Re-Thinking Education for a more Sustainable World

Dr Stephen Sterling – Emeritus Professor of Sustainability Education, University of Plymouth

I’ve just launched my first website. It feels strangely liberating. It puts me in mind of watching doves being released from their dovecote and going….who knows where? My particular ‘doves’ have are ideas, articles, books, papers written over years, and its exciting to get them out into the world – going who knows where.

The new site is for those who know my material and want to dig deeper – but I hope the site will also attract new readers. I’ve had some lovely responses this past week, but my reverie was brought to down to earth by an email from an old friend who has been involved in environmental and sustainability education for about as long as myself. After the congratulations, she added: ‘However, I sometimes think to myself…how many, just  how many words have to be written or spoken in order to convince people of the urgency of the issue???  We all seem to have been saying the same thing (albeit with developments in our thinking ) for so many years and still we have to repeat’.

She has a very good point of course. A first reply might be that younger generations will not know of the ideas and foundations that have gone before. As an ‘elder’ I find that younger environmental and sustainability practitioners and activists want to know some of the history and provenance of this movement. They often find it affirming and encouraging in relation to their own efforts and aspirations. A second reply might be to do with the power of words. Because in the past 20 or so years, an earlier educational language has been replaced with a far more instrumental, managerial and ‘delivery’ oriented lexicon. And this of course greatly affects perception, thinking and practice – to my mind, in a much more restricted way than was the case when I came into education in the early 70s.

Here’s a short quote from a piece I wrote for a recent book, which talks about this:

‘It was once very different. We talked of the intrinsic value of education, of child-centred learning; of holistic approaches and of head/hand/heart; rounded education; collaborative and active pedagogies; teachers as learners; teachers as curriculum developers and collaborators; nature in the classroom; the classroom in nature; place-based education; art, music and drama held in equal esteem with more technical subjects; whole school approaches, and so on.’ P69.

Wild pedagogies: Touchstones for re-negotiating education and the environment in the Anthropocene. Jickling,B., Blenkinsop, S., Timmerman, N., & Sitka-Sage, M.D. (eds.) (2018) London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319901756

I think contemporary environmental and sustainability practice and writing harks back – consciously or unconsciously – to this earlier humanistic, ecological and liberal (not neo-liberal!) view of educational purpose and practice, and in so doing, is resting on necessarily strong foundations as we look to contemporary challenges. Words are the bridge from me to you, from earlier educational conceptions to now, and from you to wider society. I hope you will find something on my site that helps your endeavours.

You can visit Stephen’s website here: www.sustainableeducation.co.uk.