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Workshop: "Higher Education for Sustainability in Turbulent Times"

The workshop agenda

4.00-4.20 pm – Workshop Introduction: Setting the Stage. Who is in the Room?

4.20-5.15 pm – Keynote by Arjen Wals, Questions and Discussion: Higher Education in Times of Climate Urgency, Polarization and Psychic Numbing – Navigating Bildung (Education) and Activism

5.15-5.30 pm – Introduction to the Breakout Sessions, Short Break

5.30-6.20 pm – Discussion and Collaboration in Three Parallel Breakout Sessions

The three breakout rooms were:

Landscape/macro-level: This session focused on larger, broader questions of transformation in higher education for sustainability, e.g. the role of power and discourses, emotions, ‘neutrality’ vs. taking a political stance, the role of digitalization, global inequalities etc.

Institutional/meso-level: This session focused on questions of transformation through HEI institutional changes, e.g. curricular reform, cooperation with university stakeholders etc.

Course/Project/micro-level: This session focused on opportunities, learnings and challenges faced by specific innovative educational formats in transforming higher education in the classroom.

6.20-6.40 pm – Collective Sharing of Results from the Breakouts

6.40-7.00 pm – Main Take-Aways, Open Questions & Closing

The workshop at a glimpse

After a warm welcome by the workshop hosts (Nora Große and Mandy Singer-Brodowski from FUB) and a short insight into participants’ background and expectations, our invited keynote speaker Prof. Arjen Wals gave an inspiring talk on the necessity of fundamental structural and mindset changes within higher education systems, so as to adequately respond to current societal challenges such as “climate urgency, polarization and psychic numbing”. He underlined the potential of experimental, boundary-crossing, transdisciplinary projects to invoke and support this change on a global, local and personal level (see below for a detailed summary and documentation). After a common discussion and break, participants had the chance to enter one of three breakout rooms, focusing on a particular level of change from micro to macro. After exchanging their own experiences and best practices in small groups, we met in the main room again to share our results. In a final wrap-up, participants could submit their main learnings and remaining open questions to help continue the discussion and trigger future networking and cooperation.

You can find the workshop hosts’ accompanying slides here. (link zur PDF “HESD Intro…)

Main workshop outcomes

Who’s in the room?

After introducing themselves at the beginning of the workshop, the hosts asked participants to answer a Mentimeter poll to get a feeling for “Who’s in the room?” When asked to rate their research, professional and coordinating experience in HESD on a scale from 0 (no clue at all) and 5 (expert), the poll showed a diverse mix of experiences in the room. When participants selected their aims and expectations for the workshop, most were interested in exchange of best practices, research ideas and networking. You can see the detailed results here.

Keynote by Arjen Wals, Questions and Discussion

To support his argument of fundamental necessary changes in higher education systems in response to urgent societal challenges, Arjen Wals started out with Oxford economist Kate Raworth’s doughnut model. The model argues that humanity’s “safe operating space” lies between a minimum “social foundation”, i.e. satisfying basic human needs for everyone, and a maximum ecological ceiling, as defined by the nine “planetary boundaries” (Steffen et al., 2015). As some of these ecological boundaries have already surpassed and keep pushing the limits, while basic human needs are still not met for everyone, we need to rewire our economy and society towards a regenerative and distributive one. Connecting the dots to education, we face the challenge of confronting others with “unpleasant truths”, in a world where “comforting lies” are easier to spread and to believe. Simultaneously, the field of education faces the challenge of increasing commodification, as do other spheres of our lives in a system highly reliant on “flexible consumers” to keep it running. In education, this involves a strong linear performance orientation and input-output-measurement, leaving insufficient time and space for holistic reflection and experimentation. However, to face the currently unprecedented and complex challenges, it seems vital that people are educated to think holistically and systemically and to come up with unconventional solutions and alliances.

Hence, Prof. Wals argued that education should focus more on (eco-) subjectification and (eco-) socialization, rather than the predominant major aim of qualification for a “good” job. That means, enabling people to reflect on who they want to be and how they want to contribute in this world (subjectification), to learn to handle diverse, even conflicting perspectives and to cooperate with others (socialization). More concretely, “Sustainability Bildung” should help develop “transformative skills” such as openness, perspective-seeking, sense-making, an inner compass and compassion. It should foster boundary crossing and systems thinking, confronting diversity and dissonance, whilst building agency and transformative capacity to be empowered to solve the challenges ahead.

