Pedagogy of passion for sustainability

Current practices in teaching sustainable management are replete with scientific facts, analytical tools, optimization models, and management techniques. A Professor at a Canadian business school argues that we need to focus on transformative learning, reflective practice and fieldwork, and issue-centred learning when teaching sustainability – specifically by helping students develop a passion to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. Passion for sustainability can be taught using a holistic pedagogy that integrates physical and emotional or spiritual learning with traditional cognitive (intellectual) learning.

John Molson School of Business, Concordia University
Country: Canada
Contact: Paul Shrivastava

In the sustainability context, there is very little (if any) analytical work directly focusing on generating passion for sustainability. Even though environmentalists, popular media, and management consultants often talk about the importance of passion, there is no theoretical conception or pedagogical framework for examining this idea.

Most business courses focus exclusively on imparting cognitive skills – concepts, narratives, analysis, investigation techniques, methods, researching, reporting, and communicating. They ignore the roles of the body and the spirit in accomplishing “work.” Even coursework in analytical skills is limited to a narrow set of disciplinary topics. For decades, MBA programs have been accused of producing “number crunchers” and analysts – rather than managers and leaders.

Current management education is also fragmented in that it separates managerial work from life at large. It treats managing and work as a tight 8-hour compartment that is disconnected from the rest of the day, while paying little attention to why people work in the first place. Most education techniques do not provide any space for finding meaning to life, or in the work that managers conduct every day.

However, it is the meaningfulness of life that gives a sense of importance to larger social and environmental causes, and makes them important for work and business. The segmented and siloed approach to teaching management commonly found in business schools needs to be counterbalanced with a more holistic pedagogy. This is particularly true of teaching sustainability — a field that explores the connection of humans with nature, and which at its heart concerns our material physical conditions.

Managing Sustainably With Passion: Building Blocks

Sustainability courses should include appropriate analytical content, physical challenges, emotional development opportunities, and – most importantly – a pragmatic and real-world focus.

Real-World Pragmatic Projects

To make sustainable management concepts engaging and real, they must be examined in real-world settings and real projects. Students need physical exposure and engagement with sustainability issues as they manifest within organizations and at the interface of organizations and society.

Holistic Content

A course on managing sustainably with passion must build its knowledge of sustainable management in an interdisciplinary, integrative, holistic, and action-learning mode. It should integrate disciplines of the mind with those of the body and spirit in exploring essential lessons in organization and management. Such a course may be designed as a capstone experience that allows students to integrate and apply their prior knowledge from management and other courses, as well as life experiences.

Physical Challenge Options

Managing sustainably with passion is closely related to physical exertion. Indeed, the entire concept of sustainability is fundamentally about the physical relationships between humans and nature. Under conditions of physical exertion and exhaustion people are more sensitive and amenable to listening to their bodies. Hence, including some physiologically strenuous activities that allow inculcation of physical skills,  stamina, and endurance can be a very useful element in sustainability courses.

Exercising Emotional/Spiritual Skills

Courses on managing with passion must offer systematic vehicles for emotional or spiritual development. To be sensitive to the diversity of beliefs of students, it is perhaps best to offer multiple options for developing this aspect within themselves. Specific activities can include meditation sessions, reading and reflection, visits to art exhibits, musical and dance performances, religious services, high emotion sports, and personal events.

A great deal of research, thinking, and pedagogical development must still be conducted if we are to fulfil the promise of passion in teaching sustainable management. First, there is need for better conceptualizations and analytical framing of issues dealing with sustainable management. We also need good empirical case studies of passionate managers – and passionate performances. Finally, we require a better understanding of relationships between managing sustainably with passion and performance.

Dr. Paul Shrivastava has a unique background that combines academic scholarship and teaching with significant entrepreneurial and senior management experience.


Paul Shrivastava, (PhD, University of Pittsburgh) is the David O’Brien Distinguished Professor and director of the Centre for Sustainable Enterprise at the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, Montreal. He also serves as senior advisor at Bucknell University and IIM-Shillong, India. He uses science and arts-based methods to engage sustainability with passion in organizations.

Read the full paper: Pedagogy of Passion for Sustainability,  Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2010, Vol. 9, No. 3, 443– 455.

Filed in: Accompanying leaders in their transformation, Issue-centered learning, Reflective practice and fieldwork, Transformative Learning
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