Content as Pedagogy: Recharging Learning for a Sustainable Future

Presented by: Marsha R. Cuddeback

Problem As educators we are responsible for preparing interior design graduates to address the challenges of the 21st century, many of which depend on a commitment to environmental, social and economical sustainability. To ensure our students are prepared we must continue to rethink how and what we teach. At the global scale, the State of the Future identifies 15 transnational global challenges to improving “social, technical, and environmental viability for human development (Glenn and Florescu 2015).” Challenges include Sustainable Development and Climate Change, Energy, and Global Ethics, among others. The process and products of interior design have formative potential to respond to these challenges. In addition, the CIDA Future Vision Report advocates for positioning emerging interior design professionals to “be part of the positive change (CIDA 2015).” The report identifies 5 over-arching central themes. Implementing sustainable practices supporting positive change are thematically implicit and repeatedly explicit in each theme’s call to designers and practitioners. Integrating sustainability in course offerings is gaining traction, evidenced by the growing number of available classes, minors, and degree programs. However, the practices of our discipline are still responsible for conspicuous CO2 emissions, electricity consumption, and use of potable water and raw materials (USGBC 2015). This combined with recent reports citing accelerated climate change suggests we need to do more. Method In 2014 the author developed a new course to create learning opportunities for students that nurture life-long environmental stewardship and encourage new habits of thinking that change the way they see themselves and understand the discipline as a means to affect positive change. Learning outcomes were designed to ensure application of best-practice sustainable principles, but also develop a design ethic that permeates the way they live, think, design and make. This paper offers an example of rethinking how and what we teach by illustrating a method for choreographing expanded course content with significant learning experiences (Fink 2013). This method recharges learning in and out of the classroom, casts a wide content net, and inspires students to push themselves in new and unknown directions. In this context, students begin to personalize broader issues of sustainability and how it applies to their discipline. This begins at the outset as students explore the history of their relationship with nature, to its conclusion, when they seek to understand their capacity for transformational leadership. This personal dimension serves to rebuild connections to the natural environment, encourage a stronger commitment to course content, and a greater investment in learning activities. The course features five integrated themes, foregrounded by the natural environment. Each theme integrates carefully designed learning activities toward full incorporation of foundational, traditional, contemplative, and high impact learning. Learning activities respond to Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, featuring 6 non-hierarchical, different kinds of learning (Fink 2013). Through these activities, students are able to develop a deep understanding of the course material and the ability to apply theories and concepts. Outcomes Ongoing formative and summative assessment indicates that students are meeting or exceeding learning outcomes. Students remain focused and engaged in course content and activities throughout the semester, grow to understand the value of collaborative skills, are able to acknowledge and respond to peer and self evaluation, become advocates for sustainability among their peers, agree that the course changes the way they approach design thinking and problems, and are more likely to integrate issues of sustainability in their senior Thesis project’s personal design philosophy statement, research, and design.


  • CIDA Future Visions 2014. Report. January 23, 2015.
  • Fink, L. Dee. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Glenn, Jerome C., and Elizabeth Florescu. State of the Future 2015-16. Publication No. 98-646672. Washington: The Millennium Project, 2015.
  • "Green Building Facts | U.S. Green Building Council." U.S. Green Building Council. Accessed August 8, 2015.
  • Kellert, Stephen R., and Edward O. Wilson. 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
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