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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

September 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
Dr Asanga Gunawansa & Dr Kua Harn Wei
Department of Building

We live in a world in which almost every literate person has heard of the term ‘sustainable development’ (SD). Most people might also claim that they understand what it means. A simple Google search of the term indicates that SD is featured on approximately 22,000,000 web pages. However, it remains one of the most misunderstood or ill-defined concepts. For example, some bureaucrats might argue that ‘sustainability’ or SD is an empty concept, too vague or ill-defined to be of any use in practical decision-making and real life policy implementation (Jacobs, 1999). The environmentalists might argue that the notion of ‘sustainable use’ of resources is a dangerous influence that is a threat to natural resources worldwide (Patterson, 1998). According to Hattingh and Attfi eld (2002), instead of contributing towards the protection of nature and ensuring a continued availability of resources, some claim that ‘sustainable use’ is nothing but a green mask used by industry and governments to justify and continue the ruthless exploitation of natural resources as it has always been done before.

In addition to the theoretical misunderstandings, SD means different things to different people. For example, for a poor man living in the slums, SD might mean eradication of poverty and improvement of his life. For a group of people living amidst a civil war, without a place to call home, SD might mean lasting peace. For a country whose natural resources is rapidly diminishing, SD might mean conservation. For academics who conduct research on SD or policy makers, SD might mean all of these.

In such circumstances, one of the biggest challenges in teaching a vague, ill-defined, misunderstood, yet popular concept is getting the learners to overcome their preconceived notions and learn to understand and appreciate the concept from diverse angles. Socrates (470399 B.C.) said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Although, this statement may not find favour with some, it does make an important point—making the learner think is extremely important. We are firm believers of making students think. If students are not trained to think, use their analytical skills and understand the concepts and their applications, then students may not benefit from attending a module that teaches SD, although they might be able to pass an exam just by memorising certain concepts.

In our view, there are two key aspects to teaching freshmen. The first is to help them transit from rote-learning in pre-university education to a different learning style in the university. The second is to inspire students to study with initiative and actively demonstrate to them that researchand group-based learning can be effective. With these in mind, we designed a module called “Policies for Developing Sustainable Cities” to facilitate informal discussion-based teaching to a small class. The aim was to cultivate in students the skills necessary for understanding and engaging in research and analysis of issues fundamental to human development by making learning fun. Students not only learn from the facilitators but also from each other, as well as various other sources of information.

The module examined the development of policy initiatives for building sustainable cities. We aimed to help students understand challenges at the national and international levels in building sustainable cities amid growing concerns such as climate change, energy crisis, desertification and economic instability. The main topics included the concepts of SD and sustainable cities, national and international policy framework for building sustainable cities, key challenges to SD, promoting a green environment, and risk mitigation measures and adaptation initiatives.

16 students from the Departments of Architecture and Building read this course. We noticed that those who signed up for the module had a genuine interest in the concepts relating to sustainability. Some have had exposure to practical issues relating to environmental protection and sustainable development through activities they have undertaken as members of NGOs or student societies. This made it easier for us to engage them in discussions and moot-based teaching. The seminar sessions were structured in a way that encouraged students to participate actively in class discussions. Students were required to read assigned readings before each session, prepare presentations and raise issues for further discussion in consultation with the lecturers. Carefully chosen reading materials also gave their confidence a boost and helped them speak their minds in class.

We encountered a number of challenges in the process. Most significantly, that of striking a delicate balance between imparting background knowledge in the form of lectures and engaging students in meaningful discussions moderated by the theoretical rigour of SD concepts. We figured that more instructional lectures were necessary at the beginning of the course, and the time for students to share their views and opinions on key questions highlighted in weekly readings should gradually increase towards the end of the course. This allowed students to get used to our instructional style and familiarise themselves with the more open and argumentative class dynamics. Furthermore, engaging students to tackle open-ended problems in which a solution can in fact become a problem when viewed from another perspective, made many a little uneasy with not being able to get straightforward and absolute answers to sustainability problems. As the course came to an end, we were relieved to see more students grasping the core nature of sustainability problems and learning to appreciate their complex nature. Such an appreciation of the subject is best inculcated in an amicable learning environment where students are encouraged to become the ‘co-creators’ of the course materials and fellow stakeholders in the sustainability debate.

Another challenge was that several students were unable to finish their weekly reading assignments. We stressed in class that these reading assignments were not an end in themselves; they were meant to inspire meaningful and informed debates by opening students’ minds to new concepts with which they are expected to be familiar. We did not want students to debate on the issues based on their background knowledge without first reading the assignments as this may cause whatever biases they have to grow stronger. In fact, the contents of the assignments were specially chosen to challenge certain popular knowledge or widespread incorrect assumptions on sustainability (e.g. green buildings synonymously mean sustainable built environment).

Although students proposed to have fewer readings, we found that they can cover even more materials when they read up for their class projects! This may imply that some of the reading assignments were too difficult. In future, instead of assigning the five articles to students, we can assign only the two most important ones and then require student to look for three more articles related to the first two using a list of keywords to aid in their literature review. This will also help develop their research skills in addressing and appreciating sustainability problems—a fundamental quality of an academic researcher.

In conclusion, the very nature of SD warrants a seminar- and discussion-based approach to education. As sustainability problems are often multifaceted, students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests can easily participate in its discourse. We have learnt valuable lessons that will help us improve the course in future. More importantly, as we are also practitioners in SD policies and law, this seminar provides an effective platform to learn more about engaging a wide ranging, non-specialised audience in the multi-faceted and highly complex nature of sustainability discourse.


Hattingh, J. & Attfield, R. (2002). Ecological sustainability in a developing country such as South Africa? A Philosophical and Ethical Inquiry. The International Journal of Human Rights, 6(2), 65–92.

Jacobs, M. (1999). Sustainable development as a contested concept. In Fairness and Futurity: Essays on Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice, Andrew, D. (ed.), pp. 21–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patterson, G. (1998). Dying to be free: The canned lion scandal and the case for ending trophy hunting in Africa. London: Viking.

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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!