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Unit 1: Getting started – what does learning sustainably mean?

Introduction

Welcome to the Sustainable pedagogies badged open course.

This course is about approaches to learning and teaching that allow students to:

  • think creatively and critically
  • reason with logic and imagination
  • transform the way they learn
  • become confident in innovating solutions to enable us to live sustainably.

The course is comprised of eight units and each unit takes around three hours to complete.

This is a badged course, which means you can download a digital badge as evidence that you have studied the course. To obtain this badge you must have posted a contribution to at least one forum discussion  in Units 1–7 and one in Unit 8. You must also have completed the quiz at the end of Unit 5 and scored at least 80%.

It is recommended that you download this learner journal file as a space to reflect and record your thoughts as you work through and complete the activities throughout the course.

You will find material in each unit that is labelled ‘Explore’ and has the binoculars icon beside it. This is optional material that you can choose to access and study if you wish to know more about the ideas being discussed.

Throughout the course the term ‘sustainable pedagogies’ will be used. If you need to learn more about sustainability itself rather than sustainable pedagogies then we recommend the OpenLearn course – Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis. Sustainable pedagogies are not singular and fixed, nor does the term simply equate to teaching methods. Rather, the authors of this course invite you as educators and learners yourselves, to explore the pedagogies (plural) advocated. Some of the pedagogies discussed suggest working in different ways with your students, to invite them to look beyond their immediate context and learn with and from the world around them. Some ask for a transformation in ways of thinking and reasoning to allow students to understand how they can contribute to a more sustainable way of living.

In one of the later units you are invited to consider how and what your students could learn from considering traditional wisdom, from those who have lived sustainably in the past and those that still do live in harmony with their environment. You are invited to consider which pedagogies you can adopt and, more likely, could more fundamentally adapt in line with the principles and ideas presented to represent sustainable pedagogies more fully in your teaching activities.

Sustainable pedagogies allow you and your students to develop the skills and understanding to sustain a future in which all life can thrive. The course is not about what sustainable living is but it is about equipping students with the skills they need. It asks everyone to practice disruption for the benefit of all citizens of earth, to think differently and be different because staying the same is not an option given the challenges the environment and societies are faced with. It challenges educators to not just minimally adjust their courses, but to transform the way they ask students to approach learning and living so that all may flourish. 

Watch Video 1 ‘Competencies for transitions’ to understand more about the ideas covered in this course.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Video 1  Competencies for transitions
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Throughout the course sustainable pedagogies will be modelled, adapted as applicable to online distance learning. As a learner you will be engaged in a range of activities from individual tasks such as, reading, listening, individual reflection and making notes, to collective tasks such as, posting on a word cloud and posting and responding with comments on a forum discussion.

Full guidance on how to get the most out of the course tools can be found in our Help with this course pages.

Unit 1 learning outcomes

By the end of this unit you will have:

  • Considered why sustainable pedagogies are needed and clarified the differences between teaching sustainability and sustainable pedagogies.
  • Related sustainable pedagogies to educational curricula and considered who should use sustainable pedagogies.
  • Questioned what sustainable pedagogies are.

Activity planner

ActivityTask Timing (minutes)
1.1

How might the UNESCO competencies be developed in students?

  • Read and reflect on competencies.
  • Post on forum discussion.
30
1.2

Who is responsible for developing sustainable development competencies?

  • Read the summary of the four nation’s stances and the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) stance on education for sustainable development.
  • Read the results of Pearson’s survey.
  • Post on the forum discussion and read other learners’ posts.
45
1.3

What is important in sustainable pedagogies?

  • Read the summary of UNESCO’s renewing of the social contract and BERA manifesto.
  • Pick five keywords and phrases that are important in sustainable pedagogies.
  • Add to the word cloud.
45

1 Why discuss sustainable pedagogies?

Teaching sustainability and sustainable pedagogies will be discussed in this section in order to help you identify their commonalities and differences.

In 2015 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and challenged all those concerned with enacting a sustainable future to find ways to meet these goals for the benefit of everyone. Its members pledged to achieve these goals by 2030. As time goes on, the need to act to promote sustainability seems ever more urgent.

To know to know more about these goals watch the UNESCO video below.

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Video 2 UNESCO: The lab of ideas, the lab for change!

