These pages present some of the essence of my ideas – through relatively short answers to over thirty questions in the form of an ‘interview’ to myself. It allows you to navigate directly to the sections that might interest you.

© Reid Wiseman / NASA

It is hard to digest some thirty-plus years of work into a relatively few pages, and inevitably, there is a lot of material omitted or skipped over here. Expect this section to be revised, improved and supplemented over time…!

There is a fair bit of material here, so just click on those questions that may spark interest. Feedback welcome.

Note: All this material is copyrighted (but I will normally give permission for reproduction with usual acknowledgement of source.)

If you are interested to go into more depth, please see my articles and papers as listed on this website, or for extensive discussion, please dip into my doctoral thesis (2003): Whole Systems Thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: explorations in the context of sustainability. See bath.ac.uk/cree/sterling/sterlingthesis.pdf

What is the overall guiding question that informs your work?

How should – and how can – education and learning be re-thought and re-configured to make a significant and central contribution to achieving a more sustainable and just world?

The question of course contains an implicit critique – that Western and Westernised educational systems are not responding adequately to contemporary conditions and urgent crises.

A great deal of learning, both everyday and through formal education, makes no positive difference to a more sustainable future, and overall, the net effect of such education is likely to be exacerbating systemic conditions of unsustainability.

Paraphrasing the eminent American environmental educator David Orr – how can education be part of the ‘solution’ rather than part of problem?

Why is this question important?

Because any possibility of a safe, humane and ecologically sound future depends absolutely on the type of learning that individuals, groups and entire socities are able to experience now and in the coming years.

As I said in the first couple of lines in my book Sustainable Education (2001, Green Books):

The difference between a more sustainable and a chaotic future is learning. Most learning, however, is functional learning, which is oriented towards socialisation and vocational goals that take no account of the challenge of sustainability.

One of my favourite quotes is from Paul Raskin, a futures expert:

The shape of the global future rests with the reflexivity of human consciousness – the capacity to think critically about why we think what we do – and then to think and act differently. (Raskin, 2008, p.469)

Raskin , P. (2008) World lines: a framework for exploring global pathways, Ecological Economics, vol.65, pp.461-470.

It is perhaps slowly dawning on us that the way we perceive, think and act is deeply implicated in the global conditions unfolding, that we are participants in whatever transpires. The task that faces us at this critical point of human evolution, is to achieve a change of consciousness, of worldview and perception. We are entering a different age and a different world, one we are hardly ready for.

Al Gore’s extensive study The Future suggests:

There is a clear consensus that the future now emerging will be extremely different from anything we have ever known in the past….There is no prior period of change that remotely resembles what humanity is about to experience. (Gore 2013: xv).

Gore, Al (2013) The Future: Six drivers of global change, Random House.

A recent and authoritative report on how we might – globally – achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) states:

A key challenge lies in the psychology of worldviews. While the adoption of the SDGs is such a positive global act – a true turning point for the entire agenda on world development – we still remain in a world view where “Everybody knows, but nobody wants to understand” the magnitude of the transformation that is needed (p4).

Jorgen Randers, Johan Rockström, Per Espen Stoknes, Ulrich Golüke, David Collste and Sarah Cornell (2018), Transformation is feasible: How to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals within Planetary Boundaries, Stockholm Resilience Centre and BI Norwegian Business School.

This reality necessitates a deep re-thinking the purposes of education and learning! This is why transformative education and transformative learning are gaining interest – but this needs to accelerate.

Back in 1987, the seminal Brundtland Report – which launched the international debate on sustainable development – said that, ‘The changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations (required) will depend on vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation’ (p16).

It didn’t happen! Now, the urgency of our situation requires powerful and effective agency for social change.

Why is the 'type of learning' key to the change?

Most of the interest in learning, particularly in higher education, is on learning skills, or ‘learning to learn’. This ‘how to’ emphasis is has undoubted value, but it does not address the critical dimensions of context or reflexivity. What to learn and why tend to be much less discussed, and taken as self-evident.

But beyond ‘learning to learn’ is ‘learning about learning’, which is quite different. Learning about our learning is at heart an exercise about the validity and ethical defensibility of our theory and practice. It is thinking about the sort of learning we are involved in and for what purposes. It may involve ‘un-learning’ some current assumptions, and ‘relearning’, not least  how it might be possible to live sustainably on planet that has limits.

Learning is nearly always regarded as a self-evidently ‘good thing’. But – you can learn how to cheat, steal, and destroy your local environment. In some parts of the world, children learn to hate other ethnic groups. It’s all learning, after all.

So in some circumstances, learning may not be such a good thing as we commonly suppose it always is. Biologically, learning is to do with survival. The organism that is unable to adapt to external change perishes, and all organisms ‘learn’ to some degree and in some sense of the term.

Now, on the global scale, learning is a matter of survival too given the very real threats to our global environment. Frequent reports on global trajectories (eg. IPCC, WWF, FAO) indicate that overall we are not responding to feedback, or where we are, it is far too slowly. This raises fundamental questions about the quality and depth of learning and change that are required at mass scale.

So learning itself is a neutral process. The absolute key question should be ‘learning for what, to what end?’ What is needed, what is worthwhile, and why? I make a distinction here between ‘anticipative learning’ and ‘learning by default’.

What is anticipative learning?

Let’s start by looking at contingent or default learning. This is a late reaction or awakening to crisis, and is essentially reactive.  The relatively sudden concern over plastics, rejection of fast fashion, and the growing embrace of veganism and local food in the West, may be characterised as reactive, after people become aware of mounting costs or crises.  Default learning has value, but by definition is ‘late in the day’.

The second kind of learning is anticipative learning, or learning by design. This is pro-active, and reflexive. It is critically self-aware, and is directed at wise, corrective action in the light of evidence, be it positive or negative, well prior to otherwise impending calamity. It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that our planetary future is dependent on the degree and extent to which humanity (or sufficient numbers) can sufficiently embrace and achieve anticipative learning – precipitating radical re-thinking of our suppositions and assumptions that have led to crisis.  Also see ‘Learning levels’ section.

Here’s a section from my doctoral thesis which deals further with this theme:

According to Mary Clark (Ariadne’s ThreadThe Search for New Ways of Thinking, 1989, p.235) in the last 2500 years, there have been only two “major periods of conscious social change, when societies deliberately ‘critiqued’ themselves and created new worldviews”. So, following the example of Athenian and Renaissance societies, it would appear that our own time needs to be the third period of deep reflection and change. A recent Worldwatch Institute report advocates that we should tap our potential “as conscious agents of cultural evolution” in order to create a sustainable civilization (Gardner, in Brown 2001, 206). Seen from such perspectives as these, ‘the learning society’ is one that seeks to understand, transcend and re-direct itself through intentional learning.

www.bath.ac.uk/cree/sterling/sterlingthesis.pdf

What might be your one single message to educational policy makers, researchers, teachers and lecturers?

To take full account of context. We are living through tumultuous, volatile and threatened times, where a safe and liveable future hangs in the balance – and yet, unbelievably, most educational thinking, policy and practice takes little or no account of this greater reality.

Learning, at any level from individual to societal, is always a response to some or other change in context. But the education system is not responding sufficiently to massive current shifts in society and environment – it is not itself learning. You might say, ironically, that the education system is a slow learner!

