Tips on Teaching

Sustainability Pedagogy

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

In August 2016, the Reinert Center co-sponsored a daylong workshop focused on sustainability in curriculum development and individual course design. A goal of the workshop was to find ways to empower students with the tools and knowledge they need to be leaders in a future characterized by rapid social inequality and environmental changes. A framework that I find particularly useful for developing this goal in the context of any course is the Burns Model of Sustainability Pedagogy.

Dr. Heather Burns at Portland State University (2015) describes sustainability in two ways:

“Sustainability has generally come to mean taking a stance toward making changes and finding solutions to address complex cultural and ecological problems. Sustainability can also be understood as transformative personal and communal shifts to ways of being and acting that critically question dominant systems and are more relational, interconnected, place based, and in balance with ecological systems” (p. 260).

At the intersection of these perspectives, Dr. Burns has developed a pedagogical model that brings together “content that is thematic and multidisciplinary, perspectives that are diverse and critically question dominant paradigms and practices, a process that is participatory and experimental, and a context that is place based” (Burns, 2009, p. 197). This pedagogical approach utilizes an ecological course design process to create transformative opportunities for learning as sustainability (e.g., Burns, 2011; Sherman & Burns, 2015; Sterling, 2002).

The course (re)design process is further detailed in the articles referenced at the end of this blog, with step-by-step questions to consider when developing courses that incorporate sustainability as a topic and/or a central learning goal for any discipline. The authors also provide examples from their own teaching to help demonstrate the interdisciplinary application and implementation of the model. Each example underscores the goal of sustainability pedagogy: “to empower learners with the ability to solve complex problems in order to make personal and collective changes that will create a more just and desirable society” (Sherman & Burns, 2015, p. 241).

If you would like to learn how to develop sustainability pedagogy in your teaching, I encourage you to explore the ideas described in the articles referenced below. You can also contact the Reinert Center to schedule a teaching consultation to discuss the implications of sustainability pedagogy for course design.


Burns, H. L. (2009). Skilled in sustainability: Teaching sustainability in skills-based courses. In W. L. Filho (Ed.), Sustainability at universities: Opportunities, challenges and trends (pp. 195-205). Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Burns, H. L. (2011). Teaching for transformation: (Re) Designing sustainability courses based on ecological principles. Journal of Sustainability Education, 2, 1-15.

Burns, H. L. (2015). Transformative sustainability pedagogy: Learning from ecological systems and indigenous wisdom. Journal of Transformative Education, 13, 259-276.

Sherman, J. D. B., & Burns, H. L. (2015). ‘Radically different learning’: Implementing sustainability pedagogy in a university peer mentor program. Teaching in Higher Education, 20, 231-243.

Sterling, S. (2002). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, England: Green Books.