OS4Future and SWG 15: Transforming curricula for the Anthropocene

The academic year has for some already started and for others is about to start. Whether or not you are teaching this term, in this post we summarize some of the core pedagogical ideas that emerged during a panel discussion held at the EGOS conference in Vienna last summer. We hope these ideas could give you some insights on current teaching approaches and curricula. 

The panel was jointly organized by OS4Future and the Standing Working Group 15 to discuss various approaches around the theme of curricula transformation toward more sustainability pedagogy in business schools. Indeed, while there is increasing interest in the impact of management scholarship, the impact of our teaching has been given less attention. 

However, fundamental business courses continue to be based on outdated theories and paradigms that oftentimes conflict with sustainability (e.g., shareholder and financial performance supremacy, firm-centric perspectives). Our teaching is probably one of the most important immediate impacts on systems change we can have as business academics. It is through teaching that we could transform our future business leaders’ cognitive frames (Murcia and Acosta, 2022). 

We, therefore, invited speakers who have experienced curriculum transformation for sustainability at their home universities or in their academic work across varying disciplines. We guided the discussion with two questions: What kind of curriculum should we be teaching if we are to stop perpetuating current and problematic paradigms and if we are to offer alternatives better suited to the challenges of the Anthropocene? What are the challenges we face in transforming our curricula, and how can we overcome them?

The discussion highlighted several avenues to reflect on such a paradigm change. First, the role of governments and specifically the public policy regime as a prerequisite to speed up the transition from the fossil fuel technology paradigm (Adler et al., 2022). The current dominant focus of our teaching is on large corporations or social enterprises, both rooted in laissez-faire, neoliberal public policy regimes. Moving towards more democratization, enabling bottom-up approaches (i.e., community-based) requires new forms of organizing, and a state that plays a system-building role. In this configuration, the state is embedded within society and plays a major role in advancing sustainability issues for enterprises and civil society.   

Second, we critically discussed the role played by profit-making, shareholder value and win-win solutions in our economic system. While there have been calls for new theories of the firm, as long as profits are prioritized over environmental and social justice change will be at best superficial (Arjalies and Banerjee, 2021). This reflection invited us to “unlearn” approaches where the concept of the firm is central – e.g., Corporate Social Responsibility, which remains within a neoliberal paradigm (Djelic and Etchanchu, 2017) – and instead reflect on new ways of organizing and alternate organizations. 

Indeed, the question of the type of knowledge and skills needed to reach our societal objectives (peace and justice, health, education, equality, biodiversity, energy, climate action…) was central in our discussion. The Shift Project offers a model of skills and knowledge for the 21st century citizen and manager which synthesizes several approaches to sustainability competences in France. These competences include a transition tool created by the Campus de la transition which is based on six gates (oikos, ethos, nomos, logos, praxis, dynamis), which range from knowledge about environmental science, ethics, sustainability metrics to environmental psychology and philosophy. To reach these necessary skills, a new type of transformational pedagogy is also needed, which could be based on a “head heart hands approach”.

In light of the ecological crisis, we also devoted time to discuss current approaches to integrating climate change into our curricula. A climate change education survey concluded that although climate change is a legitimate topic to teach in business schools, only 45% of the respondents are doing some teaching. The most pressing needs lie in understanding the concepts and dynamics of climate change, but also the strategies for mitigation. The project Carbon Literacy Training for Business Schools offers an avenue to actively embed climate solutions in participants’ life and work. Other approaches proposed include the integration of sustainability challenges and mandatory courses on sustainability. 

Other questions less explored during this panel, but equally important revolved around how to undertake the transformations in our curricula. What types of learning approaches should we encourage (e.g., active pedagogies versus lectures)? How to overcome the challenges of interdisciplinarity such as knowledge incommensurability and organizational barriers? How to defeat the rigidity of our educational systems? How to bring in other worldviews? 

If you are interested in these topics and look forward to knowing more, some resources and references are below. 

Organizers, Moderators, and Panelists of the sub-plenary: 

Pilar Acosta, Associate Professor at Ecole Polytechnique (France). 

Paul Adler, Professor of Management and Organization, Sociology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California. 

Giuseppe Delmestri, Professor of Change Management and Management Development at WU Vienna (Austria). 

Helen Etchanchu, Associate Professor at Montpellier Business School, where she is holder of the MBS Chair in Sustainability Communication & Organizing. 

Petra Molthan-Hill, Professor of Sustainable Management and Education for Sustainable Development at Nottingham Business School and Co-Chair of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) working group on climate change and environment. 

Helga Kromp-Kolb, leading Austrian climate scientist and before retiring Helga Kromp-Kolb was the Head of the Institute of Meteorology and of the Center for Global Change and Sustainability at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. 

Bobby Banerjee, Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Research & Enterprise at the Business School, City University of London. 

Zlatko Bodrožić, Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds. He is co-leader of the LESS research group on system-level sustainability. 

References and resources

Murcia, M.J., Acosta, P. (2022). Accounting for Plural Cognitive Framings of Growth and Sustainability: Rethinking Management Education in Latin America. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-022-05180-4

Adler, PS., et al. (2022). Authoritarianism, Populism, and the Global Retreat of Democracy: A Curated Discussion. Journal of Management Inquiry, https://doi.org/10.1177/105649262211193

Banerjee, S. B. Arjaliès, D-L. (2021). Celebrating the End of Enlightenment: Organization Theory in the Age of the Anthropocene and Gaia (and why Neither is the Solution to Our Ecological Crisis). Organization Theory, 2(4), 1-24.  

Bodrožić, Z., Adler, PS. (2022). Alternative Futures for the Digital Transformation: A Macro-Level Schumpeterian Perspective. Organization Science, 33(1), pp. 105-125. 

Chapple, W., Molthan-Hill, P., Welton, R. et al. (2020). Lights Off, Spot On: Carbon Literacy Training Crossing Boundaries in the Television Industry. Journal of Business Ethics, 162, 813–834 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04363-w

Djelic, M. L., & Etchanchu, H. (2017). Contextualizing corporate political responsibilities: Neoliberal CSR in historical perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 142(4), 641-661.

Molthan-Hill, P., et al. (2021). Climate change education at universities: Relevance and strategies for every discipline. in: Handbook of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation (3rd edition), Springer: Cham, Switzerland. Adapted from definitions provided by Mochizuki Y, Bryan A (2015) Climate change education in the context of education for sustainable development: Rationale and principles. Research 9(1): 4-26.

Molthan-Hill, P., Dharmasasmita, A. and Winfield, F.M. (2016). Academic freedom, bureaucracy and procedures: the challenge of curriculum development for sustainability. 
In: J.P. DAVIM and W.L. FILHO, eds., Challenges in higher education for sustainability. Management and industrial engineering. Cham: Springer, pp. 199-215. 

Willats, J., Erlandson, L., Molthan-hill, P., Dharmasasmita, A. and Simmons, E., 2018.
A university wide approach to integrating the sustainable development goals in the curriculum – a case study from the Nottingham Trent University Green Academy. In: W. LEAL FILHO, ed., Implementing sustainability in the curriculum of universities: approaches, methods and projects. World sustainability. Berlin: Springer, pp. 63-78

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: