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Education in crisis: Opportunities for new learning and transformations to sustainability

Worldwide, millions of students are facing unprecedented disruptions to their education. Exams have been cancelled, enrolment dates pushed back, key events postponed, and the delivery of lectures and course content changed radically and indefinitely. The promise of post-graduate employment (a key sales pitch of universities in recent decades) no longer offers the same reassurance. The National Union of Students (NUS) recently surveyed nearly 10,000 students and found 95% ‘expressed fears about the impact of the [corona]virus on the wider economy’ and 81% ‘expressed concerns about their job prospects’.

As mainstream approaches are perpetuating cultures of unsustainability, our Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are facing profound questions (Bradbury et al., 2019). The current pandemic and the needs of the planet (ideally a hospitable and thriving one) are stripping the role of HEIs back to basics. As they become untethered from ‘business-as-usual’, and education is understood as more than a market commodity, we have opportunities to re-consider what, why and how we learn.

“Our learning needs to reflect the severity of the climate crisis. We demand reform to the education system.” (Teachthefuture, 2020)

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals give an indication of today’s pressing global issues. HEIs have a responsibility (and response abilities) to change tack towards addressing these. And in unison, social norms and expectations must evolve, actively and positively, to ensure destructive behaviours are avoided. How can we imagine this evolution? A fit-for-purpose HE model will be propelled by the quality and value of learning, with university rankings being defined by pro-social and -environmental impacts. How can universities support cultural shifts? The predominant model centres around ‘competition’ – what role can HEIs play in reconnecting our ideals to the Latinate origins of com petere: ‘to strive together’? Within a globalised arena, universities have international prominence which can tackle large-scale crises. How can the equivalent regional presence boost local-level wellbeing? How can HEIs and their students purposefully integrate within their localities to better understand and generate place-based solutions? Local insights may prove invaluable when fed into an open global knowledge-base and problem-solving community (see Martin, 2020).

To meet real-world needs, it is recognised that theoretical knowledge alone is not enough. This calls for the types of knowledge acquired by students, via their institutions, to be aligned with, and embedded within, reality. How far can the theories on sustainable transformations take us to a truly sustainable world? How far should an institution’s obligation extend when it educates ‘for sustainability’? Is it okay to stop at teaching students everything they ought to know, on paper, about being sustainable? What are the alternatives? At the least, transformative education – which is no less than what sustainability demands – requires a bridging of the ill-famed theory–practice divide: going beyond learning about the world to actively engaging within it. Towards its best, education emphasises virtues and helps us nurture both our inner and outer worlds – concepts which are often beyond the scope and comprehension of current scientific reasoning (Ives et al., 2020). It is our unique worldviews which impact our behaviour and go on to determine how sustainable and thriving our cultures are. And so, it is paramount that HEIs provide environments which facilitate new experiences and learning pathways by connecting students – with their individual passions and interests – to practical-learning contexts (Macintyre et al., 2020).

Enabling positive, responsible and coherent citizenship should be a basis of any academic specialisms. Collaborative interdisciplinary learning is an essential feature of sustainability-oriented science (see Haider et al., 2018), and is increasingly extended to ‘transdisciplinary’, whereby learning occurs with and because of wider society [and beyond]. However, teaching for transdisciplinary competencies is notably difficult: existing HEI infrastructure is designed in the majority to advantage the disciplinary approach. Innovative alternatives and a healthy space for experimentation provides fresh understandings of the systems we operate within, revealing where positive, cross-discipline benefits exist; when and why systemic change is required; and how it can be enacted. These holistic approaches encompass our selves too, and invite us to learn about aspects of our own ‘systems’ and how these shape our learning – what Jackson (2019) refers to as our ‘learning ecology’. Figure 1 below provides a way to help consider, appreciate and develop why and how we are:

Figure 1) A mapping tool created by Learning Ecologies for developing deeper understandings of practice, learning, and performance-ecologies

Figure 1) A mapping tool created by Learning Ecologies for developing deeper understandings of practice, learning, and performance-ecologies

An understanding of personal learning ecologies helps make sense of the dynamic, interacting features within other systems. By recognising which aspects of our ‘ecologies’ are permitted or excluded from conventional HEI frameworks, we can shine light upon that institution’s competencies or inadequacies, respectively. In this sense, we might say that the wellbeing of an HE ‘ecology’ can be assessed by considering how wholesome it is.

Wholesome HE processes support students in developing knowledge within diverse contexts, gaining skills in critical thinking and practically experiencing how to be an active force for good. In an increasingly complex world, students require skills which are increasingly complexity oriented (Weinert, 2001). These skills are themselves typically more complex and, again, present something of a round peg to the conventional, square hole of scientific language and analyses. These wholesome, well-rounded skills include, as examples: curiosity and self-awareness/-reflection (is this approach working? What or who does it help/hinder and how?); collaboration and communication (how can we share knowledge to co-create better?); participation (moving collaborative learning into a wider world of innovative action); openness and courage (having the willingness to see and address inadequacies); creativity (imagining and making anew); and flexibility (how should we respond to the ever-changing world?).

“We can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

As the current pandemic context alters our familiar lifestyles, we confirm first-hand that large transformations can occur if we recognise the need to experiment. How else might HEIs sound the alarms of climate change and injustice? What qualifies a good enough cause to think and act differently? Necessary skills can be learned, developed, applied and in this way evaluated and improved: we are perfectly primed for complex learning and advanced doing.

