Nurturing Sustainability Changemakers through Transformative Learning Using Design Thinking: Evidence from an Exploratory Qualitative Study

Nurturing Sustainability Changemakers through Transformative Learning Using Design Thinking: Evidence from an Exploratory Qualitative Study

1. Introduction

Globally, society faces significant problems, from climate crisis to persistent poverty. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) or Sustainability Education was founded with the ambition to build knowledge of sustainability and, more importantly, to develop sustainability changemakers who directly contribute toward creating a sustainable society [1]. The changemakers are people with a bias to action, strong sustainability values, and a wide range of skills and competencies, which they apply to create sustainability transitions on individual, organisational and systems levels [2].
Universities play a significant and unique role in these sustainability transformations via the ESD [3]. Some scholars call it the Higher Education for Sustainable Development (HESD) [4]. During the past years, higher education institutions worldwide have been providing sustainability education to a wide range of students, either by integrating sustainable development into existing curricula across single disciplines such as business, education, law, etc. [5] or designing new interdisciplinary programmes in sustainability science. For the past decade, the number of sustainability education programmes at universities and colleges alone in the USA has surpassed 1500, representing a significant increase in the global total [6]. Advancing the transition towards sustainability calls for changemakers with different qualities and characteristics, which ideally will be reflected as key learning outcomes of ESD. There remains a question, however, among educators, learners, and practitioners about what these qualities might look like. Several scholarly attempts have been made to articulate these qualities and potential associated learning outcomes of ESD.
Most notably, Wiek et al. [7] and later Wiek et al. [8] proposed a framework that supports ESD programmes and curriculum development. The framework encompasses five key sustainability competencies. These are widely defined as knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful performance and problem-solving of real-world sustainability problems, including values-thinking competency, futures-thinking competency, strategic-thinking competency, interpersonal competency, and integrated problem-solving competency. More recently, Brundiers et al. [9], in their Delphi study, further developed the framework by redefining existing competencies, proposing a hierarchy, and adding two competencies (intrapersonal competencies/mindset and implementation competencies). They called for more empirical research on the legitimacy of these new competencies, especially intrapersonal competencies/mindset.
Furthermore, facilitating ESD requires innovations in teaching and learning [10]. Nevertheless, the current practice of teaching and learning sustainability education tends to be outdated, discipline-specific, taught content-heavy via “spoon-feeding”, and focus on teaching “about” sustainability rather than preparing students’ agency of advancing transformation [11,12]. In this traditional pedagogy, the predominant mode of information dissemination is single-directional, wherein the instructor imparts knowledge to the listeners as students.
In addition, Sustainable Development (SD) is a multifaceted and intricate concept subject to diverse interpretations across various academic disciplines and within various social and cultural contexts. ESD educators need to collaborate and link different disciplines in novel ways to support students’ social learning systems thinking and help them explore sustainability issues holistically with an open mind instead of seeking a predetermined technical solution bounded in a single discipline [13]. This has become even more important in today’s digital era, where knowledge “about” sustainability (concepts, frameworks, and facts) is easy to access. Therefore, ESD should focus on cultivating mindsets, skills, and competencies critical to converting knowledge into innovations for sustainability transformation [14].
In the past few years, several innovative pedagogical approaches in ESD, as a response, have been proposed and then piloted in the higher education context, most notably action-based learning, experiential learning (EL) [15], transformative learning (TL) [16], and real-world problem-solving [17]. However, there is still no widely accepted teaching and learning model in ESD. This is partly because of a lack of empirical evidence on impacts that detail what instructional practices are applied in the classroom and how they might connect with relevant outcomes to developing changemakers for SD [18].
Furthermore, while the above-mentioned innovative pedagogies promise to deliver favourable outcomes in sustainability education [10], they are not without disadvantages, such as being difficult, uncomfortable, unstructured, and time-consuming [19]. There can be a major issue in sustainability education given that sustainability itself and SD are both contested concepts [20,21]. In this context, Design Thinking (DT) is potentially a remedy for the drawbacks through a guided process, helping learners transform internally and externally to become innovative problem solvers [22]. In practice, DT has been applied in several other settings in higher education to support TL/EL, such as in management education (e.g., [23]) and engineering education (e.g., [24]).

What is the value of combining Design Thinking and Transformative Learning as a pedagogy in sustainability education to cultivate sustainable changemakers? We explore this key research question by examining the impacts of the pedagogy model using the case study of the UCD Innovation Academy Professional Diploma of Innovation for Sustainability in Ireland. The programme moves beyond EL, using a transformative pedagogy structured through DT to cultivate sustainability changemakers for early and mid-career professionals by focusing on (1) mindset change, (2) sustainability literacy, and (3) building creative confidence. Data were collected during and after the programme through students’ reflections and teachers’ observation field notes.

