Sustainability education resources

These resources are intended to support instructors with integrating dimensions of sustainability into their courses. They provide background information and are intended to encourage reflection, inform instructors’ pedagogical decisions, and advance sustainability in curricula in meaningful ways.

Reflection questions to guide your reading

  • What does “sustainability” mean for you and how does it align (or contrast) with views in your department/discipline?

  • What is your motivation for integrating sustainability into your teaching?

  • What worldview is being reinforced through the content and design of your course?

  • How can your pedagogical practices build bridges between your discipline and sustainability?

We encourage you to share your reflections, ideas, and challenges with colleagues from diverse disciplines and units, as such sharing can foster an interdisciplinary community of practice and promote a culture of sustainability across McGill.

In this article: 

What is sustainability?

In October 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development published a report entitled Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report). In that report, the term “sustainable development” was officially defined as: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Though the definition is fairly new, the concept of sustainability is not. Indigenous peoples have practiced elements of sustainable living for generations by being in tune with the natural environment and its limits, cycles, and changes.

Although sustainability has been linked to the environmental movement, the notion that it is only focused on the environment is a misconception. Sustainability is based on three dimensions:

  • Environmental sustainability: occurs when humanity’s rate of consumption does not exceed nature’s rate of replenishment and when humanity’s rate of generating pollution and emitting greenhouse gases does not exceed nature’s rate of restoration.

  • Social sustainability: is the ability of a society to uphold universal human rights and meet people's basic needs, such as healthcare, education, and transportation. Healthy communities ensure personal, labour, and cultural rights are respected and all people are protected from discrimination.

  • Economic sustainability: is the ability of human communities around the world to maintain their independence and have access to the resources required to meet their needs, meaning that secure sources of livelihood are available to everyone.

Learn more about what sustainability is by visiting McGill’s Office of Sustainability.

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Orienting learning towards sustainability across disciplines

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) focuses on incorporating sustainability, equity, and justice into teaching and learning. ESD "is about the kinds of education, teaching and learning that appear to be required if we are concerned about ensuring social, economic and social ecological wellbeing, now and into the future”. [1] Work done by ESD scholars on learning competencies, teaching strategies, and assessment offer some insights into how to orient 21st century learning towards more just and sustainable futures. To that end, these resources offer a look at some of those competencies, teaching strategies, and assessment for consideration.

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Sustainability competencies, learning outcomes, teaching strategies, and assessment strategies

This section provides information about the competencies upon which many ESD scholars agree and the learning outcomes that guide students’ development of these competencies. In addition, teaching strategies to support sustainability education and assessment strategies to ascertain students’ uptake of sustainability competencies are addressed.

Competencies

Education for sustainable development (ESD) aims to equip learners to play an active role in sustainability transitions. Learners are equipped by building a set of competencies, which prepare them to be change-makers in an uncertain and complex world. The table below details the competencies upon which ESD scholars widely agree. [2] The competencies range from broad systems-thinking to individual reflection and well-being.

Systems-thinking

Ability to apply modeling and complex analytical approaches to analyze complex systems and sustainability problems across different domains and across different scales.

Futures-thinking

Ability to carry out or construct simulations, forecasts, scenarios, and visions.

Values-thinking

Ability to identify, map, specify, negotiate, and apply sustainability values, principles, and goals for assessment, sustainability visioning, and action plans.

Strategies-thinking

Ability to construct and test viable strategies (i.e., action plans) for interventions, transitions, and transformations toward sustainability.

Implementation

Ability to put sustainability strategies (i.e., action plans) into action, including implementation, adaptation, transfer, and scaling, in effective and efficient ways.

Inter-personal

Ability to collaborate successfully in inter-disciplinary and -professional teams, and to involve diverse stakeholders in advancing sustainability transformations.

Intra-personal

Ability to avoid personal health challenges and burnout in advancing sustainability transformations through resilience-oriented self-care (i.e., awareness and self-regulation).

Integration

Ability to apply collective problem-solving procedures to complex sustainability problems.

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Learning outcomes

Sustainability education seeks to balance learning across three different domains: cognitive (focused on concepts, ideas, and facts), affective (focused on values, attitudes, and emotions), and performative (focused skills and abilities). In writing sustainability learning outcomes, using a variety of verbs from across these domains helps strengthen competence in different areas.