What inspires your work?

In my own thinking,I’ve drawn inspiration from some outstanding writers and thinkers too – notably Donella Meadows, Gregory Bateson, Fritjof Capra, Richard Bawden, Morris Berman, David Orr. Much of my doctoral thesis was written at Schumacher College, Devon, over a long period where I was exposed to some great minds and a wonderful library.

Currently, I am inspired by the passion and determination of young people – they have energy, drive and great ideas. Through the lack of action of the older generation, a growing wave of young people is now fighting to secure their future.

Years ago, it was the ‘first wave of environmentalism’ in the early 70s that drew me into education. A very short interview is here http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/stibbe-handbook-of-sustainability/interviews/stirling  Note they spelled my surname wrongly!

You have a reputation as a ‘thought leader’ in this area. Why might that be?

I think it’s because I go a little deeper than some of the discourse allows or ventures. Sustainability education, at a deep level, raises existential and ethical questions about the nature of relationships at all levels, with ourselves, with others, and the whole of the living world. This ‘deeper take’ seems to resonate with many of those who read my material.

What are you most pleased with – regarding your writing?

Despite writing many 1000s of words over decades, I think my Sustainable Education – Re-visioning learning and change (2001) still stands as a sort of manifesto, and for some people it has been seminal. https://www.greenbooks.co.uk/sustainable-education

I also think my doctoral thesis makes a substantial, original (and largely readable!) contribution to the debate on sustainability, futures and education. See: Whole Systems Thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: explorations in the context of sustainability.

See www.bath.ac.uk/cree/sterling/sterlingthesis.pdf

One of the seeds of this work was a quote from David Korten (1995):

When we limit ourselves to fragmented approaches to dealing with systemic problems, it is not surprising that our solutions prove inadequate. If our species is to survive the predicaments we have created for ourselves, we must develop a capacity for whole-systems thought and action.

Korten, D. (1995) When Corporations Rule the World, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Absolutely!

What do you feel is your main contribution to sustainability education?

Maybe the three main things I’ve tried to do:

  1. To constantly critically appraise the interface between the world of sustainability and sustainable development on the one hand, and education and learning on the other – what it is, what it should be, what it could be.
  2. To advocate founding sustainability education upon an holistic/systemic/ecological/participative way of seeing the world. This affords a coherent critique of the dominant educational (and societal) paradigm, as well as a basis for re-visioning education, so that it is appropriate for our times.
  3. To insist that ‘sustainability education’ is not ‘yet another’ educational topic but indicates both the need and possibility of a shift of educational culture and practice as a whole, appropriate to our times.

I call this shift of culture  ‘sustainable education’.

What do you mean by ‘Sustainable Education’?

Sustainable education implies cultural change, one which asserts both humanistic and ecological values. In other words, upholds life-affirming values.

Going beyond a simple accommodatory response to sustainability in education requires the deeper understanding that ultimately the argument is not about an ‘add on’ about sustainability topics, or about sustainable development. Rather, it requires the elaboration of a lived sustainable education paradigm which includes, but goes far beyond curriculum.

So coining this term was quite deliberate: I wanted people to move from “how do we educate for sustainability or sustainable development?” toward deep attention to education itself—its paradigms, policies, purposes, and practices, and its adequacy for the age we find ourselves in.

In other words, I wanted the focus of attention to move from a response typically around provision (which often amounts to a partial tweaking of the curriculum), to the exploration of a different paradigm.

‘Sustainable education’ implies four descriptors: educational thinking, policy and practice which are sustaining, tenable, healthy and durable.

  • Sustaining – it helps sustain people, communities and ecosystems
  • Tenable – it is ethically defensible, working with integrity, justice, respect and inclusiveness
  • Healthy – it is itself an adaptive, viable system, embodying and nurturing healthy relationships and emergence at different system levels
  • Durable – it works well enough in practice to be able to keep doing it yet is a learning system

OK, so what is the difference between ‘Sustainable Education’ and ‘Sustainability Education’ - they sound like the same thing!

The first is about ethos, philosophy, assumptions and culture. It focusses on the questions, ‘what is education?’ and ‘what is the purpose of education?’

The second is about policy and practice. It focusses more on the question, ‘How should we do this?’. Put simply, an educational system or institution manifesting a culture of sustainable education would be the vessel or platform upon which sustainabilty education policy and practice would flourish.

At heart, sustainability education seeks to nurture transformative learning experiences that can heal, empower, energise, and liberate potential for the common good. And as we know, this is difficult to enact and achieve within an unsympathetic or uncomprehending culture where counter values prevail.

So, you’re saying that systems change is needed to allow sustainability education to flourish fully – is that right?

Yes. Most people interested in ‘education for change’ tend to talk about altering the curriculum or pedagogy. This is an interest in ‘education as an agent of change’ and it clearly has value.  But –  if the mainstream culture severely limits what can be done, then we need to put more prior emphasis on ‘education as a subject of change’. And argue for this!

This is why the ‘purpose’ of education should be an important concern. See section ‘Why do you stress the importance of the purpose of education?’

In my doctoral thesis, I assert that, rather than ‘education for change’ or ‘learning through education’ (which is the common approach to education for sustainability) prior attention needs to be given to ‘education in change’ or ‘learning within education’, that is, to the paradigm that underpins and informs the ethos, purpose, policies and provision in education. I then suggest and outline the nature of an ecological educational paradigm, and introduce the term ‘sustainable education’ to imply the change of educational culture that would arise from such a paradigm.

It comes back to learning.  There is a double learning challenge at issue here: cultural and educational systems need to engage in deep learning and change themselves – in order to facilitate deep change through the learning that students undertake. That is, the systems need to transform in order to be transformative in effect. Certainly, educational institutions – in the UK and internationally –  that thoroughly manifest a sustainability ethos have done so by becoming learning organisations engaging all members of their community.

OK, what is the main obstacle to achieving ‘sustainable education’ systems?

In my writing, I have suggested a five-part hierarchy which captures the culture of education. These five ‘Ps inform and shape the educational systems and institutions we see.  These Ps are relevant to understanding any systemic level, from the national system to the institutional level—and even the departmental level within the institution.

At the base is the Paradigm, the epistemic sets of values and ideas that fundamentally influence curriculum thinking and design and all the other aspects of educational provision.

This affects perception of Purpose and ethos of any educational system or institution.

This in turn shapes educational Policy, which then directly determines Provision – structures, resources, finance, people etc. And then lastly, actual Practice and pedagogy.

So for those who want to encourage systemic change, this hierarchy helps them see that changing some aspects of practice might have value, but not if the underlying layers or Ps work actively against this innovation. So it requires more than integrating a bit of sustainability education into educational systems that otherwise remain unchanged.

In practical terms, the best change strategy is to try to work for a change in ‘Purpose’ – where sustainability is recognised as a key, and hopefully a fundamental, aim. This helps facilitate whole system change.

But there’s another important ‘P’ hovering, and that’s ‘perception’. That is probably the main obstacle to change. Which is why exposing educators and policy makers to learning related to sustainability is vital. Putting it crudely, the best progress is always made where senior management ‘get it’, and the least progress made where they don’t, or only have a marginal understanding.

Can you provide some helpful change models?

  1. One of my fundamental strategy models is ‘Critique’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Design’. Put simply:

Critique – can we better understand what is wrong (and what is right) about current educational thought,  policy and practice, and why it is what it is?

Vision – can we develop a more whole, relevant and practicable alternative that can make a positive difference?  Ideas that reflect life-affirming, life-sustaining, creative, holistic, systemic and ecological values?

Design – can we develop strategies, policies and methods that can enable and encourage such change to flourish at all levels – micro, meso and macro?

Effective and purposeful change at any level requires all three. Two are not sufficient!

2. A second change tool is what I call the ‘Four R’s model’: Retain, revise, reject, renew

This is a very simple but effective ‘first step’ model, for change with sustainability in mind. Take any document at any level – from university corporate plan to lecture plan, and anything in between (e.g. teaching and learning strategy; faculty policy, programme, aims and objectives etc.) – then use this simple model to assess, evaluate and discuss possible changes with appropriate colleagues.

a) Regarding what we do now:

  • What is of value that we need to keep? 
  • ‘It is useful, valid, up to date and relevant.’ Retain

b) What might need modification?

  • ‘It is partly all the above – but needs some updating or revision.’ Revise

c) What, if anything, might we need to abandon?

  • ‘It’s outdated or no longer relevant or valid.’  Reject

d) What new ideas, concepts, principles, methodologies, working methods, pedagogies, etc. are needed?

  • ‘We need to innovate and bring in new material.’ Renew

This model comes from the ‘Future Fit Framework – An introductory guide to teaching and learning for sustainability in HE’ which I wrote for the Higher Education Academy in 2012 but still holds up as a useful resource for those wishing to get engaged in this work.

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/Future_Fit_270412_1435.pdf

3.  Reorienting education

The following simple ‘C’ model helps identify the direction of ‘reorientation’ towards ESD. As a starting point, any educational policy or programme can be evaluated in terms of how far it takes account of:

Context – does its stated purpose and boundaries of concern embrace the wider context of sustainability and futures?

Congruence – does it recognize and reflect relationships and connectivity, reflecting the systemic nature of the real world and the current threats and opportunities this presents?

Culture – is it sufficiently attuned to the culture in which it is located, and to the existing values, understanding and needs of the learners?

Criticality – does it examine and weigh dominant assumptions and values reflexively in relation to building a more sustainable future?

Commitment – does it engage with the ethical dimensions of issues to facilitate building an ethos of critical commitment and care?

Contribution – through this policy and programme, will the learners, outputs and learning outcomes of the policy or programme make a positive (or negative) difference to sustainable development/more sustainable futures?

An important part of your work has been to distinguish between ‘learning levels’. What does this mean?

This is indeed important – as throws light on the difference between ‘basic’ or ‘simple’ learning (for example, learning facts), and deeper learning that engages and often challenges a person’s assumptions, values, and sense of self. It is deeper learning, that is the concern of transformative education.

The idea of different learning levels derives from systems thinking theory and was first proposed by Gregory Bateson (1972). (His work has been a major inspiration for my own thinking). It concerns what are known as ‘orders of change’. Beyond what he termed ‘zero learning’, Bateson distinguished three orders of learning and change, corresponding with increases in learning capacity, and these have been adopted by learning and change theorists, particularly in the field of systemic learning and organisational change.

 First-order change refers to doing ‘more of the same’, that is, change within particular boundaries and without examining or changing the assumptions or values that inform what you are doing. In this sort of learning, meaning is assumed or given. It is sometimes described as ‘change within changelessness’.

Second-order change refers to a significant change in thinking or in what you are doing as a result of examining assumptions and values. In this sort of learning, meaning is recognised and negotiated amongst those involved.

Most learning is first-order learning: that is, it is simple learning in the sense that it does not challenge or change the beliefs, values, and assumptions of the learner. Most (but not all) formal education tends to be first-order learning, concerned fundamentally with ‘information transfer’- learning about things. Transmissive learning.

Second-order learning is more challenging and involves the learner (or learning organisation) critically examining and if necessary changing his/her/its beliefs, values and assumptions. Therefore, this learning experience can be said to be deeper. It is more difficult for the learner because it is challenging – and because it involves critically reflecting on learning and change that takes place at the first-order level, it generates an awareness and understanding that goes beyond that level. Because of this, such learning is likely to be more permanent and internalised.

In shorthand, and applied to organisations or groups, first-order learning and change is often said to be about doing things better, that is, it is often concerned with efficiency and effectiveness, whether applied to the individual, or to the institution. But it does not question the ‘things’, the activities and the assumptions which lead to those activities.

Second-order change – by contrast – is concerned with doing better things, that is, it raises questions of purpose and values; it asks ‘efficiency and effectiveness in the service of what?, or to what end?’. Such change involves bringing the assumptions to light that underlie first order learning, and critically assessing them. So this level of learning involves questions of values and often, ethics.

A third learning level or order of change is sometimes called epistemic learning. Other names are ‘triple loop learning’ and ‘transformative learning.’(Be aware that some writers use the word ‘transformative’ for second order learning too.) This experience involves stepping outside one’s thinking paradigm and “thinking about and evaluating the foundations of thought itself” (Bawden and Packham 1993, 6). It is about seeing our worldview rather than seeing with our worldview, so is sometimes called a meta-paradigm view. Epistemic learning, say (Bawden and Packham 1993, 6), “is a crucial proposition with extremely important connotations for education”.

Ref. Bawden, R. and Packham, R. (1993) ‘Systemic praxis in the education of the agricultural systems practitioner’, Systems Practice, 6, 7-19.

The learning levels can be simply summarised by this table.

Table: Towards deeper learning (Sterling)

But don’t be fooled by this apparently simple table. The learning processes involved here are not as simple as it might suggest. As we progress through the learning levels, clearly, learning becomes more difficult because it challenges our view of reality. First order learning and change is at the level of concepts, second order learning and change is at the deeper level of values and beliefs, whilst third order learning and change is at the level of paradigm and worldview. This is a vital paragraph! It means that the deeper the challenge to change, the more it meets resistance.

 This journey towards deeper learning involves experience of:

  • greater challenge/threat to existing beliefs/ideas – and so more resistance
  • greater ‘perturbation’ required to stimulate learning and the emergence of new order
  • greater reconstruction of meaning
  • greater engagement and breadth of response in the learner
  • achievement of greater flexibility and less rigidity of thought
  • higher order of consciousness or mindfulness
  • more emergence as a result of learning
  • the difference between ‘unwitting self-reference’ and knowing self-reference and therefore the possibility of transcendence.

For a longer discussion about learning levels, transformative education, and how this relates to sustainability, see:

Sterling, S. (2010), ‘Transformative Learning and Sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground’, LATHE, Educ. Vol 5, 2010-11.17-33. researchgate.net/publication/266184629

This paper trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/121/130

Or my doctoral thesis for in-depth coverage. bath.ac.uk/cree/sterling/sterlingthesis.pdf

What are transformational inquiry questions?

I argue for designing or facilitating learning experiences which, ideally, will be reflexive, experiential, inquiring, experimental, participative, iterative, real-world and action oriented.

These are experiences which invoke ‘learning as change’ in the active pursuit of sustainability and in designing and developing sustainable systems – rather than merely ‘learning about change’ or ‘learning for change’ which may be seen as rather more passive steps on the way to a deeper learning response.

