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Teaching sustainability in higher education

It has been said that learning sustainable development is the greatest learning challenge for humanity. Sustainability transformations are fundamental changes and to achieve them, we need new approaches and pedagogy in the field of sustainability and education.


Crister Nyberg

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Jani Siirilä

yliopettaja, vaikuttava ammatillinen pedagogiikka
principal lecturer, engaging vocational pedagogy
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 09.03.2022

What within sustainability should we teach in higher education and why? We can take a closer look at the question by identifying four levels of implementing Education for Sustainable development (ESD) in higher education.

The first level is about whether ESD is part of the higher education institutions’ strategy. The second level focuses on how integrated ESD is into all competence areas and programmes. The third level is about how ESD is integrated into courses. The fourth level is identified when sustainability becomes the driver for teaching and learning.

Empowering and engaging students

There are different definitions of educating sustainable development. Educating sustainable development means raising awareness without challenging the current paradigm. It may be seen as doing things better, such as focusing recycling of waste in an organizations’ coffee room.

UNESCO defines ESD as empowering students with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing, including climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty and inequality. Learning must prepare students to find solutions for the challenges of today and the future.

Education should be transformative and allow students to make informed decisions and take individual and collective action to change our societies and care for the planet. Thus, ESD envisions education as a means to achieve sustainable development. It´s about seeing ESD as a key competence of lifelong learning.

Sustainability education sees the aim of learning as change by engaging the person and the social institution through a holistic approach. That is when sustainability becomes the driver for teaching and learning.

Examples of sustainability education can be seen in Haaga-Helia´s courses like Circular Economy and SCM, Green Product and Package Design, Responsible Business Management, Responsible Business and Sharing Economy and Sustainable Finance.

In Haaga-Helia´s Vocational teacher training students can also choose a different pedagogical emphasis as part of their teaching and counseling practice. One optional pedagogical theme is Sustainability pedagogy. Students choose a teaching practice context in which they apply sustainability pedagogy. The context can be, for example, a project, module, part of a degree or working life training. In the teaching practice, they plan and implement sustainable development content in accordance with the curricula and qualification criteria.

Why should we teach sustainability?

Looking at the big picture, we divide unlimited material growth with our planet’s limited resources and get an unsustainable equation. This means that we are still in an exponential growth mode in many ways.

Population growth and GPT is increasing, but at the same time we have less and less non-renewable and renewable natural resources to use. We have maximized exponential growth despite having more loans than ever on the levels of state, homes and individuals. Exponential growth also leads to noticing the problems too late, when the breach has been going on for quite a while already.

According to the European Commission sustainable development is one essential competence of lifelong learning (European Commission 2018). Thus, every aspect of education, public awareness and training, from early childhood through higher/tertiary education and onto continuing professional development and awareness campaigns contribute to this global ESD effort to create a more sustainable world (United Nations 2015).

Sustainable development is the greatest learning challenge of humanity

It is clear that the development ensuring our current way of life is endangering the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Finnish lifestyle consumes almost four Earths worth of renewable and non-renewable natural resources.

It has been said that learning sustainable development is the greatest learning challenge for humanity. Sustainability transformations are fundamental changes in societies paving their way towards a sustainable future. To achieve these sustainability transformations, new approaches and pedagogy must be developed in the field of sustainability and education.

The KESTO projects’ network researches and develops ethical sustainability expertise in cooperation with working life partners and university students and teachers. The aim of the network is to strengthen the ethical sustainability expertise among universities and working life in long-term cooperation. Research and development actions are harnessed to advance pedagogical and responsible business solutions and ethically sustainable operations. The effects of the project are analyzed by systemic thinking from a multi-perspective view.