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Thinking Through Sustainable Teaching and Learning

The question of how we discuss and respond to environmental change is one of the most pressing of the modern era. This is, however, a complex topic. Take, for example, the use of the term 'sustainability', a word that divides opinion. For some it means 'financial sustainability' ('is this worth doing if you can't afford to do it again?'). For others it simply means 'endurance' ('how are you going to keep this going?'). Some hate the word because they think it is the very opposite of scholarship ('isn't this just about neo-liberal capitalism?'). Other colleagues are in love with the word because, for them, it is fundamentally about saving the planet, protecting human interests and maintaining the eco-system ('how can we make our working practices, as humans living alongside non-humans, sustainable?').

The latest findings on 'the state of sustainability' in higher education have shown that: 'Action on teaching and learning for sustainability is varied' with a quarter of those working within the sector 'indicating that they do not have any plans, projects or campaigns in this area at their institution' (EAUC, 2015). In 2013, here at Warwick, Paul Taylor and Ria Dunkley worked on the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning's (IATL's) 'education for sustainability' project which identified at least 12 departments that explicitly dealt with environmental sustainability in their curricula. Also that year, Rosemary Collier (Life Sciences) and Susan Haedicke (Theatre Studies) developed 'Future Foodscapes: Grow Warwick' in connection with the university's Global Research Priority on Food. In another part of the woods, IATL lobbied the New Teaching and Learning Building Committee to respond to the challenges of open-space learning and 'education for sustainability' in the building's architectural design. Alongside this, we launched two interdisciplinary modules for undergraduates: 'Achieving Sustainability: Potentials and Barriers (Adelman and Pickering) and 'Challenges of Climate Change' (Levan and Mond). In 2014 IATL funded Baz Kershaw — author of Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events (2007) — to develop a transdisciplinary pedagogy for his 'Meadow Meanders', in collaboration with Rachel King (Education Studies). Perhaps most significantly Warwick is launching 11 undergraduate cross-faculty joint degrees under the Global Sustainable Development (GSD) banner. These degrees have involved much hard work and joined-up thinking from Professor Cathia Jenainati and her team, and they represent a genuinely meaningful move towards a less disparate approach to sustainability at Warwick.

The heart of the question for IATL concerns the theory and practice of teaching and learning in this area. Put simply, what is ecopedagogy? Does it offer a more nuanced way of discussing some of the aspects of sustainability outlined above, and should we adopt this word for any 'green' projects that use teaching and learning to improve environmental well-being? An interesting aspect of ecopedagogy is its strong association with social justice and opposition to the modern university as a business. Kahn (2010: 18), for example, calls for a 'northern ecopedagogy' (21) which will resist neoliberalism through 'cognitive praxis' (25) with three primary aims: '1) provide openings for the radicalization and proliferation of eco-literacy programs both within schools and society; 2) create liberatory opportunities for building alliances of praxis between scholars and the public (especially activists) on ecopedagogical interests; 3) ferment critical dialogue and self-reflective solidarity across the multitude of groups that make up the educational left during an extraordinary time of extremely dangerous planetary crisis' (27–8).

IATL is seeking to facilitate a conversation within the university about how we engage with the theory and praxis of teaching and learning and as such we are in the process of considering our own use of the terminology in this area. What we call the practice of teaching and learning in relation to the environment is one of our points of discussion. IATL will, in order to promote 'ecoliteracy' across — and beyond — the university, aim to improve the connections between the disciplines and departments so as to 'build alliances of praxis' and 'ferment critical dialogue and self-reflective solidarity'. In our context, we have to ask ourselves what 'ecological thinking' (Code, 2006) can be done at Warwick through teaching and learning, and then enact this in an inclusive and pedagogic manner.

In this spirit, the IATL Teaching Fellows recently attended the 50th anniversary event 'Sustainable Futures: Survival of the City', held on 23–24 October 2015 at Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava in Venice, in connection with the Global Research Priorities for International Development and Connecting Cultures. A recurrent theme at the symposium was how culture, language and technology affect the material and human ecology of past, present and future cities. The wide-ranging research from a variety of disciplines, particularly the Arts and Social Sciences, explored understandings of urban spaces, their history and their impact on the environment as well as how we can solve the problems of modern cities and imagine the urban spaces of the future. The event has been the starting point for some stimulating discussions and reflections, and has highlighted the complexities of the interdisciplinary discourse. The event showcased the varied practices and methodologies that exist when addressing the highly contested subject of human survival in an environment shaped by humans. This showed the importance of shared vocabularies and engaging multiple perspectives from multiple disciplines in considering the problem of establishing 'common ground' when addressing 'sustainability'.

