Transdisciplinary approach guides masters in climate change

Transdisciplinarity is a key component of the revised Southern African climate change and sustainable development (CCSD) masters degree programme, despite the fact that many universities in Africa are battling to offer transdisciplinary degrees due to their complex and cross-cutting nature.

Professor René Pellissier, who is the main facilitator for the CCSD degree programme which has been developed by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), highlighted the growing need for transdisciplinarity in the context of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to build academic programmes that can integrate knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines to address problems around climate change that cannot be tackled effectively by a single discipline.

“The second motivation for a transdisciplinary approach for the masters programme is that it emphasises collaboration, teamwork and communication across different fields of study and this is important in the SADC context because it helps to develop a deep understanding of the social, economic and cultural contexts of our region.

“The advantage for the students is significant as they get to develop a diverse set of skills and perspectives, as well as the ability to work across disciplinary boundaries to address complex problems. Graduates are, therefore, well-positioned to pursue careers in a variety of fields that require an understanding of multiple disciplines and the ability to collaborate effectively,” she stated.

Pellissier was talking at the second workshop SARUA hosted about the CCSD programme, with a focus on learning and teaching considerations and strategies.

The masters, she said, intended to reflect new directions and trends in climate change and to solve problems related to the Sustainable Development Goals in Southern Africa.


The series of SARUA workshops about the design, development and implementation of a masters curriculum in CCSD aimed to prepare higher education institutions for the uptake of the programme by empowering academics from SARUA-affiliated universities to understand how the revised framework can be used to develop suitable programme design that addresses institutional readiness, disciplinary and academic achievement considerations.

The second workshop focused on developing strategies for learning, teaching and assessment, or LTA, considering the level of the qualification, the intended outcomes, the overarching theme and student profiles.

The programme will equip students with skills and expertise to address a broad range of challenges in climate change, including its impacts on human and natural systems, mitigation strategies, adaptation measures and policy frameworks.

Graduates of the programme would be prepared for careers in areas such as environmental consultancy, policy analysis and renewable energy, as well as sustainability and research.

Teaching and learning considerations

During her presentation, Dr Marianne Bester, a curriculum specialist involved in the SARUA process, outlined the importance of achieving inter- and transdisciplinarity within the climate change and sustainable development masters degree.

She noted that an engaged curriculum not only develops professional qualities and attributes that contribute meaningfully to engagement with peers and other role-players, but it enables students to engage meaningfully and collaborate with scientific and non-scientific communities in knowledge creation.

Bester noted that some of the considerations for teaching and learning for the masters degree required the use of participatory research methods, with students acknowledging the complexity of human-environmental or socio-ecological relationships and communicating across disciplines and knowledge systems.

“We have blended into the curriculum three key elements: the discipline-specific knowledge which students need to gain, especially in the foundation and elective modules; the problem- solving ability that students need to develop in the field of practice. We also need to shift the students’ perceptional urgency to develop quality attributes, practice-based skills and competencies for problem-solving in diverse contexts.

“We need to move from a teacher-centred approach emphasising the teaching of subject content to a student-centred approach emphasising students’ engagement in their own learning,” she said.

She added that in the (learning) outcomes-based approach, learning would be identified by students as a developmental process which involves a change in knowledge, performance, beliefs, behaviours or attitudes acquired over time as a result of students’ association with their experience of and the meaning they assign to acquired knowledge.

Learning, teaching and assessment strategies

In a comprehensive presentation themed ‘Case studies as a pedagogy’, Dr Desiree Scholtz, a facilitator of the CCSD programme, focused on the development of a learning and teaching strategy and the use of case studies as a form of student engagement.

Scholtz highlighted that teaching and learning provide specific details about aspects such as the philosophy of learning, how learning and teaching assessment is perceived and how it aligns with the vision and mission of the institution.

“It is one thing to develop a curriculum and have it on paper, but we have to consider the best ways of bringing the curriculum and programme that has been developed to life. We need to consider [an institution’s] student profile, assessment methods, level of qualification and student learning and support,” she said.

“When we conceive and develop our learning and teaching strategy, it cannot be within a vacuum. It has to align with institutional norms and requirements. The institutional vision and mission of most higher education institutions speak to teaching, learning, research and engagement.

“Our LTA strategies must drill down from the institutional level to the faculty, to the departmental level and then the intended purpose of the programme of study.”

She urged lecturers of relevant faculties and subject areas at educational institutions to work collectively towards the development and implementation of the LTA strategy as it would be used to inform all interactions for the programme and intended outcomes.

Case studies as pedagogy

Scholtz also discussed the importance of constructivism, enquiry-based learning and case studies as critical components in the LTA strategies for the CCSD masters programme.

Constructivism as a form of inquiry-based learning provided pathways for the construction of new disciplinary knowledge and the consolidation of existing knowledge.

“Learning is an active process; lecturers should open up opportunities for students to be active discoverers, inventors and problem-solvers. We need to provide guided inquiry through inquiry-based learning. For this qualification, we go from the theory of constructivism to inquiry-based learning and use of case studies,” she said.

Case studies would facilitate interdisciplinary learning, promote group work, collective problem-solving and development of different competencies such as creative, critical and analytical thinking.

Students would also gain the ability to synthesise complex analytical information about climate change and sustainability while fostering connections between specific academic topics and real-world societal issues and applications.

“For graduates of this qualification to add value to their communities, we really need to level up in terms of complex problem-solving. Our students need to have future thinking skills in terms of how problems will be solved. Case studies exemplify real-world problems, authentic learning and problem-based learning. They help to solve complex, ill-defined problems,” said Scholtz.

Case studies would also help to integrate learning content across different subjects. For example, in ‘foundations of climate change’, a case study on solving a climate-change problem could be merged with a communications course to review a national or international policy document on climate change and sustainability, or to evaluate the proposed economic impact and long-term sustainability for urban and rural environments.

“There is a host of practical and theoretical attributes and competencies that students will gain at the end of the engagement process, using case studies. Case studies should be all-encompassing. We need students to understand the kind of documents they will be engaging with in the workplace,” said Scholtz.

However, a case study is not a comprehension test, the answers are not in the text but must come from the knowledge the students have acquired as part of the learning process. It is a narrative with a context and embedded problem that needs to be solved.

“When choosing our case studies, we need to ensure that they are problems that need to be solved are based on climate change and sustainability within that particular subject area,” Scholtz stated.

She also mentioned the importance of ‘concept maps’, which are graphical tools or conceptual diagrams for organising and representing knowledge in an organised fashion.

Said Scholtz: “In terms of learning styles and needs, some students are visual learners who appreciate graphic representations to learn best, such as concept maps. Concept maps may be used as graphical presentations of case studies – for example, contextual factors, problem identification, and problem-solving.”