Teaching Approaches for Sustainability Education

Bruno Borsari, Biology, Winona State University

My proposed model of instruction for sustainability education is focusing on learning about the natural resource base, which provides food, fiber, renewable energy and ecological services to all. In this manner, an instruction for sustainability education becomes eco-driven because human needs, life style and quality of life are strictly regulated by a wise, adaptive management of ecosystems. Therefore, Ecology, Ethics and Evolution are primary concept features of any curriculum in sustainability. Evolutionary and ecological perspectives become fundamental teaching components as these explain how long-term changes and interactions occur in ecosystems making this knowledge vital to an education for sustainability. The curriculum emphasis here envisioned makes students ponder that we humans are part of nature and that the sustenance of the whole system depends on our ability and wisdom in cooperating with it, rather than against it. This cooperative attitude derives from values like stewardship, conservation, social justice and for this reason ethics becomes another important concept in my teaching practices, for sustainability education. An ecologically managed system regenerates its resource base to a certain extent to continue sustaining life and human life styles as well. Around the three main concepts (Ecology, Evolution and Ethics) I develop challenging themes that connect the physical and life sciences to the social sciences and philosophy, to demonstrate the complexity of the universe and, ultimately, the limitations of knowledge when studying complex systems like natural systems. Because prairies serve as an excellent model to enhance sustainability in most farming systems in the United States and beyond, I am especially interested in the study of these habitats from an agroecological perspective to better understand the efficacy of native plant communities contributing to the fertility of soils upon which our food systems depends so strongly. Therefore, a study of soil profiles, composting, vermicomposting become very valuable themes for all curricula and for geosciences in particular. The ecological integrity of soils supports a diverse plant community, which contributes to the prosperity of all terrestrial life and agriculture. For this reason every school should have a demonstration farm, or a garden at least, to make more visible all the possible connections in curricula in sustainability, while exposing directly all students to hands-on activities geared around foods and sustainable living. Success in this education effort requires a reasonable class size so that students and instructor may develop a relationship that may foster an interest for sustainability beyond the one semester course being offered. This approach leads students and teachers to reflections about ethical issues, in which many other themes (connecting to all other disciplines within the university) can be explored. From these and similar learning experiences students acquire the knowledge to approach present and foreseeable challenges from multiple angles. Most importantly, they begin to realize how important is to embrace humility as an attitude toward learning because 'systems' are complex. In addition to this, a more humble approach toward learning through the recognition of complexity in living and non-living systems makes learning a transformative endeavor, which I strongly encourage to enhance critical thinking and guide decision-making towards more holistic solutions. If we, humans embrace this ethic, then we may reflect more about being simply part of the system and not in control of it, as obsolete philosophies and education models trained us (rather than educating us) to think.

Downloadable version of this essay Teaching Approaches for Sustainability Education (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB May22 12)