Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: But we’re already doing this!

This is part three in a series of entries on some attitudes towards transforming higher education in the face of societal challenges.


”But we’re already doing this!”

When presenting features that usually describe an environment to foster learning for sustainable development (student-driven projects, employing critical thinking), a response by some people in higher education is that “We are already doing (at least some of) this”. This response seems to imply that all efforts towards a goal should be counted as individual contributions to a common end goal separately, and not evaluated in context of the desired end result. If the desired end result is that students are able and willing to contribute to the long-term survival and flourishing of human societies and the webs of life that support us, our efforts should be assessed in relation to how graduates do just that. As an analogy, learning can be considered as similar to growing crops in your garden. For successfully growing crops, you need, among other things, a fertile soil, proper nutrition, water, sunlight, seeds and time. It would not be considered a sucess if only some conditions would hold, without the desired end result. You may not considered your garden a success if it’s a barren plot of well-manured dirt bathing in sunlight 16H/day, without seeds or rain. Similarly, a drenched field would probably not qualify as a successful garden either even if, again, a subset of the conditions for a successful garden are fulfilled. The partial efforts do not result in contributing to the desired end result of a garden where something actually grows. There are a number of conditions that must hold at the same time for anything to grow, and different crops even grow under different conditions. In the same way, it is not sufficient that students get to select what technical system to implement in a course, if the technical systems are not assessed with respect to their contribution to resolve some of the real-world challenges that we face. If students get some orientation on the current state of the world without any means of applying skills to constructively address challenges that we are facing, that will similarly not contribute to students enacting change as a result of their degree programmes.

You would also probably not consider a soccer training season where everyone wants to quit soccer afterwards to be successful, just as you would not consider it successful if your team were never able to score a goal or win a match. You training typically has a purpose, to make people engaged and able to contribute to the success of your soccer team. To learn for a sustainable development is to become willing and able to contribute to a sustainable future. And that has profound implications on the way we teach and learn together.

Ola Leifler


Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: We cannot teach values to our students

This is part two in a series of entries on some attitudes towards transforming higher education in the face of societal challenges.


“We cannot teach values to our students”

Some claim that any learning goals related to values and norms would be akin to brain-washing students, something that in itself would be at odds with fundamental academic … values. It seems that we hold to some values, but are very afraid to make them explicit in our education.

In learning for a sustainable development, the oft-forgotten affective domain in the taxonomy of learning goals by Krathwohl, Bloom et al. (1956) becomes important again. The affective domain describes abilities that concern our own norms and values, as well as those of others. However, it does not in itself require learners to hold to particular values to attain specific learning goals. They may have competing values, be aware of them and attain high goals related to the affective domain. Rather, the affective domain concerns your awareness of values, and the degree to which you are able to act in accordance with the values that you hold to. A normative competence means understanding values and the relationship between values and actions. Although some say that we as academics are, or should be, agnostic as to the values we and our students exhibit, we nevertheless expect that all of us respect equal values of all people, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or religion. We expect all academics to value scientific methods higher than other ways of making sense of the world such as religious epiphanies. We expect academic results to be avaluated on the merits of arguments, not the gender or ethnicity of the author.

We also expect physicians and nurses who are educated in how the human body and the interventions of modern medicine work, to use their abilities in the best interests of patients, and to care for their general well-being. We expect them to abstain from interventions that would cause more harm than good, and and we expect them to learn about and prescribe new health-promoting schemes such as dietary restrictions or cardiac exercise as different disciplines obtain results about their effectiveness. You may have been trained as a physician to administer drugs or suggest surgery as the primary means of intervention, and thus prefer to use the tools you have been trained in. Still, you are expected to assess the outcome of all possible interventions, including not intervening at all, in the best interest of the system you are manipulating (the patient or population of patients).

Engineers are expected to be trained in devising new (socio-)technical systems, reconfiguring how people work, socialize and understand the world. They design transport systems, energy systems, food production systems and everything in between, for the purpose of improving the quality of life for all members of society. Economists are expected to understand the concept of value, and optimize how we distribute means in society to provide value. The purpose of this activity is, again, to improve the overall quality of life in society. However, for engineers and economists alike these expectations are rarely if ever made explicit, but we rather hope that their cognitive capabilities will allow them to devise solutions that automatically promote a prosperous society. We know of course that engineers may be quite willing to employ their skills in the service of fossil energy companies that extract ever more oil and coal, or to create weapons of mass destruction. They may work to create social media platforms with targeted content that cause citizens to obtain a skewed perception of reality. Despite this, engineers and economists are trained to think about all change caused by new systems as ”development”, and all development is considered net-positive by default. Also, development is mainly thought of in technical terms. Note that there does not have to be an explicitly stated goal to improve the quality of life in society as long as we think of development as inherently positive regardless of the effects on people or surrounding ecosystems.

