Online Masters Course on Education in the context of Sustainable Development at Gothenburg University – starting November 1st

New Course: Education for sustainable development – an introduction

There is only one Earth. With global challenges such as climate change, mass extinction of species, rising inequity and a growing world population, the prospects for a quality life for all, forever seem rather bleak. Central in this new course is the question: What is the role and responsibility of education in not only responding to sustainability problems but also in preventing them and in creating more sustainable futures? But also what might such education look like? The course will take advantage of some of the materials and lessons learnt from the recently finished Global Environmental Education Course Gothenburg University supported – along with other universities and the US EPA- which was lead by Cornell University in association with the NAAEE’s EECapacity Program.


In this 15 credit Master’s course you will critically and actively explore central concepts and perspectives in the field of education for sustainable development. The course content will be related to the participants’ own backgrounds, specific interests and prior experiences. Master students with different study backgrounds (e.g. environmental sciences, social sciences, economics, arts and humanities) can enrol in this course as long as you have an interest in both sustainable development and education.

The course is offered by Gothenburg University online at half time during the second half of autumn 2016 (Start: November 1 – Finish: March 22, 2017). The main course language is English. There are four blocks: 1) Understanding Sustainable Development, 2) Understanding Education in relation to SD, 3) Understanding learning environments, processes and outcomes conducive to SD and 4) Education in relation to your own SD-challenge (personal project). Each block is divided up in course weeks, each with short introductory videos, background literature, discussion questions and online discussion. Periodically there will be assignments that will be used in providing feedback and assessing the quality of your contributions. The new Global Education Monitor Report on Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All will be one of the texts used in the course.

For the pilot course we are admitting a maximum of 50 students. You will need to formally register for the course through Gothenburg University via this link to the GU course web-page.

More information about course content contact me at:

More information about course logistics and registration can be found via the link to the course’s webpage (hyperlink).

Note: eligible students from European Union can participate without paying tuition to Gothenburg University. Students from outside the European Union will have to pay a tuition fee. It is assumed that participants have a bachelor degree or equivalent and have a proficient mastery of the English language (evidence of this may need to be provided).

Education, Transformation and Sustainability – Sharing the stage with a president

Newspaper article covering Mugabe's speech the day after

When asked by good SWEDESD colleague Shepherd Urenje whether I would accept an invitation  to give a keynote at an Education Expo in Zimbabwe on “Growing Socio-economic Opportunity through Quality Education in the 21st Century” I accepted knowing that some excellent people I have worked with over the years are Zimbabweans who are working hard to improve education, learning and People and Planet (Kaleb, Tich Pesanayi, Shepherd, Soul Shava and Mutizwa Mukute). Once I accepted I got a little anxious when the communication about the event was rather limited and I could find little or no information on the Internet… But, two days for my scheduled departure I did receive my ticket to Harare. I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that my keynote was scheduled at 12:00 and my flight was scheduled to land at 12:20… Also, the organizers reserved the whole morning for ‘registration and opening’ without providing any further details. So I made the trip with somewhat tempered expectations. At the airport in Harare I was met by some of the organizers. My first question was – “Has my talk been re-scheduled?” The answer changed my expectation right away: “The President is still giving his opening address. He discarded his prepared written speech and is speaking from the heart”. Apparently the opening was done by President Robert Mugabe… My next question was: “How many participants do you have?” The answer added to my increasing anxiety: “Between 5 and 6 thousand educators, administrators, principals, district heads and some notables including our Ministers of Education, of Women Affairs as well as the Minister of Education from Namibia and the Deputy Minsters of Education from Botswana and South Africa…”

I don’t think I have underestimated and event the way I had done this time… What on Earth was I going to talk about… as the first key note (followed by a Director from Intel Southern Africa who would speak about ICT in Education).

I had 20 minutes to make the point that education is not there to only serve the economy, but also people and planet, that ICTs can be helpful but can be a distraction from the things that really matter as well (I had to be diplomatic knowing the Intel-keynote was after me), and that we need to dare to ground teaching and learning in real issues that cannot be captured by the traditional subjects but demand a more holistic and localised approach. I also was able to squeeze in that the persistent emphasis on testing kids, measuring performance and ranking schools, teachers and pupils, can kill deeper learning.

