A Sense of Sustainability Democracy, Sustainability, and Education

Project: Research

See relations at Aarhus University


In the spring of 2017 a team of six scholars from Iceland, Sweden and Denmark applied for a NOS-HS grant to work on sustainability and education in three workshops; from Iceland were Allyson Macdonald and Ólafur Páll Jónsson at the School of Education at the University of Iceland, from Sweden were Johan Öhman at Örebro University and Luise Sund at Mälardalen University and from Denmark were Jeppe Læsseøe and Jonas Andreasen Lysgaard at Aarhus University. The project title was “Sense of sustainability: Democracy, sustainability and education“. The project which was organized around three workshops aimed at exploring three challenges to sustainability education (SE): (1) The challenge of applicability: Since the values that underpin sustainability are contested teachers may find it difficult to promote them as educational objectives. (2) The challenge of motivation: If the values that underlie SE are universal and global, they may lack motivational force in education. (3) The challenge of tangibility: Since SE incorporates values that are actually contested, appropriate pedagogy cannot be based on a consensus about the moral and political grounds of schooling.
Organization of the work
The organization of the three workshops was so as to proceed from a philosophical and theoretical phase (WS 1), through a dialogical phase (WS 2), to an innovation-oriented phase (WS 3). In workshop 1, participants explored the different senses attached to sustainability education (SE) and generated a community of learning to facilitate ensuing work. In workshop 2, some of the problems and conflicting aspects of SE, which had been outlined in workshop 1, were addressed, and different possibilities and implications of proposed solutions or actions were explored. In workshop 3, participants brought a closure to the previous work by developing more concrete suggestions for philosophical, social and pedagogical approaches to SE.
The work throughout the three workshops was organized around three research questions:
RQ 1 What means are at the disposal of teachers who engage in SE?
RQ 2 How can students be motivated to engage in SE?
RQ 3 What is an appropriate pedagogy for SE?
In working on these three research questions the project adopted a critical stance which was guided by secondary questions which were referred to as “reflective questions”:
1 What has been gained in the development of our understanding of sustain-ability concepts and SE concepts in recent years?
2 What has been lost in the development of our understanding of sustainability concepts and SE concepts in recent years?
3 What is missing from our understanding of SE?
4 What potential for effective SE can we identify?
These questions, both the research questions and the reflective questions, were used to guide the work throughout the project.

Key findings

The three challenges
As mentioned above, the project is based around three challenges: (1) The challenge of applicability, (2) the challenge of motivation, and (3) the challenge of tangibility.
The first challenge we refer to as ‘the challenge of applicability’. One important problem here is that sustainability and sustainability education are grounded on contested values and political ideals. What we might refer to as the project of sustainability – this huge distributed project aiming at making human living in the world more sustainable – is at base a philosophical project. It is not about how some or even many can survive but about how all people can lead a good life on this earth, the only one we have. In short: The project of sustainability is not about sustaining the present state of things but about sustaining a world in which everyone has a fair chance of living a good life. Put this way, the project of sustainability is actually about sustaining something which has never existed as far as we know.
So the question arises: What is a good life? On this question people disagree profoundly so that an ordinary teacher, standing in front of the class, may not know where the limits are between legitimate teaching and indoctrination. It is a common tenet of liberal political philosophy – and, by extension, of liberal education – that public institutions, including schools, should not value some particular philosophy of life over and above other competing ideas. But the project of sustainability might call on teachers to do exactly that. This raises the following questions:
(Q1) Should we help teachers to find a way of not favouring some philosophy of life over other competing philosophies? Or should we perhaps rather support them in favouring a particular philosophy of life – or some set of such views – which are compatible with the sustainability project?
And then, as a corollary to the first set of questions, one might ask further:
(Q2) If we should help teachers to favour some philosophies of life at the expense of some others, which philosophies could that be and on what grounds can they be favoured?
This then is the first challenge: How can SE be applied in schools and other educational settings.
The second challenge, that of motivation, has to do with the universality or generality of the values and concerns which underlie the sustainability project. We often hear that in order to catch the attention of students in schools – from early age up through secondary school and into universities – one must find a way to connect with their interests and daily lives. Well, what are their interests? And what is in their interest? Of course there is no such thing as “the interests of young people”. They take interest in a great variety of things, and some are actually very much concerned with the ecological status of the planet and the social and political fabric of the contemporary world. But others, and from our perspective too many, are more concerned with what me might refer to as short sighted interests and consumeristic ends. One challenge here is to make a larger pool of people see and sense this and feel the urgency of the present state of things and – it is important not to forget this – to help them derive pleasure from attending to the sense of those issues. We won’t get very far if the project makes no sense and if people perceive more sustainable living as a life in regulated austerity.
Since most people have a reasonable sense of justice, one might think that such a grave issue of injustice ought to move people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. But the dominant ideology of the time, with the entire market of consumer goods as its primary motor, pulls in the opposite direction. So, here are further questions we might attend to:
(Q3) How can we make people feel the urgency of the present state of things, ecological, social and political?
(Q4) How can we make people see a more sustainable (responsible) life as a good life rather than a (regulated) life in austerity?
The third challenge which we refer to as the challenge of tangibility derives from the previous two and moves the discussion to issues of learning: Where? When? Why? As educators – whether in primary or secondary schools, or at the university level – we must find a way of organizing our activities – or perhaps not ours but our students’ activities – around something tangible, be it an activity such as reading or writing something, or the study of a phenomenon, or as a discussion conducted in a particular manner, or as a project inside or outside the classroom. But what can it be? And how can these be done? Here then we have a question that certainly invites very many answers, and hopefully some good ones.
(Q5) What kind of educational activity is at the disposal of the teacher who wants to support the project of sustainability?
The three challenges and the questions that they give rise to thus span the spectrum from speculative, philosophical questions about the good life to practical questions about concrete educational activities for teachers.
The three challenges to SE around which the project is organized are related to one another as shown (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Three challenges in SE and how they are related.
The first challenge, of applicability, concerns the question: What means are at the disposal of teachers who engage themselves and their students in SE? The second challenge, that of motivation, invites the question: How can students be motivated to engage in SE? The third challenge has to do with pedagogy and concerns the question: What is the appropriate pedagogy for SE?
It is often assumed that shared values are the starting point for change in education. This project takes the more realistic view that, at least in the context of SE, conflicting values must be the starting point. Ultimately the objectives of this project are to (a) develop a sound understanding of these three challenges to SE, (b) formulate a sustainability pedagogy that is premised on conflict (conflict resolution) and not on shared values and visions, and (c) develop some applicable recommendations for educational practice.

Effective start/end date01/01/201831/12/2018

ID: 154030406