What does it mean to place sustainability at the heart of all learning and learning at the heart of sustainability? Clearly one’s answer depends on how one views sustainability and leaning and a clarification of these concepts, from the perspective of critical social theory lies at the heart of the free ebook, Critical School Geography, Education for Global Citizenship, that I have recently self published on my website. Here I summarize the key argument it contains.
Critical social theory is a response to modern development’s failure to realise its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity (and one might add sustainability). At its heart is a critique of the way power is distributed in modern societies or the ways in which they work to benefit a minority rather than the majority of citizens. Critical theorists focus on the distribution of economic, political and cultural power (political economy); its impact on nature, space and place (critical geography); how schooling acts to sustain existing patterns of power and how critical education can promote students’ empowerment, radical democracy, and global citizenship. Critical social theory underpins much environmental and educational politics on the green left.
Viewing sustainability from the perspective of critical theory starts by recognising that the environment and geography are the outcomes of interacting bio-physical and social structures and processes (physical and human geography). If these structures and processes are to co-evolve sustainably, within the limits imposed by planetary boundaries, global society must learn to regulate its impact on the rest of nature. It must learn to exercise global governance and citizenship, underpinned by such ethical principles as those in the Earth Charter, that involves exercising responsibility for people distant in space (in other parts of the world) and time (future generations) and for other species (biodiversity). Critical theorists link global citizenship to radical democracy, insisting that only when citizens have popular control of all spheres of social life (economic, political, and cultural) at all scales (from the local to the global) will they be able to set global development on a sustainable path.
So viewing learning from the perspective of sustainability means learning to become a radical democrat and global citizen. Critical education suggests that such learning should itself be democratic: testing the truth of critical ideas through their real or simulated application to the solution of everyday issues.
Environmental, social political, and geographical educators have developed many classroom and field based strategies for such critical pedagogy, but to be critical it should make reference to ideas that challenge the status-quo and propose democratic alternatives. Such ideas are found in such fields as political economy, green left politics, international relations, and critical geography, and in critical school geography they are applied as eco-pedagogy, post-colonial pedagogy, and the pedagogy of place.
While school geography is arguably the school subject that has the greatest potential to foster learning for sustainability, this potential is currently not fully realised due to the neoliberal and neoconservative reforms of schooling in recent decades. Critical School Geography suggests how this neglect might be addressed by showing how the work of critical academic geographers can be used to develop curriculum units that focus on the concerns of older school students (happiness, schooling, housing, the future of work, food, etc). Chapters outline how critical geographers and educators approach knowledge, pedagogy, nature, space and place, while associated curriculum units suggest how critical pedagogy can be applied. Unesco’s guidance on education for sustainable development and global citizenship provides the framework for curriculum planning, but it is given a more critical orientation than its authors perhaps intended. The ebook contains numerous links to online articles and videos and I hope it becomes a resource for teachers’ continuing professional development.
The book begins and ends with reference to Yanis Varoufakis. His book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, suggests her generation is faced with a stark choice (whether to side with those who wish to commodify everything or those who wish to democratise everything). His more recent book Another Now, outlines a post-capitalist and sustainable future in which innovations in economic democracy play key roles. At a time when social media threaten to commodify young people’s minds with ideas supportive of commercial interests; and politicians proscribe materials that support calls to abolish or overthrow capitalism from the school curriculum, it is vital that environmental education continues to offer critical perspectives on both learning and sustainability.
“Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and world-views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. It enables individuals and communities to reflect on ways of interpreting and engaging with the world. Sustainability education is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.”
Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), viewed on the Australian Curriculum website on 21/10/2015.
Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole. It differs from traditional theory, which focuses only on understanding or explaining society. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep human beings from a full and true understanding of how the world works.