Radically reshaping higher education for the future

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Copyright: A. Eitzinger/CIAT

Speed read

  • Efforts to ‘green’ curriculums in response to global risks are insufficient
  • Radical reorientation is needed across all fields
  • Teaching should focus on the creativity and imagination needed to find solutions

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A ‘new education’ is needed to adapt and respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene, says Heila Lotz-Sisitka.

The world in which we live, teach and learn is changing rapidly. Species, along with the ecosystem services that benefit humans, are being lost at record rates. Most scientists agree that without appropriate mitigation we are facing a world that will be two to four degrees Celsius warmer within this century, with unprecedented consequences for humanity and all other life forms. Others describe how human activity has fundamentally changed earth systems, creating a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.

Scientists at the 2013 World Science Forum, and those writing in the 2013 World Social Science Report, all suggest that new ways of approaching knowledge production and teaching in higher education, as well as the wider education system, are needed to respond to these threats. [1,2]

The convention of single-discipline knowledge and teaching is no longer adequate for making sense of the complex socio-ecological issues facing people in the twenty-first century. Relational, critical, anticipatory and complex forms of knowledge and learning need to be at the core of the ‘new education’ of the Anthropocene.

Teaching responses (so far)

So far, universities in many countries have responded by ‘greening’ curriculums. What often happens is that new bits of green content are added here and there to update what is being taught. For example, a module on environmental economics may be integrated into a mainstream economics course, or a few sessions on environmental education might be included in educational studies courses. [3]

“Education curriculums need to rethink what constitutes knowledge, as relatively recent challenges such as climate change introduce an element of uncertainty in scientific knowledge.”

Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Similarly, it is encouraging to see new interdisciplinary degree programmes — particularly in sustainable development and climate change — rapidly emerging around the world. However, they tend to only engage a few disciplines, mainly those that already share similar ways of thinking and practice. So they are often confined to science and geography departments, overlooking other core disciplines such as economics, law, engineering and politics.

While positive, such steps are, unfortunately, inadequate to meet students’ needs today or in the future. Universities have yet to realise the need for more radical reorientations of curriculums, and of other practices such as how they are managed and engage with their local community.  

Consider climate change alone: a two to four degree Celsius warming scenario requires a fundamental rethink of all courses. For example, sociology curriculums need to consider the impact on gender relationships as women may take on extra agricultural work; health curriculums need to include new insights on the impact on infectious disease; and engineering curriculums need to revisit ideas of infrastructure development for drainage systems.

Education curriculums too need to rethink what constitutes knowledge, as relatively recent challenges such as climate change introduce an element of uncertainty in scientific knowledge.

Learning cannot be about facts only. It must become more anticipatory and reflexive — that is, more aware of its relevance to broader social concerns.

Moving to sustainable development

It is easier to appreciate the curriculum reorientation that is necessary by taking a wider view of education — recognising that what is also at stake is a social reorientation from the dominant development paradigm that favours economic growth over sustainability to a socio-ecologically sustainable, climate-resilient development model. Education needs to strengthen, extend and expand changes that are beginning to take place in the current development paradigm.

Take climate-resilient development: it requires new forms of engineering to produce renewable energy, and organic agricultural practices — both of which embrace a new ethic of sustainability.

The last such major reorientation of society and education led to the Industrial Revolution and neoliberal capitalism. The sciences and humanities of the past centuries were based on dualistic reasoning that separated nature and culture. This reasoning has facilitated the development of specialist fields of knowledge and work. It was reproduced in how universities structured academic disciplines and teaching programmes, shaping education as we know it today.

But this form of reasoning is no longer relevant to the challenges of the Anthropocene, which are complex, social and ecological, and involve interactions between nature and culture.

For example, dealing with rapid urbanisation cannot only be left to geographers. It takes engineers and architects working on more sustainable infrastructure designs and transport systems, lawyers supporting environmental management legislation and social scientists working with people to change patterns of production and consumption.

Twenty-first century curriculums

Curriculums relevant to the twenty-first century need to have both a strong basis in disciplinary knowledge and to engage this strength in inter- and transdisciplinary learning and practice.

A curriculum focusing on water security would need to include high-quality studies on water resource systems and flows (hydrology), as well as water quality (ecology) and the costs of water infrastructure (economics).

A new higher education system should involve creating knowledge coproduction systems where contributors from various fields can engage with each other, in consultation with local municipalities and service providers.

Twenty-first century curriculums must also engage students in problem-solving and participatory learning approaches (for example, conducting environmental risk and vulnerability assessments), which they can then draw on to develop new social practices that can be part of the solution (such as adaptive responses to risk). And they should emphasise creativity and imagination — because solutions to issues posed by a warmer, more insecure world will require extraordinary innovation.

Heila Lotz-Sisitka holds the Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education and Sustainability at Rhodes University, South Africa. She can be contacted at h.lotz@ru.ac.za


[1] Declaration of the 2013 Rio de Janeiro World Science Forum on global sustainable development (World Science Forum, November 2013)
[2] International Social Science Council and UNESCO World Social Science Report 2013 (OECD, November 2013)
[3] Heila Lotz-Sisitka Education and sustainable development curriculum innovations guidelines for universities (UNEP/Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability, in production)