May 27th, 2010

The Many Faces of Sustainability

By Paul Rowland

En su sobrevisto de donde el currícula de sustentabilidad se encuentra actualmente en la educación superior, y a donde se lo puede llevar, Paul Rowland cubre todo los asuntos en referencia a las maneras diversas en que las instituciones están incorporando las ideas de sustentabilidad.  El concluye que, aunque actualmente fuera de lo normal, los proponentes de sustentabilidad estan cada vez mas aceptados y deberían esperar, al final hacerse parte de lo normal.  El compare este proceso de lo que ha pasado con estudios de diversidad y de tecnología.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of higher education in the United States is its diversity of institutions.  The wide range of terminology used to describe post-secondary education – junior colleges, research universities, professional schools, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, state schools, privates, trade schools, for-profits – attests to that variety.  Likewise, the struggles over Carnegie classifications illustrate the importance institutions place on being classified and identified.

Consequently, when we start discussing the curriculum in American higher education, the discussion needs to note that with so many kinds of institutions with such different missions, the shape of the curriculum varies tremendously.  This is why I believe that the debate over what constitutes good sustainability education has to be posited within an understanding of what I’ve come to refer to as “The Many Faces of Sustainability Education.”  Much of my thinking about this has come from discussions with my colleagues on the Board of Directors of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as we have struggled to better understand how we can help further the role of higher education in the sustainability transformation.  Geoff Chase, dean of undergraduate studies at San Diego State University and chair of the AASHE Board of Directors, has laid out five aspects of the sustainability curriculum:  sustainability degree programs, general education, sustainability in the disciplines, workforce (green jobs) development, and co-curricular sustainability.  Understanding and examining these different kinds of sustainability curricula helps us understand why some of the debate is fundamentally a debate about the purpose of higher education itself.

Another way to characterize these different kinds of sustainability curricula is as follows:

●        Education for becoming a citizen advocate and practitioner of sustainability (general education and co-curricular)

●        Education for becoming a sustainability professional (sustainability degree programs)

●        Education for using sustainability knowledge in one’s profession (sustainability courses in various disciplinary majors)

●        Education for a sustainability job (workforce/green job)

Obviously, related to these different ends we have different student learning outcomes that would shape the content and the pedagogy of sustainability education.

One might presume that there are some fundamental sustainability principles, skills, and dispositions that are universal. Several national conversations are trying to sort out what they are and how they can move into the curriculum – particularly through general education coursework.  In addition, as the role of sustainability in shaping our economy and our society becomes clearer, new knowledge and skills will have to be incorporated into programs that prepare students for sustainability work and for working sustainably.

Another concern that continues to surface in various conversations about sustainability education is what depth and/or wholeness of knowledge should really count as sustainability education?  A transformed institution that places sustainability values at the center of education will include a totally transformed curriculum that begins with sustainability and uses systems thinking and interconnectedness as themes for exploring the disciplines and the professions.

On the other hand, some institutions have reserved this deeper thinking about sustainability for specific sustainability majors.  The argument for these programs is that we need to train a different kind of professional who can better integrate an understanding of technology, behaviors, processes, and outcomes of our actions.  Other institutions have focused on having sustainability included in general education at an introductory level to meet the challenge of providing sustainability education for all.  An alternative approach has been to place sustainability in an upper level course that is specific to the major, thus providing students with direct connections between what they are learning in their major and sustainability.  All of these approaches meet and serve some student learning needs, but it is apparent that although all are likely necessary, none alone is sufficient to provide the basis for a sustainable society.

Part of the challenge in developing the sustainability curriculum is in the intersections of institutional culture, timing, and local curriculum change processes.  Changing the general education curriculum requirements depends on fortuitous timing and having a proposal in hand when changes are welcome.  Adding a new sustainability program is best driven by student demand or employer demand and depends on available funding.  Revising courses in a major may require a critical mass among the faculty to organize around a sustainability theme, while adding a course may be an easier route that can be taken by a few interested faculty.  Curricular changes are always contextualized and it is important to understand that changes in the curriculum are usually subject to faculty governance.  Understanding and working within the faculty culture is critical to achieving sustainability education.

Often in discussions of sustainability education, I’ve been asked about other large-scale changes in higher education curriculum.  Two examples quickly emerge as very different ways curriculum change has unfolded in recent years on college campuses – diversity studies and technology.

In the past fifty years, diversity studies (gender studies and ethnic studies) have come to have a solid place on most college campuses.  Although such coursework is usually in a department or program of diversity studies, and is provided as the fundamental part of diversity degrees, it is sometimes featured in the institution’s general education requirements or required in some other majors.  Nonetheless, I would argue that, at this point, diversity education tends to remain a segregated study existing outside the bulk of the curriculum as an additional (inter)-discipline.  Where it has become most successful, diversity studies has attained status equal to the historical disciplines and their departments.  This is not unlike what has happened with environmental science and environmental studies at many institutions.

The second example, technology education, has had a different path.  As difficult as it is to imagine, only two decades ago, higher education institutions were scrambling to create courses to ensure that students were technologically (or computer) literate.  Some institutions established general education requirements while others asked each major to create a relevant course.  Eventually the introductory courses disappeared as students were increasingly entering higher education with relatively strong technology competencies.  As faculty became more competent with technology, it became integrated across the curriculum and throughout it.  Many majors abandoned the specialized courses with an understanding that the battle for general technological literacy had been won – not in the classroom – but in the social (and to a lesser extent formal) learning that occurred throughout adolescence.  Technology education has become a highly focused program that involves a small percentage of students who learn and work at the cutting edge of technology, while the rest of us tend to use it to work as effectively and play as enjoyably as we can.  It is interesting to ask whether or not sustainability (like technology) will become so pervasive in society (as we deal with large scale issues like global climate change) that the need for higher education to provide introductory coursework in sustainability will disappear.

Finally, the ultimate sustainability curriculum may be the one that doesn’t have the term sustainability associated with it at all.  Although we currently recognize sustainability education in the courses that explicitly address sustainability in their content, syllabi, assignments or assessments, if all goes well in the next couple of generations, sustainability will have become part of the “hidden curriculum.”  For decades, educators such a Michael Apple have pointed at the implicit knowledge and values that undergird and permeate education as being a function of unchallenged assumptions and cultural norms.  The hidden curriculum is a powerful force in sustaining the status quo.

It is difficult to imagine, since most of us in the sustainability movement have spent years fighting the status quo, that sustainability could become a cultural norm and permeate all that we do, but that is our ultimate goal.  As we, over the next several generations, come closer and closer to achieving that goal, and as our processes and thinking become more sustainability oriented then we should expect that sustainability will enter the “hidden curriculum.”  What I think can, and should be different, is that we should be able to openly celebrate the mainstreaming of sustainability and that we should acknowledge and celebrate its implicitness.

How we get to that ultimate state will not be by curricular change alone.  It will require that we recognize the varied roles that higher education plays in helping shape society, while also using changing social norms to facilitate student learning.  In other words, educators must be careful monitors of what their students bring into the classroom and the larger social context, so they can help students develop better skills to become leaders of the sustainability transformation.  If post-secondary educators can meet that challenge, then higher education will truly lead the way to a different kind of society that builds a just and sustainable world.

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Comments (2)

  1. S. Ann says:

    Paul, I agree “working within the faculty culture is critical to achieving sustainability education;” however, how are you defining sustainability in the context of education? Also, in your article you stated, “… I would argue that, at this point, diversity education tends to remain a segregated study existing outside the bulk of the curriculum as an additional (inter)-discipline.” On what basis are you making this claim? And lastly, exactly, what is the sustainability movement’s ultimate goal; particularly, within the context of your definition for sustainability in education?

  2. Paul Rowland Paul says:

    S.Ann, with respect to the definition of sustainability in the context of education let me begin by recognizing that the definition varies depending upon which education context one is working within. I would posit first the following from a column I wrote for Currents: . . . sustainability is a comprehensive way to address social needs, environmental concerns, and economic stability, and provide opportunities for all in the current and in future generations. That implies education that prepares learners with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to address the pressing problems of world (both personal and professional) in ways that recognizes the interconnectedness of various human and planetary systems while seeking to ensure that systems are enhanced to provide opportunities for all.
    With respect to your second question, my assertion is based on my experiences at several universities in examining curriculum documents, textbooks, and university organizational structures as well as the professional literature. Although there are a number of exceptions to this assertion, they are exceptions and not the general state of affairs. I don’t think I can give you an exact answer to your final question. My take on the goal of sustainability education is that graduates are able and willing to contribute to creating a world that is healthier, safer,and more just for current and future generations.