Implementing ESD in a Neoliberal Environment: Contradictions Encountered in Transition

Vare, Paul ORCID: 0000-0003-3182-9105 (2015) Implementing ESD in a Neoliberal Environment: Contradictions Encountered in Transition. In: ECER 2015, Education and Transition - Contributions from Educational Research, 8-11 September, 2015, Budapest, Hungary. (Unpublished)

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Across Europe and globally, education is influenced by – and advances – Neoliberalism (Ball & Olmedo 2013). The power of international competition is symptomatic of this; witness the fetishistic adherence to the PISA process, which in turn reinforces atomised curricula that focus on ‘core subjects’. This is at odds with a trans-disciplinary conception of sustainable development and is indicative of a deeper mismatch of values. The author’s long-standing involvement in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) process of developing a regional strategy for education for sustainable development (ESD) (UNECE 2005), indicators for the strategy (UNECE 2009) and competences for ESD Educators (UNECE 2012), is behind the motivation to conduct this research. The aim is to explore the inherent contradictions that may arise within schools that seek transition towards deeper engagement in ESD within an overarching economic climate of Neoliberalism. The research also attempts to understand how such contradictions are navigated by schools and their staff. Earlier studies in this area have tended to focus either on the theory-practice ‘gap’ (Stephenson 1987; 2007) or the personal perspectives of teachers (Barrett 2007; Cotton 2006). This paper reports on research based on Cultural-historical Activity Theory (‘Activity Theory’) that examines activity within and across schools (Engeström 1987) (see methodology section). Activity Theory resonates with ESD; it takes a systemic view exploring simultaneously the elements of an activity system (e.g. a school), the interaction between elements and their relationship with the people in the system (Edwards et al. 2009). There are however few examples of Activity Theory being applied in ESD research to date. This enquiry also investigates inter alia the extent to which sample schools embrace both an ESD 1 and ESD 2 perspective (Vare & Scott 2007), i.e. promoting ‘positive’ behaviours and building capacity for critical thinking. Data analysis reveals a hierarchy of contradictions and dilemmas encountered in schools that seek to become more sustainable. Surprisingly, interviewees fail to recognise contradictions, even when asked directly about this. At least five explanations are given for this oversight (see Findings), including ‘expansive learning’. Engeström ’s (1999) concept of expansive learning, i.e. overcoming contradictions by expanding the object of the system, is a process that might be described as ESD 3: an emergent quality. This is a concept that requires further development. Deeper analysis of the data leads to the proposal of four positions that schools appear to adopt vis-à-vissustainability. Importantly, these positions do not necessarily suggest progression, rather they are approaches adopted by schools. Discussion leads to an empowering vision of schools – and society – as autopoietic systems, i.e. as both products and producers, suggesting that social reality is not as inevitable as it seems. By confronting contradictions, educators demonstrate the adaptive capacity required by young people if they are to engage in remodelling their world. Activity Theory helps explain the inter-related nature of ESD 1 and 2, while ESD 1, 2 and 3 can render Activity Theory intelligible to a wider research community.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
Divisions: Schools and Research Institutes > School of Education and Science
Research Priority Areas: Society and Learning
Depositing User: Paul Vare
Date Deposited: 01 Oct 2019 10:45
Last Modified: 31 Aug 2023 08:43

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