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The EFMD business magazine

“Have Impact, You Will!” Turning Higher Ed Instructors into Jedi Masters of Sustainability Teaching

Reform higher education - Sustainability in teaching
Effecting curricular reform throughout HEIs in response to our social and environmental crisis— this is the challenge educators face today. Progress is being made, but it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. In this article, the Sulitest team looks at different approaches to driving change—from raising faculty awareness to writing new learning outcomes. To build a “coalition-of-the-willing”, this article also provides a useful typology of faculty levels of engagement that facilitate (or alas impede) this transformative change. Ultimately, sustainability must be embedded across the curriculum, not viewed as a simple ‘add-on’. Just as important, the impact of curricular reform must be monitored and measured.

Without the deep and rapid reform of higher education, students today – at best – will be ill-prepared to meet the great challenges humanity faces. At worst, they’ll risk accelerating the pace towards disaster. Curricular reform throughout HEIs is necessary to meet the challenges of environmental transformation and embed sustainability.

Episode IV – A New Introduction

In the face of our Earth crisis, many writers have highlighted the importance of changing both curricular design and pedagogical practice within institutions of higher education (HEIs). And changes are indeed being made here and there. But what is happening is more a process of slow evolution rather than revolution, when what is needed is urgent action. To this end, this brief article reviews how HEIs – in the face of the Earth crisis – respond to the call for curricular reform. In addition, we provide helpful hints on the types of educators who help or hinder you in your efforts to spark curricular change.

“Feel the Force” – The Preconditions of Jedi Power and Action

To answer the question of how we best prepare students to make informed decisions about social and ecological issues, let’s first review the preconditions that determine whether an individual student chooses to act for sustainability in the first place.

Research1 indicates that an individual needs 1) a holistic understanding of the challenges (the ‘common language’ for all professions) plus a set of knowledge specific to their situation or profession; 2) a range of skills to address challenges at their level (common ones such as system and critical thinking … and others, more discipline-specific); and 3) the determination to act. The schematic shows that a judicious mix of knowledge, skills, and mindset – what UNESCO calls Education for Sustainable Development – constitutes the seed of behavioural action and the foundation of sustainability literacy that all HEIs need to foster via curricular reform.

Building the Rebel Alliance – The Force Driving HEIs Towards Curricular Revision

A growing number of HEIs are starting to reform their curriculum, in response to both ministry directives, and pressures from stakeholders such as students, accreditors, and rankings bodies2. For the past decade, we at Sulitest have been working with programme leaders and professors to integrate sustainability more intentionally and more widely into the curriculum. What we observe is that curricular transformation is an iterative process which varies in speed and direction depending on institutional priorities, and the level of engagement from stakeholders, such as instructors, students, administrators, and alumni.

There are multiple ways to raise awareness and embed sustainability learning into the student experience. The easiest step involves organising on-campus events such as conferences, screenings, or thematic activities during a dedicated ‘sustainability week’ or at the start of a new semester with an inspiring keynote speech or half-day workshops like the ‘Climate Fresk’, ‘The Carbon Literacy Project’, or the Sulitest Awareness Test and Quiz. While these actions are more about raising awareness than providing formal education, they have the advantage of reaching large numbers of students, spark an ecological awakening and give them the climate and wider sustainability understanding they need to thrive in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – VUCA future.

Another more ambitious approach is to create elective courses in sustainability such as ‘Sustainable Marketing’ or ‘Responsible Finance’. Often initiated by ‘activist’ instructors, such courses respond quickly to the demands of concerned students. However, such courses must attract enough students to be ‘viable’. Plus, this approach does not address the need for ‘mainstreaming’ such learning across all programmes. It too often stands as a temporary ‘add-on’.

It is also possible – as is currently the case in France – that the Ministry of Education imposes national requirements for establishing a common knowledge base for students. In the same manner, a university president or programme leader can decide to launch curricular reform as a ‘political/ecological’ initiative. A common response to implementing such ‘top-down’ strategies is to add a required course or module on sustainability, often in the form of MOOCs.

When instructors are asked to incorporate sustainability concepts into their courses, many just add a dedicated chapter at the end of a course while making only minimal modifications (if any) to established course content. As such, students are taught ‘conventional finance’ throughout the year and receive only a short overview of ‘responsible finance’ at the end. While simple to implement, this approach is ineffective at best, and self-deceptive at worse because it allows instructors to simply ‘check-off the required boxes’ by adding keywords to their course syllabi without changing the traditional content. It must be said, however, that this approach – while unsatisfactory – is often a necessary step allowing instructors to gradually introduce topics that are new. Some teacher-researchers have also progressively integrated this concept into the course by starting to invite representatives of partner companies involved in their research chair to present case studies.

We have also received numerous comments from students explaining that in recent years, several ‘newly converted’ teachers have added an introduction on climate change before starting their course. While this shows undeniable good will, the lack of consultation and coordination between colleagues means that these interventions are repetitive and have little impact.

