Integrative Education for Sustainability By Chitra Ravi, Sandhya Tenetti and Harini Nagendra

PERSPECTIVE Integrative Education for Sustainability Orienting education towards sustainability provides a transformative experience involving a fundamental change in the way we look at the world. The article that follows invites us to think in this direction. Chitra Ravi works at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her interests lie in teaching learning processes – especially in science, […]


Integrative Education for Sustainability

Orienting education towards sustainability provides a transformative experience involving a fundamental change in the way we look at the world. The article that follows invites us to think in this direction.

Chitra Ravi works at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her interests lie in teaching learning processes – especially in science, environment and sustainability. Outside work, she is fascinated by the origins of life, public participatory research and the written word.

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Sandhya Tenneti works at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She has a B.Sc (Hons) in Business and Management Studies, MA in International Relations, and a MS in Energy Policy and Climate. Her interests and experience include sustainability education, environmental, social and governance factors in investment practices and the interaction of businesses with sustainability.

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She teaches, conducts research and writes on issues of sustainability education, practice and planning relevant to India’s forests and cities.

We live in times of rapid and unprecedented change. Billions of people are becoming increasingly linked to each other through the expanding reach of markets, technology, and social networks; but remain divided by striking inequalities in income, wealth and power. The world economy continues to grow rapidly (with a 3-4% increase/year), depleting many finite bio-physical resources and altering some of the most basic life-support systems of the planet we live on. We have very little understanding of the scale, timing and implications of these changes, especially in a world that is intricately inter-connected across space, time and species. However, it is increasingly evident that this changing world presents us with challenges and opportunities that demand new ways of thinking, knowing and acting.

Current mainstream education is no longer sufficient to meet these demands. By increasingly compartmentalising knowledge into discrete disciplines, it fosters a competitive academic culture that may inhibit communication between (and outside) fields and stifles innovation. Trained to prioritise reductionist thinking and disciplinary specialisation, students may be left with a fragmented view of the world and oneself. In contrast, young adults today need the knowledge, skills and attitudes to engage with multi-faceted real-world problems, cope with change, and actively participate in imagining and building a more sustainable future. Thus, there is now a widely recognised need to rethink education at all levels in the 21st century, orienting it towards education for sustainability.

The Need for Integration 

‘What is a forest?’

An economist’s perspective: An ever-replenishing source of goods and services like fuel, building material and raw material for industrial processing that contribute to GDP both as productive capital stocks and components of public infrastructural systems. – FAO’s State of the World’s Forests, (1995).

An ecologist’s perspective: An ecosystem characterised by more or less dense and extensive tree cover, often consisting of stands varying in characteristics such as species composition, structure, age class, and associated processes (Helms, 1998) – Lund, H.G. (2000).

A writer’s perspective: ‘…from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.’ – James Salter, Light Years.

A Quilombola (descendent of escaped African slaves) woman from the Angelim community in Brazil: ‘a place where people used to go to find fruits and seeds, vines, woods, plants, roots; to hunt and fish. It was also a place to practice our faith’ – Lund, H.G. (2000).


And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

– John Godfrey Saxe, The Blind Men and the Elephant

Re-orienting education towards sustainability is a complex task. Described as a concept, an ethic, and a strategy, sustainability has multiple seamlessly inter-linked dimensions – ranging from the ecological, economic and political to the social and philosophical. These dimensions present complex trade-offs that vary across geographies, time periods and social contexts. Thus, while people all over the world recognise that current trends are unsustainable, there is little agreement on the goals and scope of sustainability. Sustain what and for whom? Is sustainability achievable? What will a more sustainable future look like? How do we measure our progress towards this future? The contested nature of these questions is reflected in the numerous, and largely open-ended, ways in which sustainability is defined. Differences in context complicate efforts by groups with different (and often, changing) priorities to agree on a common course of action. Or, arrive at measures to compare the effectiveness of different sustainability efforts. Thus, sustainability involves ways of knowing that draw from the experiences and knowledge that exists with people, but are rarely seen in academic treatises. Even when viewed purely as a normative goal, much like democracy, justice, and peace etc., sustainability is complicated by the need to address the non-human (“natural”) world as one of its essential components.

