A conversation on sustainability in teaching practice


Mia Perry @MiaJPerry, Gabriella Rodolico @DrRodolico, Karen Thompson, Karen MacEachern @KarenMacEacher3, Sarah Anderson, Camille Huser @CamilleHuser

In a time when human behaviours are critically damaging the ecologies of the planet, the climate crisis has become the most urgent and ubiquitous issue of our lifetime. With a very ambitious legal framework for emissions reduction, The Climate Change Act 2019 commits Scotland to net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045.

This human-caused climate crisis is a socio-ecological one; and educational practice in response to this issue has never been more critical. The University of Glasgow made a declaration of climate emergency in 2019, and when asked if “The University should make it a priority to include education on sustainability and the climate crisis across subjects and programmes of study” an astonishing 86% between members of staff and students agreed or strongly agreed to it (draft climate change strategy)

In line with this movement, all the teaching staff, in their own capacity, are asked to evaluate programmes and teaching practices as well as associated investments in technology in terms of their connection with, and impact on, sustainability and in particular, climate change (Learning and Teaching Strategy 2021-2025).

The recently launched Community of Practice in Sustainability in Teaching and Learning is a group of committed staff who bring both questions and solutions to the issue of sustainability in our teaching practices. The question that we heard most frequently from our colleagues both inside and outside this Community of Practice was “what can I do?” In this context, we decided to open up a space to share accessible tips and encourage discussion at the 14TH ANNUAL LEARNING AND TEACHING CONFERENCE. The interactive workshop was the second in a series of practice-based workshops offered by the Community of Practice. aimed to initiate and support an exchange of ideas on how to embed sustainability into the foundation of all of our teaching, regardless of the discipline, level, or content. We did this through workshopping four essential and adaptable strategies with a range of existing course curricula and contexts.


Teaching materials

Why now?

We need to change our practices urgently in order to become more sustainable, and to develop more sustainable behaviours in our students

What is it?

Teaching materials are all the physical materials brought to class by staff and students, as well as our behaviour whilst teaching

How do I do it?

We reflected on the positive changes already applied. For example, the majority handbooks are not printed on paper anymore, but they are on interactive PDF with useful links to expand the information potential of this material. We could still work on reducing the use of ink to what is necessary and on making sure to use recycled or FSC paper and sustainable ink.  Similarly, we can improve the sustainability of our use of stationary by substituting products. For example, some subject areas report mindless laminating, is it always necessary? Is there any alternative?

To impact student behaviours, a switch from paper assessments and posters to electronic formats could reduce use of physical materials. If posters are required, they should be printed without lamination.

Another way to impact student behaviour is though modelling and being mindful of our own behaviour in class. Do we bring drinks in reusable containers, and food in sustainable packaging? Do we turn the lights off as we leave? In winter, rooms are often too hot after use, with windows needing to be opened – we could ask for the heating set points to be lowered, and model wearing appropriate winter clothing instead. Sustainability can be made even more explicit through discussion. For example, class rules could be agreed to encourage use of reusable drink and food containers, or a limit on the number of electronic devices that can be on at the same time. We could role model sustainable ways to travel to university in a dialogic feedback fashion discussing anecdotes and telling stories about our cycling journey that morning or walking long distances as a health and wellbeing goal. Small changes  multiplied by large numbers of students can make a difference, especially if we impact student behaviours and attitudes.

For staff who run or use labs, get in touch with the LEAF group here, which is aiming to make lab practices more sustainable in the University. Teaching labs could be equipped with screens, to allow protocols or safety information to be made visible to students digitally, rather than printing new sets for every lab.

Maybe these could look like changes that have a small impact on the University’s carbon footprint but by modelling sustainable behaviour in our classes, we hope to raise awareness and influence students’ behaviour. We would also recommend working with Governments and publisher to produce resources that can be made available in their digital format as much as possible, with an eye on affordability and equity. 

We would like to know what you think, is there anything you would like to suggest or add here? Please use the comments section

Course content

Why now?

Students are universally aware of global sustainability issues and agree that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development. They are keen to learn what they can do to promote sustainability in their university and future lives, so they are integral to our journey in incorporating sustainability into our curricula.

What is it?

