Uncovering sustainability in the curriculum



Faculty often speak of “coverage” when there is a movement afoot to add something to the curriculum. Champions of the movement demand more coverage of the favored topic, ideas, skills, or perspectives in the curriculum, while the unconverted emit exasperated sighs—arguing either that there is no room in their curriculum to cover anything else or that the proposed addition does not fit what they typically cover. The movement to better integrate sustainability into the higher education curriculum might move past this perennial conflict (while better serving our core teaching and learning mission) if faculty, instead, spoke in terms of “uncoverage.” Rather than limiting sustainability by framing it as a topic requiring additional coverage in existing classes, or the creation of specialized classes and programs, faculty should be striving to uncover the full pedagogical power of the concept as a way of critically examining the world. Rather than merely adding sustainability coverage to the curriculum, sustainability could be a catalyst that actually strengthens and enriches the teaching and learning goals scholars already hold in their disciplines—all the while making powerful applications to environmental and social causes at the heart of sustainability on campus and in our communities.

In order to make this move, subtle but powerful shifts are needed in both the way faculty think about teaching and learning in higher education and the meanings ascribed to sustainability. Once we make these shifts, it will become clear that we are closer than we ever imagined to fully integrating sustainability into the higher education curriculum.

A Shift in the way Faculty think about teaching and learning

When we, as faculty, speak of covering something in a curriculum, we immediately limit our pedagogical imagination to what educational theorists Wiggins and McTighe describe as a “march through a body of material (often a textbook) within a specified time frame” (2005, 340). The “stuff” of learning becomes poorly differentiated information and there is an implied trade-off of breadth for depth. Sustainability, or any upstart area of focus striving to establish a place in the curriculum, stands little chance of cracking the armor of coverage in the curriculum. Teachers in every single higher education class are already forced to make impossible choices about coverage of information within their own disciplines—let alone an add-on topic. When we see teaching and learning as coverage there is simply never enough room.

More importantly, squeezing sustainability into coverage does a disservice to the teaching and learning enterprise because sustainability could be the catalyst for a much more powerful educational experience. In contrast to coverage, Wiggins and McTighe present uncoverage as an education based on inquiry, discovery, depth of understanding, and careful prioritization of learning material. To uncover learning material and attain those most powerful “aha!” learning moments, students must “consider, propose, test, question, criticize, and verify” big ideas such as principles, laws, theories, concepts, essential questions and perspectives to develop an understanding that is “not accepted on faith but is investigated and substantiated” (2005, 129).

When students engage in uncoverage they develop the core skills of inquiry required by the academic discipline in which they are operating, and they join in the prioritization of content that distinguishes the most important and transferable big ideas from the great mass of topics and information surrounding them.

An education of uncoverage meets the highest expressed goals of most higher education institutions: developing self-aware, critically thinking, technically skilled, problem solvers. An education of uncoverage also matches the highest goals of the academic disciplines around which most of these institutions are organized. Academic disciplines are not merely constructed around topics. They are designed to “cultivate powers of the mind” that can be applied to any number of topics (Levine, 2006, p. 233), and they coalesce around paradigms with commonly understood methods, concepts, themes or theories, and avenues of inquiry (Kuhn, 1970).

Similarly, the best teachers apply content and topics to develop transferable skills (Weimer, 2002, p. 51), and cultivate “habits of mind” that enable students to “understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate evidence and conclusions” (Bain, 2004, pp. 85 & 115). For sustainability to achieve broad integration with the higher education curriculum, it must come to be associated with “big ideas,” rich enough to fit with an education of uncoverage and complement the intellectual priorities within academic disciplines.

A shift in the meanings ascribed to sustainability

Unfortunately, the dominant meaning currently ascribed to sustainability by most people in higher education is not pedagogically rich enough to fit with an education of uncoverage across the disciplines. This is an issue of perception. Sustainability is a “should” on U.S. college campuses—the dominant association attached to the term is a list of prescribed practices for individuals, administration, and facilities staff to adopt or feel shame for failing to adopt. These prescribed practices are certainly worthy of encouragement, but they can also constitute an intellectual shortcut around the more complicated and pedagogically rich relationships between natural limits and value systems that underlie human impacts on the environment.

