Do we want sustainability in education?

‘The main problem is not knowing what to do, it is mustering the desire to do it.’
(Jonathon Rowe, 2000)

responsible coffeeSustainability seems to crop up everywhere these days: sustainability of student recruitment; sustainability in digital curation; sustainability of economic growth. As the UK flounders in recession, and universities consider job cuts, the idea of sustainability suddenly seems appealing. Indeed, irrespective of economic factors, there is arguably more need than ever to change society to a more sustainable footing, and education is beginning to shape up to the challenge. Although momentum towards ‘greening’ of campus infrastructure and processes is evident (e.g. Green League Table and Transition Universities), progress towards embedding sustainability in the Higher Education (HE) curriculum and learning experience remains patchy and contentious. See for example, the article entitled Keep the green moral agenda off campus. I’ll return to Butcher’s opinions at various points, but first I’ll introduce some of the concepts and consider some of the factors affecting staff attitudes across the board. I’ll begin with myself though:

Frankly, I’m not sure that I’m ready for sustainability in the curriculum. At least, maybe I’m half way there. I’m convinced of the need for radical change as indicated by the following statements:

“Education: Promise and paradox … Unfortunately, the most educated nations leave the deepest ecological footprints, meaning they have the highest per-capita rates of consumption” ESD Toolkit.

“[Education] daily plays a part in reproducing an unsustainable society. In order for education to play a key role as an ‘agent of change’ in a transition to a more sustainable society, education will itself have to be transformed” (Huckle J & Sterling S (1996) Education for Sustainability)

However I’ve been taking a look at the literature, and some of it is pretty odd. Of course there’s the commonly accepted definition for sustainable development: i.e. “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”‘. NB. This definition packs a hidden punch; an implicit recognition of environmental limits to growth which contradicts popular notions of indefinite growth. Nevertheless when I encounter terms like deep ecology, spiritual release, and ecofeminism, I wince uncomfortably… Suddenly I can understand what it means for colleagues facing a curriculum intervention which is way beyond their comfort zone.

Fortunately most conceptions of sustainability are more approachable. Popular definitions such as ecoliteracy, environmental literacy, sustainability literacy and education for sustainability (see for example, the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, Forum for the Future, and Center for Ecoliteracy) are generally based on key elements of understanding, attitudes, skills, actions, and a generalised definition like the following can be readily grasped:

Sustainability literacy: the ability to understand the need for a change to a sustainable way of doing things; and to have sufficient skills and knowledge to recognise and act in favour of sustainable development. [adapted from Forum for the Future]

NB. Although Jim Butcher argues that it is inappropriate to attempt to change students’ attitudes and values, there are already areas such as self-confidence, on-line safety, and professionalism in which we explicitly set out to change students’ attitudes.

How important is it to pick the right definition? There are important differences in emphasis between different definitions, and nuances in language can be important (see for example What Does GREEN Really Mean?). However in considering the options, my reactions seem pretty trite. I reject anything with a hint of 1970s-style sandals, and ecoliteracy comes out as the strongest contender: despite overtones of eco-marketing and greenwash, it has a snappy post-millennial flavour, and I think it could sell well.

Of course, other influences strongly affect whether the teaching of knowledge and skills becomes embedded in educational practice. Government strategy is sometimes an effective driver, so we’d best take a look at that:

In 2005, the UK Government seemed to be taking sustainability seriously. The DfES Sustainable Development Action Plan Learning for the Future stated that “the principles [of sustainable development] needed to be embedded in the education system so that “schools, colleges and universities become showcases of sustainable development” and Defra’s Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future stated a need “to make ‘sustainability literacy’ a core competency for professional graduates”. But recent strategies such as the BIS Higher Ambitions and the BIS/DECC Low Carbon Industrial Strategy)  show a strangely blinkered take on sustainability. Whilst stressing the importance of a transition to a low carbon economy, HE and FE are seen more in terms of providing training and initiating enterprise than in providing real expertise or informed thinking. Sustainability is interpreted only in the context of economic sustainability and continued economic growth.

This seems a good point to return to another complaint from Butcher: “Ideas, agendas and moral imperatives should stand or fall through open-ended, rigorous inquiry….without any shade of opinion requiring the official backing of the institution or self-appointed guardians of the curriculum”. This is a valid concern, but I’m not convinced that education currently operates in a neutral context at the moment. Consider for example the way that the ‘Higher Ambitions’ policy declares Universities’ role in “making an even bigger contribution to economic recovery and future growth” and the inter-institutional competitiveness that exists. I’m sure that such institutional contexts have a powerful effect on students’ perceptions about sustainability, and redressing the balance seems perfectly reasonable.

So much for theory and strategy.  How are we doing in practice?

A couple of major reports provide insight into the recent progress in embedding sustainability in the curriculum:

A report 2005 on Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments found that most disciplines are “making a contribution to the sustainability literacy of their students”, but that “the skills and knowledge required to create an action orientated sustainability literate graduate body” are “not easy to teach in a traditional sense”. The report identified four major [and perhaps predictable] barriers: an overcrowded curriculum, perceived irrelevance by academic staff, limited staff expertise, and limited institutional commitment, but also suggested solutions to these. It forcefully concluded: “Education for sustainable development is an emerging imperative. It represents a major shift in the way students are taught and learn within the higher education sector. It requires a broader and more flexible approach to the development and teaching of academic disciplines. Much of this change is in line with what graduates will need in an increasingly complex work environment.”

Three years later, the HEFCE Strategic Review of Sustainable Development in Higher Education in England wryly observed that ‘There is no question that institutions which have adopted an institution-wide commitment to SD…generate more activity, and more joined-up activity, than those which have not. …There are differences of opinion (among SD supporters) about whether SD is an agenda HEIs should drive, or one that they should respond to…. In brief, HEIs are likely to adopt something into their strategic plan because they want to do it, rather than because they are required to do it. And for SD education to work, people need to want to do it.’

recycled jewelryTaking these reports together, it seems that whilst  subject-led approaches to embedding ecoliteracy in education are steadily achieving success in some areas, these are no match for the changes that can be achieved with institutional leadership.

As a final point, I’d like to quote from Forum for a Future: “The skills needed by a sustainability literate person are strongly related to the skills needed for delivering other key policy agendas: they could be seen to underpin innovation, for example, social cohesion, enterprise, excellence in leadership, sustainable communities and so on.” I’d add that the sustainability agenda often calls for interdisciplinary, authentic and student-led approaches to learning activities, and hence seems to fit seamlessly alongside other aspects of academic innovation. Perhaps we don’t need to muster up support for sustainability in the curriculum but rather continue to strive for excellence in teaching.

by Susannah Diamond, Academic Innovation


2 responses to “Do we want sustainability in education?

  1. Just to add
    I sometimes get the impression that the word “sustainability” is one of those words that can be used as an excuse to not do something. Maybe a more appropriate constructive term for us would be “healthy scalability” i.e. taking things step by step.
    Putting this into perspective – for those of us who strive to develop innovation in curriculum delivery.
    Knowing what to do is sometimes not the issue mustering a desire is achieved through working with energized and proactive colleagues and with students who have a healthy appetite for a creative approach to LTA.

    • Hi Keith, it sounds as though you are considering how sustainability applies to your own context, and that has to be a good thing.
      I suppose my fundamental concern is that we are currently operating in an unrealistic bubble, using resources, losing habitats and species, polluting our atmosphere and destabilising our future. This applies not just to education, but to our entire society.
      We need to change education so that it becomes a tool for creating a more sustainable society. As you say, we already know what to do, but mustering the will (and sector-wide commitment) to achieve that change is more difficult.

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