Teaching Sustainability: A Labour of Love

By Dr Leong Choon Heng
Professor, Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University

The original article was published in The Edge Malaysia on 11th June 2018


Teaching sustainability requires a lot more than awareness raising. It requires considerable labour to put together diverse content from different fields of study to illustrate the existential crisis that we are in today, living on a finite planet while our economic activities continue to degrade the environment, and our pursuit of material wealth leaves behind a large segment of population who can barely access the basic necessities of life, i.e. food, shelter, health care and quality education. The teaching also needs to put together selected theories and frameworks to analyse the causes of all the violations of the principle of sustainable development, that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” a definition made famous by the Brundtland Report of 1987.

After the analysis of what got us to the state of environmental mess that we are in comes the teaching of the “what, which and how” of solutions to the problem. By necessity, the teaching of sustainability will require many types of expertise serving as guides in this journey of learning as the problems are complex and multifaceted.

Of late, there has been an outpour of intellectual and academic activities around the theme of sustainability across the world. The networking among universities and research institutions further intensifies the intellectual interest in sustainability. One only has to sign on to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and similar online social and media networks to be informed and constantly updated with the influx of new programmes, seminars, conferences, webinars, calls for papers, invitations to forums and workshops, and offers of fellowships, scholarships, research funding and travel grants around themes of sustainable development. Universities and academicians, it appears, are rallying in a noble last-ditch effort to prevent the world from falling into the abyss of climate-induced disasters and deep social inequalities.

Together with this is a proliferation of courses on sustainability, particularly in the form of MOOCs. The SDG Academy is helping to lead the charge in creating both general and specialised online courses on sustainability, sponsored by generous donors. Other learning platforms like Coursera and edX are offering more and more online courses on sustainability, sometimes embedded in the curriculum of other disciplines, from biology and earth science to engineering, IOT and management. This massive production of courses in sustainability not only allows anyone and everyone who can access the internet to learn about sustainability in its various forms but also offer valuable content for instructors to conduct blended learning in their own institutions. There is no reason to delay the teaching of sustainability, unless it is being hampered by academic administrative rigidities. Let the hundred flowers bloom.

What a good sign that the scholarly community has come on board this labour of love in droves. It is simply the right thing to do and a testimony that the teaching profession, more than any other profession, sees itself as the rightful torchbearer of the sustainability movement, to save the planet and humanity from further deterioration. Among the academic fields, the scientific community has been at the forefront, but today teachers and educators from different fields, from the social sciences, arts, humanity, hospitality and management to engineering, health care and computing, have become part of this global intellectual renaissance.

The teaching of sustainability requires a multidisciplinary approach as the problems are complex and multifaceted. That we should be kind to our planet, protect our environment and ensure that economic progress is broadly shared by all is common sense. But understanding how we got stuck in an unsustainable mess which is of planetary scale and how complicated is the web of forces that contribute to this mess require complex analysis and a well-thought out curriculum. Fortunately, not only has a good number of courses been made readily and widely available, there is also now a cornucopia of teaching platforms and tools to match the needs of sustainable education.

Software, learning platforms and tools, such as blackboard, moodle, blendspace, socrative, pallet and the like, allow the teaching of sustainability to reach a larger audience as well as fulfil the aspiration to make learning interactive, collaborative, engaging, practical, inspirational and reality-like. Augmented reality and virtual reality tools have also entered the teaching scene. It is often up to the ingenuity of the teaching team to assemble the appropriate technology and methodology.

Students and learners with creative and engineering dispositions can experiment and tinker with sustainability solutions using devices and software such as arduino and raspberry pi without the need to create costly, high-end facilities. Through these, students have a chance to invent and deploy simple sustainability solutions for the use of communities, social enterprises and individuals without over burdening their budgets. Classes can be project-based to create devices, software and systems for urban community farming, waste reduction or tracking sustainability practices across supply chains, for instance. The opportunities are endless. The learning process becomes more meaningful and rewarding for both teacher and learner.

Assembling a multidisciplinary team can be a challenge. Good teachers and researchers are highly sought after. Even though their work may be a labour of love, their time can be a constraint. A flexible system of delivery will help to overcome this and, furthermore, will facilitate the involvement of practitioners in the teaching. The team of instructors can be from as diverse a background as people working on climate science, renewable energy, fresh water systems, urban transportation, waste management, forest and marine biodiversity, agriculture and food, health care, community development, etc. Understanding sustainability will require knowledge of the natural environment, social structures, economic systems, leadership, entrepreneurship and public policy-making. It can be daunting, but the benefits of such an education for students and our future generation is worth the effort.

Teaching the problems of the present to ensure the creation of a better future is unlike teaching lessons of the past to avoid repeating mistakes in the present. We have not even succeeded in the latter, and now the academic world is confronted with a second challenge. Perhaps, the second challenge will truly force us to transform our habits and practices and make us teach for a better future.