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Embracing conflicts for interpersonal competence development in project-based sustainability courses

Theres Konrad (Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany and Arizona State University, Tempe AZ, USA)
Arnim Wiek (School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ, USA; Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ, USA and Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany)
Matthias Barth (Institute of Sustainable Development and Learning, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany and Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany and Arizona State University, Tempe AZ, USA)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 2 December 2019

Issue publication date: 9 January 2020

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Abstract

Purpose

Advanced skills in communication, teamwork and stakeholder engagement are widely recognized as important success factors for advancing sustainability. While project-based learning formats claim to advance such skills, there is little empirical evidence that demonstrates how interpersonal competence is being developed. This study aims to describe and explains teaching and learning processes of project-based sustainability courses that contribute to the development of interpersonal competence as one of the key competencies in sustainability.

Design/methodology/approach

This study on an international project-based learning course adopted a multi-method case study approach, triangulating observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups supported by Photovoice method through which students tracked their learning processes. Data collection and analysis followed a grounded theory approach.

Findings

Learning through and from conflicts within a learning community can foster competence development in teamwork, communication and stakeholder engagement. This study identified inner and outer conflicts (within individuals versus between individuals or groups) as potential drivers of learning processes, depending on strategies applied to address these conflicts.

Originality value

The value of this study is fourfold: it demonstrates how conflicts can be leveraged for students’ competence development; it provides in-depth empirical data from multiple perspectives, it discusses the findings in the context of teaching and learning theories, and it demonstrates an application of the Photovoice method to track and improve teaching and learning processes.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture and Volkswagen Foundation for the grant “Educating Future Change Agents – Higher Education as a Motor of the Sustainability Transformation” (A115235) through the program “Science for Sustainable Development.” The authors would like to thank their colleagues Jodie Birdman, Jan–Ole Brandt, Jana Timm, Marie Weiss and in particular, Aaron Redman from Leuphana University of Lüneburg (Germany) for support on the research presented in this study as well as for comments on the manuscript and editing support at various stages. Last but not least, the authors would like to thank the students and instructors of the GSR project course 2016-2017 for their openness, trust and time in support of this research.

Citation

Konrad, T., Wiek, A. and Barth, M. (2020), "Embracing conflicts for interpersonal competence development in project-based sustainability courses", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 76-96. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-06-2019-0190

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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