A well-tried method – from Socrates onwards(!) – for deepening learning and facilitating transformational experiences is through the use of explorative questions. These are some that I’ve developed to help stimulate inquiry, thought and reflections, and can be used implicitly or explicitly in pedagogic approaches. Questions which are:

  • holistic: how does this relate to that?, what is the larger context here?
  • critical: why are things this way, in whose interests?
  • appreciative: what’s good, and positive and what already works well here?
  • inclusive: who/what is being heard, listened to and engaged?
  • systemic: what are or might be the consequences and effects of this?
  • creative: what innovation might be required?; and
  • ethical: how should this relate to that?, what is wise action?, how can we work towards the inclusive wellbeing of the whole system and its constituents?

What do you mean by an ecological worldview, and why is it vital?

A recent report from the Stockholm Resilience Centre on the challenges and possibilities of achieiving the UN Sustainable Development Goals notes that ‘A key challenge lies in the psychology of worldviews’ (p4).  https://www.stockholmresilience.org/publications/artiklar/2018-10-17-transformation-is-feasible—how-to-achieve-the-sustainable–development-goals-within-planetary-boundaries.html

I have argued for many years that the Western worldview is flawed – and that the systemic issues that define our current global trajectory stem from (what Gregory Bateson called) our ‘epistemological error’. Bateson pointed to both a perception of and belief in our separateness from nature (and each other) which, while it works to a degree, is ultimately destructive. He states:

I believe that (the) massive aggregation of threats to man and his ecological systems arises out of errors in our habits of thought at deep and partly unconscious levels (Bateson 1972, p.463).

Further, he suggests:

Epistemological error is all right…upto the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in, p461.

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, San Franscisco: Chandler.

Bateson’s insight seems prescient in the light of climate change. It stands as a radical challenge to the individualism, anthropocentrism and dualism of most Western philosophic traditions.

Nothwithstanding the negative effects and undoubted potency of greed, ignorance, abuse of power, populism, fundamentalism and so on, there is a critical mismatch between deeply engrained patterns of thought resulting from our Western cultural and intellectual legacy of reductionism, objectivism, dualism, materialism and so on, and the dynamic and systemic nature of the Earth and the human world.

So the the fundamental problem is not primarily ‘out there’ but ‘in here’: rooted in the underlying beliefs and worldview of the Western mind.

 We need a different consciousness: a shift of emphasis from relationships largely based on separation, control, manipulation and excessive competition towards those based on participation, appreciation, self-organisation, equity and justice. Increasing numbers of writers are pointing to the emergence and nature of this ecological worldview, predicated on the idea of a co-created or participative reality.

An ecological worldview is essentially a ‘living systems’ and relational view, wherein everything, including human agency, unavoidably participates in the dynamic condition and future of the whole because everything is part of the whole.

So those holding an ecological worldview or frame of reference experience what is called ‘participative consciousness’: being and feeling immersed in the world, rather than feeling separate from it.  I have explored this in depth in my doctoral thesis – and the implications for education in my paper Living ‘in’ the Earth: towards an education for our times.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/097340821000400208?journalCode=jsda

Wolfgang Sachs (1999. p.63) suggests that since the 1960s, ‘The scientific term [ecology] has turned into a worldview. And as worldview, it carries the promise of reuniting what has been fragmented, ofhealing what has been torn apart – in short of caring for the whole.’

Sachs, W. (1999) Planet dialectics, London: Zed Books.

Here’s a small section from my chapter ‘Riding the storm: towards a connective cultural consciousness’ in Wals, AEJ (ed) (2007) Social Learning toward a more Sustainable World: Principles, Perspectives, and Praxis, Waginengen Academic Publishers, Waginengen.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279551883_Riding_the_storm_Towards_a_connective_cultural_consciousness

‘There is a considerable literature on ecological thought and philosophy. What follows is my interpretation of some of the key ideas emerging from this literature. I have developed a detailed review and argument in my doctoral thesis Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in Education (Sterling 2003, p.200) but for reasons of space, some of the essential ideas and beliefs underpinning the postmodern ecoogical worldview are summarised here.

These include a shift or change:

  • of perception from the prevailing’I-it’relationship (Buber 1970 [1923])
  • of objectification and separation between the individual and others, or between the individual and nature, towards dialogic ‘I-thou’ relationships, which recognises the ‘Other’ and that reality is co-created;
  • of assumption from the separateness of mind and matter, to a panexperientialist view of their co-evolutionary relationship;
  • of conception of an essentially dead and inert world, to an animate, dynamic

and ultimately sacred world to be regarded with reverence;

  • of idea of separate material ‘environment’, to a view of our embeddedness in a wider ecology which is both physical and non-material;
  • of focus from external physical world, to the relation between our inner and outer worlds and the acceptance of multiple realities;
  • of models of order from dysfunctional hierarchies to healthy holarchies
  • of disposition from control to participation;
  • of agency from outside intervener to co-creator of reality and environment;
  • of belief in certainty and intervention to uncertainty and appreciation;
  • of view of evolution from mechanism to co-evolution; and,
  • of view of knowledge from a mono-universalism to diversity and contextualism’

What do you mean by ecological intelligence?

Ecological intelligence arises from an ability to perceive and concieve of the world in terms of relationships. (See ‘What do you mean by an ecological worldview and why is it vital?’ section above).

In my work I have made a simple but important distinction between linear/causal/mechanistic thinking and non-linear/complex/ecological thinking. We are good at the former – and this has been tremendously useful – but it is now inadequate for a deeply systemic world.

As Donella Meadows says:

‘The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent, intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch.’

Meadows, D.H (1982), ‘Whole Earth Models and Systems’, The CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer 1982, pp98-108

In my brief paper Ecological intelligence – viewing the world relationally, I set out simply the distinction between these two ways of thinking, and between the underlying assumptions that go with each orientation.

A quote from the paper:

‘It is not a matter of abandoning the left hand side, even if this were possible. It is a matter of ‘stepping out’ of this paradigm, and recognising it – so that we master it, rather than it mastering us. In this way, we can employ these approaches but only when they are appropriate to the situation. Beyond this, developing an ecological sensibility, an understanding of interconnectivity, and an ability to design and act integratively requires attention to the more systemic set of approaches represented by the right hand side of the diagram. In terms of educational practices, it means curriculum designers and teachers developing learning situations where the potential for transformative learning experiences is made manifest.’ (Sterling 2009).

The paper can be viewed here:

http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/5922/Ecological-Intelligence2.pdf

It was originally published in an excellent multiple authored book- Stibbe, A. (ed) (2009) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy http://www.greenbooks.co.uk/Book/108/The-Handbook-of-Sustainability-Literacy.html

What is the significance of the Seeing/Knowing/Doing model in helping develop an ecological consciousness?

‘We often invest enormous mental energy to maintain a perspective on the world that’s at variance with reality’ (my italics).  So says Thomas Homer-Dixon (2009, p.3).

Homer-Dixon, T. (2006). The upside of down—Catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilisation. London: Souvenir Press.

That is, we cling onto our worldview even when evidence all around us shows that it is no longer adequate, and indeed is leading towards dysfunctional consequences. So – how can we ‘step out’ to see ourselves? – to achieve sufficient critical reflexivity? 

