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Igniting a Learning Revolution

Niclas Hällström Collaborative learning—between students, faculty, and staff—is at the core of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, or CEMUS. Students are leaned on heavily to be active producers of knowledge, not merely consumers. Many students who pass through CEMUS later describe being inspired to take action.

“If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things” E.F. Schumacher

Making a switch to sustainable development requires deep, structural transformation in our economic, cultural, and technological systems. We need new ways of interpreting, analyzing, and understanding the world, and we need new tools to help us deal with tumultuous changes and an uncertain future. If higher education is to play a meaningful role in this undertaking, then we will need to reshape its institutions, pedagogy, and organization. In the words of educator and author Sir Ken Robinson, this entails nothing less than leaving behind our outdated educational system, “changing the educational paradigm,” and initiating a “learning revolution.”1

Conventional higher education is poorly suited to accommodate this. In our experience, the bulk of today’s learning is based on regurgitation stemming from the assumption that there exists a single correct answer that can be memorized and recited. This narrow view dictates that knowledge is to be learned, not created, by students. But students today face immense uncertainty when it comes to their futures—their employment, livelihood, and even survival. These are fundamental challenges of sustainability, and it is therefore imperative for everyone, including students, to develop skills and acquire knowledge that can help them manage these challenges. Environmental educators Arjen Wals and Bob Jickling write: “Universities should develop in their students the competencies which will enable them to cope with uncertainty, poorly defined situations and conflicting or at least diverging norms, values, interests and reality constructions.”2 If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people—students—should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.

Educator David Orr argues that much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of inadequate and misdirected education.3 It alienates us from life in the name of human domination, causes students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are, and overemphasizes success and careers. This type of education separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical; it can deaden the sense of wonder for the created world. What if institutions of higher education actually contribute to the problems of unsustainable development more than they do to solutions for sustainable development?

We believe that higher education must undergo a transformational shift away from strict departmentalization and disciplinary boundaries; it must recognize the notion that relevant questions are more important than correct answers; and it must come to terms with the idea that students are not simply subordinate consumers of knowledge, but rather intellectual equals and producers of knowledge.

How should this transformation take place? How can institutions of higher education renew themselves so they better prepare students for an uncertain future? Eight years into the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, we see an increased willingness and capacity for educational institutions to shift their focus toward the issues of sustainable development. However, despite this willingness, not much has happened to general practices over the past seven years.

How can we ignite a learning revolution?

Student-Run Education for Sustainable Development

There are a number of extraordinary colleges, such as Antioch University, Evergreen State College, and Schumacher College, that have developed organizational structures and curricula that truly engage students in their own education and future. Not surprisingly, there are far fewer examples of older and more tradition-rich universities doing the same. However, at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS) strives to change the way we teach, meet, and learn. For 20 years, this student-initiated and largely student-run program has, in an otherwise rigid university structure, built and developed a space for interdisciplinary and experimental education focused on sustainable development.

Perhaps the most radical characteristic of CEMUS is the degree to which students are given agency and treated as intellectual equals. Students are hired and made responsible for developing both the content and pedagogy of their education. In close collaboration with teachers, researchers, and practitioners, students plan and coordinate the wide range of courses offered by CEMUS.

Diverse academic and professional lecturers, as well as varied student backgrounds, help to both break down and, in course, rebuild bridges between disciplinary boundaries—boundaries so often cemented in educational institutions. A combination of innovative and recognized pedagogical approaches, such as problem-based and explorative learning, forms an environment that is truly interdisciplinary, collaborative, and inclusive.

We believe that education for sustainable development involves more than simply supplementing existing programs with new perspectives or content—more than polishing around the edges. As Wals and Jickling point out, education for sustainable development demands in-depth institutional changes and fundamental challenges to conceptions of how education is best organized around the traditional roles of students and teachers.2

CEMUS Educational Model

Our model puts the student at the center of the educational process and has four important components:

Course coordinators
Two students are employed by CEMUS as course coordinators. They plan, run, and evaluate one university course. The syllabus and learning outcomes are developed and solidified through a collaborative process involving students and university staff. Based on this, course coordinators plan the general structure of the class, make a reading list, invite guest lecturers, lead seminars, and handle course administration. Partnered coordinators are often selected from different academic backgrounds and tend to work on a course that they have both previously taken.

