Certain concepts that shape how we think and what we know, draw on and operate beyond disciplines. They are living concepts, their meanings contested and morphing over time. Sustainability is one such concept. It draws on many disciplines and it is temporal such that the meaning of and means through which we might obtain balanced outcomes of a thriving economy, social justice and ecological restoration changes over time. Despite this, the majority of higher education learning occurs within degrees programs designed within disciplinary-based curriculum. How we engage with and embed concepts such as sustainability within our disciplinary teaching programs requires special consideration.
Learn about sustainability
One way to embed such concepts, is to ‘learn about sustainability’, or to understand what the concept itself means. There are many widely accepted global frameworks that define the multidimensional sustainability concept. For example, UTS interprets sustainability through the Sustainable Development Goals framework that defines and provides metrics that underscore a universal agenda for sustainable development. This framework outlines goals that span all disciplines that are taught in our university programs, such as goal 8, ‘decent work and economic growth’ and goal 12’ responsible consumption and production’, which provide an agenda for sustainable business education. However, sustainability in business education could make a contribution across all goals.
Learning for sustainability
Another way to consider sustainability is through a social learning and transformative approach, often called ‘learning for sustainability’. Beyond learning about and applying knowledge to obtain sustainability goals, learning for sustainability influences how we see and understand the world through our various disciplinary bodies of knowledge. Learning for sustainability generates ways of knowing by centring on the human learner as interdependent and interconnected to, and impacting upon Earth and social systems. Learning for sustainability is guided by an ability to judge, discern and create decisions through an application of sustainability principles. Learning is directed toward fostering ways of knowing that create positive impacts from the activities of current generations, that are socially and ecologically restorative and generative of future prosperity. This is a dynamic and socially constructed interpretation of sustainability that is difficult to capture within static program learning objectives.
When sustainability was embedded into the UTS Business School programs, faculty members from across each of the disciplines, formed a sustainability working party (SWP) and undertook a participatory and inter-disciplinary process. They viewed embedding sustainability in business curriculum as a living process. Supported by strategic leaders in the faculty, SWP members co-created a sustainability program learning objective as a threshold concept, that was embedded across all program offerings. The learning objective is to “critically analyse sustainability principles for various stakeholders in relation to business contexts” and at the highest level of assurance (termed the ‘immerse’ level) a postgraduate student is expected to “demonstrate their proficiency in using this essential knowledge in making professional (accountable) judgments: they can defend their sustainability decisions and actions”. The objective itself and the thresholds are dynamic. Meaning and interpretation of accountable and responsible judgements can morph by discipline. To support the embedding of this objective within the disciplinary programs, the SWP members engaged in an essential process of ongoing dialogue and debate during regular monthly meetings, and in between times as they met with their colleagues responsible for assuring learning. This ongoing participatory process was a key feature of embedding learning for sustainability in the Business programs.
Other key features were the boundary and epistemic objects that drew academics into and were an outcome of the participatory curriculum development process. These along with the faculty leadership that supported the process will be discussed in a subsequent blog post.
Feature image by: Dan Freeman