Many people have talked for years about the need for a ‘paradigm shift’ but its meaning is rarely explored in a clear way. When researching my doctoral thesis, I developed a model which attempts to represent the paradigm (or worldview, or framework) of human knowing and experience that is operative both at individual, institutional, and at societal levels.

This can be thought of as having three consituent parts or dimensions:

  • Seeingperception (or the affective/normative dimension). This is the perceptual domain – how we see the world, make sense of it, and how our filters affect this experience.
  • Knowingconception (or the cognitive/descriptive dimension). This is the conceptual domain – how we understand the world and represent the world to ourselves and others.
  • Doingpractice (or the intentional/applicative dimension). This is to do with how we actively participate in the world, which relates to decisions, plans, capacities, skills, tools, methods, designs, and communication. This is the practical domain – how we act on and in the world, and with others.

A sufficient and ‘whole system’ response to sustainability is required in each and every of these three interrelated dimensions of human knowing and experience. Further, a shift towards sustainability is required at three levels: personal, organizational and social.

In the area of Seeing, the key problem currently is one of narrow boundaries, of egocentrism, of lack of awareness or care for ‘the other’, and limited spatial and temporal inclusion.

In the domain of Knowing, the key problem is over-specialism, and lack of understanding of, and thinking congruent with, systems, pattern, connectivity, consequence, interdependence, and so on.

In the domain of Doing, the key issue is lack of ability to design, decide, and influence in a way which promotes wise, integrative and synergetic behaviours and actions that add to overall systemic wellbeing rather than the reverse.

In sum, we are creating a highly interconnected world economically, technologically, ecologically, yet our dominant worldview is essentially non-relational. Therefore, in each of these areas, a necessary shift towards ecological consciousness and competence involves a movement – a response – as follows:

Seeing domain: need for ‘responsibility’- an extended and ethical sense of concern/engagement and awareness; seeing the part (individual, organisation, community etc) as part of a greater whole;

 Knowing domain: need for ‘correspondence’- a closer knowledge match with the systemic real world;

 Doing domain: need for ‘respons-ability’- the ability to take integrative and wise action in context.

 An alternative way of putting this is: a re-thinking in the three domains, viz. in assumptions, in distinctions, and in intentions/actions.

This is needed to heal the narrowness of perception, disconnective thinking, and disintegrative practice so often manifested both in education and society.

The above section is based upon my paper (where further discussion can be found):

‘At variance with reality’ : how to re-think our thinking’.

http://www.jsedimensions.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Sterling-Stephen-JSE-May-2014-PDF-Ready.pdf

Some would say that the world is in such a crisis that we don’t have time for education to effect change, and need to put all efforts into campaigning instead. What would you say to that?

First, it is not a matter of abandoning education and putting efforts into other instruments of change. Formal education is a huge enterprise involving more than 200 million students in higher education alone worldwide.

So it is vital that students – the future leaders, policy makers, business entrepreneurs, as well as consumers and citizens – have a sufficient ecological literacy and sustainability competency to make a positive rather  than negative difference to our volatile world.

Second, how local and global trajectories emerge and trend as time goes on depends entirely on the kind of individual and social learning that takes place. There is no change without learning, and no learning without change.

You are critical of mainstream education – why and and in what ways? And what is ‘The Squeeze’?

The first point is that I am not ‘crudely’ critical. That is, I don’t take an absolutist position. Rather, I recognise there is some extraordinarily good work going on within the mainstream – in terms of research, teaching and learning, from school to tertiary level – which in some way relates to sustainability matters or is founded on an holistic view of education.

When I trained as a classroom teacher, many years ago, the dominant culture was ‘progressivism’, stemming from key educational thinkers as Dewey, Montessori, Bruner and Rogers onwards. This educational movement emphasised liberal education for the individual, learner centred pedagogy and experiences, and participative teaching methods.

But since this time of the late sixties and early seventies, an instrumental view of education has come to dominate, modelled on economic change and the perceived demands of a globalised economy and increasingly globalised culture.

As I’ve said in one of my recent chapters:

‘How education is perceived, conceived, received, and is being shaped by a particular view of the world and of people within it. This can be characterised as technocratic, managerialist, economistic, and vocationalist, underpinned and energised by an internationally hegemonic neo-liberal ideology. Over time, this wave has subtly but powerfully displaced – and is even now drowning out – older (and more educationally defensible) liberal, holistic and humanistic philosophies regarding the nature and purpose of education  (Sterling 2017)’

See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315351878 and https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-51322-5_3

Now imagine a box, as shown in the diagram below.  The box represents how education is perceived and conceived, and therefore also how it is manifested in practice.

I argue that – compared to older and more progressive, holistic and liberal humanist conceptions of education – the overall effect of neo-liberalism has been a controlling Squeeze on three dimensions. So in recent years we have experienced:

  • a diminution in the collective and shared sense of the purpose of education;
  • a narrowing of breadth of learning – that is, in what is considered worthwhile to learn ( for e.g. arts and humanities valued less than science and technological subjects) , and
  • a reduction in depth of learning – that is, an emphasis on standardisation, metrics, and passing tests and exams rather than the holistic development and growth of differentiated individuals as autonomous learners, critical thinkers and participants in society.

The neo-liberal influence has built on and reinforced the mechanistic and reductionist Western worldview that gives rise to the dominant educational paradigm manifested in policy and practice.

 

As I’ve suggested in another chapter:

 

‘We see the continuing presence of the fundamental building blocks of the prevalent education epistemology – reductionism, objectivism, materialism, dualism, and determinism – reflected from the cultural milieu and exerting to an influence in purpose, policy and provision as well as in educational discourse. These habits of thought might not be consciously recognized by most practicing educators, but they are no less powerful. They reside in the subterranean geology of education, invisible in themselves but manifested in the educational landscape above the surface: single disciplines, separate departments, abstract and bounded knowledge, belief in value-free knowing, privileging of cognitive/intellectual knowing over affective and practical knowing, prevalence of technical rationality, transmissive pedagogy, analysis over synthesis, and an emphasis on first order or maintenance learning which leaves  basic values unexamined and unchanged.’ (p.109).

Sterling, S (2009) ‘Sustainable Education’ in Gray, D., Colucci-Gray, L. and Camino, E. Science, Society and Sustainability: Education and Empowerment for an Uncertain World, Routledge, New York and London.

The logic of this argument is to push against constraining ideas and influences and re-assert an expanded view of these three dimensions of education. The next section looks at Purpose.

Why do you stress the importance of the purpose of education?

Definitions of ‘purpose’ in education have always shown a tension between a grounding in intrinsic values (developing the individual, deepening understanding and inquiry for its own sake), or in instrumental values (as in educating for an outcome, or outcomes).

The first orientation is consistent with institutional autonomy, diversity of practice, emphasis on the learner and differentiated needs, etc. The second with political influence and control, standardisation and competition.

What we have seen in the last 30 years or more, is a swing towards instrumental values, particularly as they relate to economic outcomes and competitiveness, evidenced by the rise of the global testing culture.

This represents a narrowing of perception and conception of education. What I call a Squeeze – with the vocational purpose now dominant, supported by what has been called the ‘Global Education Industry’. See above section

‘You are critical of mainstream education – why and and in what ways?’ for more details on ‘The Squeeze’.

The slide below suggests four main purposes and functions of education. Currently, the first two have primacy; the third – once the main focus of educational effort and thinking – now has relatively little attention. The fourth is hardly recognised in the mainstream although may achieve lip service.

I argue that given global conditions, the transformative function should be predominant, with the other three seen as important subsets which would then themselves look very different, aligned to the need for social change and transformation.

So it’s helpful to consider the purpose of HE ‘as was’, transitioning over time to purpose ‘as is’ in the present. But then to consider purpose as it ‘might be’, or ‘should be’ – which would involve the re-visioning and integrating of all four purposes.

So the ‘should be (ideal)’ invites a broadening and deepening of educational vision which integrates instrinsic and instrumental views into a more holistic framework.

But then of course, it’s a matter of making this work, which is the ‘could be’, the practicable path. Which is a significant challenge of course.

The wonderful systems thinker Donella Meadows – writing on systems change – notes that changing the purpose or goals of a system has the power to effect systemic change throughout the system, secondary only to paradigm shift. Meadows, D. (2009). Thinking in systems—A primer. London: Earthscan

And, as I wrote in a recent book chapter:

‘….after decades of arguing for a change of educational paradigm towards something more holistic, systemic, humanistic and ecological, I fully understand that the realisation and internalisation of different educational paradigms by individuals, institutions and educational communities is extraordinarily challenging. But a change of purpose – or embrace of additional purpose in the first instance – is possible at micro, meso and macro levels and can be a harbinger of a deeper cultural shift, especially when aligned with and connected to growing progressive and reconstructive movements in civil society.’

Sterling, 2017, ‘Assuming the future: re-purposing education in a volatile age’). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315351878 and https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-51322-5_3

My take on the question of purpose (when I was asked by the International Association of Universities (IAU) to come up with one sentence) is:

‘The role and purpose of education can no longer be preparation for an assumed stable future and “business as usual,” but a nurturing of individual and collective potential to live well and skilfully in an already complex and volatile world, towards human and planetary betterment.’

See http://www.iau-hesd.net/en/contenu/189-what-higher-education-and-research-sustainable-development-hesd.html

Why have you worked on and advocated ‘whole institutional change’?

Well, in my view:

‘Sustainability does not simply require an ‘add-on’ to existing structures and curricula, but implies a change of fundamental epistemology in our culture and hence also in our educational thinking and practice.’

This is a quote from a chapter I wrote some time ago, which challenges the common idea that we need to ‘embed’ sustainability in the curriculum – as if that was a sufficient response.

See Sterling, S (2004) “Higher Education, Sustainability, and the Role of Systemic Learning” in Corcoran, P. B. & Wals, A.J. Eds Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability. Dordrecht, Kluwer. pp49-70 re-printed in Blewitt, J (2013) Sustainable Development: Critical Concepts in the Environment, Routledge. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F0-306-48515-X_5

The chapter goes on:

‘Seen in this light, sustainability is not just another issue to be added to an overcrowded curriculum, but a gateway to a different view of curriculum, of pedagogy, of organisational change, of policy and particularly of ethos. At the same time, the effect of patterns of unsustainability on our current and future prospects is so pressing that the response of higher education should not be predicated only on the ‘integration of sustainability’ into higher education, because this implies a limited, adaptive, response. Rather, I will argue, we need to see the relationship the other way round – that is, the necessary transformation of higher education towards the integrative and more whole state implied by a systemic view of sustainability in education and society, however difficult this may be to realise. In sum, this is an argument for what I have termed ‘sustainable education.’

So sustainability – if understood fully – implies a shift of culture, and therefore also of purpose, policy and practice in education. In formal education, there is virtually no area of a university’s work that is not relevant to or can reflect sustainability ideas and ways of working.

This is why UNESCO’s education for sustainable development programmes have long advocated a whole institution response, and this is also reflected in international sustainability performance metrics for universities, such as the STARS programme in the USA, and the LIFE programme in the UK.

This is not just a matter of exploring the implications of sustainability for, say, research, curriculum, teaching, pedagogy and interdisciplinarity, campus management, student engagement and wellbeing, governance, investment and purchasing, and community relations – but importantly, the positive synergies that can be achieved between these areas.

This topic was explored in depth in our book The Sustainable University.

Sterling, S, Maxey, L and Luna, H (2013) The Sustainable University – progress and prospects, Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415627740/#description

The following is a quote from the ‘Introduction’ in the book, which notes that embracing sustainability inevitably involves not just changes in the curriculum, but organisational learning by the institution as a whole. This is an important distinction between ‘designed learning’ and institutional learning’ as explained further below.

‘There is a shared expectation and conviction in much of the sustainability discourse that universities should not only act as agents of change, but need to change themselves if they are to be sufficiently effective in the first regard. In other words, whilst sustainability requires the development of sufficient learning and capacity through the affect of educational systems, this is dependent on the achievement of adequate learning and capacity within educational systems. To clarify further, we make a distinction between two arenas of learning: designed learning and institutional learning.

Designed learning is the concern of all educational programmes: it is planned, resourced and provided for all the different student groups that experience higher education.

Institutional learning refers to the social and organisational learning that the policy makers and providers may themselves undergo or experience: senior managers, academic staff, support staff, and policy makers and stakeholders. In the movement to align HE towards sustainability over recent years, it has become clear that substantive progress in designed learning is dependent on sufficient depth and extent of institutional learning and capacity building. This key point has been proven repeatedly in recent experience, and is evidenced in the chapters of this book.’ (p.6). http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415627740/#description

What is a ‘sustainable university’?

In my book The Sustainable University, I suggest a definition:

‘The sustainable university is one that through its guiding ethos, outlook and aspirations, governance, research, curriculum, community links, campus management, monitoring and modus operandi seeks explicitly to explore, develop, contribute to, embody and manifest – critically and reflexively – the kinds of values, concepts and ideas, challenges and approaches that are emerging from the growing global sustainability discourse. (p23).

This further quote from the book outlines what thorough take-up of sustainability in the university would look like.

Higher education should be:

‘in the business of ‘anticipative education’ valuing foresight and insight and fully recognizing the new conditions and discontinuities which face present and future generations, rather than ‘retrospective education’ looking to reproduce past practices which may no longer be appropriate or valid. In this light, educational institutions need to become less centres of transmission and delivery, and more centres of transformation and critical inquiry; less teaching organizations, more learning organizations critically engaged with real world issues in their community and region; less discipline based, more inter- and transdisciplinary; less managerial and more participative; less self-contained and self-referential, more engaged with a broad range of stakeholders; less instrumental and reluctant to engage with normative issues, more holistic in purpose and exploring ethical dilemmas and dimensions. The logic here derives from a broad consensus that we are increasingly confronted by a broad range of issues – eg food security, energy security, water security, inequity and social coherence, economic vitality and employment, the effects of climate change, public health, degraded ecosystems and so on – characterised by complexity, interrelatedness, and indeterminacy’ (p.28).

Reviewing progress, Wals and Blewitt (2010) make a historical distinction between ‘first and second wave’ responses in universities (i.e. the emergence of environmentally-based courses beginning in the 1970s and 80s, and the greening of estates management from the 90s). They then describe a ‘third wave response’, based on a holistic appreciation of the potential of sustainability, which can be detected only in very recent years.

The latter refers to whole institutional change, ‘a university’s attempt to re-orient teaching, learning, research and university-community relationships in such a way that sustainability becomes an emergent property of its core activities’ (Wals and Blewitt, 2010: 56).

