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A transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning sustainability: A pedagogy for life

Dora Marinova and Natalie McGrath
Murdoch University

The increased incorporation of sustainability in the higher educational system is emphasised by UNESCO's decade of Education for Sustainable Development. An enhanced understanding of the principles, values and ethics that underlie sustainability is needed. This requires a concerted and committed focus within universities. An education in sustainability increases awareness of the complexity and interrelationships of environmental, economic, social, political and technical systems which can be achieved through a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. The Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University is presented as a case study of trandisciplinarity in education for sustainability based on the four pillars for education in the 21st century, namely learning and teaching to know, to do, to live together and to be.


The era of globalisation is creating unprecedented challenges which are being equally matched with new opportunities and possibilities for the future unforeseen by previous generations. Change in this new era is rapid, and appears to be ever accelerating as new technologies allow for faster communication and information flow. This is resulting in the deepening of divisions in wealth and wellbeing but also in the creation of new partnerships and expanding coalitions across and within government, markets, universities and civil societies. These coalitions are uniting cultures around the world and are forming a counter power to counteract the spirit of marketing and globalisation.

The wellbeing of present generations and likely survival of future generations, human and non-human, will depend greatly upon how the global human community responds to the environmental, social and economic challenges and opportunities that are being presented today. Sustainability is practical philosophy in which to systematically analyse and determine the solutions required in the development of a more just, equitable and peaceful global order. There are many positive examples where this is occurring. However, the use and abuse of sustainability is also now widespread. Risk management has become a common approach to this term in universities as opposed to the more egalitarian interpretations. Industrial practice has incorporated the use of sustainability in marketing, and triple bottom line reporting by both government and industry has tended to be dominated by the economic and quantitative elements conducive to this accounting style. Although supportive to the essence of sustainability and opposing the dominance of the economic imperative, community groups and civil society are struggling with the new jargon. An enhanced understanding of the principles, values and ethics that underlie sustainability is needed. A shift to sustainability requires a change in culture as well as in language and thinking (Newman, 2003) for which education is crucial.

The increased incorporation of sustainability in the higher educational system is thus of great significance and requires a concerted and committed focus within Universities. The decade of UNESCO's Education for Sustainable Development emphasises this significance. The complexities and contradictions of today's global challenges require transdisciplinary skills that cross disciplines, cultures and institutions, to be utilised by the citizens and professionals of today and tomorrow. It is the place of the University in society to discern truth, impart values and to prepare students to contribute to social progress and the advancement of knowledge, in which to achieve a sustainable world (Calder & Clugston, 2003).

Education for sustainability

The state of global environmental and human wellbeing has been observed for many decades to be in a spiral of decline (Calder & Clugston, 2003). Global witness of this has increased due to the expanded reach of modern media and mass communication. However despite this increased global consciousness the capitalist ethic of mass production and consumerism continues to expand. The contradictions that exist in the world are evident in the high incidence of obesity in developed countries (more than 40 million in the US alone) whilst more than 400 million children starve every year in the developing world. The need for the Western alliance to create war to protect peace is another example, and there are countless others. The complexities of these contradictions and challenges require a new approach to knowing and understanding, doing, relating and being.

The recent history of sustainability can be traced to Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 which brought attention to the relationship of toxic chemicals and environmental and human health. The concept of sustainability has travelled and evolved through many international conventions and documents since this time including the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the publication of Our Common Future in 1987, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in which participants compiled Agenda 21 and the recent 2002 World Summit in Johannesburg. Sustainability is a framework of principles, a philosophy of practice that engages multi-levels, places and cultures in a systematic approach towards better environmental and social health whilst simultaneously allowing the economic improvement that this may require. Sustainability emphasises the importance of the local, of knowledge and action, but relates this to a broader global perspective in which interrelationships are recognised.

The global environmental and social challenge is a crisis of values, ideas, perspectives and knowledge and is thus primarily a crisis of education (Cortese, 2003). Albert Einstein stated: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we used when we created them" (Calaprice, 2000). The challenge ahead is for Universities to take a leadership role in preparing the upcoming generation and in integrating information and knowledge for sustainability.

Transdisciplinary approach to sustainability

An education in sustainability increases awareness of the complexity and interrelationships of environmental, economic, social, political and technical systems and also increases respect for the diversity of voice that exists amongst cultures, race, religion, ethnic groups, geographic and intergenerational populations (Wheeler & Byrne, 2003). This complexity and diversity in the world requires knowledge and skills by citizens, professionals and leaders that cross the boundaries of disciplines and institutions, cultures and realities of society. Transdisciplinarity is a growing field of education and research that holds great potential to make an important contribution to a sustainable change.