Efforts to build integrative programmes present many institutional, curricular and pedagogical challenges. Given the multi-dimensional nature of sustainability, they may need to equip students with the ability to see complex social-ecological systems as a non-linear interconnected whole. Reflecting the demands of an unpredictable changing world, their curricula may need to build vision and adaptive flexibility by shifting from the pre-ordained to the emergent and anticipative. Recognising the ‘wicked’ nature of sustainability challenges, learning may need to be problem-oriented with students being equipped to recognise how solutions are subjective to the values, preferences, and beliefs of their stakeholders. Lastly, while an intellectual understanding of sustainability is necessary, education for sustainability must also equip students with the motivation, empathy and ethical judgement required to apply this knowledge in practice. However, teachers (and students) may be ill-equipped and uncomfortable with ‘trespassing’ too far into those aspects of sustainability that are counter-cultural to their own disciplinary and institutional grounding. Institutional structures may not yet be equipped to provide spaces for such new, collaborative and experiential learning experiences.This complexity has important implications on the nature and goals of education for sustainability. Confronting students with the multi-dimensional challenge of sustainability defies its compartmentalisation into clear disciplinary boundaries. On the one hand, sustainability interconnects concepts, perspectives and methods from multiple disciplines; and on the other hand, different disciplines are more likely to be receptive to some, but not all its dimensions. This makes any effort towards education for sustainability an inherently integrative exercise. Depending upon the degree of integration they are able to achieve, educational programmes oriented towards sustainability are progressively referred to as being multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary in nature. Simply defined, multi-disciplinary programmes involve the study of common concepts in sustainability through multiple approaches that retain their disciplinary identity. Inter-disciplinary programmes use methods and approaches involving the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries; while trans-disciplinary programmes extend beyond both disciplinary and institutional boundaries, connecting the study of sustainability with real-world contexts of practice.

Programmatic and Curricular Approaches to Integration

Institutions of higher education have responded to the challenge of re-orienting education for sustainability in mainly two ways – some seek to infuse sustainability concepts into existing disciplinary courses/programmes, while others aim to diffuse principles from different disciplines to create sustainability courses/programmes.

  1. A) Infusionist Approaches

Robert Gutman observed that ‘every profession bears the responsibility to understand the circumstances that enable its existence.’ (Dalcher, 2014). Infusionist approaches aim to give academics and professionals in conventional fields the ability to recognise and act upon the importance of aligning their professional/personal practice in the context of sustainability. Thus, this model of integration identifies creative ways of infusing sustainability-related concepts, issues, perspectives and examples into existing disciplinary courses or programmes. The scale of this infusion can vary from being limited to ‘windows of opportunity’ at one end, to becoming an integral part of the vision and operational practice of a university at the other. Infusion is achieved in one/more of the following ways:

  1. Overarching concepts approach: Key concepts, ideas and perspectives in sustainability are collaboratively identified and shared with every department/school, which then address these concepts through the vocabulary and methods unique to their own disciplines.
  2. Infusionist case study approach: Different departments/schools analyse identical sustainability-related case studies from a common university-wide pool, within contexts specified by, and using the lenses of, their own disciplines.

  1. B) Diffusionist Approaches

Diffusionist approaches are focussed on producing a new generation of academics and professionals in sustainability. Thus, this model of integration diffuses out perspectives, methods and vocabularies from a variety of disciplinary areas to pool them into a programme in sustainability. The scale of diffusion can vary from being limited to the communication of discrete ideas within a common framework at one end, to a mutual re-organisation and synthesis of diverse disciplinary inputs in real-world contexts at the other. Diffusion is achieved in one/more of the following ways:

  1. Interdisciplinary sustainability programme approach: Educators with different disciplinary backgrounds collaborate to design and team teach an inter-disciplinary sustainability curriculum. The quality of learning strongly correlates with the nature and quality of team-work. Its benefits are most evident with educators who are willing to share control, are open to exploring new ways of knowing, and are not easily offended. Truly collaborative team teaching can help create dynamic learning spaces that constructively challenge student assumptions, perspectives and worldviews.
  2. Trans-disciplinary case study approach: By providing opportunities to investigate what sustainability means in such real-world phenomena that cannot be separated from their context, trans-disciplinary case studies offer a powerful educational experience. This approach is different from the infusionist version in creating spaces and structures for academics and students with different disciplinary backgrounds and proficiencies to work jointly on each case. Through opportunities to share their methods, interpretations and analysis, participants are able to embed insights from different disciplines into their own understanding.
  3. Place-based educational approach: David Orr, in his article titled What is Education For, suggests that ‘we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities. Knowing a ‘place’ is seamless – neither requiring knowledge of any particular discipline or a dialogue between disciplines. Thus, place-based educational approaches provide rich opportunities to ground the disciplinary and intellectual understanding of sustainability in the messiness of lived experience. Students of this approach learn from their own experience of inhabiting a place that is ecological and cultural at the same time. They also learn by exploring the diverse communities, organisations, networks and ways of knowing that shape it.

