Education for Sustainability

Written by Eric Hemphill, M.Ed. –

“Climate change is real. It’s out there. It’s our fault. It will be difficult to mitigate the effects, and even more difficult to reverse them. CO2 levels have reaching blah blah blah parts per million blah blah blah since blah blah blah year…”

This is how I started my first time teaching the Introduction to Sustainability Studies course at UCO. It was not well received.

How many of you, dear readers, in the above sentence found yourselves tuning out by the time I got to the word “reverse?” It’s okay. I get it. I’d probably be in your position as well. In fact, many of the students I have interacted with inside and outside the classroom would be in that position too.

It’s not surprising when you stop to consider what is actually happening there. I was starting a conversation about a very serious and global issue by zooming as far out as humanly (or globally) possible. The further I zoom out, the further from the individual I get, the less likely finding a solution becomes – particularly a solution that could ever possibly match the magnitude of the problem. I can see it in their faces, and, in some cases, in reflection papers and conversations that go something like this:

Me: “Yes, global warming is real. It’s big. It’s scary, it’s been happening over generations, it’s no one person’s fault, but it’s all of our responsibility to fix it.”

Student: “How do we fix it?”

Me: “We can start with individual actions.”

Student: “Like… recycling, or…?”

Me: “That’s a place to start.”

Student: “So… Just so I’m sure I understand… There is overwhelming evidence that global climate shifts are happening and that the effects could very well be catastrophic to our cities, animals, plants, and ourselves. These effects are already being seen and could very well threaten the livelihood and well-being of, say, my family and friends, and even Sparky, the family dog?”

Me: “True.”

Student: “And your proposed solution for this is the recycle plastic bottles?”

Me: “…”

Like the moment when Wile E. Coyote, in his pursuit of the Road Runner, runs past the edge of the cliff, I realized my mistake too late. There was little I could do but free fall straight to the canyon floor. Luckily, also like Mr. Coyote, I did not perish upon meeting the canyon floor, but, rather, was able to dust myself off, embarrassed, to try and convince a group of students that their habits matter in the pursuit of a more sustainable society.

Herein lies the rub of sustainability pedagogy from a transformative learning lens: How do we make students aware of the necessity of sustainability as a life choice in the face of climate change, without invoking post-apocalyptic, Day After Tomorrow-style language and imagery? In other words, how do we present students with a potential disorienting dilemma, without disorienting them to the point of inaction or a sense of futility?

…how do we present students with a potential disorienting dilemma, without disorienting them to the point of inaction or a sense of futility?


One strategy is to start small instead of big. In my class, I now try to start with individual behavior, and, through the course of the semester, work my way up to the issue of climate change as a culmination of individual behaviors, the built and natural environments, and policy making. This seems to work relatively well in that the student never gets too overwhelmed too fast, but it also feels a little bit like skirting the issue, doesn’t it? The headline is climate change and its potentially devastating effects, so why am I burying the lead?

The literature could lend some insight into this issue. The framework posited by Sipos, et al. (2008) stipulates that focusing on three main domains, head (cognitive), heart (affective), and hands (psychomotor), can help to guide the instructor in teaching sustainability. This is helpful for framing projects and developing curriculum, but still doesn’t get at the main problem I’m confronting. Brunstein and King (2018) advocate for using “organizing reflection to address collective dilemmas” in the area of sustainability education. In neither case are there any direct mentions of climate change, and this holds true in much of the sustainability pedagogical scholarship. It’s often glossed over, referred to as “environmental issues,” or added as a kind of understood reality or foundation for teaching sustainability.

This makes me think that maybe this is the only way to effectively teach for sustainability. Perhaps, for most students who are entering my Intro classroom as novice to mid-level sustainability advocates, the subject of climate change amounts to little more than an abstraction. This could make sense. It is difficult, as a thought experiment, to imagine the entire Earth spinning in space, and all the influences of climate (wind movement, oceanic pressure changes, glacial melt, greenhouse gases, sea levels, and others) swirling and moving around the Earth constantly, pushing and pulling and effecting just about every living thing.

So that’s where I am, I think. Climate change is hard to teach, and I haven’t found a good solution, and maybe this simply makes me a bad teacher, or I’m dwelling too much on it. But it seems like a perfectly legitimate question to ask, “How the heck we do this effectively?” given what we know about transformative learning theory, critical pedagogy, and eco-literacy. Surely, somewhere, in a tiny corner of the internet, someone has developed a strategy to combat this. Surely someone has struck the delicate balance between introducing disorientation, but not too much.

I’ll keep digging. I’d love to hear if anyone else has considered this, or found some solution or resource. If so, please comment below.



Brunstein, J., King, J. (2018). Organizing reflection to address collective dilemmas: Engaging students and professors with sustainable development in higher education. Journal of Cleaner Production, 203, pp. 153–163.

Sipos, Y., Battisti, B., Grimm, K. (2008). Achieving transformative sustainability learning: engaging head, hands and heart. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9(1), pp.68–86.

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