By Rodrigo Lozano and Janna Pietikäinen

Introducing a recently published book with insights from 15 institutions worldwide

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have been major agents of social change and important drivers of sustainability. HEIs are actively designing and refining their teaching and research, as well as their activities, strategies, and organisations along the lines of sustainability. Higher Education for Sustainable Development is aimed at addressing and incorporating the economic, environmental, social, and time dimensions, as well as their interrelations into HEIs operations, education (courses, degrees, and educating-the-educators programmes), research, collaboration, assessment, governance, and on-campus life experiences. 

During the last decade, there has been considerable progress in the incorporation of sustainability into HEIs curricula. Sustainability has entered the education in HEIs both as specific sustainability focused degree programmes (e.g. Salovaara et al. 2019) and as being incorporated in disciplinary curricula, thus transforming learning objectives and methods. Educators are at the centre of curriculum renewal and make it more sustainability-oriented, and they need to ensure that they develop their students’ sustainability competences. Several tools have been developed, or modified, to assess sustainability in universities. One of the few tools focusing specifically on assessing HEI’s curricula is the “Sustainability Tool for Assessing Universities’ Curricula Holistically” (STAUNCH®) (F. J. Lozano & Lozano, 2014; R. Lozano, 2010). 

In parallel, one of the most recent developments in Higher Education for Sustainable Development discourses has been on developing competences and linking them to the use of pedagogical approaches (e.g. through the “Framework connecting sustainable development pedagogical approaches to competences” (R. Lozano et al., 2017, 2019)). Despite this, there has been limited research regarding how to connect pedagogical approaches and competences. 

The new book, “Developing Sustainability Competences Through Pedagogical Approaches: Experiences from International Case Studies“, edited by Professor Rodrigo Lozano and Dr. Maria Barreiro-Gen, addresses this gap. Through a survey sent to 15 HEIs, the book highlights case studies from 12 countries in 4 continents (Africa, America, Australia, and Europe). The case studies show how practice-based original research on sustainability is incorporated in curricula, the competences being developed therein, and the pedagogical approaches being used to develop the competences. The sustainability competencies framework by Lozano et al. (2017) is used to investigate teachers’ perceptions on teaching 12 sustainability competences: Systems thinking; Interdisciplinary work; Anticipatory thinking, Justice, responsibility, and ethics; Critical thinking and analysis; Interpersonal relations and collaboration; Empathy and change of perspective; Communication and use of media; Strategic action; Personal involvement; Assessment and evaluation; Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. The aim is to connect the competencies developed in education to the pedagogical approaches used (e.g. lecturing, team work, problem-based learning, mind-map, community service, place-based education). Contents of sustainability are assessed in courses using criteria in four different dimensions: ecological, environmental, economic and cross-cutting themes.  

The book provides insights into sustainability issues being taught, the competences being developed, the pedagogical approaches used, and how these relate to each other. The ultimate message is that educators need to be made aware of the range of pedagogical approaches available so that they can better combine them and develop the ‘Full Monty’ of sustainability competences for the future decision-makers, leaders, academics, and professionals of the world. This needs to be integrated with other efforts to incorporate sustainability into operations, research, collaboration, assessment, governance, and on-campus life experiences. 

Insights from the University of Helsinki

The book includes a case study conducted at the University of Helsinki, based on 240 responses from the academic staff. The overall results show that the environmental, social and economic aspects of sustainability, together with cross-cutting themes like responsibility, holistic thinking, long-term thinking, and limits to growth, are well balanced on the whole university level. At the faculty level, the balance in sustainability resides on a medium level, except in the faculties of Law, Social Sciences, and Veterinary medicine, where the balance is high. The value for balance is an index used for benchmarking and it incorporates breadth of sustainability issues addressed in all courses and the depth of touching the issue in the courses. The high value for balance indicates that all the pillars of sustainability in the education are covered with equal contribution. However, when looking at the values for individual faculties, it should be noted that the scope of studies within different faculties naturally have an influence over the academic knowledge and skills taught. Faculties like Science, Agriculture and Forestry together with Biological and Environmental Sciences have a stronger focus in environmental issues while faculties of Arts and Educational Sciences are more focused on the social sphere.