 There is a clear trending towards an embodiment of sustainability in several courses’ content. For example, content that has a stronger ecological situated learning strategy with less “ticking the box with one off lectures” on sustainability and more overarching themes based on the 3 pillars of sustainability (socio, economic and environmental).

How do I do it?

 It can range from supporting projects with sustainability as the theme, looking at ways that promote sustainability as a key factor in decision making through activities and practice, promoting opportunities for discussion and debate, recognising excellence for example, a student prize that models sustainable practices (plant a tree).

 Students leading the way and taking the initiative is a powerful driver for moving this forward so that it becomes a self-perpetuating legacy. Co-create!

We believe more CPD opportunities sharing practice already taking place and further discussions on how to develop contents on sustainability issues might be beneficial. In what ways have you already included sustainability in your course content? What would be useful for you to help you develop content? Please use the comments box below.

Course delivery: Mode and Space  

Why now?

This is a very hot topic especially after the experience of Covid-19 pandemic; digital learning and distance learning has been a matter of necessity, our familiar use of teaching spaces, as well as modes of delivery and student engagement have all been unsettled and opened up opportunities to re-consider sustainable ways to deliver teaching today.

What is it?

Course delivery includes how you deliver course content, how you interact with learning, and the spaces and contexts within with you teach.

How do I do it? Examples of practice:

In museum studies new digital technologies have allowed students to engage with virtual collections, in educational studies, digital meetings have allowed peer support groups to students who are dispersed across the world.

In many subjects, digital platforms have allowed asynchronous learning, more accessible and inclusive learning for many, but more disconnected and individualised learning for others. The use of digital spaces for learning can reduce the carbon footprint of student and teacher travel, but the trade-offs include the multiplication of resources required to power individual rooms, flats, and homes as well as the significant carbon footprint of digital cloud usage.

 May be this article can provoke some thoughts “Design of higher education teaching models and carbon impacts” (Caird et al., 2015), but we really would like to hear from you on this matter too! Please share your opinions

 Language use 

Why now?

Language, choices or words, ways of speaking and ways of listening – are not just how we communicate, but they make up the substance of what we communicate – words and silences construct the realities and how we understand them. When we take up sustainability as the necessary work across the SDG goals (not just the environment, but our collective and intertwined sustainability) then language is even more integral to the sustainability in our teaching. Think about issues such as inclusivity – is our language use inclusive? Think about equity, accessibility…. And so on. 

What is it?

Language is an essential and universally relevant component of making our teaching practices sustainable. It is

How do I do it? Examples of practice:

  1. Do you talk about “knowledge” in your course, and/or could this word be used in the plural – what happens when we use “knowledges” instead of knowledge.

Briefly, what happens is that we are forced, by that word in the plural, to acknowledge that singular perspectives or versions of the truth are neither equitable (they erase many other ways of knowing and being in the world) nor sustainable – we cannot address global sustainability challenges without finding ways to collaborate across different types of knowledge, different epistemologies, and different ontologies.

  • Do you prescribe: “Readings” or “Papers” as preparation materials for your classes? What happens when you use the word “resources” instead?

Briefly, we are forced to recognise that not all knowledge comes from printed pages – that we can learn from listening, from experiencing, from trying, from watching, from making…. Reading is only one type of resource that we can take up in the practice of learning.

What do you think about this last strategy?!

The workshop concluded with a synthesis of applications aimed to support the implementation of these strategies in into participants’ contexts and courses, however we really think that this conversation needs your support and opinions!

Do you still have doubts? You are probably thinking “I really want to get involved, but how can I assess my own courses? How can I question my thinking in a meaningful way?

Well, what about looking at the General Teaching Council for Scotland learning for sustainability webpage! You will find a professional guide for teachers which describes professional values and personal commitments applicable to every sector of education. For example, page 4 there is a great thought-provoking statement “Learning for Sustainability is about creating a strong common purpose based on values and working together to address real life, complex and often controversial, issues” and page 6 offers several good questions to explore the Learning for Sustainability values embedded within Standards for full Registration and The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning .

This is the time to get started and make the changes! In Scotland, Learning for Sustainability is an entitlement for learners so let’s do it!

 Please use the comments below to share your ideas!

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