In sustainability-focused courses, learning outcomes should help students build sustainability competencies. The table below presents examples of learning outcomes that help build these competencies.

Sustainability competency

Examples from McGill courses of learning outcomes that build the competencies

Sustainability competency

Examples from McGill courses of learning outcomes that build the competencies

Systems-thinking

By the end of the course, students should be able to assess the complex interconnection between health and environment. (Health Geography – GEOG 303)

Futures-thinking

By the end of the course, students should be able to describe alternative visions of the future that consider sustainability and justice. (Eco-Justice and Sustainability in Education – EDGC 335)

Values-thinking

By the end of the course, students should be able to analyze a range of conceptualizations of 21st century learning and the values and worldviews that underpin them. (21st Century Learning – EDEC 400)

Strategies-thinking

By the end of the course, students should be able to design novel strategies for sustainable food manufacturing and preservation. (Introduction to Food Science – FDSC 200)

Implementation

By the end of the course, students should be able to rehearse and enact high-quality science teaching practices informed by diverse scientific thinkers. (Elementary School Science 1 – EDEE 270)

Inter-personal

By the end of the course, students should be able to contribute to a community of learners navigating the contradictions of life and learning in the 21st century. (21st Century Learning – EDEC 400)

Intra-personal

By the end of the course, students should be able to empathize with the risk in farming (e.g., the effects of climate change and market variability) and producer mental health. (Principles of Ecological Agriculture – AGRI 340)

Integration

By the end of the course, students will be able to apply tools for systems change to real-world challenges/contexts. (Education in and for Social and Environmental Transformation – EDEC 617)

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Teaching strategies

Equipping students with sustainability competencies requires instructional methods that involve “active, participative and experiential learning methods that engage the learner and make a real difference to the learner’s understanding, thinking and ability to act”. [1] Many of the learning strategies recommended by ESD scholars overlap with the strategies recommended in 21st century learning frameworks and have been recognized as “simply good pedagogy”. [1] The main difference is the purpose undergirding the pedagogies and to what end they are employed. Below is a list of selected pedagogical approaches for sustainability education. [3]

Transdisciplinary

Learning integrates knowledge from more than one discipline and/or stakeholder perspective.

Transdisciplinary

Learning integrates knowledge from more than one discipline and/or stakeholder perspective.

Experiential and participatory

Learning is through direct experience and reflection.

Collaborative

Learners construct knowledge and understanding together.

Empowering and action-oriented

Learners develop a sense of individual and collective agency as a basis for conscious action.

Arts-based and exploratory

Learners have space to imagine multiple futures.

Place-based

Learning is locally contextualized and occurs within and from the environment.

Problem- and project-based

Learning is thematic, solutions-oriented, and connected to tangible issues.

Culturally-responsive

Learning is culturally accessible and relevant to diverse student identities.

Socio-affective

Learning is self-reflective and students have space to share and process emotions.

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Assessment strategies

While a large body of research on sustainability competencies and teaching strategies exists, less is known about how to assess the competencies and whether the teaching strategies effectively advance the learners’ competencies. However, assessment strategies are emerging. The following strategies for assessing students’ uptake of sustainability competencies could inform sustainability education assessment.

Scaled self-assessment

Students are asked to rate their own competence development based on a predetermined scale.

Scaled self-assessment

Students are asked to rate their own competence development based on a predetermined scale.

Reflective writing

Students respond in writing to prompts reflecting on their competency development.

Focus group/Interview

Students respond to prompts verbally reflecting on their competency development.

Performance observation

Students are evaluated for competence while carrying out course activities in the classroom or in professional settings.

Regular course work

Students complete regular course work that is analyzed for evidence of competencies.

Concept mapping

Students are given a prompt and asked to create a two-dimensional image with nodes and connections (specific to systems-thinking competence).

Scenario/Case test

Students are presented with a case and asked to respond to a specific competence requiring prompts.

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Course outline examples

These course outlines illustrate how the inaugural cohort of McGill’s Sustainability Education Fellows program have infused sustainability principles into their course design, taking into account core competencies for developing the next generation of sustainability leaders across a range of fields.

Read more:

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References