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Tips for integrating Sustainability in Teaching

How to incorporate concepts of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in your teaching? The goal of ESD is to prepare students for the challenges of sustainable development through content, the methods by which it is taught, and the forms of examination. The aim of ESD is to strengthen students’ capabilities to analyze complex problems in an interdisciplinary context as well as heir competence to develop options for action independently.

Please find a selection of tools and articles on ESD on this page. This list is not exhaustive; new information is added on an ongoing basis.

Conceptualizing Education for Sustainable Development and putting it into practice in teaching

The paper «How to enhance education for sustainable development» published in 2024 by the League of European Research Universities (LERU) offers current insights and good practices in the field of education for sustainable development (ESD). UZH is also represented in the report with two examples.
to the LERU paper

The guide “Bildung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung (BNE) in der Hochschullehre” (“Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in university teaching,” available in German only), which was developed by the collaborative project “Nachhaltigkeit an Hochschulen: entwickeln – vernetzen – berichten” HOCHN (“Sustainability at universities: developing—networking—reporting” HOCHN) in Germany, provides a basis for integrating ESD into teaching—be it at the level of an individual class or an entire degree program.

The guide is based on a framework for orientation which introduces ESD as an educational concept from the perspective of university didactics. Its core elements are “competencies” (“why and to what end: orientation”), “topics in sustainable development” (“what: areas of learning”), “forms of teaching and learning” (“how: teaching & learning”), and “assessment” (“where to: development”); thus it is aligned with the well-known steps of curriculum design. The structure of this website also follows this framework for orientation:

Figure 1: An overview of the framework for orientation (own translation from the German original, source: HOCHN)
Leitfaden Bildung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung in der Hochschullehre

You can find other sources providing orientation and suggestions on the webpage of the EU project “University Educators for Sustainable Development (UE4SD)” with partners in 33 countries, including Switzerland. 
UE4SD Publications

Sustainability-specific competencies

ESD is a competency-oriented educational concept. One important goal of ESD is to empower learners to participate in individual and societal processes of seeking, learning about, and designing for sustainable development (Source: Herweg et al., 2016, S. 17).

In the course of studying competencies for sustainable development, various authors and groups of authors have developed different competency profiles each of which is characterized by the context of their formation and their concepts of education and sustainability. The following texts, for example, include overviews of competencies:

  • Brundiers, K., Barth, M., Cebrián, G. et al. (2020). Key competencies in sustainability in higher education—toward an agreed-upon reference framework. Sustainability Science. 
  • Wilhelm, S., Förster, R., Zimmermann, A.B. (2019). Implementing competence orientation: towards constructively aligned education for sustainable development in university-level teaching-and-learning. Sustainability 11/7, 1891. 
  • Warland, L., Mader, C. (2015). Competences for Sustainable Development and for Education for Sustainable Development. University of Zurich, Sustainability Team: ELTT Handout Series – Part III. (pdf to download (PDF, 363 KB))
  • Hesselbarth, C., Schaltegger, S. (2014). Educating change agents for sustainability – Learnings from the first sustainability management master of business administration. J. Clean. Prod., 62, 24–36.
  • Rieckmann, M. (2011). Key Competencies for a sustainable development of the world society. Results of a delphi study in Europe and Latin America. GAIA Ecol. Perspect. Sci. Soc., 20, 48–56.

Teaching content that is relevant in the context of sustainable development can be found in practically every discipline. If such content is to be linked to the goals and challenges of sustainable development, it is usually necessary to take a broader view that extends beyond the scope of the discipline in question. Besides purely descriptive questions, this includes normative ones, for example ethical dilemmas.

That is why most of the literature and the teaching materials available take up interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary questions as well as dilemmas and trade-offs in the context of global challenges. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals) provide a normative and thematic framework, but cannot replace scientific analysis of the interrelationships within the system. 

ESD is a competency-oriented educational concept. Forms of teaching and learning that situate knowledge critically, interpret problems from multiple perspectives, and create new knowledge relevant to solving problems are needed for learners to acquire the competencies essential to sustainable development. For this reason, the focus is on didactic methods that open up spaces for reflection, an orientation to problems, and research-based learning.

The following articles examine questions of curriculum design in the context of sustainable development and provide didactic orientation. However, they do not include overviews of concrete methods or tools:

  • Förster, R., Zimmermann, A.B. & Mader, C. (2019). Transformative teaching in Higher Education for Sustainable Development: facing the challenges. GAIA 28/8: 324–326.
  • Singer-Brodowski, M. (2016). Transformative Bildung durch transformatives Lernen. Zur Notwendigkeit der erziehungswissenschaftlichen Fundierung einer neuen Idee. Zeitschrift für internationale Bildungsforschung und Entwicklungspädagogik 39/1:13–17. (Singer-Brodowski, 2016)
  • Lotz-Sisitka (2015): Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Vol. 16, October 2015, pp. 73-80
  • Sterling S. (2004). Higher Education, Sustainability, and the Role of Systemic Learning. In: Corcoran P.B., Wals A.E.J. (eds) Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 49-70.

If teaching processes and examinations are to promote competencies for sustainable development, they must be coherently designed to that end (“constructive alignment,” Biggs, J., C. Tang. 2011. Teaching for quality learning at University. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press). In many cases, this requires forms of examinations to be transformed, no longer simply testing knowledge, but instead the capability to conduct complex analyses and the competency to reflect ethically in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary contexts.

  •  FLIPCurric – Innovative assessment formats and teaching
  • Bramwell-Lalor S. (2019). Assessment for Learning on Sustainable Development. In: Leal Filho W. (ed) Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education. Springer, Cham.

Weiterführende Informationen

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