Chapter 2 Why Sustainability in Teaching and Learning?

Why Sustainability in Teaching and Learning?

University Priorities

This section is adapted from “Rationale” in Embedding Sustainable Development Goals in Teaching and Learning, by Aditi Garg, published by the University of Saskatchewan in 2023. Its purpose is to provide the context and rationale for the Sustainability Faculty Fellows program.


As an institution with a settler-colonial history, we work through nākatēyihtamowin / nakaatayihtaamoowin (University of Saskatchewan, 2018b), a principle of sustainability intended to protect and honour the wellness of all humanity and creation across Treaty 6 and the Homeland of the Métis. It is through relationships that we all advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While this book is available to anyone, strategic references are made to actions on this land. You are encouraged to connect with your own land’s history and stories. To find out who the Indigenous Peoples of your land are, you can visit the Native Land app. This will help you better reflect how local actions toward the SDGs can have global impact.


In its strategic plan, USask commits to being “The University the World Needs.” Achieving this places a high priority on the SDGs. As the plan articulates, “Only by addressing the interlinked social, economic and environmental challenges captured by the SDGs will it be possible to tackle climate change and protect the planet, while at the same time creating a prosperous, just and equitable society” (University of Saskatchewan, 2018a, para. 1).


Sustainability in teaching and learning, or education for sustainable development, is the deliberate construction of learning experiences—across disciplines—so that graduates can demonstrate proficiency in competencies for a sustainable future. Learning for sustainability is reflected in core competencies that encompass the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to transform systems as required for a regenerative future.[1]

Reliable learning for sustainability includes the following:

  • Course outcomes that focus on competencies
  • Instructional design that centres students’ agency to reflect, share, and act
  • Progression in abilities due to iterative practice and feedback
  • Assessment of students’ competencies

USask must commit to deliberately designing courses and programs to systematically build sustainability competencies in our students.

Students See Value in Learning for Sustainability

Many students view learning for sustainability as an opportunity to develop higher-order thinking skills. Reflecting, sharing, and acting on sustainability can “help things stick” (Whalen & Paez, 2021, p. 117). In the 2022 global Skills for Sustainability survey of science and engineering students, 59% of survey respondents felt that projects and activities related to the SDGs were useful for addressing sustainability, yet only 30% had learned about the SDGs. Respondents identified that a sustainability mindset and experience with critical thinking and creativity were most important for addressing challenges related to a sustainable future. Students and recent graduates identified empathy as one of the most important traits of a sustainability practitioner (Siemens DISW, 2023).

Empathy—to understand and share the feelings of another—can be described as the heart of sustainability. Thus, we present the heart set, mindset, and skill set as the three domains for successful teaching and learning in sustainability. These are nested within each other—the heart changes the mind, which directs the hands (skills).

Student Competencies

Students come to higher education with a wide range of experiences and prior knowledge—students are not empty vessels to be filled. Lev Vygotsky’s theory instructs us to build on what they know. Constructivism, building on prior knowledge within one’s zone of proximal development (see Chapter 1), is necessary because of the complexity of learning for sustainability (Armstrong, 2015).

Sustainability, the resilience of our ecosystems, is built on systems thinking and the interplay of interdisciplinarity. Key sustainability competencies provide an “ambitious knowledge and skill profile” in a “constellation of values, abilities, attitudes, knowledge, understanding, mastery and habits of mind and body that are functionally linked to support critical, open-minded, future-oriented and global forms of thinking and being that evoke purposeful behaviour towards sustainability goals for a resilient society” (Pacis & VanWynsberghe, 2020, p. 578).

At USask, this galaxy of possibilities has been distilled into six competencies. Here are proposed criteria for how a student may demonstrate that they are developing capacity. To help us assess the Sustainability Faculty Fellows program, students were asked to reflect before and after their course experiences on how they perceived their capacity in the following six competencies (see also Table 1 in Chapter 1 for student ratings).

