Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: But we’re already doing this!

This is part three in a series of entries on some attitudes towards transforming higher education in the face of societal challenges.


”But we’re already doing this!”

When presenting features that usually describe an environment to foster learning for sustainable development (student-driven projects, employing critical thinking), a response by some people in higher education is that “We are already doing (at least some of) this”. This response seems to imply that all efforts towards a goal should be counted as individual contributions to a common end goal separately, and not evaluated in context of the desired end result. If the desired end result is that students are able and willing to contribute to the long-term survival and flourishing of human societies and the webs of life that support us, our efforts should be assessed in relation to how graduates do just that. As an analogy, learning can be considered as similar to growing crops in your garden. For successfully growing crops, you need, among other things, a fertile soil, proper nutrition, water, sunlight, seeds and time. It would not be considered a sucess if only some conditions would hold, without the desired end result. You may not considered your garden a success if it’s a barren plot of well-manured dirt bathing in sunlight 16H/day, without seeds or rain. Similarly, a drenched field would probably not qualify as a successful garden either even if, again, a subset of the conditions for a successful garden are fulfilled. The partial efforts do not result in contributing to the desired end result of a garden where something actually grows. There are a number of conditions that must hold at the same time for anything to grow, and different crops even grow under different conditions. In the same way, it is not sufficient that students get to select what technical system to implement in a course, if the technical systems are not assessed with respect to their contribution to resolve some of the real-world challenges that we face. If students get some orientation on the current state of the world without any means of applying skills to constructively address challenges that we are facing, that will similarly not contribute to students enacting change as a result of their degree programmes.

You would also probably not consider a soccer training season where everyone wants to quit soccer afterwards to be successful, just as you would not consider it successful if your team were never able to score a goal or win a match. You training typically has a purpose, to make people engaged and able to contribute to the success of your soccer team. To learn for a sustainable development is to become willing and able to contribute to a sustainable future. And that has profound implications on the way we teach and learn together.

Ola Leifler


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