Make Sustainable Development an Integral Part of Curriculum

Special Focus : The Role of Education to Achieve Sustainable Development
World of Work January 21, 2014

This is article 3 of 4  in our special focus on education’s impact on development and why the new development goals must go further to ensure that all children have access to quality basic and secondary education. This special focus is co-produced by Global Partnership for Education.

The phrase “Education for Sustainable Development” was coined by UNESCO as an umbrella term covering the transformation of all types of education: formal, informal and non-formal at all levels, from elementary to lifelong learning, with the aim of educating all members of society to move towards more sustainable development.  It is not a discipline, nor a set of skills. It is education designed to transform values and behaviour, emphasizing development of critical thinking, focused on broad understanding, self-awareness and knowledge of the natural world and human values and beliefs. 

In the  fifth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, warns that “If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled,’ then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation”. Sustainability education is an essential component in changing individual, corporate and government behaviors and reversing these negative trends.

Universities are essential players in providing this education and key to achieving a global sustainable future; through their research and teaching and increasingly by acting as models of sustainability in their operations. But universities have in fact been criticized for their contribution to ecological degradation by producing leaders incapable of addressing critical sustainability problems. Perhaps the best known critic is David Orr, who argued in 1991 that sustainability problems are not the work of ignorant people, but “largely the result of work by people with BA’s, B.Sc.’s, LLB’s, MBA’s and PhD’s”. Historically collaborative research and teaching on complex interdisciplinary issues such as sustainability have been hampered in universities by the existence of silos of specialization, academic jargon, and definitions of rigour and scholarship that emphasize self-contained knowledge rather than connections among ways of thinking and working. If universities are to deliver on the promise of sustainability education it will be necessary to overcome significant obstacles, the entrenched disciplinary silos, budget models that may work against innovative interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning and administrative structures which appear to discourage innovation. 

The modern university system is regarded as critical to social advancement; creating and transmitting knowledge and understanding, teaching critical reasoning skills and curriculum, and providing training in essential professions needed in society. There is however growing concern about the effectiveness of the current model and the value of a modern day university education. In 2011 Arum and Roksa in their book “Academically Adrift” reported on a study of more than 2300 students in American universities. The study found limited improvements in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other “higher level” skills through the course of a university undergraduate program. More than a third of students surveyed demonstrated no improvement in these skills after four years of study and those who did show measurable gains showed only modest increases in scores.  This report suggests that the current system is not engaging todays’ students fully, probably not delivering on its current educational objectives and is unlikely in its present form to be able to deliver the kind of higher level critical thinking needed to address complex sustainability issues.

There are however encouraging developments: Around the world diverse approaches are being taken to develop post-secondary sustainability education. They represent exciting new program choices for students but, as yet, their broad implementation and impact remain limited. Examples include the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University in the USA which offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in sustainability, the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden which offers a Master’s program in leadership for sustainability, the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie University in Canada which offers sustainability programs across the Faculties and a certificate in  leadership for sustainability at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK which integrates sustainability across the curriculum, the Sustainability Institute at University of Stellenbosch in South Africa which offers graduate programs, the University of British Columbia which integrates sustainability education within programs, and the Centre for Environmental Education in India which has a national mandate for education for sustainable development and provides instruction for educators and teaching resources. There are many others, too numerous to mention here.

Despite their wide range of approaches these programs share a common goal: to equip students with the understanding and critical thinking skills necessary to address the very complex, interdisciplinary sustainability issues society faces. To be effective programs need to develop new ways of thinking and cultivate skills which will enable graduates to make sustainable choices and change happen in their future career and sphere of activity. The transformative change needed to move towards sustainability requires every person in a leadership role in all areas of human activity to have a solid understanding of sustainability issues and a willingness to act. To have real impact in changing behaviours globally sustainability education must become an essential and significant component of all university programs, not only be offered as specialised niche programs or optional classes, but be imbedded in the curriculum of all programs.  

Can this be achieved?  

Our experience at Dalhousie University suggests it is possible to overcome many of the institutional barriers to offering meaningful sustainability education to all students, whatever their discipline or professional program. The College of Sustainability ( demonstrates a new, realtively low cost, and scalable model for interdisciplinary learning and teaching and a new administrative model which fosters collaborations inside and outside the institution. The program design enables students to build sustainability understanding concurrently as they develop their disciplinary or professional competencies. This combination of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches leads to heightened awareness of complex global sustainability issues and increased self-consciousness, leading to greater critical thinking and creativity in analysing complex sustainability issues.  A recent study has demonstrated improvements in critical thinking skills and learning outcomes of students combining disciplinary studies with interdisciplinary programming when compared to students in either type of program alone.

It is clear that new and more effective approaches are needed to create solutions to the sustainability challenges we face. We need to go beyond traditional models of education to impart new ways of thinking if graduates are to have real impact in moving society towards sustainable development.  Universities can and must take the lead by developing and offering accesible, inclusive and relevant sustainabilty education that enables all graduates to meet this goal. It is an exciting time to be in post secondary education. Whatever approach institutions take to education for sustainable development it is clear that we must prepare all graduates, whatever their discipline, to face the coming sustainability challenges and to enable them to make better choices in their careers, communities and personal lives for the future of all on this planet.