Competencies for sustainability As a new graduate, I can…
Communicating meaningfully
  • Listen attentively and thoughtfully engage with alternate, divergent, or contradictory viewpoints or ideas.
  • Develop the ability to write and speak persuasively, tailoring a message on sustainability to specific audiences.
Engaging in our intercultural society
  • Effectively navigate cultural differences in both verbal and nonverbal communication to foster a shared understanding and collaboration toward sustainability.
  • Develop advanced scenarios, forecasts, and visions to address complex sustainability issues and anticipate the needs of diverse stakeholders over extended time periods (50 to 100 years).
  • Conduct stakeholder engagement in challenging and high-risk situations that demand negotiation and conflict resolution skills.
Nurturing successful relationships
  • Create solutions that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
  • Consider long-term impact on the community and the planet.
  • Anticipate, recognize, and address diverse perspectives while solving problems.
  • Adapt problem-solving approaches to accommodate various viewpoints.
  • Set challenging and achievable goals for both teams and individuals.
  • Regularly evaluate progress and provide constructive feedback.
  • Engage in self-reflection to identify areas for personal growth.
Leveraging technology
  • Design innovative technology to solve sustainability challenges.
  • Create systems and models for simulating dynamic developments in various systems and problem-solving.
  • Use technology to contribute to a regenerative society, economy, and environment.
Using adaptive design and problem-solving
  • Use my existing knowledge and abilities to come up with original solutions.
  • Apply what I’ve learned in one situation to solve sustainability challenges in new and unique ways.
  • Identify and address problems related to sustainability with practical and effective solutions.
  • Analyze complex sustainability problems comprehensively.
  • Evaluate various factors and consider different perspectives.
  • Create effective plans and interventions based on my assessments.
  • Design strategies that will lead to regenerative outcomes.
Cultivating well-being
  • Embrace experimentation. I am willing to try new and untested strategies, even if they carry some risk. I can learn from both successes and failures.
  • Adapt to change. I can anticipate and proactively plan for changes in various situations or circumstances.

Language adapted from Association of American Colleges and Universities (2009), UNESCO (2017), UNESCO (2018), Wiek et al. (2016).
Criteria simplified and clarified for the university context using OpenAI (2023).

Works Cited

Armstrong, C. (2015). In the zone: Vygotskian-inspired pedagogy for sustainability. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 50(2), 133–144.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2009). Valid assessment of learning in undergraduate education (VALUE).

Garg, A. (2023, April). Embedding Sustainable Development Goals in teaching and learning. University of Saskatchewan.

OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (Mar 14 version) [Large language model].

Pacis, M., & VanWynsberghe, R. (2020). Key sustainability competencies for education for sustainability: Creating a living, learning and adaptive tool for widespread use. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 21(3), 575–592.

Siemens DISW. (2023). Skills for sustainability: The student voice. Petrus Communications.

UNESCO. (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning objectives.

UNESCO. (2018). Learning to transform the world: Key competencies in education for sustainable development.

University of Saskatchewan. (2018a). Critical path to sustainability. In University plan 2025.

University of Saskatchewan. (2018b). The deep roots of our principles. In University plan 2025.

Whalen, K., & Paez, A. (2021). Student perceptions of reflection and the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills in a university sustainability course. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 45(1), 108–127.

Wiek, A., Bernstein, M. J., Foley, R. W., Cohen, M., Forrest, N., Kuzdas, C., Kay, B., & Keeler, L. W. (2016). Operationalising competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In M. Barth, G. Michelsen, M. Rieckmann, & I. Thomas (Eds.), Routledge handbook of higher education for sustainable development (pp. 241–260). Routledge.

  1. These are described through the six USask undergraduate competencies in the table to follow.


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Cultivating Change: A Prairie Guide to Sustainability Teaching and Learning Practices Copyright © by Aditi Garg; Brooke Klassen; Eric Micheels; Heather M. Ross; Kate Congreves; Shannon Forrester; Tate Cao; and Ulrich Teucher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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