1.1 The UN sustainable development goals

Goal number four of the UN (United Nations) SDGs concerns the provision of quality education to all young people. Within goal four (SDG 4), Target 4.7 focuses on education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship and states that:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

(UN, 2023)

This course focuses on how educational establishments can act to do their part and facilitate their students to develop the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development. It is about exploring sustainable pedagogies that encourage learners of any age to develop the critical skills and ways of learning and being that will help them to flourish in a future that is changing so fast, and in complex ways that are often impossible to predict.

Some will say discussions about sustainability require an understanding of the meteorological science behind climate change, the biology and psychology behind demographic changes or the computing science behind Artificial Intelligence. These might be considered to be part of ‘teaching sustainability’. It is true that foundational knowledge is necessary but what is perhaps more important when knowledge is ‘2-clicks’ away in our digital (or post-digital – Tagg and Lyons, 2022) world, are critical, reasoning and problems-solving skills. Living sustainability requires these skills and also a keen sense of social justice.

  Reflection

Timing:

Reflect on what you think about when you think about sustainability, and also on what you currently see as likely sustainable pedagogies.

 Make a note of your thoughts in the box below.

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In 2018, Riekmann set out a list of key competencies that UNESCO affirm education for sustainability should develop. Those areas are given below, along with some student outcomes that may indicate a student has developed those competencies.

Table 1  UNESCO’s key competencies for sustainability

CompetencyA student who displays this competency can… 
Systems thinking
  • recognise and understand relationships
  • analyse complex systems
  • consider how systems and embedded within different domains and scales
  • deal with uncertainty

 

 

 

 

Ways of working

Anticipatory (future thinking)
  • understand and evaluate multiple outcomes
  • create their own visions for the future
  • apply the precautionary principle
  • assess the consequences of actions
  • deal with risks and changes
Critical thinking
  • question norms, practices and opinions
  • reflect on their own values perceptions and actions
  • take a position in the sustainable development discourse
Strategic
  • develop and implement innovative actions that further sustainable development at the local level and further afield

 

 

 

Ways of practicing

Collaboration
  • learn from others (including peers, and others inside and outside of their institution)
  • understand and respect the needs, perspectives and actions of others
  • deal with conflicts in a group
  • facilitate collaborative and participatory problem solving
Integrated problem-solving
  • apply different problem-solving frameworks to complex sustainable development problems
  • develop viable, inclusive and equitable solutions
  • utilise appropriate competencies to solve problems
Self-awareness
  • reflect on values, perceptions and actions
  • reflect on role in the local community and global society
  • continually evaluate and further motivate actions
  • deal with feelings and desires

 

 

Ways of being

Normative
  • understand and reflect on the norms and values that underlie one’s actions
  • negotiate sustainable development values, principles, goals and targets, in a context of conflicts of interests and trade-offs, uncertain knowledge and contradictions
(Riekmann, 2018, p. 44)

In this next activity you are asked to look at these competencies and consider how your teaching (or awareness of teaching) in your context is already, or could progress to be designed to develop these competencies.

Activity 1.1  How might the UNESCO competencies be developed in students?

Timing: Allow around 30 minutes
By signing in and enrolling on this course you can view and complete all activities within the course, track your progress in My OpenLearn Create. and when you have completed a course, you can download and print a free Statement of Participation - which you can use to demonstrate your learning.

2a.  Post a brief summary of your thinking under the Activity 1.1 forum discussion. It is suggested this is no more than one or two paragraphs.

b. Read and comment on at least two posts from other people, expressing on how their ideas have added to your thinking.

  Explore

If you wish to know more about UNESCO’s key competencies, read:

  • Riekmann, M. (2018) ‘Learning to transform the world: key competencies in Education for Sustainable Development’, Chapter 2 in Leicht, A., Heiss, J. and Byun, W. (eds) Issues and trends in Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ ark:/ 48223/ pf0000261445.

In the next section you are asked to start to consider who is responsible for helping students develop competencies for sustainable development.

2 Sustainable pedagogies and educational curricula

You are now asked to consider who should use sustainable pedagogies.

The place of sustainability in educational curricula is contested. As exemplified in Table 2 below, in Scottish and Welsh school curriculum documents it is envisaged as interwoven throughout all curriculum areas, whilst in England, which has a knowledge-based curriculum, it is very much seen as part of the teaching of science and/or geography. In higher education settings where the curriculum is not prescribed in the same way, guidance is offered encouraging sustainability to be included in the curriculum.