Regarding this last point, Prof. Wals sees enormous potential in unconventional, experimental approaches in research and teaching that break the boundaries between classic science and “the real world”. This includes living labs, ecologies of learning, the whole-institution approach and further approaches which help co-create, test and evaluate solutions with different stakeholders. As these stakeholders (in-) directly contribute to or are deeply affected by a certain challenge, they may have a strong interest or an innovative idea to address this challenge – perhaps better than academia.

In the ensuing Q&A, participants were mainly supporting our keynote speakers’ arguments with their own experiences and asked about specific aspects of transformative skills development.

Breakout Room 1: Macro-Level of Change

In this breakout room, participants discussed different aspects of larger, macro-level changes in HESD. Based on questions raised in the previous virtual video & audio contributions, this included:

  • In which way is the knowledge that we transmit in contexts of HESD embedded in colonial power relations? What does the "coloniality of knowledge" (Lander 2000) mean for HESD?

  • Which role do or should universities have in society, e.g. regarding issues of climate change, threats against democracy, segregation? (Can they even be neutral and objective?)

  • Which specific responsibilities come with universities vis-à-vis the surrounding community and external stakeholders? To what extent is academic freedom an individual or a collective freedom? How do these huge questions influence our daily academic work/ projects?

Departing from these questions, participants were asked to add their further questions and solution ideas into a Flinga pad. Link to pad: https://flinga.fi/s/FS4FYSU

Breakout Room 2: Meso-Level of Change

In this breakout room, participants were asked to add their own experiences and thoughts to several guiding questions in a common pad. These questions had been synthesized by the workshop hosts in advance, based on questions raised in the various virtual video & audio contributions:

  • Which factors/ conditions enable the curricular integration of HESD?

  • How relevant are staff development, student participation and university profiles for curricular reform (e.g. mission statements, whole-institution-approach)?

  • How can we support these strategies on the institutional level of HEIs or local/regional/ (inter-)national policies?

  • How can we create acceptance and motivation for complex learning processes in HESD (e.g. through modular integration)?

The pad results show that participants particularly see a strong need for strategic networking, collaboration and alliance-building amongst different university staff, as well as with external stakeholders to instigate successful institutional change for sustainability transitions, e.g. via curricular reform, mission statements, a supportive university culture and campus environment.

Link to pad: https://cryptpad.fr/kanban/#/2/kanban/edit/avaef4TteUnJ8qjR1tp8FOOa/

Breakout Room 3: Micro-Level of Change

In this breakout session, participants started by collecting, prioritizing and deciding on a focus question for the breakout session. In a fun retro board, they had the chance to vote on questions already raised in the workshop presentations and to add their own personal questions. The majority was most interested in “best-practice exchange”, followed by: “How do we deal with students' emotional responses such as climate anxiety and turn them into something constructive?” The workshop contributors first shared their experience with specific approaches, such as serious games (Pia Spangenberger), research for change (Inken Reimer) and learning journals (Senan Gardiner). Participants could raise questions and complemented this with their own didactic experiences. Based on a presented PhD project, a discussion finally evolved around how to provide a safe space and address students’ specific life situations in class. This can have a strong influence on their capacity to absorb the course, but can also provide new enriching perspectives. This connected to Arjen Wals’ keynote for a more relational, holistic educational approach that focuses also on personal and social “transformative skills” development, not only “neutral” qualification and measurable performance.

Link to pad: https://funretro.io/publicboard/Didhn3i43oVs2Oz11SSkBG5yAgu1/7a80b222-b2a7-441e-b1a6-e70633b75c7a

Wrap-Up: Learnings and Open Questions

At the end of the workshop, the hosts asked participants to write their learnings and remaining open questions from the workshop in a second Mentimeter poll. While the answers were quite diverse, some recurring themes included the necessity of structural and mindset changes in academic institutions, the call for more strategic synergies and alliances between progressive HESD actors and initiatives (niches), and the necessity to learn from and cooperate with “unconventional” actors from below, including activists, indigenous people, students etc. You can see the detailed results here.

 Prepared by Nora Große, FUB, 29 Oct. 2020. Questions on the follow-up can be addressed to her: nora.grosse@fu-berlin.de

Keynote by:

Arjen Wals: Higher Education in Times of Climate Urgency, Polarization and Psychic Numbing – Navigating Bildung (Education) and Activism