hand taking book off shelf with title sustainability education

The Fierce Urgency Of Now: reflections on the 5th Sustainability in Higher Education Conference

Between the 18th and 21st of May, the fifth annual Sustainability in Higher Education Conference took place, jointly hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and Plymouth University.  

The Paradox Model 

Welcomes and discussions engaging with the themes of paradoxes in sustainability education framed the event. Participants were invited to reflect on “The Paradox Model” that articulates challenges and tensions for educators. 

The Paradox Model

Resistance and alignment asks how radical universities should be, how able or willing they are to resist neoliberal tendencies (student satisfaction, employability, standardisation of experience).  

Fast and slow explores the pace that we respond to pressures, and the pace of learning. Right now, we see the demand for quick action, not just because of Covid-19, but also provocations like Extinction Rebellion. A key question is how we reconcile the fact that learning is a slow process, but we have urgent demands now. Both slow and quick responses have a place in our practice.  

Individual and society is at the centre of the diagram. Universities are complex and diverse, so we can’t assume an institutional level response is felt by other levels and vice-versa with regards to grass-roots action.  

The pedagogical concept of wicked problems prompted much of this thinking on complexity, uncertainty and how interconnected issues are. The paradox model is a response to the wickedness of what universities are responding to. Often, we are pushed towards positions of certainty and it can be difficult to resist linear thinking. 

The final talking point in the welcome section concerned wisdom. Here, the presenters asked how universities make choices and judgement in difficult and ambiguous situations. How can wisdom become a practical tool? One book that spurred reflection was Jonathan Rauch “The Happiness Curve”. Here we see how the language of wisdom provides greater richness in how we can make wise choices, rather than “good” choices. Wisdom encompasses cognitive domains of knowledge and understanding and also foregrounds affective experiential learning and reflection. 

University of Bristol 

I presented alongside colleagues in Geographical Sciences (Dr Eleni Michalopoulou) and Computer Science (Prof Chris Priest) on the theme of Fast Resistance. We reflected on our award-winning open online course “Sustainable Futures”.  

Since 2017, the course has run three times a year and is free to everybody worldwide. Thousands of participants have joined and shared their experiences. With a few years of the course completed, we now have lots of raw data on which elements of the course resonate best with our learners. We were able to share our course principles and design, such as viewing challenges from multiple perspectives, using personal stories to encourage reflection, and reflecting on a broad and integrated perspective on sustainability.  


The first two days offered asynchronous links to pre-recorded videos. The last two days were live sessions with Q&As and workshops in two half-day blocks. This format successfully minimised the time demands on participants. It was an interesting way to deliver a conference that allowed attendees to review material at their own pace and prepare for the discursive sessions. 

A major theme that emerged, perhaps unexpectedly, was that of postcolonial dialogues and non-Western perspectives in the curriculum. In retrospect, this was a timely concern given current social activism for Black Lives Matter.  

One question asked: why is scholarship outside the Western academy and policy decision making outside of these frameworks not more evident? This prompted discussion on issues of equality and justice in academia, policy making, identity politics and awareness-raising. Discussants challenged the concept of a “monolith of Western ideas” and asked why alternative voices are not published or accessible in English, asking us to fight against our own unconscious biases. 

For my own part, I offered tangible and actionable steps to address these concerns. This included starting steps such as revising reading lists with respect to inclusion, diversity and non-white voices.  

Disagreement broke out for a minority of attendees who place priority on tackling “hard science” Climate Change above all other considerations, noting the failure of political regimes around the world to solve this problem. Others, myself included, noted that no action can be hoped for without societal buy-in.  These are familiar critiques for anyone working in Education for Sustainable Development over the last few decades. In particular, technology is often seen as the savior of humanity, an eternally “futured” resolution to current problems, but one that has yet to live up to expectations or pressing need. 

A chorus of voices chimed together that Universities always de-prioritise sustainability, that it always plays second fiddle to the latest neoliberal concern, so that sustainability becomes subservient rather than radical. 

Special mention must be given to the trance-like experience of Dr Hilary Leighton’s workshop “coming back to life – an invitation to experience the work that reconnects” (School of Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University, Canada). As an eco-psychologist who uses first nation (Native America; First Peoples) perspectives, we were invited to become emotive and personal connect on questions of interconnectedness, purpose, storytelling and remembering. 

Less exhilarating, but certainly of worthy relevance to the UK HE sector was the workshop on QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) update to the current UK guidelines on Education for Sustainable Development. Several crowd-sourced ideas from the attendees will now feed into future work on this agenda. 

