GP 5 Promote ethical and sustainable practice

In essence

Students need to engage with ethical and sustainable practices in order to effectively respond to the challenges of rapidly changing local and global environments. When students participate in ethical and sustainable practices within the context of their discipline or profession it increases their capacity to take up positive roles as responsible and committed members in their personal and professional communities.

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What you can do


Help students identify, clarify and connect their values by giving them case studies where they need to respond to issues or problems they may encounter in their discipline or future professions. You can get them to discuss their responses and give feedback to each other or ask them to respond to the issues from two different perspectives.

You can use pressing issues of personal, national or global concern to get students attention about how ethics is applied. Drawing on issues of personal happiness and life satisfaction can also get students thinking deeply about issues and the values they hold.

Ethics should be integrated across topics and issues and not compartmentalized. Ethics should be treated as a multidisciplinary concern and not just kept within the domain of philosophy.

Use case studies to demonstrate and involve students in applying ethics.

Consider partnering with an ethicist or moral philosopher to help students develop the skills and abilities to integrate being a good professional and a good person.


You can use constructivist pedagogical approaches that enhance knowledge and understanding, promote ethical and critical reasoning and encourage students to be actively involved in the community.

You can infuse sustainability throughout the curriculum, giving students a range of exposures to the issue as a paradigm and experience as well as provide access to appropriate electives in other schools). See Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (2004) for a toolkit for developing and designing sustainability curriculum.

Offer students community projects and real world activities so that they can practice and strengthen what they have learnt.

What it looks like

Ethical practice

Teaching ethics should not just concentrate on professional codes of ethics but should also enable students to gain an appreciation of how ethics is present in their lives (Ozolins, 2005).

The aims of an ethics course should be to help students think about the decisions they make and develop the intellectual abilities to ethically reason right from wrong (Ozolins, 2005).

Sustainable practice:

Sustainability is about an environmentally healthy future and a socially equitable future, therefore requiring learning and curriculum that consider environmental literacy, civic engagement and social responsibility (Rowe, 2002).

Learning and practice for sustainable development is active and participatory, formal and informal, involves community and classroom (Axelsson et al, 2008; Barth, Godemann, Rieckmann & Stoltenberg, 2007). It provides students with a conceptual framework and capabilities to participate in action for change (Tilbury & Wortman, 2008).

In Germany, eight competencies have been identified for sustainable development (Gestaltungkompetenz). They propose an orientation that is forward-looking, participative and involves:

  • Foresighted thinking
  • Interdisciplinary work
  • Cosmopolitan perception, transcultural understanding and cooperation
  • Participatory skills
  • Planning and implementation abilities
  • Capacity for empathy, compassion and solidarity
  • Self-motivation and capacity to motivate others
  • Reflection on individual and cultural modes

(Barth et al, 2007)

Jargon buster

As there is not one ‘correct’ conception of sustainable development (SD), nor is there one correct pedagogical approach. There is education about SD, education in SD and education for SD, each of which has its own meanings and implications. In summary, education about SD is more factual, education in SD is more experiential, while education for SD is more value-laden. Read more Cotton (2007).

Did you know?

Students are more likely to associate sustainability with environmental issues while social, political, economic and cultural aspects are on the periphery of their awareness. Sustainability concepts such as democracy, diversity, participation and inclusion are not clearly identified in their understandings of sustainability. Read more Kagawa (2007).

How it is applied in disciplines

Design: Using a pedagogical approach framed by principles of problem-based learning, experiential learning and action competence which encourages students to actively understand and independently engage with environmental issues, a planning project that involved a university, a small town community and a regeneration agency was offered to students undertaking a one year thesis project to enhance their sustainability development (SD) skills. Students enjoyed the applied nature of the project and the overall learning experience. The study found the pedagogical design of the project provided the opportunity for students to more fully engage with principles of SD and develop required skills. Read more Ellis & Weekes (2008).

How it is applied in teaching contexts

Fieldwork: Ethics education should do more than sensitize students to ethical issues they may encounter in fieldwork and future professional practice. Students also need opportunities to demonstrate that they can act appropriately. Simulations can give them the chance to integrate knowledge and practice, thus helping them to better recognize ethical issues while out on fieldwork. Read more Elkin (2004).

Case studies: Ethics can be taught with case studies by using:

A pragmatic approach which teaches students about codes of ethics and emphasizing what it means be a professional and how to behave

An embedded approach where ethics is taught as a general understanding of morality and students can make autonomous ethical decisions

A theoretical approach outlining ethical theories that can then be applied to a range of situations Read more Ozolins (2005).