What, then, is the way forward? IATL seeks to respond to the questions, challenges and possibilities outlined above in a number of ways. As well as the existing provision we mention, we are working with the Estates Office and Student Careers and Skills to embed the 'Green Steps' programme within the University, to aid students in becoming agents of change. There is of course, in the forthcoming GSD degrees, another version of Green Steps that students will take as a "certificate of sustainability," and that will appear on HEAR statements. IATL hopes, also, to introduce further modules at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, in consultation with interested colleagues, that will be complementary to the work already accomplished on the GSD degrees where Ecology, Food, and Water modules will be available to undergraduates.

IATL contributes to the Landscape Stakeholders' Group (addressing, amongst other things, outdoor classrooms in collaboration with Joel Cardinal from Estates) and we are working with 'Engineers Without Borders' by supporting them to develop a straw bale eco-centre on campus. We continue to promote ecological projects across the university through our funding streams. We are also exploring the possibility of developing a dedicated space for the teaching and learning of these topics on Westwood campus. And in that vein, through the Dark Would, we are exploring how teaching and learning spaces can be reconceptualised, drawing on Gregory Bateson (2000), to allow a greater ecology of thought in learning processes. In addition, IATL's annual International Conference of Undergraduate Research (ICUR) is pioneering ways of sharing research in conference settings across continents with no international travel, and in 2015 worked with ten universities across five continents. IATL continues to work with Monash University in Australia to develop teaching and learning methods which allow students to learn together as a cohort through the use of the international portal, enabling international teaching and learning with a greatly reduced environmental impact. These projects demonstrate that the imperatives we face can open up, and not merely restrict, possibilities for innovative teaching and learning.

Underpinning these initiatives and interventions, however, is a deeper question of how we can meaningfully embed 'sustainability' within our own university system. Is there a holistic, eco-systemic approach to engaging with questions of ecology that involves all of us within an educational ecosystem: students, members of staff across the university, and local communities? As Robert Frodeman writes: 'I often hear of the need to distinguish between data, information and knowledge. The only distinction that strikes me as pertinent is the one between any of these three and wisdom. The neglected question is: what is the relationship between knowledge and living well?' (2014: 7). Considering how higher education can rise to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world is essential. These are complex issues that raise questions concerning the relationships between ideas and practice. Drawing on the IATL Director Dr Nicholas Monk's blog post last month, we suggest an engagement with the ecosystems of place, praxis and pedagogy so that our responses across the university might be meaningful, embodied and lived.

Jonathan Heron, Naomi de la Tour and Elena Riva - the IATL Teaching Fellows

Published: 4 November 2015


IATL is seeking to engage with people throughout the University and beyond to facilitate a conversation in relation to these subjects. We invite you to share your experiences, ideas and practices. There are a number of ways you may choose to do this. Immediately, we would like to begin to open up a discussion about these ideas here and perhaps respond to the questions below, which arose from the Venice symposium:

  • Sustainability: for whom or what? By whom? To what end?

  • What is the relationship between human sustainability and environmental sustainability?

  • How can we facilitate the epistemic translation between disciplines?

  • How do we work towards creating a higher education ecosystem which allows meaningful engagement with these issues?


Works cited

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (2000)

Code, Lorraine. Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location (2006)

Frodeman, Robert. Sustainable Knowledge: A theory of interdisciplinarity (2014)

Kahn, Richard. Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy & Planetary Crisis: The Ecopedagogy Movement (2010)

Kershaw, Baz. Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events (2007)

Further reading

Fassbinder, Samuel; Nocella, Anthony; and Kahn, Richard; (eds.) Greening the academy: ecopedagogy through the liberal arts (2012)

Scholz, Ronald. Environmental Literacy in Science and Society: From Knowledge to Decisions (2011)

Playdon, Zoe. Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, Hetrotopias and Apocalyptic Desire (2015)

Online reports

EAUC, The State of Sustainability in Tertiary Education (2015), available at:

IATL, Education for Sustainability (2013), available at: