Currently reading Högfeldt et al. (2023): “Leadership, support and organisation for academics’ participation in engineering education change for sustainable development”

Implementing education for sustainability throughout an institution is a huge challenge, so I am currently reading up on what we might be able to learn from other places. Högfeldt et al. (2023) report on how since 2011, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, has gradually implemented sustainable development in their programs and culture.

In their introduction, Högfeldt et al. (2023) set the scene of already overworked academics on whom increasing demands are being put, both in terms of teaching and research. They describe individual “champion” academics that often carry the implementation of sustainability in education, both because their colleagues are overworked and don’t really understand what needs to be done (yep, I can think of a handful of teachers like that!). In the literature, if strategies to implement sustainability throughout an institution are successful, it is because the strategy was unified (e.g. throughout different levels of the institution) and contextual (leaving room for “different local interpretations”), and strategies that are both are typically a mix of bottom-up and top-down efforts. When it comes to teaching itself, the design needs to be “purposeful and relevant” (no kidding) and students should be actively involved in their learning. Ideally, sustainability is also a red thread throughout the curriculum rather than just sprinkled into some courses, and there is some connection to the real world through, for example, projects that positively impact society.

At KTH, sustainability is one of the main strategic goals (in Sweden, integration of sustainable development has been part of the Swedish Higher Education Degree Ordinance since 2006), and they have the ambition that new topics or perspectives should be included in existing courses rather than tagged on as add-ons in new courses, but that means that this has to be lead and/or implemented by middle-management, who have to navigate to on the one hand being part of the community of teachers, and on the other hand implementing orders from above. So how did they do that at KTH? To answer this question, the authors conducted ethnographic research and focus group interviews with both educational leaders (directors of education, studies, and programs) and educational developers, as well as 4 full-time employed students, the heads of educational affairs at the student union at different times.

To set the scene, we see quotes from the focus interviews that show that educational leaders are frustrated by “being nobody’s boss” and the associated difficulties of not having the influence they might like, as well as administrative hurdles that kill off initiatives way too early in the process before considering if there might be something worthwhile in them. Also educational developers get frustrated by how a teacher agreeing to a change in their teaching can not necessarily act on it, because the system of bosses etc is too complicated to go through with it. Also students point out that the top-down initiatives have lost all power by the time they reach course level where they should be implemented. Also, the much higher value of research over teaching in academia is mentioned repeatedly. Since the audit in 2011 that kicked off reforms, generally, the focus has shifted towards developing academic development tools and cultural work, from previously supporting individual teachers, following the argument that horizontal learning and strengthening of networking — especially if emerging networks are supported — can lead to transformation.

But now to sustainable development. What happened there? Sustainability was first perceived as superficial “buzzword” when it became a requirement in 2006, and then it became overwhelming as it needed to be addressed and accounted for everywhere and all the time, and that meant either cutting out other topics to make space, or squeezing it in somehow. For teachers, there are very concrete barriers, e.g.: (i) in some courses, the content is so small-scale that teachers do not see how it could be related to sustainable development, and (ii) in some courses, sustainability is very closely related to the content, but “sustainability” is perceived as such a bad buzzword that teachers don’t want to use it, even though it would very much align with their agenda generally. (iii) additionally, students often came from high school with more knowledge about sustainable development than teachers anticipated, and thus the introductory teaching units were way too easy and boring. And (iv), even when teachers gave it a try and integrated sustainable development competencies in their courses, they got the discouraging feedback from leadership that it was not enough despite their best efforts.

One argument a director of education brings up to convince “reluctant academics” to implement sustainable development into student theses is that if the topic of a thesis is somehow relevant (which we assume it is, since the supervisor wants to supervise it), it must include some economic, ecological or social aspect, right, how else would it be relevant? Hence there is a connection to sustainable development, so it should be possible to make that connection explicit (LOVE THIS, WILL HAVE TO REMEMBER). And another director of education makes the case for including sustainable development already when choosing a problem to work on, so it does not become an afterthought, but also, again, because that is what makes the problem relevant in the first place. Educational leaders describe that they started implementing sustainable development strategically in some select courses, where content of other courses is integrated already and where it made a lot of sense. However, creating a learning progression is challenging since students are flexible between programs, universities, countries.

Now, after 10 or so years, sustainable development is being perceived as “mainstream”. So how did they get there?