Formal and informal learning, Interdisciplinary projects: Students from education, cultural studies, environment and business came together on a project that investigated social trends and global issues related to sustainability from a range of perspectives in an interdisciplinary dialogue and worked towards solutions. They engaged in both formal and informal learning and their feedback showed that they found these learning environments highly suitable for developing competencies relevant to sustainable development. Read more Barth, Godemann, Rieckmann & Stoltenberg (2007).

What you should think about when promoting ethical and sustainable practice in your teaching

Teaching philosophy: I believe in student-centred learning. I think about the contribution I am making to the development of students skills and capabilities for their future professional lives.

Pedagogies: Learning approaches that promote ethical and sustainable practice which characteristically emphasize constructivist learning suit my teaching.

Curriculum: There are specific learning outcomes I wish my students to have in my course.

Tools for learning: I can motivate my students to adopt strategies for ethical and sustainable practice. I can incorporate learning of ethical and sustainable practices into my course.

Commitment: I can identify an ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ champion who will support innovative practice.

Why is it important?

While there are many aims of higher education, it is important that students are not only competent professionals who can think for themselves, but are ethical people committed to the good, truth, justice and compassion and know what this all means (Ozolins, 2005).

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is crucial for moving society towards a more sustainable future where as responsible citizens we can actively and constructively engage with issues of the economic, social and ecological dimensions of our existence (Axelsson, Sonesson & Wickenberg, 2008; Ellis & Weekes, 2008). Even though there are issues around how SD can be effectively incorporated into higher education curriculum, universities have a place in ensuring graduates have some proficiency in sustainable literacy (de la Harpe & Thomas, 2009; Ellis & Weekes, 2008, Haigh, 2005).

Finally, Haigh (2008) argues that society’s current competitive individualism and commerce driven principles challenge or even contradict the personal and ethical responsibilities that we have for the environment and the future. Shifts are needed within higher education institutions to reclaim learning and teaching as a moral and political practice that integrates citizenship, social justice, ethics and sustainable development to influence social change and shape a sustainable future (Haigh, 2008).

What is it and how does it support learning? What does recent research say?

Ethical practice

Being ethical is not about being regulatory or making judgments but living in a way that enables us to be personally happy and to have public integrity as we are suitably challenged by the tensions of everyday life in today’s world (Cheney, 2004).

Ethics is relevant in every discipline and is present wherever there is choice. The choices we make are influenced by our values and the values we hold suggest we have ethical standards to guide our decisions (Cheney, 2004).

An ethics course requires four elements in order to be successful. It needs to be pitched at the right level for students and meet their needs. It should be taught at a stage when they will be most receptive to a study of ethics. It should be of an appropriate length, for example 4-12 weeks. It should allow students to practice their moral decision making skills through use of case studies (Ozolins, 2005).

Sustainable practice

Sustainable development is an extension of liberal education in that it takes in the ecological world alongside the human word as an arena for knowledgeable professionals and critical citizens to bring about change to the world (Axelsson, Sonesson & Wickenberg 2008).

Education for sustainable development (ESD) aims to enable people to both construct knowledge and reflect on ways to live and work responsibly in a future oriented and globally focused world (Barth, 2007). Universities have an important role to fulfil in providing learning that is formal and informal as well as participative and open-minded to enable students to develop and apply appropriate competencies alongside the knowledge they form (Barth, Godemann, Rieckmann & Stoltenberg, 2008).

Sustainability development (SD) should not just be restricted to environmental disciplines, modules and the classroom (Haigh, 2005). It must become a part of every disciplinary paradigm and therefore affect everyday thinking if graduates are to have any impact in their professions. SD also needs to become an integral part of curriculum to give students understanding of sustainability issues and raise awareness of how to work and act (Holmberg, Svanstrom, Peet, Mulder, Ferrer-Balas & Segalas, 2008). In particular, sustainability needs to be seen to be an integral part of how higher education institutions operate as well as teach (Haigh, 2005).

A recent study shows that sustainability in Australian higher education curriculum does not tend to be well integrated in either specialist or generalist programs. The focus of its presence typically takes a technological solutions or scientific approach. Disciplines in human culture and behavioral change do not tend to integrate sustainability issues suggesting curriculum is bereft in the historical, cultural and spatial aspects of sustainability (Sherren, 2006).


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