Table 2 Extracts from UK curricula guidance

England

The English government focuses its policies on the environmental aspect of sustainability, and whilst admitting there are social and economic aspects of sustainability, it states ‘the UK requires the education sector to play its role in positively responding to climate change and inspiring action on an international stage’. There is some discussion of how understanding climate change and instilling a love a nature may help prepare young people to act; it seems to consider introducing examination in natural history and environmental science an adequate response. There is some indication that such teaching should lie within the Science area of the curriculum.

  • Department for Education (2022) Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems, UK Government.
Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the World Around Us (WAU) is a thematic primary school curriculum component and has some alignment with sustainability. However, in 2015 the Northern Ireland school inspectorate (ETI) highlighted that the importance of WAU needed some re-emphasis. Peace building continues to have a prominent place in schools’ curriculum development plans and culture and the curriculum strand of learning for life and work has a global citizen strand.

The eco-schools initiative exists to make environmental awareness and action an intrinsic part of the life and ethos of Northern Irish schools. Eco-Schools endeavours to extend learning beyond the classroom and develop responsible attitudes and commitment, both at home and in the wider community. It uses a participatory approach and a combination of learning and action to improve the environments of schools and their local communities. It promotes sustainable living through whole-school action supported by learning resources, management tools and a Green Flag award scheme.

  • The World Around Us theme in the primary curriculum.
  • The Learning for Life and Work curriculum.
  • The Eco schools programme exists to promote environmental awareness in schools in Northern Ireland.
Scotland

The Scottish government make learning sustainably part of every education professional’s role and part of every subject discipline. In its Learning for Sustainability Action Plan, Education Scotland (2016) states that every learner is entitled to experience ‘Learning for Sustainability’ (LfS) which it states is ‘a cross-curricular approach which enables learners, educators, schools and their wider communities to build a socially-just, sustainable and equitable society. An effective whole-school and community approach to LfS weaves together global citizenship, sustainable development education and outdoor learning to create coherent, rewarding and transformative learning experiences.’ (Education Scotland, 2016, p. 1) It goes onto say that learning for sustainability is an important component of Scotland’s national curriculum (Curriculum for Excellence), and a core part of teachers’ professional standards.

  • Education Scotland (2016) Learning for Sustainability Action Plan, Scottish Government.
Wales

The Welsh Government) has published documents intended to help the education sector understand how to implement ideas about Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship (ESDGC).

The Welsh Government does not consider ESDGC as an additional subject but rather as being about values and attitudes, understanding and skills, an ethos that can embedded throughout school life. ESDGC looks at the world and the ways that all living things relate to each other, recognising social injustices in a world which can shaped and changed by the attitudes, values and behaviour of the people who populate it. ESDGC ‘supports the development of thinking skills, and helps involve and engage young people in their own learning.’ (Welsh Government, 2008, p. 4)

  • Welsh Government (2008) ESDGC: A Common Understanding for Schools.
In Higher Education

Advance HE (2021) has produced Education for Sustainable Development Guidance jointly with the QAA which covers what education for sustainable development could look like in higher education institutes.

It states that sustainable development should be seen as an aspirational ongoing process of addressing social, environmental and economic concerns to create a better world and that education for sustainable development is the process of creating curriculum structures and subject-relevant content to support sustainable development. The guidance considers that all key players must be involved, beginning with students and continuing through all organisations, academics, professional service teams, governance and communities.

  • the executive summary
  • the full guidance

Each of the four UK nations takes a different stance on how and whether sustainable development competencies are to be developed in schools.

  Explore

For a clear resume of these policies access:

  • Bamber, P., Bullivant, A., Glover, A., King, B. and McMcCann, G. (2016) ‘A comparative review of policy and practice for education for sustainable development/education for global citizenship (ESD/GC) in teacher education across the four nations of the UK’, Management in Education, 30(3), pp. 112–120. Available at: DOI: 10.1177/ 0892020616653179.

What does this mean for these learners as they leave compulsory education in terms of the contributions they can make towards sustainable futures? For those moving on to study in Further Education Institutes or as university students, what implications does this have for the curriculum (and pedagogies) they, and society, need?

The next activity asks you to think about how the differences in emphasis in different school education contexts will affect the pedagogies of higher education educators in UK higher education institutes, who may draw students from across the four nations.

Activity 1.2  Who is responsible for developing sustainability competencies?

Timing: Allow around 35 minutes: 15 minutes (Part A), 20 minutes (Part B)
By signing in and enrolling on this course you can view and complete all activities within the course, track your progress in My OpenLearn Create. and when you have completed a course, you can download and print a free Statement of Participation - which you can use to demonstrate your learning.

4.  Post a summary of your thoughts in the Activity 1.2 forum discussion.

Read others posts and consider how they add to your understanding.

Now you have considered the importance of developing competencies for sustainable development the next section will focus on the pedagogies required for this important enterprise.

3 What makes pedagogy sustainable?

There are two recent publications that help to answer what sustainable pedagogies are, although it will take the rest of this course and more learning on top of that to fully answer that question.

The first to be discussed is UNESCO’s Renewing the social contract for education and the second is the British Educational Research Association (BERA)’s Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability (EfES).

3.1 UNESCO advocates…

Key elements of sustainable pedagogies

UNESCO (2023) starts to explain sustainable pedagogies in its social contract for education that meets SDG 4. They state that ‘interconnectedness and interdependencies should frame pedagogy’. This intertwining should be reflected in the relationships that exist between teachers, students and the knowledge that is offered in their education. In particular, learners should see how they are connected to the world and how all learning takes place in and is connected with the world. In this way students will begin to know how others’ actions affect them and how their actions affect others. The more classrooms, schools and other educational contexts bring students in contact with others who are different from them, the more they can learn from each other.

UNESCO (2023) emphasises that:

Cooperation and collaboration must be taught and practiced in appropriate ways at different levels and ages. Education builds the capacities of individuals to work together to transform themselves and the world when cooperation and collaboration are defining characteristics of learning communities. This can be as true for adult education and learning as it is for early childhood education.

Solidarity, compassion, ethics, and empathy should be ingrained in how we learn.

Teaching that is focused on ‘unlearning bias, prejudice and divisiveness’ will allow the people of the world to work together for the benefit of all. Empathy is another vital attribute ‘essential for building pedagogies of solidarity’.

Implications for assessment

For student growth and learning to be worthwhile and purposeful, UNESCO (2023) recommend that assessment should be aligned with pedagogies of cooperation and solidarity. They state that educational objectives should synchronise with tests, exams and other areas of assessment but also mention that important learning can not always be ‘measured or counted’ so they want to prioritise formative assessment that is teacher-driven. They mention that the emphasis on ‘competitive, high-stakes standardized assessment’ must be reduced to allow for learning sustainably.

3.2 BERA’s manifesto advocates…

Key elements of sustainable pedagogies

BERA (2021) commissioned A Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, presented as a patchworking of views, which was co-created by young people and teachers, facilitated by higher education researchers. They advocate that education has a key role to play in creating long-term responses to the social and environmental consequences of the climate crisis. The manifesto presents priorities at the class, school, community and policy level.

This evidences that both young people and teachers want to see change at all levels to value sustainability in their institutions – not only in teaching and learning – but also in the way institutions are operated and regulated. Together, these multigenerational voices call for the environment to be part of all subjects and educational practices. This will require continuing professional development for teachers and lecturers of all subjects to help them gain confidence in teaching about sustainability. They recommend greening their local environments, including procurement and food waste policies, growing food and other plants as a way to contribute to the global effort towards sustainability.

Implications for assessment

BERA’s manifesto recommends changes to assessment by recommending externally accredited awards for students and teachers with an environmental sustainability focus; for older students, these awards should carry UCAS points. They also recommend involving the local community in a ‘sustainability curriculum’ to ensure that multigenerational voices continue to be drivers for what is needed, along with a campaign to enlist the endorsement of politicians and social media influencers to extend the reach and impact of these local actions.

According to BERA’s manifesto sustainable pedagogies are those that enable students to develop the following capabilities:

BERA’s capabilities

  • Knowledge for action
  • Critical thinking
  • Questioning
  • Data literacy
  • Research
  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Networking
(BERA, 2021, p. 1)

  Reflection

Reflect on how these sustainable pedagogies in BERA’s manifesto relate to UNESCO’s key competencies for sustainable development in Table 1.

What do they have in common? What are their differences?

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  Explore

If you wish to read more about international attention to and use of sustainable pedagogies, then read:

In the next activity you will use both the summaries of UNESCO’s key elements of sustainable pedagogies and BERA’s manifesto to begin to tease out the important aspects of sustainable pedagogies relevant to your environment and context.

Activity 1.3  What is important in sustainable pedagogies?

Timing: Allow around 45 minutes
By signing in and enrolling on this course you can view and complete all activities within the course, track your progress in My OpenLearn Create. and when you have completed a course, you can download and print a free Statement of Participation - which you can use to demonstrate your learning.
  • b.  Reflect on whether you want to change or add to your key words on your memo in Question 1(b).

