Ecological sustainability education in a neoliberal context: Negotiating and managing the paradox

Author: Debra Bradley

Bradley, Debra, 2018 Ecological sustainability education in a neoliberal context: Negotiating and managing the paradox, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Ecological sustainability education in a neoliberal context can be understood as a paradox that, by nature and necessity, requires negotiation and management. This thesis was written within this context, during a concatenation of actual or perceived crises. Common to many of the crises is that they are fuelled or manufactured by neoliberalism. This now-dominant political-economic ideology favours a ‘free’ market system and supports competition, commodification and unfettered capitalistic growth. Neoliberalism legitimises and privileges consumerism while positioning nature as a commodity. Consequently, there is a major disjunction between neoliberalism and ecological sustainability. The effect of neoliberalism on the purpose of education has resulted in a deviation from collective well-being or the social good. Instead, education’s focus is on individual performance and economic productivity and students are positioned as human capital in service to the economy. Education reform, driven by neoliberal ideals of standards, testing, accountability and achievement, focuses narrowly on student attainment, particularly in the areas of literacy and numeracy with other areas of the curriculum being marginalised. This preferencing-marginalising duality poses a significant threat to ecological sustainability education. Using this paradoxical duality and focussing on a public school as a powerfully informing context and a place that matters, my research investigates how an Australian urban primary school might facilitate and sustain a focus on ecological sustainability education under the dominance of neoliberal discourse.

The theory that guides this qualitative research is ‘social constructionism’. Central to this theory is the belief that representations of ‘reality’ are socially constructed and that meaning and knowledge are sustained by social processes. Therefore, this study engages with multiple ‘stakeholders’ so that a deeper understanding of their ‘reality’ may be developed. An information-rich ‘typical’ urban primary school in Australia was chosen purposefully as a means to understand the complexities of how ecological sustainability education may or may not be negotiated into the curriculum. Tracing the school’s ‘webs of significance’ the study includes an analysis of key texts such as state and education department strategic plans, plus transcripts of interviews with school staff members as well as identified community members and focus groups with students. A social constructionist approach to thematic analysis was adopted to analyse the key ‘texts’. An advantage in utilising this method is that it helps to determine the social and structural processes, influences, conditions and assumptions underpinning the data.

Consistent with the neoliberalisation of education and society more broadly, the findings in this study highlight a dominant discourse of individualisation. Furthermore, this study shows that the hegemony of neoliberalism contributes to many of the challenges involved in the inclusion of ecological sustainability education.

The implications of these findings are that while neoliberalism prevails, many schools may struggle to build, retain and progress a commitment to ecological sustainability education. However, this research also offers hope and possibility in the negotiation and navigation of neoliberal framings. In managing the constraints of neoliberalism and the dominant discourse of individualisation schools may have to accommodate the regime of standards and testing. However, this accommodation can be a form of resistance. While avoiding hierarchical gaze, schools can strategically exercise agency to create space for, and not undermine, ecological sustainability education. Space for ecological sustainability education may also be created and sustained through an ethos of emergence, by embracing the characteristics of an intelligent school and advocating for a collective response to ecological sustainability. Furthermore, a reconceptualisation of STEM to STEEM (science, technology, ecology, engineering and mathematics), raises the status and legitimacy of ecological sustainability education and enriches the other curriculum areas. In the face of competing discourses this, therefore, helps to create the space for programs and relationships which preference and nourish ecological sustainability.

Keywords: neoliberalism, sustainability, ecological sustainability, education, sustainability education, education for sustainability

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Emeritus Professor John Halsey