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Sustainable Education: Revisioning Learning and Change

Sustainable Education: Revisioning Learning and Change

by Steven Sterling, David Orr (Foreword by)

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While environmental education, and more recently education for sustainable development are important trends, they are not sufficient to reorient and transform education as a whole and yet time is short to realise such change. The Briefing critiques the prevailing managerial and mechanistic paradigm in education, and argues that an ecological view of educational theory


While environmental education, and more recently education for sustainable development are important trends, they are not sufficient to reorient and transform education as a whole and yet time is short to realise such change. The Briefing critiques the prevailing managerial and mechanistic paradigm in education, and argues that an ecological view of educational theory, practice and policy is necessary to assist the sustainability transition. The Briefing then shows how sustainable education is a systemic change of educational culture towards the realization of human potential and the interdependence of social, economic and ecological wellbeing.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Innovative, provocative, and essential reading, for all those concerned about the state of the world and the purposes of education. Read it, be disturbed and challenged. Question your basic premises about education. Renew the vision. Take committed action." —David Hicks, professor, Bath Spa University College, UK

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UIT Cambridge
Publication date:
Schumacher Briefings Series
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

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Sustainable Education

Re-visioning Learning and Change

By Stephen Sterling

UIT Cambridge Ltd

Copyright © 2001 Stephen Sterling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-870098-99-1


Towards Sustainable Education

"The volume of education ... continues to increase, yet so do pollution, exhaustion of resources, and the dangers of ecological catastrophe. If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind: an education that takes us into the depth of things." — E.F. Schumacher

Sustainable education

Western education is presently characterized by a number of paradoxes, which raise some profound questions about its role. Firstly, for nearly thirty years education has been identified in international and national policies as the key to addressing environment and development issues, and latterly to achieving a more sustainable society. Yet most education daily reinforces unsustainable values and practices in society. We are educated by and large to 'compete and consume' rather than to 'care and conserve'. Secondly, education is, as never before, subject to unremitting emphasis on inspection and accountability in the name of 'quality'. Yet dysfunction, stress and the pressure to compete are widely compromising the quality of educational experience and of the lives of educators and learners. Thirdly, governments are concerned about the 'socially excluded', drop-outs from schooling and 'failing' schools and higher education institutions; yet policies which force institutions to compete mean that the advantaged ones get better and richer while the disadvantaged ones become further disadvantaged and receive blame for failing.

The first issue relates to a crisis of education, its limited present ability to contribute to a better world. The second and third issues relate to a crisis in education, its limited ability to assert humanistic and democratic values in the face of quasi-market and managerialist forces. The two crises are of course related. Policy-makers, meanwhile, understand something by the term 'crisis in education', but it is interpreted in terms of 'failing' students, teachers, schools, colleges or authorities; they don't appear to understand the idea of a 'crisis of education' in the broad sense.

Meanwhile, the environment/development crisis continues, fuelled partly by the human legacy of the last century's educational practices. Clearly, as Schumacher pointed out, "more education" is not the answer to this crisis — or at least, not more of the same. Fundamentally, we need a changed educational paradigm, one that addresses and indicates positive directions beyond these crises, one that "takes us into the depth of things". This is what I term 'sustainable education', a change of educational culture which both develops and embodies the theory and practice of sustainability in a way which is critically aware. This would be a transformative paradigm that values, sustains and realizes human potential in relation to the need to attain and sustain social, economic and ecological wellbeing, recognizing that they are deeply interdependent. Ecologically sustainable development depends on sustainable education and learning — which in turn manifests and sustains sustainable development: they are neither separate nor the same. It is an extension of the mutuality nicely summed up in the phrase, "You cannot learn without changing, or change without learning". In the context of sustainability, we are only beginning to understand the full extent of what this means and implies.

Yet in some senses this is nothing new. Many indigenous peoples have been practising forms of sustainable education in their own contexts over thousands of years, maintaining an intelligence du milieu, which globally we now lack. But for Western education systems, nothing less than a sustainable education paradigm will do, and time is short to realize this change. As I have stated elsewhere: "Whether the future holds breakdown or breakthrough scenarios ... people will require flexibility, resilience, creativity, participative skills, competence, material restraint and a sense of responsibility and transpersonal ethics to handle transition and provide mutual support. Indeed, an education oriented towards nurturing these qualities would help determine a positive and hopeful 'breakthrough' future".