Course work group
A work group is formed for each course. It consists of researchers, teachers, and often practitioners from fields relevant to the course. Working closely with course coordinators, this group suggests literature and possible lecturers and gives feedback on the proposed course structure and schedule. The work group is also responsible for student exams.

Guest lecturers
A lecture series is the backbone of every CEMUS course. Course coordinators invite practitioners and academics from different fields, often from other universities and sometimes from other countries, to give guest lectures and facilitate discussions.

Management team
The management team provides administrative, pedagogical, and practical support to the course coordinators in their daily work while overseeing the long-term development of CEMUS.

One of the greatest advantages of the model is its inherent flexibility: We can choose the point of departure that best accommodates the educational process without being locked into a fixed array of faculty from a specific department. Instead, a broad group of teachers from different disciplines may be selected because of their important and specific contribution to the course.

This flexibility also extends to the form and content of each course. The will to experiment and a dynamic curriculum are essential components of CEMUS education.

An Education that Doesn’t Destroy the Planet

Since the first course, Humanity and Nature, was initiated at CEMUS in 1992, many courses have been added to the curriculum (Urban Agriculture, Climate Change Leadership, and Sustainable Design being some of the latest additions). Daytime courses and evening courses (for students who are working or have other classes during the day) are complemented with distance learning. A majority of the 700-800 CEMUS students have a parallel course of study, but, because of student demand, CEMUS has recently started offering full-time studies.

The key characteristics of CEMUS education, and what we believe to be important elements of successful education for sustainable development, are:


Photo credit: Oscar Franzen A 2005 CEMUS field trip to the Northern Baltic coast of Sweden engaged students in a workshop on artistic expression of global environmental history. CEMUS tries to break down disciplinary boundaries between the sciences and humanities, recognizing that both are necessary for investigating the root of our human predicaments.

1) Transcending boundaries
Crossing and eliminating boundaries is an essential building block of the CEMUS educational model. From its very inception, CEMUS has focused on integrating environment and development issues. Many institutions that offer courses or degrees in sustainable development have a disciplinary basis in the social sciences, the natural sciences, or, in a few cases, the humanities. This often leads to a bias toward one of these disciplinary perspectives.4 By helping students develop the ability to critically evaluate and critique different perspectives on environment and development issues, CEMUS attempts to work against such bias. In the longer and more advanced courses this entails a deep investigation of the values, worldviews, power relations, and ethics at the root of our human predicaments.5

Transcending boundaries is not only evidenced in the content of course work, but also in the learning environment itself, where conventional hierarchy between learners and teachers is replaced with reciprocity. The collaboration and mutual exchange between students and senior academics confounds the old notion of researcher as teacher and examiner.

2) Students at the core
At CEMUS, we guide students to see themselves as producers of knowledge as much as they are consumers. Through continuous discussion and collaboration with classmates, students are encouraged to become active and engaged in not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also the teaching and application of what they have learned. The organizational structure, with a lack of clear didactic authority, encourages an active involvement from the students. They are in control, and to a large extent responsible, for their learning process.

Without the driving force of students, CEMUS would not be what it is today. Student leadership is fundamental to the program’s success. At the same time, it is important to recognize that students hired to run courses do not have unlimited freedom.4 The course syllabus and learning outcomes guide coordinators’ choices and decisions, which are anchored in earlier experiences and researched pedagogical methods. This is ensured by constant dialogue and collaboration between students, faculty, and administration, as well as by the basic structure of the educational model.

3) Critical thinking
The term “critical thinking” is commonly used, often so generally as to devalue the concept. Educator Richard Paul has pointed out that critical thinking involves not only being able to think well and fair-mindedly about your own beliefs and viewpoints but also about those that are diametrically opposed to your own.6 In fact, critical thinking entails a desire to seek out opposing viewpoints or to construct them if they don’t exist—hardly a characteristic of our current educational system.