I quickly learnt in the discussion afterwards that ICT is more ‘ sexy’  than sustainability and that Education for Sustainability does not resonate among most of the audience members (I should point out that most participants had left by the time the keynotes started, as had Mugabe who had to go to parliament that afternoon to open the new session (what energy for a 91 year-old…). What does resonate is: relevance, quality education, teacher’s professional development, and using ICTs but also empowering learners to make change. Very little about climate change, food and nutrition security, agriculture, biodiversity, inequity, poverty reduction. In fact it was Robert Mugabe who came closest of all speakers… Here’s an excerpt from the newspaper article covering his speech:

Excerpt Robert Mugabe's Speech from

Excerpt Robert Mugabe’s Speech from “The National”

The other, even more encouraging sign that there is a transformation in education going on – in the margins – came from one of the many exhibits at the conference (90% of them related to ICTs run by commercial companies). It came from an exhibit by a local Primary school where young pupils ran projects on seed diversity and nutrition. The young man on the left in the picture below was extremely articulate and passionate about this project and had a bigger impact on me than all speakers together (which is not to discredit the speakers, many of them were very interesting). And so was the young man on the right who developed a self-refilling drinking water supply mechanism for animals using the same float ball mechanism as used in toilets to regulate water.

On the left: Ziyanda Moyo, Form 1 (first form in secondary school education, immediately after completing Grade 7); Pumula High School. On the right: Muziwandile Moyo, Grade 7, Senzangakhona Primary School

On the left:  On the left: Muziwandile Moyo, Grade 7, Senzangakhona Primary School. On the right: Zivanda Moyo, Form 1 (first grade in secondary education, Pumula High School.

All in all this was a remarkable experience that I will need to reflect on some more for sure.

Let me end this post with the latest publication by PhD student Joana Ameyaw from Ghana who works on ‘responsive curriculum development’ for creating a more sustainable forestry sector. She shows in her work that these new, grounded and interactive forms of curriculum development are not only possible, they are happening!

Her paper was published recently in Forestry and Economics and is titled: “Challenges to responsible forest governance in Ghana and its implications for professional education” Here you can find the AmeyawArtsWals(1) paper for personal use.

When citizens are re-framed as consumers and when developing countries are re-framed as emerging markets

Recently I was asked by some key-players in the Dutch Development Scene to give a keynote presentation “on Education and Sustainability that should trigger creative thinking and shed a light on sustainability”. The seminar “Toolkit for Sustainable Impact” took place on 6 December 2011 in the Dutch city of Utrecht and was organised by PIE and Nuffic for NPT&NICHE projectleaders (you can find more info. as well as a pdf of the slides I used here)

I was asked to do so with my role of Global Report Coordinator for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development as a backdrop. But also as someone having had numerous experiences in Africa and Asia working on projects seeking to make higher education more relevant and more responsive to the needs of communities and the demands of the labour market in a rapdily changing world.

Initially I challenged the sneaky conversion of Sustainable Development into Sustainability and questioned the ‘inflation of meaning’ of both concepts as people and groups from different ideological backgrounds seem to embrace the terms (Shell speaks of sustainable economic growth, for instance, whereas Greenpeace associates sustainability with quite something else). I reminded the audience of George Orwell’s cautionary tale in told in his book “1984” when refering to Big Brother’s language games used to manipulate and control people. He used “newspeak” and “double-think” to remove ambiguity and to unify opposites (compare for instance: clean nuclear energy, sustainable mining, etc.) and the “thought police” to prescribe how people should think and should life their lives (compare: to play their role as consumers and to continuously grow personally as lifelong learners in order to be mobile and flexible in a dynamic labour market).

Does this make sustainability and sustainable development useless? Possibly, when we don’t follow the use of the terms critically and when we fail to give it meaning in real contexts that matter to people and the communities of which they are part. The strength of these concepts, at least from an education perspective, lies in the fact that they require meaning-making and contextualization. What sustainability means in Burundi might be different from what sustainability means in Wageningen, The Netherlands where I am writing this. What we might call sustainable today, might turn out to be not so sustainable tomorrow. What is truly sustainable we simply cannot know as we don’t live long enough to determine that what we consider to be sustainable indeed turned out to be sustainable for ever..

So “sustainability” is a dynamic concept both in space and time that is marinated in uncertainty.. What we do know – with a whole lot more certainty – is that the way we live on this Planet can not be sustained for long (although the Planet will go on, certainly without us human beings being around anymore). And, indeed, we also know, or at least I think most of us will agree, that we have a moral obligation to ourselves, to other species and future generations to continuously be searching for ways to tred more lightly on the Earth and to develop lifestyles and values that are more sustainable than the ones we tend to currently support and promote.

NUFFIC, one of the Dutch development organizations organizing the event today, mostly uses “sustainability” as a term to indicate whether a project they support has impact – or, put differently, keeps on going when the external donor money is gone. This is a legitimate question but one that risks ignoring a more fundamental one which is: does the project contribute to sustainability that goes beyond the continuity of economic globalization to include the ecological, the environmental, the ethical, social-cultural – one that actually begins to question some of the underlying hegemonic principles of economic globalization and its inseperable cousin: consumerism. Perhaps another question that needs to be asked is: “what is it we are sustaining with our actions or with what – willingly or unwillingly – we are choosing not to do?”

In my talk I refered to the wonderfull dissertation of Paul Kibwika from Uganda: “Learning to make Change: Innovation Competence for Re-creating the African University for the 21st century”

Paul and I wrote a paper on this for CTA that I like to share here in this occasion.

Extreme university make-over – descending the Ivory Tower and the re-making  of higher education in the era of (un)sustainability – 2015 & Beyond

Dr. Paul Kibwika, Makere University, Uganda & Prof. Arjen E.J. Wals, Wageningen University & Research Centre, The Netherlands

We live in an essentially ‘systemic world’ characterised by multiple causation, interactions and complex feedback loops, yet the dominant educational structures are based on fragmentation rather than connection, relationship and synergy (Sterling, 2000). Universities, confronted with 21st century challenges must therefore not only rediscover, build on and share indigenous ways of knowing and acting, but generate and or adapt new concepts and practices that will contribute to creating a world that is more sustainable. Academics who still believe that universities are Ivory Towers must be willing to make a paradigm shift so that universities become an integral part of the communities that support them. Hence, a challenge to those involved in shaping higher education in agriculture and life sciences is to revisit institutional practices, examine the disciplines and provide more synergy and become more accountable for economic and human development.

Learning and Competence

Education is a means for people to become self-actualized members of society, seeking meaning, contributing to developing their own potential and creating solutions together. A sustainable world without participation and democracy is improbable, and perhaps even impossible (Wals & Jickling, 2002). It cannot be created without the full and democratic involvement of all members of society. Universities therefore must engage their students not so much in learning for knowing, but rather in learning for doing and, indeed, learning for being (Table 1). Learning for being suggests learning that is not of a transmissive nature (i.e. teaching as reproduction) but rather of a transformative nature (i.e. learning as change).  The latter requires permeability between disciplines, university and the wider community, and between cultures, along with the competence to integrate, connect, confront and reconcile multiple ways of looking at the world.

  Scientia Techne Praxis
Focus Learning for knowing Learning for doing Learning for being
Knowledge produced Propositional Practical Experiential
Stucture Subject disciplines Crafts/Skills Issues/Competences
Teacher’s role Expert Master Facilitator
Teaching strategies Lectures on theory Practical instructionDemonstrations Real-world Projects
Research style Basic (Experimental) Applied (Developmental) Action (Participative)
Research goals Abstract-universal knowledge Workplace Solutions Contextual knowledge / Action for change
Basic philosophy Positivism Utilitarianism Constructivism
Focus of reflection What do I now know? What can I now do? Who am I becoming?

Table 1. Some distinctions between different traditions of knowledge and knowing (Adapted from: Bawden and Macadam, 1991, p. 4)

The struggle to find integrated solutions through participatory, multi-disciplinary, innovation systems seems important, but many ACP universities have not yet been very effective in developing the corresponding competences of their staff or students. In addition to their academic functions, faculty and students must develop a different form of learning, if  the university is to take on more societal and developmental functions, or more specifically, is to influence change in a complex environment. Most critical is the issue of the university’s  competence to provide training, research and outreach services that appropriately address real-life problems.

The university must skilfully identify competence gaps of professionals, farmers, policymakers and other agricultural stakeholders, through collaborative learning for change.  It is such engagement with stakeholders that results in innovations that are likely to liberate farmers and nations from the poverty trap and contribute to socio-economic development that does not compromise the future.  It calls for the development of innovation cross-cutting competences in which lecturers become facilitators of learning for development for influencing change in society. Linking and strengthening of competences therefore occur at various levels: university, development service providers and the grass-roots community. Figure 1 provides the key elements, functions and relationships that, when holistically considered, make up innovation competence.

Figure 1: Constructing innovation competence through higher agriculture education (source: Kibwika, 2006) (please go to original paper – see link at the end!)

Unlike academics, who communicate primarily with peers, practitioners find themselves at the interface of researchers, donors, governments, multi-lateral agencies, activists, NGOs, and poor communities, and thus need to be able to operate in multiple communicative modalities (Woolcock, 2006). This means that universities can no longer train students who can only communicate with peers.  Communication skills integrate professionals in society and allow them effectively to influence change as members of that social system through participating in rather than studying that system. Lecturers and students must become engaged in co-learning to co-create knowledge through greater interaction between the university and the community.