Calls for a change in thinking

It has been said on a number of occasions that the world for which education is preparing people no longer exists. As futures educator David Hicks has pointed out, "If all education is for the future then the future needs to be a more explicit concern at all levels of education". But if it's hard to find 'the future' in contemporary education, it's also hard to find evidence of present global trends. Such trends include increases in globalization, telecommunication, technological change, economic and cultural homogenization, interdependence and dependence, complexity, uncertainty, inequity and debt, conflict, consumption, population, movement of people, species loss, destabilization of ecological systems, and climate change. All young people will spend their lives in this century, coping with the profound implications of what has been called this 'world problematique' where each issue in some way is connected with all the others, and cannot be understood or addressed in isolation. A number of studies have shown relatively high levels of awareness amongst young (and old) of these issues, but often poor understanding. Meanwhile, rapid social, economic and technological changes lead to angst, stress and loss of identity among young and old, who are offered little apart from the sedative mirages of consumption and materialism. Thus, one critical role of education must be to recognize and help people work with these very real concerns and emotions.

Arguably, the root of the 'world problematique' lies in a crisis of perception; of the way we see the world. Accordingly, there are calls for 'a new way of thinking' which would allow us to transcend the limits of thinking that appear to have led to the current global predicament. Examination of descriptions of what the desired 'new way of thinking' might be reveals much use of terms like integrative, holistic, systemic, connective, and ecological.

To re-vision education, we must look beyond the often closed world of education. 'Sustainable education' is only likely to emerge if it can connect with and draw strength from positive cultural change in the wider social context. The roots of a new postmodern educational paradigm are to be found in a number of converging 'growth areas' in wider society which reflect systemic thinking in some way: revisionary postmodernism; the ecological movement and worldview; the sciences of complexity; participatory and ecological democracy; and ecologically sustainable development theory and practice. Keywords from these areas give some idea of what an ecological education paradigm may look like (see Box 2).

But perhaps this is going too far, too fast. We need first to look at the current state of education. I begin this by turning attention to the most fundamental of questions, which concerns the purpose of education.

The roles and nature of education

There are three central questions that are key to unlocking the values of any educational system or ideology.

• What is education for?

• What is education?

• Whose education?

To address the first question — What is education for? This most fundamental question is one that often least features in educational debate and policy, or teacher education. The purposes of education are largely taken as given. To ask what education is 'for' raises questions of philosophy and value about the nature of education (the second question), and beyond this, about the nature of being human. Amongst all the current frenetic concern with standards, testing, assessment, and 'quality control', and the struggle of most educators and learners to meet externally determined 'performance targets', these more fundamental questions — which require continuing democratic debate — are pushed to one side.

For many people, however, education is seen as a self-evidently 'good thing', and also as a stock 'answer' to social and other problems — but these perceptions tend to obscure any understanding that differences in educational policy and practice often rest on deeper differences in assumptions and values. To articulate a more ecological educational paradigm, it is important to bring to the surface the values that are implicit, and indeed, dominant, in current educational thinking, and also trace these back, in Schumacher's words, to 'our central convictions'. The question 'what is education for' reveals different ideologies — which have been and continue to be manifested in educational debate, theory and practice.

Let's look at the functions or roles of education. Any educational system tends to be multi-functional, reflecting a mix of aims and objectives. Not least, all education systems attempt to accommodate the tension between maintaining society and reflecting or encouraging change, and often politicians want both. There are at least four main functions, which at different times jostle and often conflict within education policy, theory, and practice. They are:

• To replicate society and culture and promote citizenship — the socialization function;

• To train people for employment — the vocational function;

• To develop the individual and his/her potential — the liberal function; and

• To encourage change towards a fairer society and better world — the transformative function.

The simplicity of this list belies the depth of the tensions that underlie debates between these views of education. A first clarifying distinction that can be made is between intrinsic values and instrumental values. Educational orientations stressing intrinsic values view education as an end and a good in itself, as having inherent value and meaning. In this orientation, the use to which the 'educated person' puts their education is a secondary consideration, but it is believed a well-rounded education will only have beneficial social consequences. This was exemplified by the child-centred and 'progressive' movement in education that was at its zenith in Britain in the 1960s.