Transdisciplinarity has evolved from the earlier research fields of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity is defined as research that studies a topic not only in one discipline but in several at the same time. Interdisciplinarity concerns the links and the transfer of knowledge, methods, concepts and models from one discipline to another. Transdisciplinarity instead involves what is between the disciplines, across the disciplines and beyond the disciplines. Multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity remain within the framework of disciplinarity which is concerned with one level of reality, or fragments of that one level. Transdisciplinarity is interested in the dynamics of simultaneous action of several layers of reality (Nicolescu, 1997).

The goal of transdisciplinarity is the holistic understanding of the world and the unity of knowledge that is required for this understanding. The transdisciplinarity approaches could provide people not only with the tools to understand reality but also to confront the changes taking place around them. It develops a new vision and a new experience of learning (Morin, 1999).

Transdisciplinarity in Universities is necessary for the realisation of global sustainability. An education system built upon the approaches of the previous century, confined solely to the boundaries of a disciplinary perspective, will not be able to meet the requirements of sustainability. The reports to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors (UNESCO, 1996 and 1998), recommend four pillars of an educational system which include: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. Transdisciplinarity provides a framework in which this may be achieved and includes the participation of society as a whole, with Universities as one actor.

Nicolescu (1997) recommends that Universities should have one transdisciplinary department and then every other department devote 10% of time to transdisciplinary work. This is particularly relevant to sustainability. This one transdisciplinary department could act as a centre in a network of disciplines whose understanding of transdisciplinarity for sustainability would be enhanced by this 10% loading. This would mean that teaching and learning sustainability would rise above the disciplinary framework, a transition that is very much required, but would be fed and would also feed individual disciplines. The Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy is employed in the rest of this paper as a case-study to demonstrate excellence in teaching and learning for sustainability as a centre of transdisciplinarity at Murdoch University, Perth.

A case study of teaching and learning transdisciplinarity

The Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP) was founded in 1988 through a Western Australian Government grant. This funding ceased in 1992 and the Institute is now an independent School within Murdoch University's Division of Arts. It has experienced continued growth over this period and is now an active research, learning and teaching centre with around 160 undergraduate students in its Bachelor of Arts (Honours)/Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Sustainable Development program, 100 Masters by Coursework students in Ecologically Sustainable Development and City Policy, and 60 PhD and MPhil students. Both the teaching staff and the students have been drawn from a range of disciplines, practical backgrounds and cultures and themselves possess diverse interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary skills.

The Institute's learning, teaching and research cover 6 key areas:

These key areas are transdisciplinary in that taken together, as an undergraduate degree; they are between the disciplines, across the disciplines and beyond the disciplines. Most of the postgraduate degrees and research topics cross over two or more of these key areas. The main aim of ISTP is to enable teaching and learning within the four pillars of education in the context of transdisciplinarity for sustainability.

The quality of learning is inseparable from the quality of teaching within a higher education system. Dialogical, critical and active learning requires a pedagogy in which teachers and students learn, reflect and act together, and by doing so transform themselves and the world around them (Freire, 1972). This creates a spirit of lifelong learning - a necessary skill for this century.

Teaching and learning to know

Knowledge is best interpreted when it is not only processed by the brain but also by the emotions and body, by the head, heart and hand. This goes beyond knowing and involves the development of understanding. Teaching and learning to know, in this sense means integrating different methodologies, disciplines and knowledge frameworks in a process by which real world relevance is maintained. It includes a greater understanding of the equal importance of tacit, lay and intellectual knowledge. This is particularly important for sustainability where respect for local knowledge and the action that this inspires, are crucial to the achievement of sustainability at any level. In the context of transdisciplinarity for sustainability, teaching and learning to know also require bridging the gap between theory and practice through a cycle of reflection, thought and action and thus to master the art of praxis.

Among others, this pillar of education for sustainability is represented by the variety of units that ISTP offers and the way they are taught. Students have the choice to select material with which they can associate and for which they can develop strong feelings. Hands-on workshops and field trips for units such as Ecologically Sustainable Development, Marine Conservation and Coastal Sustainability, Sustainable Urban Design allow the development of sense of place and association with the local environment. Eco-Philosophy and Practice extends this experience to the bush with trips to the Kimberleys and the Western Australian South-West. Through such experiences, the academic methods, concepts and theories are translated into learning tools and ways to acquire knowledge and understand the world.

