Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Arts-Based Approaches for Sustainability

  • Tony WallEmail author
  • Eva Österlind
  • Julia Fries
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_523-1


Arts-based Approaches Expressive Writing Applied Theory Higher Education Organizations Drama Work 
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The arts encompass a broad and diverse landscape of interrelated creative practices and professions, including performance arts (including music, dance, drama, and theatre), literary arts (including literature, story, and poetry), and the visual arts (including painting, design, film) (see UNESCO 2006). They have been explicitly linked to sustainable development in higher education at a global level through UNESCO’s Road Map for Arts Education (UNESCO 2006) and The Seoul Agenda: Goals for the Development of Arts Education (UNESCO 2010). Specifically, the arts have been deployed to promoting human rights, enhancing education, promoting cultural diversity, enhancing well-being, and, most broadly, “resolving the social and cultural challenges facing today’s world” (UNESCO 2010: 8).

Such recognition highlights the distinctive role of arts-based approaches to promote sustainability and sustainable development, in terms of (1) tapping into “an optimal level of aroused attention,” “somewhere between apathy and wild excitement” (Bruner 1960: 72), and (2) tapping into an ability to “break with what is supposedly fixed and finished... [so] a person may become freed to glimpse what might be” (Greene 1995: 19). Such capabilities highlight the role of imagination to recast and therefore reconfigure and transform the world. Arts-based approaches to sustainability distinctively draw from forms of knowledge and knowing which are derived from the senses or aesthetics and aesthetic inquiry (Taylor and Ladkin 2009). In doing so, some have argued that the arts “offers an antidote to the mental and emotional pollution of commercialism, which eventually lead to the toxification of air, land, water, and the excessive consumption of carbon” (Shrivastava et al. 2012: 32–33, Shrivastava 2012: 635).

More specifically in higher education, the arts are recognized as promoting highly relevant and generative spaces for complex, higher-order learning and change work that includes (1) systemic/holistic thinking, (2) the integration of multiple and different perspectives, and (3) the articulation and development of attitudes and values (Svanström et al. 2008). Similarly, the arts can also be linked to affective learning outcomes which are particularly important in relation to sustainable development work, such as (1) generating personal awareness in relation to sustainable development, (2) promoting sets of values aligned to responsibility and sustainable development, and (3) initiating and mobilizing action in relation to sustainable development (Shephard 2008). This chapter focuses on three significant arts realms which have demonstrated important contributions to different aspects of sustainable development: expressive writing, drama, and applied theatre (also see “Art-Based Teaching for Sustainable Development” which covers the visual arts and the “Storytelling for Sustainable Development” chapter).

Expressive Writing

Expressive writing has been utilized in higher education in a number of sustainable development areas including health and well-being, social change, and environmental education. In terms of health and well-being, expressive writing for sustainable development can include reflective writing, creative writing for therapeutic practices, bibliotherapy, poetry therapy, and the medical humanities (Bolton 2011). It can include a wide range of practices including free writing, listing, deep attention description, narrative and stories, image and metaphor, (fictional) dialogue, journaling, diaries, blogging, zine writing, writing/use of fiction, writing/use of poetry, autobiography, potted histories of self, letters to self or others, future states, and writing/use of comics (Ross 2012).

Expressive writing practices have, for some time, been linked to a strengthened immune system, various medical markers of health such as blood pressure, reduced indicators of stress, longer-term mood changes, and ability to deal with social and work life (Pennebaker 1997). Likened to other forms of therapy, expressive writing functions in the following ways:
  1. 1.

    Exploration of narratives of experience from different perspectives

  2. 2.

    Reflexive clarification of values, principles, ethics, feelings, and identity

  3. 3.

    Critical examination of metaphors in daily use

  4. 4.

    Metaphor “games” to express the otherwise inexpressible

  5. 5.

    Imaginative acute observation and description (Bolton and Ihanus 2011: 168)

As a way of encouraging deep learning through reflection and experiential learning, expressive writing processes are likely to be personal, where “any issue can be shared relatively fearlessly with a piece of paper… [it] can be ripped up, burned, flushed away; creating it will have helped without rereading” (Bolton 2011: 22), but can also be used in group settings to promote dialogue in relation to the processes above. Although referring to the process of poetry therapy, Mazza’s (2017) process model has wider relevance to integrating the use of expressive writing for health and well-being outcomes. Mazza (2017: 17) proposes three key stages:
  1. 1.

    Receptive/prescriptive – this stage introduces and frames writing into the setting.

  2. 2.

    Expressive/creative – this stage utilizes the writing activity/practice.

  3. 3.

    Symbolic/ceremonial – this stage draws on and makes sense of the situation using metaphors, rituals, and narrative.


In the context of higher education in health and medical fields, the most common form of creative writing is journaling and reflective writing for experiential professional development, but the creative writing of stories and poems is also used to promote humanistic and empathy learning outcomes alongside clinical and technical training (Cowen et al. 2016). In contrast, poetry and narrative writing may also be used in the context of environmental education, but they are typically (1) more explicitly related to exploring the student’s own relationship to others and the wider, natural world and (2) will oftentimes be located within natural environments as a fundamental part of the exploratory experience (van Boeckel 2013).

