann provide a robust framework for educators looking to embed sustainability principles into their teaching practices.

Vines climbing Lund University building called Geocentrum. Image.

Teaching for Sustainability

This initiative serves as a hub for educators at Lund University, offering a platform for training, resources, and community building. The initiative intends to serve the larger community, in line with the strategic and sustainability commitments made by Lund University. 

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