“Students who are best prepared for the future are change agents.” (OECD, 2018)

For the last 20 years, Change Agents UK has recognised the need to develop pioneering pathways to meet sustainability challenges. Their training courses develop the key competencies for responding to crises and enabling positive transformations. Change Agents provides links between skilled graduates and the sustainability employment sector, which also serves to create and strengthen networks of proactive communities. These networks are vital resources for sharing information and inspiring further progress. Established ‘alternative’ education institutions (e.g. the Centre for Alternative Technology and Schumacher College) are experienced in teaching for criticality, creativity and practicality. Arguably, they now surpass mainstream institutions in terms of relevance in addressing current needs. Emerging institutions such as the Black Mountains College are specifically creating curricula around holistic wellbeing, prioritising social-ecological transformations, and including collaborative projects between students and the local community.

The possibility to move HE operations online, although far from perfect, has allowed learning to continue and information streams to keep flowing. This exemplifies how pathways and models are often much more changeable than previously believed. As with the alternative education providers who are striding forwards, online course providers, with expertise in educating virtually – e.g. The Open University – now have heightened value. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses – e.g. as provided by FutureLearn) present new ways to explore supplementary learning material, trial the different styles of online delivery offered by various organisations, or gain specific skills to meet the needs of emerging sustainability sectors.

Technological evolutions, combined with a buoyed appreciation for transformative education and a sense of humanity’s responsibility, could be defining characteristics of the coming era. Yet, in the spirit of holistic- and self-development, we must ensure that virtual classrooms and collaboration spaces do not repeat past mistakes by losing sight of physical, emotional and experiential [offline] realities. As universities increase their digital infrastructure, how do they and their students sustain a core mission of practically responding to global challenges?

Summary In response to the wide-ranging calls for better, our current education institutions are to decide between pathways of extinction or change. Positively, university prospectuses are showcasing their values-based features in bold – notions and promotions of sustainable wellbeing, cultural diversity, civic responsibility and innovation. The effects of Covid-19, climate change and societal dis-ease are holding these advertisements to account, ensuring that change-pathways exist beyond lip service.

In a time when our ‘-as-usuals’ have been exposed to extraordinary shocks, we are witnessing how the entrenched, unsustainable cultures can be uprooted. Covid-19 has forced us to engage in new ways of existing, and in so doing we have proven our capacities to adapt and ‘make good’ when times are bad. We might wonder whether the tensions between unsustainable systems and sustainable aspirations have finally been stressed beyond breaking point... In the future, with the right educational footings, shocks to the system need not be something we simply prepare for and respond to. We can instigate the shocks which reshape values, behaviours and worldviews. With deliberate effort we can imagine and create a different relationship with education and wider systems. Certainly, if the demand is there, universities will redesign to meet it.

A flourishing life, it seems, is best explored with the want and willingness to be awed and mystified: to enjoy learning more about questions than answers. Faced with situations too complex for definitive ‘right’ answers, there is a common need for actions which are underpinned by good guidance and rich experiences. Higher Education Institutions, students, local communities and global networks must all collaborate to create the evolutionary pathways. Emerging from the shocks of the pandemic, we are able to continue – all of us teachers, all of us students – as positive change agents.

With extra thanks to J. and T., two students admirably navigating and advancing through, and still finding time to offer their valuable insights and feedback on this complex topic! Student resources:

NUS – the National Union of Students offer a broad range of advice and support. NUS work hard to keep the voices and concerns of students heard to reshape the future of education.

The Student Room – have an up-to-date help and advice page dedicated to the coronavirus situation, including information on formal changes (e.g. government guidelines and statements from examining bodies). They offer advice and support, from study tips to mental well-being.

London & South East Schools Eco-Network – a huge resource, compiling environmentally focussed learning and information, covering all age ranges and stages of learning.

Teach the Future – a youth-led campaign to urgently repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.

FutureLearn – a wide range of online courses, from short courses and micro-credentials to full degrees.

Titus Alexander – a list of Universities offering courses for students wishing to ‘influence, increase impact and do practical politics’. Explore the website’s many other great resources aimed at empowering people towards practical politics.

Learning Ecologies – insights and resources on (re)connecting with our inner landscape; providing valuable understandings, essential for amplifying positive actions.


References: • Bradbury, H., Waddell, S., O’ Brien, K., Apgar, M., Teehankee, B., & Fazey, I. (2019) ‘A call to Action Research for Transformations: The times demand it’, Action Research, 17(1), 3–10. Doi:

• Macintyre, T., Chaves, M., Monroy, T., Zethelius, M., Villarreal, T., Tassone, V., Wals, A. (2020) ‘Transgressing Boundaries between Community Learning and Higher Education: Levers and Barriers’, Sustainability, 12, 2601. Doi: 10.3390/su12072601

• Ives, C., Freeth, R., Fischer, J. (2020) ‘Inside-out sustainability: The neglect of inner worlds’, Ambio, 1-10. Doi:

• Teachthefuture (2020) Our learning needs… Available at: (Accessed: 05/07/2020).

• Martin, S. (2020) SHOULD UNIVERSITIES BE A FORCE FOR SOCIAL GOOD? Available at: (Accessed: 05/07/2020)

• Haider, L., Hentati-Sunderberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2018) ‘The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science’, Sustainability Science, 13, 191-204. DOI:

• Jackson, N.J. (2019) Ecologies for Learning and Practice in Higher Education Ecosystems, in R.Barnett and N.J.Jackson (Eds) Ecologies for Learning and Practice: Emerging Ideas, Sightings, and Possibilities, London: Routledge

• Weinert, E. (2001). Concept of competence: A conceptual clarification. In D. S. Rychen & L. H. Salganik (Eds.), Defining and selecting key competencies (p. 45–65). Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

• OECD (2018) The Future of Education Sills – Education 2030 – The Future We Want. OECD. Available at: (Accessed: 05/07/2020)

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