Sustaining What? Why does the ‘triple bottom line’ of education for sustainability policy become a focus on the environment alone in curriculum and classroom enactment?

Year: 2015

Author: Wilson, Emma, Downes, Nat, Roberts, Philip, leonard, Simon

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper provides an activity systems analysis as a means of interpreting the apparent tension between high level policy and curriculum statements and related policy and curriculum enactments around the concept of sustainability education.

Strong in the sustainability literature is a multifaceted understanding of sustainability popularly referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL) reporting on environmental, economic and social concerns. This manifold definition of sustainability is unmistakably present in Australia’s relevant high-level policy and curriculum documents, including in the Australian Curriculum where sustainability is a mandatory cross-curricula priority. This paper, however, will report on research including document analysis and a large multi-state survey of teachers that shows that curriculum and policy enactment is focused more exclusively on environmental matters.

Through an activity systems analysis, this paper will argue that the enactment of education for sustainability (EfS) is an example of how the broader activity system, and not simply the policy texts, drive policy enactment. That is, the actors involved in the activity of enacting EfS are engaged not simply with the objective, but also with a context consisting of rules, sub-cultures, tools, divisions of labour, and a history. Thus the nature of the activity of enacting EfS is potentially tied to several complex phenomena. For example, the allocation of labour is important in this case as while a cross-curriculum priority, in practice the teaching of EfS is most often assigned to teachers trained in science and physical geography who interpret the curriculum intentions through their training.

The paper will then argue that the environmentally specific interpretation of sustainability is putting schools in conflict with the values of many communities, and notably rural communities, who experience the complex TBL understanding of sustainability as part of their lived reality.