Similar integrations of poetry can be found in business management fields, where poetry is used as part of wider pedagogic apparatus to reorient education toward holistic, systemic, and responsible learning outcomes (Reason 2007). For example, haiku (a form of poem which embodies a close human-environment connection) has been used to promote and capture wider ecological and environmental learning (Reason 2007: 37–38):

A seed grows.

Water gives it strength.

The Earth moves (Linda Farrow).

Water drop on leaf

A tear rolls down for times lost

And new beginnings (Ruth Townsley).

A bramble catches

My ungainly fall;

Thank you, I say (Ian Nicholson).

Expressive writing is also used in action research pedagogies in higher education to facilitate wider-scale change where collaboration, responsibility, and ethics are important. For example, as part of a collaborative change project, the writing of, sharing of, and reflection on stories and metaphors have been employed to explore and mobilize organizational change in higher education with (1) positive psychological states and (2) connectedness and sense of belonging to others and wider natural environments (Rossetti and Wall 2017; Wall et al. 2017). In addition, creative narrative accounts have been used to challenge and disrupt wider narratives about education, learning, and students, for example, (1) using humor and experimental creative writing to reposition “student as customers” as interconnected responsible practitioners (Wall 2016a, b; Wall and Jarvis 2015) and (2) using narrative accounts to challenge how humans relate to animals and other sustainability issues (Wall et al. 2018, forthcoming).


The delineations between drama and applied theatre are not firmly fixed, but an extreme simplification is that (a) drama is based on improvised interaction in a fictional context without given lines or external audience, and (b) applied theatre is usually created and devised by the participants and performed to an audience. In terms of the first of these areas, drama processes have been articulated as an effective way to generate new insight into difficult issues, for example, in relation to holistic thinking, integration of multiple perspectives, and the development of attitudes and values (Österlind 2012; Pässilä et al. 2017).

This effectiveness seems to be particularly important given the content of sustainable development can be emotionally (as well as physically) challenging to both teachers and students (Wall et al. 2018, forthcoming). Specifically, drama implicates learning through distinctively embodied and verbal interactions and reflections, where people can experience and feel a variety of different perspectives. Here, people are enabled to explore the perspectives and their respective consequences, tensions, and dilemmas in fictive situations to be dealt with on the spot, at a “real-life pace.” In a sense, drama work provides an authentic but safe space to embody perspectives and explore them (Wall et al. 2018, forthcoming; Österlind 2012).

One of the integral processes of drama is role-play, which is now often used in a wider educational for sustainable development context (Blanchard and Buchs 2015; Chen and Martin 2015). The application of role-play transcends higher education disciplines and includes economics (Alden 1999), business and management (Paschall and Wüstenhagen 2012), geography (Schnurr et al. 2014), engineering (Edvardsson Björnberg et al. 2015), and biology (Oliver 2016). It has therefore gained widespread traction in higher education to work toward sustainability and sustainable development outcomes.

Role-play has been found to be comparatively more effective than other learning activities in the context of education for sustainable development (Ballantyne and Packer 2007), across a variety of settings such as a postgraduate program in engineering for sustainable development, where role-play “clearly had the most impact” (Cruickshank and Fenner 2012: 259). More recently, Gordon and Thomas (2016) highlight that although role-play can be resource-intensive, demanding, and time-consuming, the results are significant and that “the learning sticks” (ibid: 14), that is, the learning itself has a longevity beyond the role-play intervention.

Interactive drama is an alternative to role-play and has also been utilized in the context of higher education for sustainable development. It is a process where the characters and storyline are not predetermined but emergent and determined by the participants. Boggs et al. (2007) emphasize that such interactive approaches to drama enable students to be involved in situations that are both engaging and related to the theoretical aspects of their academic work and personal experiences.

Such drama approaches are particularly effective in developing connectedness, in terms of others but also to other species and the planet (Wall et al. 2017, 2018, forthcoming), especially because “the cornerstone of theatrical communication is empathy” (Etherton and Prentki 2006: 146). In their research, Davis and Tarrant (2014) used drama techniques to investigate how to foster connections between human and environment and combine science-based, fictional, and experiential components. They found that a combination of experiences in the natural environment (including drama experiences such as meeting characters in nature), and drama work in the classroom, was especially effective. In particular, they found that when the students worked in roles, the learning became personally integrated and deepened. Although some dilemmas continue to persist, Davis and Tarrant argue such an integrated approach to deploying drama techniques in higher education is “scientific and rigorous, and also connected and empathetic” (2014: 194).