See their chapter in Sterling, S, Jones, P and Selby, D (eds) (2010) Sustainability Education: perspectives and practice across higher education, Earthscan, London. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781844078783/

See section 22 above ‘Why have you worked on and advocated ‘whole institutional change’?’ and this book for much more detail and discussion:

Sterling, S, Maxey, L and Luna, H (2013) The Sustainable University – progress and prospects, Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415627740/#description

If there’s just one thing you would do to change education for the better, what would it be?

Give everybody – policy makers, management, staffs, and especially students – more time: to be, to reflect on why they do what they do, to appreciate and enjoy it, to breathe, and to renew themselves.

There is such a lot of pressure on everybody within educational institutions whether leaders, staff or students, that time and space for proper reflection, critical thought, review and inquiry, dialogue, collegiality, exchange of experience and ideas – has become more and more diminished in recent years. This is simply not conducive to creating a good supportive learning environment and is counterproductive to wellbeing, and the development of ‘soft skills’ such as imagination, creativity, and collaboration.

You’ve done quite a bit of work on systems thinking – why?

Because its essential. Put most simply – the Earth, and the world, are systemic. That is, and as the ecologist Barry Commoner put it years ago (1971, to be precise) ‘everything connects to everything else’. Or in other words, nothing exists in isolation.

Reality is primarily relational – ‘things’ only exist in relation, or co-relation.  So a pressing challenge is how we lead people to re-cognise this essentially participatory ontology. A fundamental problem is what we have a sense of our distinction and separation from others, and from the world – which is deep within our individual and collective psyches. In indigenous worldviews, by contrast, the participatory view of the world tends to be the dominant cultural lens. Systems thinking can help a restore a sense of engagement, immersion and participation.

The idea for my doctoral research – on whole systems thinking, education and sustainability –  was partly inspired by this quote:

When we limit ourselves to fragmented approaches to dealing with systemic problems, it is not surprising that our solutions prove inadequate. If our species is to survive the predicaments we have created for ourselves, we must develop a capacity for whole-systems thought and action.  (David Korten 1995, p.11)

Korten, D. (1995) When Corporations Rule the World, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

The crux of the issue is this: whilst the human world and the ecosphere are characterised by high levels of connectivity, dynamic flows, non-linearity,complexity and change – the way we tend to perceive and think does not reflect this reality! Rather, our way is predominantly mechanistic, causal, reductionist and bounded.

Mary Clark, in a lengthy work subtitled ‘The Search for New Modes of Thinking’ argues that our worldview as grown maladaptive.

(Clark, M. (1989) Ariadne’s Thread – The Search for New Ways of Thinking, Macmillan, Basingstoke)

So there is a mismatch between the fragmentary way in which we predominantly think and the systemic world that we live in. This mismatch is a major factor in aggravating many of our problems – for example, short-term or short-sighted policy which takes no account of ‘knock-on’ or inadvertent effects over time and space. The ‘sustainability transition’ – if it has a chance of succeeding – depends on our developing the capacity to perceive, think, learn and act much more integratively than at present.

Much of my writing deals with the nature and effects of mechanistic thinking, and by contrast, the nature of perceiving and thinking which is more holistic, more systemic, more ecological. And then I use ecological ideas to critique mechanistic thinking in order to open up spaces for more systemic ways of thinking and acting.

Essentially, systemic thinking is relational thinking. Given its emphasis on seeing contexts, connections and developing integrative approaches, it is increasingly seen as critically important in addressing the issues of sustainability. Systems thinking argues that ‘valid knowledge and meaningful understanding comes from building up whole pictures of phenomenon, not by breaking them into parts’ (Robert Flood, 2001, p. 133) by helping us shift our focus and attention from ‘things’ to processes, from analysis to synthesis,  from detail to pattern, from static states to dynamics, and from ‘parts’ to ‘wholes’.

It is important to note that systems thinking can be little more than a tool, skill or method,  and as such it can be used for undesirable or exploitative purposes. I make a distinction between systems thinking and ecological thought, because while ecological thinking is systemic (relational), systems thinking is not necessarily ecological.

Systems thinking can be used as a methodology for anti-ecological, as well as ecological, ends. So systems thinking is not ‘enough’ in itself, because it does not necessarily carry or imply ecological values. Yet at the same time, systemic thinking can help sow the seeds of an ecological worldview.

In my doctoral thesis I argue that when systems thinking is allied with ecological values and thought, it implies an holistic or ecological worldview or paradigm. This is what I refer to as ‘whole systems thinking’.

I led on a teaching materials project for WWF Scotland some years ago, which was intended to help teachers and their students engage with systems thinking – or more accurately, it was about ‘ecosystemic thinking’ as it was informed by an ecological viewpoint (although we didn’t use that term explicitly).  The material was very well received and can still be accessed here:

http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/linkingthinking.pdf

Would you say you are optimistic about the future?

When people ask me whether I am an optimist or pessimist I tend to quote Jakob von Uexkull (tbe founder of the Right Livelihood Award):

There are too many possibilities to be a pessimist. Of course, there are also too many crises to be an optimist.I always say, I am a ‘possibilist.’

Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006) makes an important distinction between societal breakdown and collapse. Whilst both produce a radical reduction of complexity in a system and thereby reduce future options, collapse is potentially catastrophic, whilst breakdown allows the potential for re-creation of social and other human systems.

He argues that the fundamental challenge the world faces is to anticipate and allow for breakdown in a way that does not lead to collapse, but leads to renewal, to breakthrough.

We have a choice: “…our challenge isn’t to preserve the status quo but rather to adapt to, thrive in, and shape for the better, a world of constant change” (Homer-Dixon, 2006, p.266).

Homer-Dixon, T. (2006). The Upside of Down – Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, London: Souvenir Press.

I think that collectively, humanity is now faced with its greatest ever test, and its greatest ever learning challenge.

The signs and trends are daunting at all levels, but there is the possibility that we will get through. We may possibly breakthrough to a new and very different  society which can be sustained. But I think this won’t be achived without major difficulties and adjustments.  And a great deal of learning. The more this can be ‘anticipative learning’ the better.  See section 4 ‘What is anticipative learning?’ above.

Unless we take heart and do ‘the right thing’ in our personal and professional lives, the possibility of breakthrough to a liveable future is seriously – if not terminally -diminished.  So keep going!!

Can you choose a few quotes from your work which can indicate your thinking?

That’s difficult – after decades of writing! There’s some scattered throughout this ‘Key Ideas’ part of the website. But here’s a few more:

….the disjunct and mismatch between Westernised formal education systems on one hand, and on the other, the dynamic learning response necessary to address the “watershed moment” that defines our troubled times, is becoming increasingly apparent. Worryingly so—particularly as regards the limited response of the higher education sector to date.

There is certainly a growing progressive movement, evidenced by nodes and pockets of outstanding practice that are consciously informed by, or resonate with, an holistic conception of education. But this energy struggles to assert its influence in a policy environment, which has been captivated by neoliberal thought that is almost wilfully uncomprehending in the face of rapid global change that will affect all students as they navigate their adult lives.