The three sustainability competences that are being well-developed in teaching are critical thinking, interdisciplinary work, and interpersonal relations. This reflects and correlates with widely-used teaching methods where projects, problem-based learning and case studies in interdisciplinary student groups play a major role. In developing a more even set of sustainability competencies adopted by the students, more emphasis should be put on using teaching approaches covering place-based environmental education, eco-justice, and traditional ecological knowledge. 

Although the results may be somewhat biased in respect to the overrepresentation of sustainability-minded teachers responding, the results clearly show that there is a large group of skillful sustainability-literate teachers at the university. When further developing teaching at our university, we need to make the high competency of these teachers more visible and use their expertise to benefit the whole academic community in curriculum and course development.

The results of this assessment can be used in developing curricula of the degree programmes to incorporate sustainability issues to become deeply integrated in the disciplinary teaching. This is also seen as an important transformation of education by our students, as in a survey conducted in connection to the development of the new sustainability course at the university, the great majority of students perceived sustainability studies being relevant from their own professional and general societal viewpoint.

Although HEIs have been identified as having a key role in implementing the sustainable development goals, there is more to be done than developing and transforming education. In order to be able to respond to the urgent needs of social justice, equity and environmental degradation, HEIs need to redesign their structures and practices to enable inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching for and with society at-large.  

About The Authors

Rodrigo Lozano is Professor of Organisational Sustainability University of Gävle, Sweden. He is Specialty Chief Editor of Sustainable Organizations (Frontiers in Sustainability). He is a visiting professor at Central University of Technology, Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Cleaner Production. He was previously Assistant Professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and programme leader of the BA Environment and Business at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds, UK. For over twenty years Rodrigo has been working towards Sustainability in NGO’s, universities, and corporations. His projects have ranged from sustainability competences and pedagogical approaches, chemical leasing, indoor-air quality and energy efficiency, to sustainability assessment and reporting, and to organisational change management. He has developed assessment tools such as the GRaphical Assessment of Sustainability Performance (GRASP), the Sustainability Tool for Assessing UNiversities Curricula Holistically (STAUNCH®) (shortlisted for the Times Higher Education Awards in 2008), and the Graphical Assessment for Sustainability in Universities (GASU™). Rodrigo holds a BSc in Chemical Engineering (graduated with honours) from Monterrey Tec, Mexico; a MSc in Environmental Management and Policy, from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economies (IIIEE) at Lund University, Sweden; and a PhD on organisational change management for Corporate Sustainability at Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK.

Janna Pietikäinen is the vice-dean in charge of educational affairs and university lecturer in environmental studies in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry and Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS. She has over 15 years experience in designing, developing and teaching large inter- and transdisciplinary university courses within environmental and sustainability sciences. She has been director of MSc programme in sustainability science and is member of the distinguished Teachers’ academy at the University of Helsinki. Her research is focused in environmental issues within forestry, food production and in addition in teaching and learning, education and pedagogy in environmental and sustainability sciences. She has initiated student driven environmental actions at the university and she had an active role in the establishment of HELSUS in 2018. 


Lozano, R. (2010). Diffusion of sustainable development in universities’ curricula: an empirical example from Cardiff University. Journal of Cleaner Production18(7), 637–644.

Lozano, F. J., & Lozano, R. (2014). Developing the curriculum for a new Bachelor’s degree in Engineering for Sustainable Development. Journal of Cleaner Production64, 136–146.

Lozano, R., Merrill, M. M. Y. M., Sammalisto, K., Ceulemans, K., & Lozano, F. J. F. J. F. J. (2017). Connecting Competences and Pedagogical Approaches for Sustainable Development in Higher Education: A Literature Review and Framework Proposal. Sustainability9(11), 1889.

Lozano, R., Barreiro-Gen, M., Lozano, F. J., & Sammalisto, K. (2019). Teaching Sustainability in European Higher Education Institutions : Assessing the Connections between Competences and Pedagogical Approaches. Sustainability11(6), 1–17.

Salovaara, J., Soini, K. Pietikäinen, J. (2019) Sustainability science in education: analysis of master’s programmes’ curricula. Sustainability science, 2020-05, Vol.15 (3), p.901-915

Cover photo by Minaë Tani-LaFleur (2021)

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