by Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.
I think a brilliant lesson from this unit was that solving real-world problems takes a multidisciplinary approach and requires flexibility and creativity.
2020 Student Reflection from Bos and Robertson, 2023
How does one teach sustainability principles? Clearly, students need to understand how social, environmental, and economic forces play against one another, and to consider options that balance these forces. But what else do these students need to know?
Last month, a new book came out on teaching sustainability to undergraduates, graduate students, and practitioners: Key Competencies: Practical Approaches to Teaching Sustainability (eds: Potter, Evans, Hiser, and Feldman).The book was a joint effort of the Sustainability Curriculum Consortium (SCC) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The book is comprised of fourteen chapters by sustainability educators from universities, nonprofits, or social enterprises across the United States and beyond. Steve Eversole, the founder of the Center for Behavior and Climate, and I are honored to have written one of the chapters.
What are key competencies? They are the skills needed by graduates of sustainability programs to be effective in their work. They range from hard skills, such as systems thinking or implementation competency to soft skills, such as interpersonal or values competency (Brundiers et al., 2021, Reickmann, 2018).
Here are some of the book’s main takeaways.
Expose students to interdisciplinary perspectives. T. LeVasseur (College of Charleston) sums up lessons learned by educators teaching sustainability courses across an undergraduate curricula. One of the educators notes that her initial efforts in teaching sustainability focused only on hard science. She found that this emphasis, however, limited her students’ creative thinking around solutions. Increasing students’ exposure to social and economic elements were critical too. Another educator from the same school shares that their course, Climate Change and Health in the Spanish-Speaking World, was transformed by a sustainability lens from solely focusing on medical and mental health conditions to understanding the social, economic, and environmental inequities leading to these illnesses and to health disparities.
Teach students how to become change agents. M. Pool (formerly at Fort Lewis College) describes his effort to make students aware of the difference between personal sustainability choices and systemic change. As he notes, personal actions focus on making the best choices within a system; to go beyond that requires effort to change some aspect of the larger system. Pool uses the following framework to encourage students to gain both understanding and a sense of efficacy that they can indeed change a system. The framework, which can be applied to any sustainability topic (e.g., water, climate change, food systems, social justice, etc.), involves 7 categories:
Create sustainability leaders through exercises in visioning, reflection, and personal transformation. Two chapters focus on creating sustainability leaders through Masters programs, one in the U.S. (J. Novy, Stanford); the other in Australia (A. Bos and D. Robertson, Monash University). Both chapters emphasize the need for a student’s personal transformation in doing so. Julia Novy describes a pedagogical method of visioning; systems analysis of case studies; engaging with role models in the sustainability field; reflection; and practice. Using a Connect – Adapt – Innovate approach (CAN), students first explore these notions in themselves before moving to the level of a team or organization and eventually to a community or complex system.
Annette Bos and David Robertson describe how their Masters course starts, with a real-world case study: exploring the transport system of the city of Melbourne and identifying a vision for its future. However, the educators’ initial effort led to limited creativity by the students, and a lack of student imagining of alternatives to the status quo. To encourage transformation beyond what is currently possible, the educators incorporated three innovation challenges. Innovation 1 was an Innovation Challenge Day where the students formed teams and had to rapidly innovate for a specified challenge. Innovation 2 provided a sustainable ideation toolkit (i.e., a toolkit to encourage the development of ideas). The tools included some random, unpredictable elements to encourage a “divergent thinking environment.” For example, the ideation tool, “What Would X do?” involved students drawing a character randomly from a set. Each character comprised either an under-represented group, including future generations, or a character inspired by one of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The tool enabled the students to think beyond themselves. Innovation 3 employed three experiential in-class simulations to bring together knowledge, skills, and attitudes. For example, one of the simulations, Council Chaos, required the students to be policy entrepreneurs. The simulation evoked a Council meeting with divergent opinions expressed by councilors, advocates, or stakeholders, and different power dynamics. The task was to form alliances, negotiate, and develop the council’s annual transport budget.
Teach systems thinking. S. Caplow (Univ. of Montevallo) shares tips on teaching systems thinking. As she notes, sustainability problem-solving requires that students understand feedback loops, socio-ecological interactions, dynamic and emergent behavior, and tipping points. She supplements this understanding with a paper on resilience thinking, which highlights connectivity, redundancy, diversity, feedback management, learning, and participatory governance.
Enhance interpersonal competency. Two chapters (B. Davis and A. Krone, Independent Scholar and Allegheny College); and (C.J. Martinez, Oklahoma State Univ.) address the value of encouraging cultural competency in students by looking at sustainability through the lens of different religions, spiritualities, and culture. This helps students recognize that sustainable principles are value-laden, not neutral, gain humility, learn how to listen, learn from, and collaborate with others, and understand that there may well be multiple solutions to a sustainability problem. For example, Jewish communities have a Biblical tradition to not waste food.
Give students the power to choose their level of mastery of the material.
T. Munro (MacEwan University, Canada) writes about a novel grading method ¾ specification grading, that enables students to be in charge of determining how much time they can spend on the course and the level of effort they want to exert to achieve competency. Developed by Linda Nilson (2015), grades are determined by specified bundles of work. For example, to get an A requires additional work or different types of work than required for a lower grade. The approach gives students real-time feedback that they can incorporate into their work, offers more transparency, and appears to increase the number of students achieving mastery. Wasniewski et al. (2021) compared the percentage of students who received a B or higher. One hundred percent of students in the specification grading system received a B, compared to 71% of those in the traditional grading system. According to the authors, the students received higher grades for individual assignments, leading to a greater level of mastery.
Incorporate service design in a sustainability program. S. Bustamante, T. Afflerback, and M. Martinovic (Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht Berlin) describe a sustainability course focused on service design for business students. Service design is an experiential learning exercise that involves planning people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and benefit for its users. Students first worked in teams of 4-5 on real-world sustainability challenges provided by project partners. Secondly, the students learned about and discussed sustainability theory. Finally, the students engaged in reflection and discussion. Students’ assessments showed that a service design approach worked well for teaching strategic thinking competency, collaborative competency, and normative competency, but not for critical thinking or systems thinking.
Advance sustainable actions by teaching behavior change. As I have written often in this space, collective action and individual actions combined provide the scaffolding necessary for societal support of systemic change. Students need behavior change skills to facilitate support and implementation of sustainable actions by the general public, private sector, or public sectors (c.f., Vaughter, 2016). In our chapter (C. Shumway and S. Eversole, CBC), we describe the pedagogical approach underlying our interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary Behavior Change for Climate Action 101 course. Students learn the barriers holding people back from climate action and evidence-based tools for countering these barriers. Case studies are provided throughout. Exercises enable students to apply behavioral tools to specific audiences and real world situations. Available as an online asynchronous version or live workshop, the course builds upon 20 years of experience in effective online instruction to behavior analysts-in-training by Behavior Development Solutions. Incorporating the scientific principles and methods of applied behavior analysis to instructional design, the course is comprised of lectures and learning modules requiring active student responding. In addition, we will soon be offering a one-hour version of the course, along with a separate course on collective action.
In sum, these educational approaches may lead to sustainability leaders and doers transforming society, business, and government actions for a more livable world.
P.S. The Center for Behavior and Climate (CBC) is seeking applications for our Behavior Change for Climate Action Challenge 2023. The application is just 3 pages, and the deadline is Nov. 1, 2023. See our web page for more info and to request application.
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