Ingrid Molderez and Kim Ceulemans

Will our future business managers be able to tackle sustainability challenges? Can art contribute to acquiring sustainability competencies in management education? Our study explored the power of art to foster systems thinking, one of the key competencies of sustainability, and to help business students think more creatively about divergent views on sustainability.

Thirty years after the Brundtland Commission popularized the concept of sustainable development, the issue has become more urgent than ever. Global challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty and migration are omnipresent and are affecting everybody in spite of place and time. There are no easy or instant solutions, but education plays an important role in raising awareness on sustainability and in how to respond to these challenges.

Paul Shrivastava, an influential management and sustainability scholar, argues that education for sustainability requires more than just cognitive understanding. We need alternative ways of teaching that incorporate physical and emotional engagement (Shrivastava, 2010). However, pedagogical approaches that combine head, heart and hand are rare in management education. Management students are used to studying topics that immediately impact the knowledge and skills that they will need in a business context. Spiritual and/or creative ways of teaching are nearly absent. Yet, this is what we focused on in our research. We used art as a pedagogical way to enrich the whole person, to encourage critical and creative thinking around sustainability and we explored how management students react to this.

The concept of sustainability brings the importance of interconnections between human beings and nature back to the surface. The boundaries that have been created as splitting forces between humans and their environment have to be perceived as binding again, so that we can see ourselves again as functioning in togetherness. Changing towards sustainability generates intense emotions and at the same time, intense emotions are needed to be able to make a change towards sustainability. Art generates and encourages emotions, triggers our criticism and challenges our comfort. In relation to systems thinking and sustainability, art can help us to regain focus on the connections and interdependences of our systems.

In our study, we exposed management students to paintings during their Master’s level corporate social responsibility course. We did not especially focus on artists that use their art to criticise the negative environmental impacts human beings have. We opted for painters who are not known for their ecological engagement, but whose artwork makes us reflect upon the role human beings have in society. René Magritte’s painting Les Jours Gigantesques was a source of inspiration and reflection to help them think about and discuss boundaries as connecting and disconnecting forces in a sustainability context.

After class, we surveyed the participating students to study their receptiveness towards art in a management course. We explored whether they found art relevant to study three aspects of systems thinking, i.e., the system/environment relationship, thinking in patterns and relationships, and understanding the interactions between system and environment. For each of these aspects, the majority of the surveyed students agreed that art can be very relevant to discuss such issues. The students noted that using art was helpful for showing different points of view, that it facilitated understanding the topic from another perspective, and that it helped them to see the importance of connections within sustainability.

In this study, the majority of the students were receptive for using art because it acts as an eye opener and makes them think differently about sustainability. Nevertheless, some students were also very critical, because they had a fixed idea about art, i.e. only being relevant for an exhibition about sustainability rather than in a more abstract way to understand or discuss sustainability. They thought that showing pictures about what is really happening in the world would be more effective. However, it has to be underlined that art cannot be used in a functional way, as this goes counter to the core concepts of what art is about. Hence, we were not looking for a causal relationship between using art and effectively learning about sustainability, but we intended to explore ways to connect head, hand and heart in management education.

What can we learn from this research?

While management education is known for its functionalist approach, we should remember that business students can be receptive to alternative learning methods. Using paintings can be a relevant method for explaining sustainability topics, encouraging critical thinking, and adopting a holistic approach by triggering their creativity. Art can help students to think critically about sustainability concepts addressed in class, and shows them that there is space for different approaches and interpretations of such complex concepts.

Higher education has an important role to play in sensitising students towards sustainable development, and in helping them to develop competencies for addressing sustainability issues. Art and artists have a gift to make people think in a critical way, to go beyond boundaries, to initiate emotions which are all very relevant if we want to change our mindset on a topic (such as sustainability). Higher education could consider no longer reserving art for students in art-related disciplines, but to surpass the strict boundaries between disciplines. Art can be inspirational for every discipline and is worthy of a place in every study programme, including disciplines that are perceived as less receptive, such as management, engineering, law among many others.

This article was originally published at Economists Talk Art, based on: Molderez, I. & Ceulemans, K. (2018). The power of art to foster systems thinking, one of the key competencies of education for sustainable development. Journal of Cleaner Production, 186, 758-770.