A conference on 9 May brought together teaching staff from different disciplines at Umeå University, to inspire each other to educate for sustainable development. The day gave them an opportunity to share practical experiences and concrete examples with each other. “Anyone can educate for sustainable development,” explains Agneta Bränberg.
Text: Alexandra Haglund
Higher education plays an important role in terms of providing students with the knowledge and skills they will need in their future professional lives to deal with questions about how we can address sustainable development issues. Johanna Lönngren and Lars Larsson from the Centre for Educational Development (UPL) organised a morning conference on the role teaching staff play in educating for sustainable development.
"In order to teach for and about sustainable development, teaching staff need to be able to place their subject within a wider perspective.Offering an opportunity like this, where teaching staff from different disciplines can meet, provides a great exchange of knowledge and inspiration", says Johanna Lönngren, who organised the conference.
Sustainability is often described as a complex and diffuse field, meaning that many choose not to integrate the subject into their teaching.
Agneta Bränberg is an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics, and has co-authored a book about teaching for sustainable development. During the conference she shared her personal journey within the subject, from struggling to find her way in the field of sustainability to now integrating sustainable development into all her courses. The change in her own teaching came about with the realisation that there is a difference between teaching about something and teaching for something.
As teachers, we have an obligation to develop our teaching and the education we provide
"Teaching about a subject happens at a superficial level, whereas teaching for sustainable development involves using teaching methods that are transformative for students, such as problem-based learning in which students play an active role,” she says.
Changing teaching methods can be difficult, but Agneta emphasises the importance of joining forces with colleagues and collaborating across disciplines.
"As teachers, we have an obligation to develop our teaching and the education we provide. We must have the courage to let new habits in, and to change. Anyone can educate for sustainable development.”
Debate as an examination format
Teaching for sustainable development also raises the question of how the subject should be examined. Jonna Wilén and Åsa Holmner from the Department of Radiation Sciences and Region Västerbotten addressed this issue, introducing debate as an examination format in their course on sustainable development.
Based on given subjects and positions, students debate against each other to discuss all aspects of sustainability: social, ecological and economic. Strict demands are placed in terms of reliable sources and source criticism, and students should not only think locally or globally – they should understand all the consequences and benefits of the subject.
“The subjects can involve the pros or cons of nuclear power, or whether or not subsidies for rural areas are reasonable,” says Jonna.
“We brainstorm new subjects before each course,” adds Åsa. “The perfect subjects are not the ones that have just been discussed on TV, but the ones that are bubbling away just below the surface.”
There is no doubt that students are nervous ahead of their final debate. In order to achieve a successful result, it is therefore essential for teaching staff to create a safe environment.
“The students are often very proud of themselves afterwards, and the insights they gain from the course are considerable,” continues Jonna.
During the Education for Sustainable Development conference, teachers shared their experiences and inspiration with each other. For example, how to use debate as a form of examination.
Using backcasting as a planning method
Ulrik Söderström, an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics, shared his thoughts on how sustainable development can be discussed using the backcasting method. The method starts from a desired future situation, and then defines the steps that need to be taken to get there from the current situation.
“I ask the students to describe what they think a desirable future looks like in 20 years’ time,” he explains. “They can then use backcasting to more easily understand which events play the biggest role and are the most important in order to reach their defined future.”
Paper and coloured pencils for support
The Sustainable Development in Education conference ended with an art-inspired practical exercise for participants led by Pamela Bachmann-Vargas, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Geography.
It is an inclusive and appealing method that creates opportunities for meaning-making and exchanges of knowledge.
Pamela often aims for art-inspired methods in her teaching, when given the opportunity. For example, after having read an article, she asks students interpret the content using colored pencils and paper, as a way of storytelling.
"Studies suggest that art-inspired methods such as drawings allow us to visualize and share individual or collective perceptions of a given social or physical phenomenon, she says. "It is an inclusive and appealing method that creates opportunities for meaning-making and exchanges of knowledge."
The conference was organised in collaboration with the Umeå Transformation Research Initiative (UTRI) and the Property Management Office. The day generated rich discussions and exchanges of experiences.
“I look forward to finding out how sustainable development will permeate more courses at Umeå University in future,” concludes Johanna Lönngren.