There’s a lot of buzz around McGill these days about sustainability. We have an office dedicated to it, hundreds of community-based projects funded by the Sustainability Projects Fund, a major program in Sustainability, Science and Society and numerous courses that focus on various aspects of social, environmental and economic sustainability.
McGill’s Office of Sustainability (MOOS) along with Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) began collaborating on a SPF funded project in the spring of 2014 that created a sustainability learning community with two faculties: the Department of Integrated Studies in Education and the Faculty of Agriculture of Environmental Science. Since that time, the sustainability learning community has involved MOOS and TLS staff members along with professors, librarians and students from both of these faculties in interdisciplinary activities and discussions centering on sustainability and undergraduate curriculum. We are interested in the extent to which sustainability has been institutionalised into the teaching and learning culture at McGill and how we can both celebrate and support professors and instructors who integrate sustainability related learning outcomes into their courses.
When I first became involved with this project as a graduate research assistant, I found myself struggling specifically with one particular tension. I found myself thinking a lot about whether our goal was to help faculty and instructors teach about sustainability; or if our goal was to have them teach in a more sustainable way. I see these two things as very different, though obviously not mutually exclusive. For example, a course may examine loss of biodiversity due to human impacts in great detail and discuss strategies for mitigating species’ extinctions. Another instructor may lead their students in a simulation of a political negotiation, encouraging the students to take on leadership roles within their peer group. Or another instructor may do their absolute best to ensure gender diversity is represented when putting together a guest panel for their class. All of these examples demonstrate a commitment and role modelling or sustainability, but in different ways.
This tension in my mind only expanded as I continued on with the learning community. I was very much drawn to literature that described education for sustainability in terms of specific competencies (see Wiek et al. (2011) and Vaughter et al. (2013) for a few examples), and the idea that if we were to truly educate students to be able to tackle challenges in our current century, that we needed to be very deliberate about the content we pass on relating to global challenges. The learning community however, has given me the opportunity to refine my thinking on this- and to reflect on the importance of student empowerment and bottom-up development. In this way, a large part of the learning community’s discussions around sustainability have focused on the idea of leadership, critical thinking and communication skills as central for students engaged in an undergraduate education. The faculty and students and the learning community have provided countless examples over the last two years of ways in which they try to incorporate pedagogy and assignments related to the themes of leadership, critical thinking and communication; and the students too have emphasized time and time again how important classes focusing on these learning outcomes have been to their undergraduate education.
However, while I think all of these are very important, I still think that we may be a bit non-committal when we talk about sustainability in education. To me, an education that truly prepares students to tackle the sustainability challenges of our modern times needs to include certain elements. As an example, students need to understand the mechanisms behind climate change. They need to understand and be able to dissect major environmental and social movements. They need to have acumen in dissecting evidence-based literature. I honestly don’t think we can truly say that we’re educating students to be sustainability leaders if we aren’t arming them with very specific content and skills. Fostering critical thinkers is important, but only part of the path. They also have to understand the magnitude of the sustainability challenges we face and be adequately motivated to tackle them. That being said, I have been truly privileged to have the opportunity to participate in the sustainability learning community and to be exposed to such interesting opinions regarding sustainability in education. I’ve been able to hear so many diverse student experiences and have been so awed with how committed the participating faculty are to their vision of sustainability. I think if we want to continue to see this type of sustainability-focused teaching at McGill, we have to continue to have critical discussions about what it means to equip students as a sustainability champions and leaders. Hopefully this discourse will spread across all departments and faculties.
Vaughter, P., Wright, T., McKenzie, M., & Lidstone, L. (2013). Greening the Ivory Tower: A Review of Educational Research on Sustainability in Post-Secondary Education. Sustainability, 5, 2252-2271.
Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C.L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6, 203-218.
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