Stephen Sterling (2001)

In a nutshell Sterling's argument is that the difference between a sustainable future (which he seeks) and a chaotic future (which he considers we are fast heading for) is transformative learning based on an ecological, participative worldview in which change in education and change in society interact and support each other.

He is scathing of contemporary schooling in the industrial world, seeing it as having been re-structured and re-packaged to conform to the philosophy and perceived needs of the market and of managerialism. He considers that the approach of ‘modernisation’ and globalisation is not, as claimed, at the forefront of change, but in many senses actually behind the times. He sees it as:

• still informed by a fundamentally mechanistic view of the world, and hence of learning;

• largely ignorant of the sustainability issues that will increasingly affect all aspects of people's lives as the century progresses;

• blind to the rise of ecological thinking which seeks to foster a more integrative awareness of people and the environment (pp12-13)

Later he notes that this 'extreme instrumentalism', modelled on economic change and the perceived demands of a globalized economy and increasingly of a globalized culture, not only dominates education throughout the western countries, but many other social fields in these countries. He suggests that marketization has infiltrated virtually all areas of public life including sport, health, the penal system, policing and local government.

In his first chapter Sterling poses three central questions: what is education for; what is education; and whose education? He notes that in the 'current frenetic concern' with standards, assessment, quality control and performance indicators, these fundamental questions - 'which require continuing democratic debate' - are pushed to one side. These are, of course, questions with many different answers, and Sterling contributes to that debate by suggesting, in relation to his first and second questions, four functions or roles of education and notes that they 'at different times jostle and often conflict with education policy, theory and practice.' They are:

• to replicate society and culture and promote citizenship - the socialization function;

• to train people for employment - the vocational function;

• to develop the individual and his/her potential - the liberal function; and

• to encourage change towards a fairer society and better world - the transformative function. (p25)

Sterling suggests that sustainable education is about reconciling all four of these, but also it is acutely aware that we need to educate for sustainability, community and peace in a turbulent and rapidly changing world . (p26)

He then addresses his third question ('whose education'?). He suggests that sustainable education is necessarily democratic education, which embraces the concept of ownership of learning by educators, learners and communities rather than by governments and corporations. He writes:If we want people to have the capacity and will to contribute to civil society, then they have to feel ownership of their learning - it has to be meaningful, engaging and participative, rather than functional, passive and prescriptive. (pp26 -27)

Sterling goes on to argue for a complex-adaptive systems approach to education which he draws from the new science of complexity. He sees this as concerned with emergence and chaos in non-linear systems, and based on the idea that we live in a fundamentally participative world that is both unpredictable and inherently creative. Later he says that such systems are:healthy, sustainable systems... which are self-organizing, self-healing, and self-renewing, and are able to learn in order to maintain and adapt themselves. They exert autonomy, but in relation to and as integrative parts of larger systems. They maintain a dynamic balance between structure and flexibility, between order and chaos. (p54)

Using the systems thinking tool of nesting systems he draws a model in which 'educational movements for change' are nested within the 'educational system', which is nested within 'social, economic and cultural systems', which in turn are nested within the 'biophysical system'. He uses this to explain why the hitherto attempts by environmental educators to change people's behaviour towards the environment have had so little success. Educational change movements achieve little because they are nested within a powerful and hierarchical educational system which in turn is nested within a social, economic and cultural system which shapes and controls the educational system. [One of the strengths of this model is that it also embraces the concerns of the environmental movement since the social, economic and cultural systems are themselves nested within the Earth's biophysical system which the environmentalists believe will ultimately constrain them, potentially catastrophically, in terms such as resource depletion, pollution and climate change.]

Having established this perspective, Sterling focuses on this question:How can education and society change together in a mutually affirmative way, towards more sustainable patterns for both? (p32)

He sees this question as an approach to change which transcends the nested system described above. In systems terms, it seeks a positive feedback loop in which change towards sustainability in society supports sustainable education, which in turn supports change in society, and so on.

To him this means trying to make educational institutions as far as possible microcosms of the emerging sustainable society. How does Sterling construe sustainability? He expresses it in terms of systems theory, thus:

Sustainability is the ability of a system to sustain itself in relation to its environment, given that all systems are made up of sub¬systems and parts of larger supra-systems. A system that either undermines the health of its own sub-systems or of its supra¬system is unsustainable. (p54)

To Sterling this means that sustainability is about appreciating and respecting what is already there, while conserving and developing creative potential, and involving self-reliance, self-realization, and resilience.

This leads him to discuss the possibilities of education as sustainability. Knowing is seen as approximate, relational and provisional, and learning is continual exploration through practice.... There is a keen sense of emergence and ability to work with ambiguity and uncertainty. Space and time are valued, to allow creativity, imagination, and co-operative learning to flourish. In this dynamic state, the process of sustainable development or sustainable living is essentially one of learning, while the context of learning is essentially that of sustainability. (p61)

The above description sets out the philosophical basis of Sterling's book, and I hope is sufficient to show why I find this exciting, stimulating and, above all, challenging. Sterling has brought theoretical coherence to values which many of us who worry about the global future share and he has expressed this cogently and lucidly.

Sterling tries to take these ideas forward into the political sphere, offering a set of suggestions for policymakers and leaders and another set for practitioners. But he recognises the unlikelihood of many of these suggestions being taken seriously by governments:If governments changed their conception of education and announced its primary role was to contribute to a sustainable society, it would be momentous. But … I think this unlikely. (p79)

The great merit of Sterling's book is the recognition that sustainability will only happen if changes occur inter-relatedly in both the educational system and the social, economic and cultural systems (the former being nested in the latter), and in response to a recognition that the social, economic and cultural systems are themselves nested in a biophysical system which will eventually destroy them unless they become sustainable. It is not sufficient for education to transform towards sustainability: both education and society have to transform through mutual interaction, and in relation to a fragile biosphere.