Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

This academic year I have the honour of participating in the academic community of Gothenburg University as the Adlerbert Research Foundation’s Guest Professor. Gothenburg University, as does the other well-known university in Gothenburg, Chalmers University, aspires to integrate sustainability science and education in all its 7 faculties. The two universities already share a Centre for Environment and
Sustainability (GMV) and Chalmers has a special Sustainability Vice-Chancellor, John Holmberg who is also a UNESCO Chair in Education for Sustainability in Higher Education. During my last visit to Gothenburg in this new role I participated in a workshop on Teacher Education for Sustainable Development? which was introduced with the following text:High expectations of formal education’s contribution to sustainable development are expressed in a series of policy documents from UNESCO, through the proclaimed Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). This is also highlighted in Swedish policy documents for education (National Agency for Education). The Swedish Higher Education Act states that “In the course of their operations, higher education institutions shall promote sustainable development to assure for present and future generations a sound and healthy environment, economic and social welfare, and justice”. What implications does this have for a higher education program such as Teacher Education?

Julie Davis of the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia and I were asked to provide input for the workshop by providing a ‘provocative’ introduction. Mine was titled: Why sustainability cannot and should not be taught: a call for reflexivity, transformation and deep learning in turbulent times

Needless to say that the title raised some eyebrows. But here’s what I tried to say. We cannot know what sustainability is. We don’t live long enough to be able to say that what we consider to be sustainable today turned out to be sustainable in the end. Also, what might be sustainable in Gothenburg, Sweden might not be sustainable in Kampala, Uganda. To complicate things further even when considering all the (scientific) knowledge available today there is no universal agreement about what, given what we know today, might be the most sustainable way of living.

So how then can we educate for sustainability? – a question already raised 20 years ago by my Canadian colleague and friend Bob Jickling.  In my contribution I problematized this dilemma from an education perspective by arguing that even though we do not and cannot know what sustainability is we have a moral responsibility to always be looking for ways of living that are more sustainable than our current ways.The current state of the Planet demands this. Given this dilemma it would be inappropriate or at least un-educative to use education to prescribe learners how to live their lives or to condition them to behave in a certain way.

Rather than focussing as educators on sustainability as a ‘destiny’ or an ‘end point’ it may be more fruitful and certainly more educational, to focus on the type of learning and the type of capacities that are needed to break away from unsustainable routines which are all around and generally known. Using concrete examples, I proposed strenghtening social and transformative learning in ‘cross-boundary environments’ seeking to develop people’s sustainability competence as an alternative. Some of these ideas can also be found in my inaugural address of a few years ago: Message-in-a-bottle-Learning-our-way-out-of-Unsustainability(pdf connected to the hypelink). I have attached the slides I used here: ESD-TE Workshop Gothenburg U November2012.

Julie Davis talked about: Working the system: Taking a systems approach to embedding education for sustainability in teacher education in Australia

Here’s how here contribution was listed in the workshop outline: Much has been written about the need to ‘re-orient teacher education towards sustainability’. Yet, research indicates that, generally speaking, teacher education institutions are not preparing pre-service teachers to teach education for sustainability. This presentation reports on a staged study that commenced in 2006 in Australia that has sought to understand how change is implemented and becomes ‘mainstreamed’ within teacher education institutions. Stage 1 involved an international literature review and interviews to examine efforts to re-orient teacher education towards sustainability; consequently, a systems-based model for change was developed. In Stage 2 (2008), this model was piloted across 5 teacher education institutions in Queensland, Australia, aimed at engaging teacher education institutions and a range of stakeholders within a teacher education system to work simultaneously to bring about change. Findings indicated that systemic change is enabled if there is both conceptual and personal capacity for change, and that trust, respect and ownership are central to re-orienting teacher education systems. Stage 3 (2009) involved another 5 teacher education institutions that used the model to begin the task of reorienting their teacher education systems. This stage identified 5 enabling actions: collaborative curriculum change; building a sustainability ethos; connecting disparate sources of sustainability education content; better support for integration between programs; and utilising experiential teaching and learning approaches. Stage 4 (2011) is underway, aimed at deepening and extending the change experiences, with an emphasis on building a national network to drive systemic change for education for sustainability.

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