The ambition to explore alternative and radically unconventional ideas and points of view, as well as space for students to critically question their own deeply held assumptions and values, is at the heart of the CEMUS model. The result of this process is often a refreshing divergence, a flowering, of ideas and perspectives. (It is, admittedly, important to note that this critical thinking tends to work from the presumption that many ecological and social trends are unsustainable.)

This culture provides students the opportunity and space to make mistakes and realize the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reaching a correct answer. All answers are partly wrong and most solutions carry with them associated problems. Instead of seeking silver bullets, students must come to terms with the fact that there are many workable solutions to the challenges we face, and that each of these deserves critical analysis. This approach shifts the focus away from coming up with “best practices” and allows different cultural and natural contexts, as well as place-based knowledge, to play a central role in student inquiry.

4) Creative and reflective action
One of the driving forces behind CEMUS is the willingness to change and contribute to a more sustainable world. Considering the seriousness of the global crisis, the courses are not only for generating new theoretical knowledge and insights, but equally for helping students gain applicable skills and the courage to take action. If students develop proficiency in systems and creative thinking, innovative processes, heterogeneous methods for analyzing, structuring, and solving problems, debating techniques, communication skills, and project management tools, then they will hopefully be better equipped for creative and reflective action in their lives and in their work.

5) A revolutionary learning process
One may think that learning for sustainability is a process of learning more, of acquiring more knowledge, skills, and tools. We believe, however, that learning for sustainability is as much a process of unlearning and reevaluating knowledge already acquired. Educator Kevin Kumashiro concludes that education cannot be a process where students are never forced to look within, to look back, or to contradict their own worldviews. The process of reaffirming our beliefs tells us that we are smart and good. True learning, Kumashiro writes, can often be a very discomforting process, especially when we realize that the way we think and do things is wrong and potentially harmful.7


Niclas Hällström CEMUS strives to overcome traditional didactic hierarchies in which professors teach and students learn. Instead, students, researchers, and practitioners co-create and conduct classes on an equal level, generating open and uninhibited exchange.

Student-run education for sustainable development is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before reaching its fullest potential. As French philosopher Jacques Rancière points out in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster - Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, this kind of evolution requires debunking the pedagogical myth of explication—the tenet that knowledge is necessary to teach and explication is needed to learn. However, this may not be possible, or even desirable, within institutional contexts.8 Still, the unorthodox and student-centered educational environment at CEMUS could provide unique institutional circumstances to realize an emancipatory approach to learning that brings out the genius in every individual. One of the most exciting aspects of this type of education is that students can start questioning, challenging, and transforming other learning and work situations in which they find themselves.

CEMUS has ambitions to incorporate aspects of this form of anti-oppressive education into courses. The constant identifying and questioning of power structures, as well as a general strategy to make students critically examine their own worldviews and values, sometimes puts students in mild crisis. Uncomfortable as that may be, we believe that this is one of the reasons why our educational model has the potential to revolutionize what we know and believe about sustainability.

Of course, to believe that student-run education automatically delivers critical and creative thinking simply because students are given greater room to maneuver is naïve. There are many obstacles: Students’ ambitions and goals for their studies are not always aligned with our own, and many students feel confused and lost when a clear didactic authority or mentor is lacking. One needs look no further than the papers written, the results on exams, or the questions asked during lectures to realize that some students relate to our courses with passivity and conformity. Many of CEMUS’s strategies have proven successful, but the need for pedagogical creativity never slackens.

6) Changing the world through collaboration and cocreation
By collaborating with organizations and actors outside of academia, a university can be a catalyst of change, an incubator for local and global innovation that contributes to sustainability. The CEMUS Forum, a subunit within the organization, serves as a meeting place for students, teachers, researchers, and the wider community—a place where theory and practice merge in discussion and projects that, if successful, result in tangible and positive contributions to the world. The Forum also works as an outlet and concrete platform where students can implement ideas that might, for one reason or another, not be applicable within CEMUS coursework.

