Reflections on a seminar on “Introducing Sustainability Competencies”

This morning, I participated in an online seminar on “Introducing Sustainability Competencies”, run by my awesome colleagues Steven Curtis and Terese Thoni. Here are my reflections (and if you are looking for a summary: sorry, not finished writing that yet, stay tuned!).

Let’s start out with meta reflections of things my colleagues did that I want to make sure I remember.

They started the seminar by being very explicit about the context: It was an online meeting, and they explicitly welcomed both active (e.g. camera on, engaging in discussions in plenum) and passive (just listening) participation, and anything along the spectrum (e.g. only chat or Q&A). I found that super helpful, I HATE it when people suddenly spring breakout groups on me and expect me to want to engage when I had mentally prepared to listen (potentially even while doing something else in parallel, or being on the train or something). So great to know what is expected, and definitely something that I can be clearer about going forward, too!

The next step was also really useful: Taking 30 seconds to think about our intentions for the meeting. Two participants then shared, I did not (until now): My intentions that I wrote down were to a) understand the concerns and needs of teachers (which is really useful for my own teaching — understanding my target audience!), and b) show up in/for the community (again, very important to know what is being discussed, and how, and to show interest and support).

It is really interesting to think about the effect that being explicit about my intentions (even if only towards myself) had.

Part a) is something that I routinely do, so it would have happened in any case. But one very interesting observation was how one participant understood “autonomy” as a focus on individual change and responsibility, rather than on empowering individuals for all kinds of things, among those collective action. Realizing how much I am in a bubble and using jargon that might carry a different meaning to how words are used in everyday language was very interesting; that is something that I was much more aware of back when I was working in oceanography (typical examples there are “dating” (as in determining the age of a sample), “error” (as deviation from something, not mistake), “positive feedback” (as vicious cycle, not positive response)).

And having b) on a piece of paper next to my computer meant that I did not give in to the temptation to leave (or choose the “work on my own” option) when we were put into breakout rooms, and I am pretty sure I would have done either one or the other otherwise. So again — great move!

Also the end of the seminar was great: There was actually ample time left to discuss in breakout groups to enable transfer of the seminar content into our own practice! This was done by reflecting on opportunities, challenges, and next steps. It is such an easy mistake to make to cram too much stuff into a seminar and then assume (hope?) that participants will take the time to reflect on their own. But how often does that really happen? (I am only reflecting now because I promised I would write this blog post, otherwise I would probably be somewhere looking at water. So good thing we had time to reflect during the seminar already!)

But enough with the meta reflections, here are my notes on the content.

The goal of the seminar was to reframe what we are already doing in our teaching, and to connect it to sustainability competencies. For this, we looked at characteristics of effective education. Turns out — surprise, surprise, but always good to point out again! — that teaching for sustainability is basically the same as just general good pedagogy.

But why teach for sustainability? First, we are required to do so by several laws. Then, our students demand it. Also, for us personally, it creates an alignment of what we value and what we teach, so that is really good. And lastly, “if not us, then who”? At first glance at this list, I thought “well, DUH!”, but I think actually each of these points is worth pointing out, and taking in. We HAVE to teach sustainability, there is no way around it. We know our students want it, and what can be cooler than teaching students about a subject that they are actually interested in already? We (the teachers making time to attend a seminar on Teaching for Sustainability) clearly want it, too. And there is nobody else if we don’t do it!

Now on to teaching ABOUT vs FOR sustainability. This is a distinction that we have discussed about a lot, when naming seminars, courses, our initiative. To us, “about” implies that we are teaching sustainability aspects as content (that is most likely part of the syllabus), whereas “for” means that we are working towards sustainability, but not necessarily through learning content, but more through a focus on skills and a changed mindset. Clearly, both ABOUT and FOR are needed, but how to implement both? This discussion was much bigger than I would have expected, because in my head FOR is so easy to do! This is, for example, where all my “Liberating Structures” and equitable teaching strategies etc come in, that we can use on any content and then just raise the point that there are methods that are more inclusive than others, and that different perspectives and more voices lead to more sustainable solutions. This is also where I feel like it is often so easy to just point out that the problem is, in fact, more complex than how we are discussing it. For example yesterday, I observed two colleagues teaching about CO2 footprint of some construction. A student brought up the issue of CO2 emissions of transporting stuff to the building site, which were not included in the calculation. What an opportunity to talk about the lens through which the problem is investigated, and what else might not be included, e.g. workers’ welfare, destruction of ecosystems when sourcing the raw materials, relocation of populations to start digging a quarry; there are countless other aspects that could (and probably should!) be considered, but that go beyond the scope of this specific lesson. But give students a minute to brainstorm impacts, and even though we are not going to explore all of them (or maybe none), the seed of “it’s more complicated than I thought, and maybe next time I should also think about this!” has been planted (for more ideas on how to bring in the breadth of sustainability while being an expert on only a tiny sliver, check out the blog post that I just published earlier).

The main part of the seminar was structured into competencies, teacher moves, and pedagogical approaches. Here, I feel like a summary of my notes is not as useful as a summary of the original literature (my summary of the book “Sustainable Development Teaching – Ethical and Political Challenges”, edited by Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019) is actually ready, and the summary of the book “Competences in Education for Sustainable Development. Critical Perspectives.” by Vare, Lausselet, & Rieckmann, (2022) exists as a draft, and I’ll publish it as soon as I have the capacity). It is not as easy to take good notes of content you are familiar with as you would think!

But in a nutshell:

The term “competency” is used in slightly different ways in different languages and traditions, but that’s ok. An accepted definition is the one by Wiek, according to which a competence is the functional combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes, that lets us perform tasks related to real world challenges. The framework for key competencies for sustainability that we like to use is the one by Redman & Wiek (2021). But the focus on competencies can be problematic: breaking learning down into small learning outcomes can lead to them becoming too small, fragmented, disconnected, and more like check-boxes than integrated understanding. Also, learning happens in a context, and we do not know what the future will be like, so how can we teach in the context of an unknown future? That said, competencies are still useful, and the Redman & Wiek (2021) framework actually aligns super well with what we have to teach anyway. So it is just a matter of realizing where the alignment is, and making that explicit. For example, when students have collaborated on something, we can ask them to reflect on what they might do differently next time, and connect that to their values, to strategic decisions, to intra- and inter-personal skills and voila! We are teaching key sustainability competencies!

Teacher moves can be done both in planning and practice. They can be epistemological, ethical, political (see my blogposts on the Van Poeck, Östman, Öhman (2019) book). For example, we can take a comment that a student makes (or a case that we present) and generalize. We can choose what examples we want to exclude or include. We can reframe questions. This all sounds very mysterious when put like this, but it is really not rocket science. Teacher moves are basically all the different options that a teacher has to act in their role as a teacher. But sometimes it is helpful to be explicit about what those options are, and that we have all of them available. Kinda like in that toolbox saying, maybe, where if all we have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. But I feel like I want to do a full blogpost on this!

Lastly, pedagogical approaches in teaching for sustainability are a whole long list, including for example active learning, service learning, experiential learning, but also Liberating Structures, or mindfulness in teaching and learning. Again, very helpful to be reminded of many different options that we might forget about when we fall into our routines!

And this is where I am done with my summary, and this end comes a bit abruptly, because I already wrote about the great end of the seminar above. So all that is left to say is this: Thank you for a great seminar, Steven and Terese, and while “getting inspiration” wasn’t on my list of intentions, I certainly did end up inspired! So lucky to work with such a great team! <3

Leave a Reply