This paper makes two significant contributions to the research and practice of ESD. First, we propose a novel ESD pedagogical model potentially relevant to a wide range of students. The framework details how different pedagogical elements of TL and DT complement each other to facilitate the development of sustainability changemakers. By doing so, we address the ongoing challenges students, educators, programme administrators, and funders face concerning the ambiguity of ESD interventions and associated learning outcomes. Second, we argue that mindsets and creative confidence are equally important to other SD competencies as potential ESD programme learning outcomes. By empirically examining the impacts of the pedagogical model on early- and mid-career professionals, we found students’ transformation of not only sustainability literacy but also sustainability mindset and creative confidence to practice and act on sustainability challenges. This occurs independent of the diversity of students’ backgrounds and lack of experience in sustainability before the course. All outcomes support becoming a changemaker.

The paper is structured as follows. The next section problematises the current practice of ESD that might limit learners with incremental change of knowledge building. We then propose a new pedagogical model that helps develop sustainability changemakers. The following section details the research methodology with the case study description and chosen data collection and analysis methods. The findings show that because of the programme, students changed their sustainability mindset, knowledge, and confidence to become changemakers. Finally, we present the conclusions drawn from the study, a discussion, limitations, and implications.

5. Discussion and Conclusions

Society faces significant problems, from climate crisis to persistent poverty, for which changemakers are needed to help transition to a sustainable society. This study ponders the question: “What is the value of combining DT and TL as a pedagogy in sustainability education?” We explored the impacts of the “Nurturing Sustainability Changemakers Pedagogy” model on cultivating sustainability changemakers in the context of early- and mid-career professionals. This research purpose is closely aligned with calls from UNESCO and others in the literature for detailing the ESD intervention (e.g., learning outcomes, pedagogy, etc.) and examining the effectiveness of ESD in encouraging student agency toward SD [18,98].
The model establishes critical components needed in pedagogy to create changemakers who can lead a transition to a sustainable society. It shows that DT pedagogy creates a learning environment and processes for achieving TL [39]. Empirical data from student reflections and teaching observation found that the pedagogical model supports transforming (1) mindsets and (2) sustainability literacy. With the newly gained mindsets and literacy, students gained creative confidence to act on sustainability issues, independent of students’ backgrounds and level of experience in sustainability before they participated in the programme.
This work helps advance the research and practice of ESD in the higher education context in several ways. First, we directly contribute to the field by developing a novel ESD pedagogical model. The framework describes in detail (see Figure 1) how various DT and TL pedagogical components work together to support learning outcomes that foster the development of sustainability changemakers. Therefore, we contribute to helping address the ongoing challenges students, educators, programme administrators, and funders face concerning the ambiguity of ESD interventions [10,99]. Together with current attempts (e.g., [100]), we suggest a pedagogical format of sustainability education interventions, which might serve as a reference point for future research (to refine the theoretical model further) and practice (to replicate or upscale teaching and learning activities).
Second, we extend traditional ESD competencies (i.e., knowledge, skills, and attitudes), arguing that mindsets and creative confidence are equally important to solving sustainability problems. This insight is crucial and in line with recent research in both mindset literature and ESD literature. Mindset transformation is a beacon for future behaviours (Ade, 2018) [73]. We provide empirical evidence to advocate for the concept of mindset over intrapersonal competencies [9]. This assertion is grounded in the explanation of TL offered by Hoggan [76], which argues that it causes shifts in thoughts, feelings, actions, and even consciousness. All these suggest that the process is more profound than just acquiring a competency. This study found that mindset changes in six elements in the context of this research. These mindset changes emerged due to students practising DT and TL.
This study has several limitations. First, to the best of our knowledge, this exploratory study is among the first to examine the impacts of combining TL and DT as a pedagogy in ESD. However, this research is exploratory in nature, giving ample space for future research. Education intervention affects learners differently and under different conditions [101]. Consequently, we suggest future studies to open the backbox of the ESD Programme. For instance, this can be carried out by focusing on the explanatory mechanisms by which ESD produces specific impacts. There is a need for an in-depth understanding of the possible mechanisms (explanations) that connect specific activities/pedagogies (as learning triggers) with the different impacts and phases of the student learning process for different groups of learners. Future students must also identify the conditional context where ESD works best to produce targeted positive outcomes.

Secondly, this research, heavily dependent on the qualitative method, fits well with the research question yet poses challenges to the internal and external validity. Future research should expand the research design and employ an experiment/quasi-experiment design that includes control groups. In addition, the sample includes a narrow student segment in early-/mid-career from a single case of an ESD Programme in Ireland. If the findings can be expanded to other segments, they should be explored.

Thirdly, future research should also consider examining ESD’s longer-term impacts on multiple analysis levels within a longer time frame following the end of the ESD Programme by using a longitudinal approach. This is a missing piece in the study due to time limits. With a newly gained mindset, skillset, and creative confidence, how (and if) do these new learnings translate well into actions and benefit students’ individual well-being or career development? What factor explains why graduates from the same cohort perform differently long after the end of the course? What can be the potential organisational/economic/social impacts, etc.? All these mentioned questions are essential to answer.

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