So, does CEMUS really live up to all of its claims? Based on the many evaluations, comments, and reflections that we get from students, the courses provide some of the most meaningful and relevant education that they have experienced. Sadly, this may be just as much an indication of the inadequacy and low quality of other education at the university as it is evidence of CEMUS’s success. What can be said, however, is that most students do not go through a CEMUS course unchanged; many students mention that they have gained a much deeper and broader understanding of the issues of sustainable development, and become moved and inspired to take action.

Creative Environments and the Transformation of Higher Education

How, then, do we create educational environments that bring out the best in people? There is a need for organizations that see beyond the reigning paradigm and formulate new possibilities. Innovative environments—both within academia and elsewhere—that encourage creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration across disciplines will play a key role in the work toward sustainable development.

Diversity, conversation, playfulness, mobility, capital, and, above all, structural instability tend to be the traits that lead to unusual creativity and genuine change, according to economic geographer Gunnar Törnquist. A dynamic balance between playfulness and discipline, as well as between structure and chaos, makes it possible to find new connections and solutions, and to implement them.9

This is easier said than done. It is difficult to consciously design creative environments; it is comparatively easy to destroy one by introducing strict regulations and control. As sustainable development expands as an academic field and CEMUS grows as an organization, it is important to maintain the freedom, unrestrained creativity, and open communication that distinguish the organization and have taken us to where we are today.10

Over the past 20 years, CEMUS has emerged dynamically as a cry for renewal, a cry embedded in existing departments at Uppsala’s two universities. Although unique in its nature, it is only one of many existing and yet undiscovered ways to organize higher education for bringing the ideal of sustainability closer. Our hope is that CEMUS can serve as an inspiring case study to be scrutinized and learned from and that our experiences will be useful in new and evolving contexts.

How CEMUS is changing how we teach, meet, and learn

Can the experiences gained at CEMUS somehow be converted to expand ongoing debates? Can these experiences be shared and spread to universities in other parts of the world? How should the university be changed? What is education for? How will CEMUS continue to contribute to a sustainable and just society?

An anthology written by students, researchers, and teachers aims to answer, in some ways, the questions raised above. It also serves as a source of inspiration and motivation for teachers, university management, administrators, the public, and other actors with an interest in education for sustainable development.

The book, Transcending Boundaries – How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn, can be downloaded at:


  1. Robinson, K. “Changing education paradigms” [online] (2010)
  2. Wals, A & Jickling, B. “’Sustainability’ in Higher Education: From Doublethink and Newspeak to Critical Thinking and Meaningful Learning” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. 3(3), 221-232 (2002).
  3. Orr, D. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect. (Washington DC: First Island Press, 2004).
  4. Hällström, N. “What is Education for? The history of CEMUS” in Transcending Boundaries – How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn. Hald, M. (ed) (Uppsala: CEMUS/CSD Uppsala, 2011).
  5. Kronlid, D & Österberg, R. Crossing Boundaries – An Analytical Look at CEMUS’ Educational model” in Transcending Boundaries – How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn. Hald, M. (ed) (Uppsala: CEMUS/CSD Uppsala, 2011).
  6. Paul, R. (1995) Critical Thinking – How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. (Rohnert Park, CA: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1995).
  7. Kumashiro KK. “Teaching and Learning through Desire, Crisis, and Difference: Perverted Reflections on Anti-Oppressive Education” Radical Teacher, 58 (2000).
  8. Ranciére, J. The Ignorant Schoolmaster—Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).
  9. Tömqvist, G. Kreaivitet i tid och rum: processer, personer och platser. (Stockholm: SNS Förlag 2011).
  10. Grandin, J. “In Search of an Education that doesn’t Destroy the Planet” in Transcending Boundaries – How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn. Hald, M. (ed) (Uppsala: CEMUS/CSD Uppsala, 2011).

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