I have conducted word association exercises on sustainability with undergraduates and faculty over the past several years and the results indicate that nearly 90 percent of students and faculty identify sustainability first with recycling or some other prescribed practice. Less than 10 percent make an association with a bigger idea such as “conservation,” “systems thinking,” or “precautionary principle” (Sherman 2008, 189). These results align with those from survey research that indicate students most frequently articulate sustainability as “light green” actions such as purchasing habits and recycling (Kagawa, 2007). It is also revealing that the overwhelming majority of content shared in sustainability journals, on-line bulletins, and conferences, or measured in campus rating systems is focused on facilities changes rather than teaching and learning (Sherman 2008, 190). While our growing to-do list of institutional and individual sustainability behaviors is positive, it does not provide an entry to integration with the curriculum. It is difficult to see how prescriptive lists of behaviors can integrate into the educational mission of colleges and universities.

The concept of sustainability could be so much more than a prescriptive list. Powerful, big ideas and essential questions are just waiting to be uncovered in nearly every definition of the term. One is the idea of limits—some threshold beyond which an action will no longer be sustainable. The limits element within sustainability is central to big ideas in both the natural and social sciences ranging from the second law of thermodynamics to the economic reality that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Essential questions such as— Where do things come from? Where do they go to? Why? With what do they interact? To what effect? What are the limits inherent in certain social, economic, and political organizations? — are each ripe with pedagogical opportunities in disciplines ranging from physics to political science. Another idea waiting to be uncovered in the term sustainability is the value-laden vision for the future. Whatever “counts” as sustainable (or not) is subject to a value-laden determination of how the future ought to be. Any concept of sustainability is the product of a contest of values, and this fact opens up essential questions ranging from the normative, ethical, and philosophical, to applied social psychological questions of how best to influence behavior.

Uncovering sustainability in the curriculum

Although by all accounts the sustainability revolution in higher education has moved much faster in facilities than it has in curriculum, there is reason to believe that we might be close to a punctuated leap toward greater integration with the curriculum. First there is the growing success of faculty workshops on sustainability based on the Ponderosa and Piedmont projects led by Geoff W. Chase and Peggy F. Barlett. I have had great success with my own faculty by opening up ideas of limits and a future vision and giving disciplinary teams two hours to: (1) identify big ideas within their discipline, (2) identify a link between one of these ideas and elements of sustainability, and (3) design a class component that integrates the discipline with sustainability.

This exercise is designed to integrate sustainability as something that fits with and helps uncover what faculty members are already trying to teach in their classes. No faculty member at these workshops has ever been stymied in an attempt to make this connection. The Curriculum for the Bioregion initiative in Washington State has also convened regional scholars by discipline to match an extensive list of big ideas of sustainability to those in the disciplines. In 2009, an Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Sustainability Learning Objective Group developed a template of seven sustainability principles and linked them to educational goals that fit the language of big ideas and example learning outcomes.

Recently, I employed this last framework to inventory the syllabus of every course offered at my university in compliance with the new Sustainability Tracking and Rating System (STARS). If a course seemed to meet one of the seven sustainability principles it was deemed “sustainability related.” If it met three or more principles it was deemed “sustainability focused.” I expected that the faculty who had attended sustainability workshops would each have at least one related or focused course, but this would not amount to much as a percentage of all our courses. I conducted the content analysis with two students who are sustainability champions on campus, but also very skeptical of the quality of university efforts in this area. As we dug into thousands of syllabi, we were shocked to learn just how many courses were engaging at least some of the sustainability principles and just how wide ranging the contributing disciplines were. Over 10 percent of all the courses offered were sustainability related and another 10 percent of the courses were sustainability focused. Sustainability related or focused courses ranged across thirty-two of our thirty-four academic departments.

We may well argue about whether we set the best thresholds for meeting “related” and “focused” categories, but this still means that hundreds of courses, taught by scores of faculty members at my university are engaging principles of sustainability—perhaps without even knowing it! Obviously, the lack of awareness of the connection is a concern. But imagine the opportunity! If students and teachers begin looking for and enhancing the connections that are already there in the curriculum, we will make an enormous leap forward in a way that brings sustainability into the curriculum across the disciplines with lasting pedagogical power. We need only work harder to uncover sustainability in the curriculum.