  • c.  Contribute your revised key words to the word cloud below then reflect on how well your key word ideas align with other learners’ thoughts on the word cloud.

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4 Summary of Unit 1

In Unit 1 you have considered why sustainable pedagogies are considered important and the competencies that sustainable pedagogies are designed to facilitate students to develop. You have read summaries of publications that take sustainable development seriously and recognise that education has a huge role to play in encouraging students to develop the skills and knowledge they will need to flourish in an uncertain future.

You will have seen that many people recognise that working collaboratively and co-operatively, and drawing on different perspectives and voices from across the generations are vital aspects of a patchwork quilt-like range of skills that students need to develop. Local and global learning and connections can be made and as a ‘quilter’ or leader of learning, these experiences can be stitched together into an understandable and harmonious whole, and mutual understanding and respect is generated. The true inclusion sustainability demands, involves respecting all perspectives and such respect is something that can be learned.

  Explore

Read more about quilted storying in:

  • Ritchie, J., Phillips, L.G., Brock, C. et al. (2023) ‘Teaching and Learning in COVID-19: Pandemic Quilt Storying’, International Review of Qualitative Research. Available at: https://doi.org/ 10.1177/ 19408447231169069 (Accessed 28 November 2023).

Unit 1 cards

There are Sustainable pedagogies cards at the end of each unit that encapsulate key learning points from each unit and they will be used at the end of the course. There is an onscreen version below and also a print-friendly PDF download for you to keep and print out if you wish to.

Click/tap each card below to reveal the text.

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One of the important skills that will enable students to live sustainably in the world is that of developing empathy and compassion for others.

You will find out more about this in Unit 2: Learning sustainably through care and compassion.

Further reading

Armendariz, R. and Abrom, A. (2023) ‘Encouraging Youth Leadership on SDGs Through Transforming Education’, IISD – SDG Knowledge Hub, (9 August). Available at: http://sdg.iisd.org/ commentary/ guest-articles/ encouraging-youth-leadership-on-sdgs-through-transforming-education/ ?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=SDG%20Update%20-%2010%20August%202023&utm_content=SDG%20Update%20-%2010%20August%202023+CID_b32cb7dffd1a4975e0fbd7c07951699a&utm_source=cm&utm_term=Read (Accessed: 10 October 2023).

Bamber, P., Bullivant, A., Glover, A., King, B. and McMcCann, G. (2016) ‘A comparative review of policy and practice for education for sustainable development/education for global citizenship (ESD/GC) in teacher education across the four nations of the UK’, Management in Education, 30(3), pp. 112–120. Available at:https://journals.sagepub.com/ doi/ 10.1177/ 0892020616653179 (Accessed: 10 October 2023).

Riekmann, M. (2018) ‘Learning to transform the world: key competencies in Education for Sustainable Development’, Chapter 2 in Leicht, A., Heiss, J. and Byun, W. (eds) Issues and trends in Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ ark:/ 48223/ pf0000261445 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

Ritchie, J., Phillips, L.G., Brock, C. et al. (2023) ‘Teaching and Learning in COVID-19: Pandemic Quilt Storying’, International Review of Qualitative Research. Available at: https://doi.org/ 10.1177/ 19408447231169069 (Accessed 28 November 2023).

References

Advance HE (2021) Education for Sustainable Development Guidance, QAA. Available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/ docs/ qaa/ guidance/ education-for-sustainable-development-guidance-executive-summary.pdf?sfvrsn=b121d281_8 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

BERA (British Educational Research Association) (2021) A Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, BERA Research Commission. Available at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/ publication/ bera-research-commission-2019-2020-manifesto-for-education-for-environmental-sustainability-efes (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

Riekmann, M. (2018) ‘Learning to transform the world: key competencies in Education for Sustainable Development, Chapter 2’ in Leicht, A., Heiss, J. and Byun, W. (eds) Issues and trends in Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ ark:/ 48223/ pf0000261445 (Accessed: 29 February 2024).

Tagg, C. and Lyons, A. (2022) Mobile Messaging and Resourcefulness: A Post-digital Ethnography, Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

UNESCO (2023) Renewing the Social Contract for Education. Available at: https://www.unesco.org/ en/ futures-education/ new-social-contract?hub=81942 (Accessed: 29 Februrary 2024).

United Nations (UN) (2023) Goal 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/ goals/ goal4#targets_and_indicators (Accessed: 19 October 2023).