Sterling, S, Dawson, J and Warwick, P, ‘Transforming Sustainability Education at the Creative Edge of the Mainstream – A Case Study of Schumacher College, Journal of Transformative Education, ’Volume 16 Issue 3, July 2018. http://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/6Yb8rVT5jAvSTV5Z2faa/full

The role and purpose of education can no longer be preparation for an assumed stable future and “business as usual,” but a nurturing of individual and collective potential to live well and skilfully in an already complex and volatile world, towards human and planetary betterment.

Sterling, 2017, ‘Assuming the future: re-purposing education in a volatile age’ in Sterling, S. and Jickling, B. (eds) (2017), Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education: Remaking Education for the Future, Pivot Press/Palgrave. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315351878

How education is perceived, conceived, and received is being shaped by a particular view of the world and of people within it. This can be characterised as technocratic, managerialist, economistic, and vocationalist, and is underpinned and energised by an internationally hegemonic neo-liberal ideology. Over time, this wave has subtly but powerfully displaced—and is even now drowning out—older (and more educationally defensible) liberal, holistic, and humanistic philosophies regarding the nature and purpose of education.

Sterling, 2017, ‘Assuming the future: re-purposing education in a volatile age’ in Sterling, S. and Jickling, B. (eds) (2017), Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education: Remaking Education for the Future, Pivot Press/Palgrave.

We are faced with an unprecedented and huge learning challenge at every level, in which educational policy and practice need to play a pivotal role. How do we ‘reorient our systems of knowledge creation and education’? How do we ensure that education for these extraordinary times can manifest a culture of critical commitment—engaged enough to make a real difference to social–ecological resilience and sustainability but reflexively critical enough to learn from experience and to keep options open into the future? p212.

Sterling, S. (2016) A Commentary on Education and the Sustainable Development Goals, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 10:2 (2016): 208–213 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0973408216661886

We are in an undesirable situation where much sustainable development discourse and policy underplays the role of education, whereas much education discourse and policy underplays—or ignores—sustainable development. This has to change, and fast.

Sterling, S (2014) ‘Separate tracks, or real synergy? – achieving a closer relationship between education and SD post 2015’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development.September 2014 8:89-112. http://jsd.sagepub.com/content/8/2/89.abstract

Instead of educational thinking and practice that tacitly assumes that the future is some kind of linear extension of the past, we need anticipative education, recognising the new conditions and discontinuities which face present generations, let alone future ones: including the massive challenges of global warming, species extinction, economic vulnerability, social fragmentation and migration, endemic poverty, the end of cheap energy – and more positively, the rise of localism, participative democracy, green purchasing, ethical business, and efforts to achieve a low carbon economy. This implies a ‘culture of critical commitment’ in educational thinking and practice.  p514.

Sterling, S (2012) Afterword: Let’s face the music and dance? In Wals, A and Corcoran, PB, Learning for Sustainability in times of accelerating change, Wageningen Academic Publishers.

We are not on the Earth, we are in the Earth, we are inextricably actors in the Earth’s systems and flows, constantly affecting and being affected by the whole thing, natural and human, in dynamic relation. We are unavoidably participative beings. And yet, deeply embedded in the Western psyche, although we know participative reality to be true, there is a powerfully operative myth of separateness. We still perceive, think and talk in dualistic terms of economy and ecology; of people and environment, of social and natural, and them and us. p214

Sterling, S . (2017) ‘Living in the Earth: Towards an Education for Our Times’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 4, 2, 2010, pp .213-218. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/097340821000400208?journalCode=jsda

The paradox of education is that it is seen as a preparation for the future, but it grows out of the past. In stable conditions, this socialization and replication function of education is sufficient: in volatile conditions where there is an increasingly shared sense (as well as numerous reports indicating) that the future will not be anything like a linear extension of the past, it sets boundaries and barriers to innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

Sterling, S. (2009) Towards Sustainable Education, Environmental Scientist, 18 (1), pp. 19-21.

While ‘education for sustainable development’ (ESD)  has in recent years won a small niche, the overall educational paradigm otherwise remains unchanged.  Within this paradigm, most mainstream education sustains unsustainability – through uncritically reproducing norms, by fragmenting understanding, by sieving winners and losers, by recognising only a narrow part of the spectrum of human ability and need, by an inabililty to explore alternatives, by rewarding dependency and conformity, and by servicing the consumerist machine. In response, we need to reclaim an authentic education which recognises the best of past thinking and practice, but also to re-vision education and learning to help assure the future. pps 14-15.

Sterling, S (2001) Sustainable Education – Re-visioning learning and change, Schumacher Briefing no6. Schumacher Society/Green Books, Dartington. ISBN 1 870098 99 4

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 trans-personal ethics to handle transition and provide mutual support. Indeed, an education oriented towards nurturing these qualities would help determine a positive and hopeful ‘breakthrough‘ [rather than breakdown‘] future’. p22.

Sterling, S (2001) Sustainable Education – Re-visioning learning and change, Schumacher Briefing no6. Schumacher Society/Green Books, Dartington. ISBN 1 870098 99 4

How long have you been an environmentalist?

I always liked nature as a kid, and was fortunate to be able to play in semi-natural surroundings – though of course I didn’t realise how lucky I was at the time compared to many of today’s youngsters.

 

Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in my first years of secondary school was a big eye-opener. These were years of a personal epiphany. I was well into the environment by the time the UN Conference on the Human Environment opened in Stockholm in 1972. That was the first conference that identified education as a means of addressing what were then seen as ‘environmental issues’, but are more widely perceived now.

If you are interested in my learning journey, see section 1.4 of my doctoral thesis http://www.bath.ac.uk/cree/sterling/sterlingthesis.pdf

How long have you been working in environmental and sustainability education?

It depends when you start counting, but I started out as a classroom teacher in a comprehensive school in 1972, and have been engaged in environmental and sustainability education ever since – as a teacher, a deputy director of a national environmental education NGO, a freelance consultant, and as an academic, respectively. I’m now ‘active retired’.

To finish, can you say a little bit about yourself?

I live in Devon, UK, married with grown-up kids. I’m ‘active-retired’, having stepped down as Head of Education for Sustainability at the University of Plymouth, where I worked for 12 years.  Now an Emeritus Professor, I mostly work from home.

I love nature and the outdoors, and have always cared deeply about the Earth and its prospects.

I’m an aspiring jazz guitarist (still trying after years!) and enjoy choral singing, I like cycling and walking. And growing edible things in the garden.

Confession – I write puns and am working on my first joke book!  But also, I am into green politics, and anything to do with making the world a better place. Which is also partly why I am a Quaker.  I enjoy writing – although it never gets easier!

Featured publication

Sustainable Education Re-visioning Learning and Change
Sustainable Education Re-visioning Learning and Change

This publication shows how a systemic change of educational culture towards the realization of human potential and the interdependence of social, economic and ecological wellbeing can lead to transformative learning.

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About Stephen Sterling

Find more about Stephen’s background; research interests; achievements; and recognition and roles.

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My Materials

Best known for his writing, find out about Stephen’s publications and presentations.

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Consultancy

‘Active retired’ as Emeritus Professor of Sustainabilty Education at the University of Plymouth, Stephen is available for some consultancy.

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“The circular economy is an expression of systems thinking and in all our insight publishing and educational work we owe a great debt of gratitude to Stephen’s clarity and perseverance in this arena.”

Ken Webster (Head of Innovation), Ellen MacArthur Foundation