Just as engineers may ignore the ultimate purposes of technology they are part of creating, so too may economists ignore the value of everything that is not currently monetized, and believe that value is or should always be monetized. Economic development is only thought of in terms of the sum total of monetized goods and services and not the values of everything people value and do free of charge in families and communities alike. A nuclear disaster is likely to increase economic activity in a region that has to relocate thousands of people, sanitize soils and dismount and isolate reactors. Maybe we would like to capture the value of a living planet, and a thriving human community on that planet, in better terms than we currently have.

Maybe we should hold our economists, engineers and other specialists that we train through higher education to the same ethical standards as medical professionals, in that it is imperative

* to only implement that which is likely to improve the overall system, whether a patient or a community,

* to understand the whole system that you are trying to implement some changes to, and

* to assess the whole-system outcome of the interventions that you create.

When educators abdicate the responsibility to train people to this end, they cannot say that the expected result of higher education and specialized training will be that society will be better through higher education. It may just as well become worse, if our students are not expected and trained to care about the difference.


Ola Leifler


Dialogues on learning for sustainable development: This is outside my domain

This is the first post in a series that provides some reflections on common types of exchanges I have had over the years when discussing learning for a sustainable development. Each post begins with a quote on arguments made against calls for changes to promote learning for a sustainable development in higher education, along with my thoughts on those arguments.


”This is outside my domain”

Some academics say they have no background knowledge about concepts such as the planetary boundaries, or the sustainable development goals. They may not be particularly proud of this, but they do not think that the issues of the global world necessarily concern them in their own subject. They mostly wish to continue with their practice and ignore the wider implications of climate change or ecological collapses on their work as teachers and researchers. For the most part it is rational to isolate some concerns of the wider world so that you may focus on making progress in an isolated area. However, the global issues of today are different from distractions of the 24 hour news cycle. In a global highly connected world, with ecological, social and economic links between all parts of the world, the effects of global issues may be felt by everyone, including academics and universities. The impacts of a globally changing climate and conditions for human life will need to shift the core societal project from accelerating economic growth to forming a sustainable and prosperous global society. Either we embrace this project as academics from all disciplines willingly, or we will be forced to face the impending changes unprepared. To have a solid understanding of the core mechanisms that cause climate change will be necessary to properly put your discipline and work in context, and focus on how to contribute to necessary change.

As an analogy, consider how something that may have been peripheral to your academic expertise may have had an important contribution to your work earlier. At some point in time you as an academic may have been unaware about effective learning methods and thought that lecturing and written exams provided the best or only way in which you could support students’ learning. Later you may have learned about the science of how brains and learning work, the importance of feedback and trying your understanding repeatedly to improve your performance. You may also have been blissfully unaware of gender biases in academia, but may have been convinced that there are in fact structures and attitude problems that make women feel much less welcome than men in certain disciplines. In both cases, you will have gained important insights from other domains, insights that are essential to promote a safe, inclusive and supportive learning environment. Gaining those insights are necessary to become a better scholar.


Ola Leifler



IKT-pedagogerna lanserar Lisam inspirationsrum

I samband med Pedagogikdagarna lanserade IKT-pedagogerna Lisam inspiration. Här hittar du guider, tips och idéer som är riktade till dig som vill utveckla ditt kursrum till ett kraftfullt pedagogiskt verktyg. I Lisam inspiration lär du dig helt enkelt mer om de olika funktionerna i Lisam (test, kurssidor, inlämningar, grupprum, diskussionsforum, video etc) och hur de kan användas. För att nå sidan klickar du först på Lisam support i vänstermenyn – och sedan Lisam inspiration – när du har loggat in på Lisam.

För ett tag sedan hörde jag någon benämna Lisam som LiUs femte campus. Precis som våra fysiska campus så är ju Lisam ett ställe där man kan mötas för att kommunicera, dela information och kunskap.


Men Lisam skiljer sig såklart också från våra fyra andra campus, där vi ju möts i realtid på samma fysiska plats. När vi träffar varandra så kan vi diskutera, ställa frågor, ge svar och direkt återkoppling – både genom vad vi säger men också med vårt kroppsspråk och röstläge.


På vår lärplattform Lisam möts vi oberoende av tid och rum. Vi kan inhämta information i den stund det behövs och nå studiematerial så som test och inspelade föreläsningar när vi vill och hur många gånger vi vill. Vid asynkron kommunikation kan vi formulera oss i lugn och ro, och hänvisa vidare till andra intressanta kunskapskällor.


Om vi är medvetna om skillnader mellan det traditionella campuset och lärplattformen så kan vi utnyttja fördelarna av att ha tillgång till båda. Alternativt försöka väga upp för avsaknaden av det fysiska mötet när en kurs ges helt på distans. Genom Lisam inspirationsrum ger vi tips på hur man kan arbeta aktivt med kommunikation och struktur i sitt kursrum. Vi ger såklart även en introduktion till populära funktioner i Lisam så som Inlämningar, Test, Anmälan och Bedömningsöversikt.


Välkommen att besöka Lisam inspiration!


/Stina Hellberg, IKT-pedagog Didacticum