The most complex and demanding approach is undoubtedly to revisit and rewrite all the learning objectives of a programme and then ‘rethink’ and redesign all courses from the perspective of sustainability. This is a huge task if done properly because it involves not only working on content but also on pedagogical method. However, such eco-pedagogy, action-based learning – learning by doing, and experiential learning all engage students powerfully via a radically revised set of both learning outcomes and instructional methods.

Finally, we know student experiences matter beyond the classroom. Institutions must create exemplary and visible strategies for sustainability in campus operations, environmental management, and social responsibility.

In the end, however, what’s most important is that the impact of curricular revision is something real and measurable 3. The best strategies include a process for measuring impact, for using data to guide and direct subsequent action, and for ensuring that everyone feels both supported in – and accountable for – having a transformational impact on student learning.

May the Faculty Be with You!

While much of the sustainability knowledge students acquire comes from co-curricular experiences such as internships, service learning, exchanges, student associations, etc., it is clearly the responsibility of instructors to transmit core sustainability knowledge.

This is challenging because educators, while experts in their area of teaching, may lack expertise in other subjects, like environmental sciences or social sciences, not to mention the solution-based leverage points – which are all a part of the agenda of sustainability education 4. Supporting the faculty with practical tools and training thus becomes a major ambition for any HEI wishing to genuinely equip students with impactful sustainability literacy.

Like the student population it serves, the faculty is highly heterogeneous in its approach to these subjects in terms of interest, knowledge, expertise, and commitment. Three main profiles can be discerned5.

1. The Obstructionists

This group includes both ‘Deniers’ and ‘The Never Wrong’. The former is apt to claim that the need to address climate change (or other sustainability topics) is exaggerated or less urgent than stated. Because they are often infected by a conspiratorial mindset, there’s little hope in engaging them in such curricular review. The latter group – The Never Wrong – is hard to reach too, because they are set in their ways and convinced that what they’ve taught in the past remains just as pertinent for the future. They may represent 10% of the whole population but you can count on both these groups to obstruct – in principle – whatever initiatives or curricular reforms you might propose. Save your energy for other groups.

2. The Well-Meaning … but

This is a huge group probably comprising about two-thirds of the total. First, we have ‘The Disconnected’. While they may be aware of some of the challenges humanity faces, and have changed things in their own lives, they are largely oblivious to the connections with the topics they teach in class. The other group – ‘The Disoriented’ – may be aware and troubled by climate change, but they do not know how or where to start. But because this entire group includes the well-meaning hindered only by ‘ignorance’ or ‘lack of training’ both these impediments can be overcome. There is a huge opportunity to find allies and supporters across this entire group.

3. The Activists

Three subgroups comprise this group: Systemic Experts: Highly qualified and experienced in the field of sustainability, this group has a full understanding of the complex systems underlying environmental, social, and economic issues. Their interdisciplinary approach and holistic vision make them powerful allies in getting diverse instructors connected and committed to the common cause. Topical Specialists: This group includes established experts (and probably recognised as such) who have comprehensive expertise on specific topics such as climate change or poverty. They are invaluable as a source of knowledge and training for others when they speak about their own topic. And while they likely lack a systemic understanding of the larger system, it’s because they know this that they can more easily help others (particularly The Well-Meaning) recognise and address curricular knowledge gaps in their courses. New Enthusiasts: Recently aware and fully dedicated to the cause of curricular reform, this group may – via a ‘Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias’ – overestimate their ability to embed into the syllabus the appropriate dose of sustainability knowledge. But their energy and enthusiasm for reform is contagious. Use it to help convert The Well-Meaning and maybe even some Obstructionists in the cause of curricular revision.

Do or Do Not. There is No Try

Given the high stakes of addressing global challenges, it is imperative to engage as many instructors as possible in the curricular review process – whatever their profile. Recruiting new faculty who are eco-literate, unleashing the current faculty already seized by the urgency of the climate crisis, providing support and training to those struggling to keep up, and ignoring those who refuse to budge – these are strategies that work. If higher education is to play its full role in building a livable and desirable future, then this is the new agenda for a new age -changing what we teach and learn in line with planetary boundaries.

A vast undertaking for sure! But how else do we emerge from the dark side! How else do we use our force – The Force – for a new hope?

“Reform Higher Ed Instructors into Jedi Masters of Sustainability Teaching


1 Besong, F. and C. Holland (2015). The Dispositions, Abilities and Behaviours (Dab) Framework for Profiling Learners’ Sustainability Competencies in Higher Education. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 17(1), pp.5-22
2 Read:
5 This article is based on 20 years of practitioners’ observation. The classification and ranges are based on field observations and the interpretation belong to its author.

JC (Jean Christophe) Carteron is President of the Sulitest movement.

Co-Founder at Sulitest and Associate Professor at KEDGE Business School.

Estela Pilz is member of the Sulitest movement.

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