Everybody, Högfeldt et al. (2023) say, is aware that they cannot put too much on teachers too quickly, and that change takes time. One department has decided that meetings with teachers need to be work meetings, so that things are getting done and teachers get a sense of that, too, rather than just be spammed with information (which I think is a really good idea!).

Two groups of academic development tools have been developed:

Courses to develop teachers’ knowledge and skills related to sustainable development

  • Sustainable development in education (3 weeks). This course developed over time as understanding of sustainable development changed, from a focus on environmental aspects to later also include topics like justice, equality, and integrity. In the beginning, it was mostly taken by the already motivated early adopters that helped co-create the course further, and who through their networks and leadership roles, recruited more participants. Alumni are involved in co-teaching and lead a special interest group for the “big meetup” (see below).
  • Educational leadership (2 weeks). Since it was remodeled in 2016, it includes foundational modules on topics like e.g. sustainable development and gender equality.
  • Designing challenge-driven education (2 weeks); which started in 2019 and focuses on authentic engineering projects related to sustainable development.

Collaborative spaces

  • A network for program directors is organized by the academic developers, since it became clear that key players did not know each other and there is a need for networking and discussions. University management “would show its support while not controlling the agenda.”. Since 2012, there have been monthly meetings of the more than 100 program directors on various topics, among them integrating sustainable development into the programs.
  • A similar network for directors of studies, established since 2017, sometimes meeting jointly with the program directors.
  • A “big meetup” (since 2016!) where once a semester, all teachers, academic leaders, admin, and student representatives meet for half a day with a plenary input on a relevant topic, and then smaller discussion and demonstration rounds. Topics are voted for, and are prepared by working groups. The process and results are documented in official documents. What I found really good here is that one aspect that is being evaluated every time is not just relevance, but also inclusivity, since the goal is to invite and include new teachers. Teachers report that they are getting new ideas but also new insights into the organization/institution, but that is also something they ask for more of.

There are four rules for the working groups:

  1. Anyone can join any meeting, regularly or occasionally: recognize the open boundaries of a Community of Practice with legitimate peripheral participation and open to inward trajectories?
  2. Joining does not mean commitment to anything and there are no requirements as to status or background
  3. Working groups have no mandate to make decisions beyond themselves (just recommendations, I guess, and informed contributions to discussions)
  4. They have no responsibility to do anything beyond what they want to do then and there

These rules are great for a Community of Practice, but it also means building parallel structures to other university structures and therefore not necessarily being as well connected or integrated with the official structures as one might hope. But at KTH, they counteract that by having two leaders in very different roles at KTH, so they are connected with different parts of the university through them in person. Additionally, the working groups have monthly meetings with the university management educational committee.

So what has been achieved at KTH is a “landscape for participation in engineering education transformation” where academics are invited/recruited into the practices of addressing and implementing sustainable development in teaching.

There were two main conflicts that had to be overcome: (1) teaching not being valued as highly as research, so dependence on personal commitment or commitment from line management / local cultures, and (2) the term “sustainable development” itself, which can be interpreted in many ways, and is “perceived as both superficial and overwhelming; unclear yet somehow pre-determined”. Some subjects claim it as their topic with a very narrow focus except they know how to do it better and have been doing it forever so don’t actually need to address it, others don’t see how they can relate at all, but also there is conflict about what engineering education is and should be and then there is no space in the curriculum anyway.

There are a lot of takeaways from this article for me and my work. It confirms the initial focus on “devoted practitioners” — those early adopter teachers that go above and beyond — and on featuring their work in order to shape what we mean when we talk about teaching for sustainability, to involve them as co-teachers and elevate them in discussions. It also supports our approach of building a Community of Practice for horizontal learning, but at the same time to think about a learning progression for teachers with not just one course on how to teach for sustainability. But I am also very aware of the time scale over which all of this took place at KTH, and I don’t know how much we can speed that up, even if we learn from them as much as we can, because change just takes time. And that is quite scary, if this change here takes so much time already, how much time will it take until changes in education have an effect on the world beyond the university? And do we have that much time?

The featured image today is the new coffee corner in the office, where after decades of two tiny bistro tables and many people often sitting in a second and third row and eating with their plates in their laps, there is now enough space so that everybody can get a seat at the table. And you would not believe how long a process a simple change of furniture was… But in the end, it was worth it!

Högfeldt, A. K., Gumaelius, L., Berglund, P., Kari, L., Pears, A., & Kann, V. (2023). Leadership, support and organisation for academics’ participation in engineering education change for sustainable development. European Journal of Engineering Education48(2), 240-266.

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