Teaching Teachers to teach Sustainability – A cross-disciplinary course for integrating ESD in Higher Education

Rehn, J.

On the order of the vice chancellor an in-service course on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) for University Teachers has been developed. The basic aim of the course is to strengthen the university teachers´ competence to integrate Sustainable Development (SD) in their teaching. The course structure constitutes a “journey” from the general level of SD, via the concept of ESD into the more concrete adaption of ESD to teaching of a specific subject. The course use the diversity of the participants as an asset for introducing the interdisciplinary character of ESD and for creating stimulating exchanges of knowledge and perspectives. Furthermore, the course also opens up for cross-curriculum co-operation in higher education. The course got very positive evaluations, especially the mix of participants from different faculties and the concrete development work was very much appreciated. Most of these development reports have been published on the intranet of the university as “good examples” for other teachers to be inspired by.


In Sweden environmental issues have long been on the political, mass medial and educational agenda. During the 1980s and 90s – partly as a result of the UN Rio-conference (1992) and the resulting Agenda 21 – the discourse changed into the concept of Sustainable Development (SD) - Sandell et al (2005). The Swedish Government and several NGO:s has since been very active – nationally and internationally – in driving these issues forward, taking active part in international conferences and treaties and developing national plans for action.

In Agenda 21 Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was recognised as one of the most important social activities to ensure a SD for future generations. Consequently the Swedish Government has taken action in formulating laws and legislations to ensure that the educational system as a whole contributes to these efforts. One important step was taken in 2006 when the Ordinance of Higher Education (as well as the Ordinance of the School system) was changed and thereby clearly implying that universities are obliged to contribute to sustainable development – mainly through education of students (but also in research efforts and co-operation with the surrounding society). In accordance to this the vice chancellor of Uppsala University decided to give the faculties the commission to implement ESD in all study programmes and applicable single courses. Along with this commission to the faculty boards, the Division of Development of Teaching and Learning got the assignment to support this implementation by developing and running a course on ESD for University Teachers.

Course objectives

The basic purpose of the course developed is to strengthen the university teachers´ didactical competence to integrate SD – as content as well as a perspective – in their teaching. The target group consists of teachers from all faculties, with a special preference for teachers involved in the management of study programmes or separate courses (basic and advanced level). The long term aim is to ensure that all students, when leaving Uppsala University, have a basic ability to combine and transform their subject knowledge and their knowledge of SD into a personal behaviour as a professionals and citizens.

Course description

The in-service course “ESD for University Teachers” is run by the Division for Development of Teaching and Learning, in co-operation with Centre for Environment and Development studies and Institute for Research in Education and Sustainable Development (both at Uppsala University). It is designed for 20-25 participants and comprises three scheduled days plus two intermediate periods for self-tuition and assignments (corresponding to two workdays).

The intended learning outcomes state that, after the course, the participant should be able to:
- give examples of motives for sustainable development from human co-existence with nature in a local and global perspective
- understand the assignment and possibilities for the university to give students an increased ability to transform their subject knowledge and their knowledge of sustainability into a personal behaviour as a professionals and citizens
- question our understanding of sustainability, its content and conception, as a base for the development of society
- identify and clarify, within his/hers own subject, aspects of sustainability for colleagues and students, relevant for their understanding of sustainability as an integrated (ecological, economical and social) area of knowledge
- plan and carry out teaching events that give the students a competence to discuss, and contribute to, a sustainable development.

The basic structure could be described as a “journey” from the general level of SD, via the concept of ESD, into the more narrow and concrete adaption of ESD to the teaching of a specific subject or course.

The first scheduled day the participants are introduced to the concept of SD – historically and in view of ongoing discussions and developments. In the following human vital needs, conditions of nature, development of society and the most important challenges we face – locally and globally – are focussed. Furthermore, the ESD-education task of higher education is presented and discussed in terms of demands and possibilities for teachers to contribute. Lectures, video films and group discussions are mixed during the day.

The first day is followed by an intermediate period of 2-3 weeks when the participants fulfil a reading assignment and a preparatory assignment to start their process of “translating” SD into their respective subject area.