On the other hand, the instrumental stance values education as a means to an end: whether to assist international competitiveness, combat drugs, or promote peace. Hence any phrase conjoining 'education' and 'for' usually implies an element of instrumentalism. There are very many of them as education is often seen as the universal answer to problems. For example, education 'for literacy', 'for employment' or 'for the environment', is seeking a change in the individual or society through education.

This is an important distinction, because an instrumental view of education tends to stress purpose and product. It is concerned more with 'what education is for', rather than the nature of education. The intrinsic view however stresses process — the quality of experience of teaching and learning, and is concerned with 'what education is' rather than what it might lead to or influence. Both are political, in the sense that the orientation or ends of education (purpose) and methodologies of education (process) rest on deeper value positions. These deeper core values, which help define the underlying world-view of education, are critical and need to be examined if we are to fashion a more ecological and democratic educational paradigm.

Meanwhile, it can be seen that the first two functions of education listed above — socialization and vocationalism — end to stress instrumental values, while the liberal humanist view of education tends to stress intrinsic values. The transformative (or reconstructionist) view, is instrumental in working for change for the better, but often also recognizes intrinsic values and the quality of learning, stressing democratic and participative methodologies. Thus the liberal and transformative views of education are more likely to talk about the 'roles' rather than the 'functions' of education.

Sustainable education is ultimately about reconciling all four views, but particularly builds on last two. It is about integrating and balancing process (what education is) with purpose (what education is for), so that they are mutually informing and enhancing. It builds on the best of existing thought and practice in the liberal humanist tradition, but in many respects goes beyond this. It acknowledges the long held belief in liberal circles that education is about nurturing and realizing inherent potential, but also is acutely aware that we need to educate for sustainability, community and peace in a turbulent and rapidly changing world.

Lastly, addressing the third key question ('whose education?'), sustainable education is also democratic education. It seeks to place ownership and determination with educators, learners and communities rather than governments and corporations, and upholds the fundamental value and right of equality of opportunity for all. If we want people to have the capacity and will to contribute to civil society, then they have to feel ownership of their learning — it has to be meaningful, engaging and participative, rather than functional, passive and prescriptive.

The modernist agenda in education

At present, an extreme instrumentalism dominates educational policy and practice. In Britain and other Western countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at least, a very managerialist view of education has come to dominate, modelled on economic change and the perceived 'demands' of a globalized economy and increasingly, globalized culture. This change is not peculiar to the field of education, but 'marketization' has infiltrated virtually all areas of public life including sport, health, the penal system, policing and local government. Government policies have opened the provision, support and monitoring of education to private interests, and corporatization is becoming increasingly enmeshed with state systems, leading to a worrying loss of democratic control and accountability, particularly at local level.

In some European states, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, humanistic education traditions are sufficiently strong to have resisted some of these changes. However elsewhere, within some fifteen years, the neo-classical and liberal humanist models of education that informed thinking and practice for the best part of the 20th century have been aggressively challenged by neo-liberal and neo-conservative views (within a socio-economic context deeply affected by globalization, and a technological context increasingly dominated by the nature of internetbased communications). There is a sense that the 19th century model of education that we are most familiar with cannot suffice for the very different conditions and challenges of the 21st century. This sense is a powerful force for change, but the direction that educational thinking and practice is heading in the longer term is yet unclear, and therefore, opportunities may be now arising for more integrative and ecological approaches. In the short term however, technocentric managerialism is king.

In terms of the roles of the educational system, we can understand the current shift as follows:

Vocational function. Now uppermost, with emphasis particularly on skills for the information economy.

Socialization function. Some renewed emphasis as a political response to perceived social problems (viz. 'citizenship' and social inclusion).

Liberal role. Mostly survives in the ethos of individual teachers and some schools and other educational institutions — often in the private sector.

Transformative role. Exists in rhetoric, and probably a minority of educators' beliefs and institutions. But evidence of new energies on the margins of the mainstream.


Excerpted from Sustainable Education by Stephen Sterling. Copyright © 2001 Stephen Sterling. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Sterling is an independent consultant working in the academic and NGO fields in the UK and internationally. He was involved in developing the MSc in Environmental and Development Education at South Bank University, London.

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