  1. C) Hybrid Approaches

Since infusionist approaches do not require a radical change in existing curricula, they can be incorporated quickly and easily, even by individual educators. However, they may leave students with a narrow understanding of sustainability and limited opportunities to explore its extra-disciplinary aspects. Diffusionist approaches provide a richer understanding of sustainability, with students being exposed to ways of synthesizing insights from many different disciplines and applying them to real-world contexts. However, they require significant changes in existing academic programmes, institutional cultures, educator capacities, and perhaps even student expectations. Hybrid approaches attempt to combine the advantages of both, in some of the following ways:

  1. Special event approach: Academics and students from a range of disciplines participate in collaborative learning experiences around a variety of sustainability-related themes in short events, like conferences and workshops. Usually facilitated by experts with an alternate theoretical or practical perspective, these events provide opportunities for participants to engage with each other across common learning material.
  2. Generic module approach: Students are taught one/more university-wide generic modules on sustainability, designed to emphasise its potential as an ethic that can guide and shape the vision and scope of their own disciplines.
  3. Cross-fertilization approach: Educators from two or more disciplines collaborate to loosen the disciplinary frame of conventional subject-based programmes with sustainability-related inputs from other disciplines. This can either take the form of infusing a programme in economics with ecological principles; or building a specialisation in sustainability within a programme in development.

Pedagogical Approaches to Integration

‘Sustainability is not a specifiable target state, but the continuous exploratory pursuit, through open-ended learning, of ways to ensure that life goes on … Deep sustainability really consists in the life-effort of men and women whose education has equipped them with enough knowledge, sensitivity, emotional range and moral imagination to act together as a genuinely learning community in modern conditions’– Foster J., The Sustainability Mirage – Illusion and reality in the coming war on climate change.

Pedagogical approaches in mainstream education have been largely instrumental in nature, focussed on achieving specific pre-ordained goals and outcomes. In a world of rapid change, it is difficult to know or predict what a sustainable future will look like or function. Thus, pedagogical approaches for sustainability are inherently intrinsic in nature, focussed more on the process of learning and the learner’s experience of it, rather than what it may eventually lead to or influence. Such pedagogy is relational and ethically oriented, embracing the larger sustainability-related goals of equity, ecological mindfulness, social justice and transformative action for change. Reflected in classroom practices that are learner-centric, experiential and discursive, these intrinsic pedagogies encourage more personal and reflexive forms of learning, not necessarily constrained by disciplinary boundaries.


In its most effective form, re-orienting education towards sustainability must provide a transformative experience, involving a fundamental change in the way we make sense of the world.

Going back to our early example of ‘What is a forest?’, the perspectives of an ecologist and economist reflect the focus and vocabulary unique to their own disciplinary groundings. The writer sees the forest as a metaphor, with his description invoking memory of lived experience; while the Quilombolan woman describes the forest as both a source of physical and spiritual sustenance. What if we were to ask them this question again, in the context of sustainability? A student with a strong disciplinary grounding in economics, for instance, may evaluate a project involving the use of a forest, or any other natural resource, by focusing only on the monetary aspects of the proposal. With exposure to an integrative (inter- or trans- disciplinary) educational programme oriented towards sustainability, this student may be more likely (and equipped) to take into account the intrinsic value of forests, their biodiversity, and the lives and livelihoods of people dependent on it. She would thus be more capable of developing a proposal for forest use that is rooted in social and ecological, as well as economic sustainability.

Paraphrasing Stephen Sterling (2010), disciplinary approaches may equip us with the ability to adapt to the current world (doing things better) but are largely unequal to the task of challenging or changing our basic values and assumptions. On the other hand, integrative approaches to sustainability build on disciplinary groundings, but go beyond them to empower us with the critical and creative abilities to understand and challenge our existing frames of reference. They equip us with the ability to engage with alternate world-views, epistemologies and behaviours; thereby making us capable of doing better things.

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