Emerging strands of research

The scientists of the future must be able to break out of routines that reinforce the status quo and explore creative and unorthodox ways of solving complex problems. Through such engagement creativity will be unleashed, as scientists begin to rise to and relish the challenge of solving neglected and complex problems drawn to their attention through community engagement.  This will imply much risk taking as criteria for academic advancement may change from being based solely on peer refereed journals. ‘Research as mining’ may no longer be the prevailing mode of research but will be complemented with ‘research as learning’ and, even more radical perhaps, ‘research as activism’ (Table 2)

  Research as mining Research as learning Research as activism
Modus of understanding Nature of inquire Empirical analyticalReductionistObjectiveUniversal Hermeneutic-interpretiveHolistic-descriptive(inter)SubjectiveTrans-contextual Socially-criticalContextual-transformativeDynamic-intersubjective
Roles of researcher Good testerPassive-detachedNeutral-Expert Good listenerActive-detached or passive engagedExplicitly biasedLearner Good allyActive-committedExplicitly partisanCo-learner
Role of ‘participant’ Passive source of data Active informant Participant – learner
Noble purpose Improved efficiency, models, predictability, ‘truth’ Improved understandingPre-hypothesizingMirroring Transformation, systemic change
‘Real’ purpose Status, career development, publications Status, career development, publications Genuine transformation, systemic change?
Language used Exclusive, scientific – but simple and clear towards ‘ target groups’ Exclusive, scientific Contextual – co-created

Table 2 Conventional and emerging strands of research (adapted from Dillon & Wals, 2006).


When people find solutions that work for them they take charge of their own development and become entrepreneurial thinkers and doers: i.e. people who can cope with and take advantage of uncertainty and complexity. Universities will more and more be required to develop entrepreneurs rather than bureaucrats.  But entrepreneurship is not acquired by proclaiming it, or by teaching theory but by practical engagement.  To develop entrepreneurs, university lecturers must also become entrepreneurs, in the sense that they must also find workable solutions to problems in diverse contexts.  Action research and process consultancy provide mechanisms for enabling lecturers to become educational or research entrepreneurs. In this type of engagement, the focus shifts from getting tasks done to solving a problem or generating new products, which involves a lot of creativity and adaptation.

Didactical implications

Integrating aspects of economic growth, social stability and sustainability cannot be realised without thinking very critically about the re-structuring didactical arrangements.  These new arrangements pre-suppose a problem orientation and experiential and lifelong learning that are likely to trigger the following shifts in educational orientation (Wals, 2000):

  • from consumptive learning to discovery learning in open-source environments
  • from teacher-centred to learner-centred arrangements
  • from individual learning to collaborative learning
  • from theory dominated learning to praxis-oriented learning
  • from sheer knowledge accumulation to problematic issue orientation
  • from content-oriented learning to self-regulative learning
  • from institutional staff-based learning to learning with and from outsiders
  • from low level cognitive learning to higher level cognitive learning


In the future, ACP universities that adopt this new way of thinking and doing business will be given greater recognition as leaders in society where cutting edge new knowledge is generated that can break the cycle of un-sustainable development and consumption patterns tied to un-sustainable economic principles. They will constantly question and reform deeply entrenched unsustainable routines, structures and practices by taking advantage of their privileged position in society, utilising some of the brightest minds the world has to offer, perhaps most importantly, by engaging in a collaborative endeavour in continuously seeking ways to preserve the planet. Finally, the university and the university community as a place where people live and work, where energy is used, food is consumed, waste is created, housing is provided, etc., will have to have to mimic the kind of sustainable practices it seeks to promote in its research and education in the way it runs its own business. The university of the future lives and learns by example. Failing to do so will create a gap between rhetoric and reality and undermine the university’s credibility.

Note: Paper written for 22-02-08 accesible as a pdf via:

Also of interest this site at Wageningen International/CDI


Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable Education: Re-visioning and Change. Schumacher Briefing No. 6. Green Books Ltd.

Wals, A.E.J. & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, vol. 15, 121-131.

Bawden, R. and R. Macadam (1991). Action Researching Systems: Extension

Reconstructed. Paper prepared for the workshop ‘Agricultural Knowledge Systems

and the Role of Extension’ held at theUniversityofHohenheim,Stuttgart,Germany.

21-25 May, 1991.

Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (2006) On the dangers of blurring methods, methodologies and ideologies in environmental education research, Environmental Education Research, 12(3/4), pp. 549 – 558.

Wals, A.E.J. & Bawden, R. (2000). Integrating sustainability into agricultural education: dealing with complexity, uncertainty and diverging worldviews. Gent:ICA, 48 p.

Woolcock, M. (2006) “Higher Education, PolicySchools, and Development Studies: What Should Masters Degree Students be Taught?”, Journal of International Development, Volume 19, Issue 1 , Pages 55 – 73.

Kibwika, P. (2006) Learning to make change: Developing innovation competence for recreating the African university of the 21st century. Published PhD-Thesis. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.