The conference had several technical hick-ups that detracted from the vibrant discussions, but overall, there was more than enough food for thought to propel ESD further into our hearts, minds and curricula.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – get in touch to discuss any aspect of our teaching and learning at Bristol: a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk https://twitter.com/IrishAshyT.


Bristol Teaching Awards 2019

The 2019 Bristol Teaching Awards took place on Wednesday 12th June, with colleagues from across the institution coming together to celebrate the inspiring teaching that takes place at the University.

The evening kicked off with a drinks reception where nominees, faculty reps, academics and professional services staff mingled together over sparking wine. Attendees then moved into the Great Hall, where they were met with an thrilling performance by the Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. Drums beat and symbols clapped at the back of the room as dancers moved around the table handing out sweets to guests.

After a brief speech from the Vice Chancellor (in which he referred to the event as the ‘Oscars of Teaching’ – thanks Hugh!), the evening continued with a two-course dinner, with dessert accompanied by a performance from the delightful A Capella Society (male group), performing hits such as ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Five Colours in her Hair’ and ‘Big Girls’.

The performance was followed by another speech, this time from Sally Heslop, our interim PVC Education, in which she highlighted some of the excellent work done by BILT over the past year. The first set of awards being given were the staff-led awards. Nominees for these awards were nominated by their colleges and included six University Awards for Education (one per faculty), an award for Enhancing the Student Learning Experience and Educational Initiative award (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The Assessment zine created by one of our BILT Student Fellows, Zoe Backhouse, which was available for staff to browse on the tables.

The second half of the evening was given over to students, kicking off with a short video about what our BILT student fellows have been doing over the last six months – you can watch the video here.

Nasra Ayub and Shubham Singh, our outgoing 2018/19 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, then gave their speeches, highlighting the fact that excellent teaching takes place across the institution and that celebrating ‘those who have been mentioned and those who haven’t’. We then moved onto awarding the Student Awards for Outstanding Educators, with one award for each faculty, and then the Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Postgraduate Student, the Students’ Award for Outstanding Support and finally the Students’ Award for Outstanding Supervision of Research Students (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).

The evening ended with the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Education, which is selected from the other 17 winners. This year, the award was given to James Filbin, who runs the Engineering Hackspace. Unfortunately, James was on holiday the night of the Awards so his manager, Jude Britton, had to collect both his awards for him, but we’re sure it will be an amazing surprise for when he is back!

Much like the real Oscars, we did have one ‘LaLa Land moment‘ (sorry to the Linguistics team, Mark France and everyone else in those categories!), but aside from that slight blip the evening was a roaring success and a great time was had by all. We are producing two videos of the event and we will share these will you in due course! Well done to all those who were nominated, shortlisted and those who won.

Amy Palmer


‘Using Games in Teaching’ – 26/10/2018

The first ‘Using Games in Teaching’ event, organised by Chrysanthi Tseloudi and Suzi Wells from the Digital Education Office, saw 25 colleagues from across the University come together to discuss their experiences, hopes and ideas for gamifying learning. A wide range of staff attended the event, with both Professional Services and Academic staff represented, and with a wealth of experience among them.

Staff sat at a table at the using games in teaching event

The event started with an introduction from each member of the group, a summary of their experience with games and explanation as to why they had attended the session. It was clear that the understanding and experience of types of games varied vastly, from computer games to card games, everyone had a different perspective on what ‘using games in teaching’ meant.

The main part of the event looked at ‘Decisions and Disruptions‘, a decision-making game using Lego models and cards originally developed at Lancaster University and now being developed further by Ben Shreeve from the School of Computer Science. The game was created to try to understand how organisations have made their investment decisions in the hope to understand how cyber security failures occur. Players work as a team to advise their company what they should buy (items are on the cards), then once these decisions have been made players suffer various cyber-attacks and participants see how their decisions have impacted the organisation. They play the game through four rounds, attempting to secure the organisation over time with a finite budget and multiple consequences. The game is beneficial as it allows staff to work as a team with both technical and non-technical staff, with the Lego working as a visual aid to help the players relate to their own workplace. The tactile element of the Lego also helps embed the learning (a point which was seconded by a number of others around the room).

Ben Shreeve and his Lego/ card decision making game (pictured here making a paper aeroplane!).

We concluded the event with a small and simple game to play. We were asked how often we would like the ‘Using Games in Teaching’ events to take place in future, ranging from once a teaching block to once a month, with a physical scale being shown from one end of the room to the other. The ‘game’ element came when we were asked to show our answers using a paper aeroplane we had just created launched across the room. This simple yet amusing activity lifted the session and was something which could easily be done in the classroom to add a little fun and make the session more memorable.

Please contact Chrysanthi Tseloudi or Suzi Wells if you’d like to come along to the next one.