The strengthening of collaboration and the building of partnerships are a major aim of ISTP research, teaching and learning. This includes collaboration and partnership with other disciplines, such as Environmental Science, Economics, Indigenous Studies and Education.

Teaching and learning to do

Teaching and learning to do sustainability require an understanding of the failings of fragmentation and ability to research, understand and relate in a transdisciplinary manner. This includes skills to facilitate collective participation, collaboration and coordination between the institutions of society in which dialogue is removed from the biases of position, personality and power. Challenges and solutions towards sustainability are deliberated upon in a constant cycle of reflection and action that is inclusive of all relevant actors. Teaching and learning to do thus require the ability to relinquish power, a desire to realise the empowerment of others. It also involves being able to dream and to envision not only on a personal level but also in a collective.

All ISTP projects, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, deal with real life problems. It is often the case that students are successful in getting scholarships for projects such as Non-motorised Traffic Study for Fremantle, Sustainability Plan for the Tjuntjuntjara School and the Maddington Kenwick Sustainable Communities Initiative. The importance of real world relevance is recognised through the work with outside institutions and organisations including government, market and community groups.

Teaching and learning to live together

This requires not only tolerance and respect for other cultures, colours, religions, genders, opinions, animals and plants but the creation of a universal understanding of shared values and ethics needed for inter-species and inter-generational global justice, equity and peace, for the higher purpose interpretations of sustainability. This involves a critical consciousness that recognises the existence of inequalities of overt and hidden power and the oppressive elements of human society in addition to the recognition of the interrelatedness of all elements on the planet. The ISTP offers an excellent example. Morning tea every Thursday reinforces a sense of solidarity, collective values and ethics, and a shared vision. The ongoing seminar series and the teaching skills initiative program are useful instruments to achieve collective action and reflection and reinforce this ethic in individual practices. The Institute attracts large number of international and local visitors. This also acts to further networks within and external to Murdoch University.

Teaching and learning to be

The knowledge and power attained in education require responsibility in how this knowledge is utilised by society. The transdisciplinary approach becomes a world view not confined within the sphere of education and research but which goes across all sectors and human activities. There is a growing recognition by educators of the need to not only master knowledge but to also master one's sense of self (Davis et al., 2003). Conditioning in the modern world has not typically been conducive to an understanding or consciousness beyond consumerist existence, and the unfulfilling employment and production patterns that this has created. Learning and reflection by teachers and students upon the reasons for our life on earth and the right of others to exist, expand a feeling of just existing to an empowering sense of being and living, of knowing and feeling one's place within a wider network of life and light. This self-empowerment and higher consciousness feed into a wider network of relational and community empowerment, required for the overcoming of consumerist forces.

This approach transcends the work ISTP and its students do. Peter Newman, Director of ISTP is concurrently Director of the Sustainability Unit within the Department of Premier and Cabinet in the Western Australian Government. This has opened up a diverse number of opportunities for partnerships on transdisciplinary teaching and learning for sustainability which include the compilation of a CD with 53 case-studies, and the study of regional sustainability and sense of place as just two examples.


Trandisciplinarity and sustainability both remain fairly recent conceptual and methodological frameworks. Some academics find the concept too abstract and broad and generally confine interpretation to their individual disciplines (Leal Filho, 2000; Davis et al., 2003). Agenda 21 declared that: "To be effective, sustainable development education should deal with the dynamics of the physical, biological, social, economic, and spiritual environment. Information regarding all of these aspects should be integrated into all disciplines" (Sitarz, 1993:293). The ISTP firmly believes in this and is making its contribution for a better world.

The Talloires and Kyoto Declarations, the Copernicus University Charter for Sustainable Development and other international statements have gathered global consensus on higher education for sustainability. This consensus is based around the promotion of sustainability in all disciplines; research on sustainability issues; the greening of university operations; engaging in academic cooperation; forming partnerships with government, NGOs and industry; and the moral obligation of universities towards sustainability (Corcoran, et al., 2002; Calder & Clugston, 2003).

The ISTP has been working towards achieving these aspirations. The Institute's work also proves that transdisciplinarity is a powerful educational approach for the shift in culture where sustainability is no longer a vision but a way of living.


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Authors: Dora Marinova and Natalie McGrath
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, Perth Western Australia
Phone: +61 8 9360 6103 Fax: +61 8 9360 6421 Email: D.Marinova@marinova, N.McGrath@murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Marinova, D. & McGrath, N. (2004). A transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning sustainability: A pedagogy for life. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/marinova.html

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Created 21 May 2004. Last revision: 6 June 2004.