Psychologist logo
Church in Umea, Sweden
Climate and environment, Teaching and learning

Towards a sustainable future for Psychology

Dr Madeleine Pownall (University of Leeds) reports from the European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) Biennial Conference.

20 June 2023

There are only three hours of darkness during the summer months in Umeå, a lovely, sleepy town in Northern Sweden. This means that delegates attending the European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) Biennial Conference had plenty of well-lit hours to delve into the conference theme 'Learning and Teaching Psychology in a Changing World' over 'fika' (a Swedish term meaning good coffee, cinnamon buns, and nice vibes).

Over two days, presentations at the ESPLAT conference had a clear focus on the future of psychology learning and teaching, in a way that differed notably from the 2021 conference, which was about all things post-covid. This year, sustainability, in all its various forms, was hot on the agenda. Professor Annika Nordlund, Head of Department of Psychology at Umeå University, kicked off proceedings by urging psychology educators to consider how psychology can be taught in a way that works towards the UNESCO's Sustainable Development Goals. To do this, we can encourage students to think about how their psychology knowledge uniquely places them to tackle the hot issues related to sustainability. "As psychologists, we know a little something about behaviour change" said Nordlund, and behaviour change may just be the key to solving some of the most pressing sustainability challenges, like the climate crisis, pollution, and poverty.  

Sustainability is about more than just 'going green', though, as Professor Thérese Skoog (University of Gothenburg) alluded to in her opening keynote. For the world to be sustainable, psychologists need to critically consider how to sustain a healthy, happy university where students and staff can thrive. As Skoog discusses, one of the most urgent challenges facing psychology Higher Education today is the student mental health crisis and psychology has two important roles to play in addressing this. Firstly, psychology educators are crucial to develop a generation of psychologist practitioners who are thoughtful, inclusive, resilient, and prepared to deal with emerging concerns about mental health. Secondly, psychology educators are also uniquely placed to use our psychological literacy to call for structural changes to academic life more broadly. To achieve both of these lofty goals, there is a need to bring a priority of mental health within conversations surrounding sustainability.

Following the theme of articulating the responsibility that psychologists have in order to train a next generation of critical, creative, compassionate thinkers was a keynote from Professor Robert J. Sternberg (Cornell University and Heidelberg University). Intriguingly titled "Time Bomb! How the Western Conception of Intelligence is Taking Down Humanity", Sternberg demonstrated how intelligence, IQ, and common sense may well be very different things. Punctuated by stories of PhD graduates who are unable to boil eggs, he urged psychology educators to consider what skills, values, and attributes we want our  psychology students to develop, for them to contribute positively and meaningfully to making the world a better place through their psychology. He made the case for broader, more fluid concepts like wisdom, curiosity, and inquisitiveness to replace "intelligence" as the proxy for a good, meaningful psychology education.

The last keynote was from Dr Kelley Haynes-Mendez, Senior Director of Human Rights Team at APA, who turned the focus to equity and justice as an important facet of psychological sustainability. This too requires structural changes and a willingness to participate in difficult conversations, explained Haynes-Mendez. As educators, one way to achieve this is to push the boundaries from being an ally (i.e., the person who will call out inequality) to being what Haynes-Mendez calls an 'accomplice' (i.e., the person who not only calls out inequality, but then gets to work tackling the structural inequities that have been exposed).

Other talks in the conference included rallying calls to reframe narratives surrounding "first generation students" (from Dr H. Russell Searight, Lake Superior State University) attract more men to psychology undergraduate education (from  Dr Stephanie Burns and colleagues, Queens University Belfast), embed psychological literacy in the curriculum (from Dr Richard Harris, University of Leeds) and rethink psychology competences (from Prof Susanne Narciss, Technische Universität Dresden, representing a group of international collaborators). Taken together, I left the conference feeling inspired and energised to integrate a concern for real, proper sustainability into my teaching. Before ESPLAT 2023, I associated 'sustainability' with green things like recycling, taking the bus, not using single-use plastic water bottles. Now, I have an enhanced appreciation of how well-placed psychologists are to ensure that human life as we know it can be meaningfully and happily sustained.