The second scheduled day of the course is focussed on ESD – methods and tools for teaching SD and integrating the concept in different subject areas – including aspects of interdisciplinary possibilities. Seminars on the selected literature, lectures and group discussions take place. And a home assignment/development mini-project for day three is introduced and prepared.

During another intermediate period of 5-6 weeks the participants work with their home assignments (formulating a developmental plan for the department, designing a teaching event, revising a course curriculum or likewise).

The third, last day of the course is devoted to presentations and discussions of the home assignments. Focus is on pros and cons of the proposals as well as hinders and possibilities of their implementation. Furthermore, possibilities for cross curriculum co-operation are explored and the expectations from future employers of our students are discussed.


The course has – so far – been given twice (2007 and 2009) and the participants have been representing most faculties at Uppsala university (but a majority has been from the faculty of Science and Technology). Some of the course contents have, since then, also been used in shorter workshops “on demand”.

The evaluations showed that the overall impression of the course got a 4.1 mark and the usefulness (for teaching purposes) got a 4.5 mark – both on a 1-5 scale. Content-wise the home assignment/development mini-project was most appreciated (4.8) and the mix of participants (from different subject areas/faculties) was also very much appreciated (4.9). The participants´ estimations of the fulfilment of the learning outcomes ranged from 3.7 to 4.3.

A concrete result of the two courses is the presented development mini-projects carried out and/or planned by the participants. Examples of he scope of the mini-projects; Formulating a development plan (for implementing ESD in ICT-courses), development of a two-week course module on ESD (in study programme for Chemistry) and creating a lecture on “applied ESD” (in an Archaeology-course). In most cases these proposals have been realised and in some cases they have lead to involvement of fellow teachers in ESD activities. Most of these development reports were also published on the intranet of the university as “good examples” for other teachers to be inspired by.

Strategic aspects

In order to enhance the participants´ possibilities to reach the intended learning outcomes and to stimulate the participants´ further development the following aspects have been stressed:
- The course uses the diversity of the participants (subject area, experience, previous knowledge etc) as an asset and takes the diversity as a point of departure for introducing the interdisciplinary character of ESD and for creating stimulating exchanges of knowledge and perspectives through group works and discussions.
- Furthermore, the course stimulates the participants to make use of what they already know and do in their ordinary subject teaching (using ESD “glasses”) – instead of imposing ESD as something “extra” on top.
- The course also opens up for cross-curriculum co-operation in higher education.


Experiences from the two courses given so far and an analysis of the outcomes and evaluations results in the following recommendations:
- Be sure to clarify (on invitation and during the course) the advantages/possibilities with integrating ESD in ordinary subject teaching – the “automatic” possibilities to introduce interdisciplinary aspects and the stimulation of creativity/problem solving as well as critical thinking.
- Remind the course participants of the fact that there is an increasing demand for “SD-competence” in the society – the students need to be prepared for this as well, in order to be competitive in the future labour market (companies, NGO:s, public sector).
- Create mixed study groups of participants (in terms of faculty membership, subject area, ESD experience etc) to ensure interdisciplinary discussions and a maximum of exchange of ideas and perspectives.
- Make sure that the participants leave the course with some kind of result/product – for example a prepared introducing lecture, a developed student exercise, a revised course curriculum or likewise.

Remaining problem

How to recruit university teachers to such an in-service course on ESD?
What means of stimulation and/or compulsion could overcome the lack of interest, engagement, motivation, time for development or feelings of increasing time pressure, lack of influence on the teaching process etc – and all the other “obstacles” that are present in the everyday life of a university teacher?

Besides ordinary announcement routines, the course described above has been promoted extra through the mail-system, networks, articles etc. Despite this, the course described above attracted only 11 + 14 participants in 2007 and 2009. Twice (2008 and 2010) the course was cancelled because of a lack of applicants (less than 5).

Uppsala University has more than 3000 active teachers/professors ….


Sandell, K. Öhman, J. and Östman, L. (2005) Education for Sustainable Development. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur.

More information about this good practice is available at GUNI.HEiOBS

About the author

Jöran Rehn
Educational developer
Div. for Development of Teaching and Learning
Uppsala University


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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