Applied Theatre

Applied theatre encompasses many forms of theatre with an educational aim to raise awareness and support societal change. Applied theatre is signified by going beyond the norms of classical theatre in terms of audience (reaching out to people where they are), place (outside ordinary theatre venues), and performers (other than just professional actors). The plays are usually created together with, or in dialogue with, particular groups who are the target for the awareness raising or change initiative (Maeve and Pentergast 2014). As applied theatre is an embodied practice, it is an effective way to “examine post-human subjectivity in relation with other beings living on the Earth, as well as human-made things and technology” (Aaltonen 2015: 420). In other words, it can help explore situations from many alternative perspectives which go beyond thinking as a human, for human gain, in order to perpetuate human domination over the Earth and its cohabitants (Wall et al. 2018, forthcoming).

Applied theatre is used widely to work with sustainability issues such as health (e.g., HIV/AIDS), environment, poverty, corruption, conflict, and violence (Barnes 2014). As applied theatre is often created and delivered closely with communities, it may not be the most common place for it to be located within a higher education setting. However, higher education organizations do (co)facilitate applied theatre activity with local communities in their settings for the purposes of sustainable development. For example, at Tainan University in Taiwan, students work together with community members in applied theatre processes, on local issues related to climate change, globalization, and the transition from an agricultural to industrial and postindustrial society (Wang 2017). Similarly, street theatre has been used in Canada to engage higher education communities in discussions and dialogue about sustainability (Wright et al. 2013). Such creative engagements between and among communities have also been used in a transdisciplinary sustainability education model that integrates science, the arts, and community, where theatre was one of the ways in which higher education students “developed their ability to connect academic domains of knowledge and creatively address sustainability challenges” (Clark and Button 2011: 41).

More specifically, Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal 1979) is one of the more commonly used theatre forms under the umbrella of applied theatre, and Forum Theatre, as a specific technique, is used to explore sustainable futures in many settings. Such forms enhance “strong sustainability” (Räthzel and Uzzell 2009) as it deepens self-reflection and self-transformation in the context of the wider power structures of society and thus strengthens abilities to act in society. Forum Theatre and other forms of drama work are also used in nurse education to promote openness, dialogue, and personal reflection and to support students to develop critical thinking (Arveklev et al. 2015). Similar processes such as Forum Play are used in the training of teachers, partly to identify and transform oppressive educational practices (Österlind 2011).

As these applied theatre practices encourage collaborations to break down divisions and boundaries, they can also work to help integrate disciplinary boundaries within higher education organizations, especially between arts and sciences (Clark and Button 2010). In this way, applied theatre can promote “creative trespassers” (Bedetti 2015: 2) who cross disciplinary boundaries, which means that dramatic play can be one of the few spaces or places where disciplines can meet. In her study of the integration of dramatic arts into a university general education course, Bedetti (2015) found that collaborative playwriting and theatre work could create “a more holistic and integrative approach to higher education” (ibid: 9) and that “deeper learning” could be acquired, where students learned to create, rather than to just hold, information. Similarly, in a collaborative, intercultural project based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play “The Government Inspector,” different groups in various places around the world staged a production to address economic unsustainability and corruption. Higher education organizations collaborated with various organizations with the hope for “trans-structural flows in between organizations” (Eliason Bjurström 2012: 21). It was therefore an approach that mobilized the efforts and energies across the globe toward the common goal of a more sustainable future.

Conclusion and Future Directions

The contributions of arts-based approaches for sustainability in higher education emanate from their distinctive ways of knowledge and knowing which, the evidence indicates, demand affective responses leading to multiple transformative effects. The three significant arts-based approaches in this chapter included expressive writing (which, e.g., tapped into therapeutic processes to enhance well-being and health), drama (which, e.g., tapped into the creative possibilities of exploring difficult and complex perspectives of sustainable development), and applied theatre (which, e.g., tapped into the creative possibilities of collaborative working to break down divisions and barriers relevant to health and well-being). A common theme is that the arts provide an accessible way for people (students, tutors, business people, etc.) to explore the complexities of the multiple facets of sustainable development.

Future directions of practice and research will include the more widespread use of arts to (1) disrupt the current power flows in society to enable more sustainable approaches to development, as well as to (2) help foster greater interdisciplinary to tackle such issues. In terms of the first of these, the arts will continue to help problematize and create new ways of making sense of place, space, and connectedness to these, especially under the conditions of digital life. This is likely to involve the generation of new organic metaphors, perhaps derived from the emerging post-human debate, to help reformulate how we organize, make sense of, and judge communities (including educational ones), sustainable development itself, what it means to be human (or post-human), and the consequences of these (Sauerwein et al. 2017).

The second direction will involve the arts combining in new ways (again mediated by digital life) to integrate embodied understandings of sustainable development. In higher education, this is likely to be seen in the context of extending and expanding the STEM agenda (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) toward a STEAM agenda where the unique and distinctive contribution of the arts becomes more prominent (Payton et al. 2017). The extent to which each of these disciplines will become equal is unlikely or at least unknown but will continue to be set against a trend toward employing greater interdisciplinary that is required to tackle the complex issues of sustainable development.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Thriving at Work Research GroupUniversity of ChesterChesterUK
  2. 2.Department of Humanities and Social Sciences EducationStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ingrid Molderez
    • 1
  1. 1.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium