As schools seek to implement frameworks of education for sustainable development it is inevitable that they will encounter contradictions between their own aspirations and external demands. To analyse these contradictions through the lens of teachers-in-context, this research uses Cultural-historical Activity Theory that views schools as activity systems and reveals contradictions within those systems. Interviews with teachers and headteachers from a sample of twelve schools (primary, middle and secondary level) in England highlight contradictions that occur at different strategic levels in the school. A perspective document, comprising contradictory statements gathered from interview transcripts, reveals the extent to which these contradictions are shared among interviewees. A striking feature of the data is that teachers do not recognise these contradictions themselves. Analysis of the data reveals how teachers respond to contradictory situations. Responses include a sense of powerlessness, varying degrees of accommodation and a reframing of contradictions through ‘expansive learning’. This paper proposes a process for identifying and assessing contradictions in schools and suggests that, by making their responses to contradictions explicit, teachers can present learners with authentic examples of contextualised learning.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Global aspirations for environmental education and/or education for sustainable development may not be readily translatable into practice within schools. a persistent gap between schools’ rigid curriculaand examination pressures and meaningful, contextualised learning opportunities.
The article analysis contradictions between Schools’ own aspirations for ESD and external demands, through the lens of teachers-in-context. Such contradictions occur at different strategic levels in the school. For the purposes of this study a contradiction occurs where one promising course of action has the potential to undermine or confound the objectives of another, possibly unrelated, action. This paper proposes a process for identifying and assessing contradictions in schools and suggests that, by making their responses to contradictions explicit, teachers can present learners with authentic examples of contextualised learning. Sustainable development itself is a learning process. An exploration of the contradictions inherent in pursuing EE/ESD in schools could have as much value for the learning opportunities that it reveals as for the challenges that it exposes
Often teachers do not recognise these contradictions themselves. Responses include a sense of powerlessness, varying degrees of accommodation and a reframing of contradictions through ‘expansive learning’. All social organisations are ‘constellations of conflicts of interest’ why a technique of dilemma analysis (employed in this research) could be used to navigate such conflicts. Three categories of ‘dilemma’ with increasing degrees of intractability ranging from ambiguities to judgements to problems with the latter approximating a true dilemma, i.e.a difficult choice between two or more alternatives. Problems might be re-solved while they may never be solved. Dilemmas appear to be endemic in education.
EE/ESD presents a dilemma of its own. It is at once concerned with the measurable impact of human interactions in the biophysical environment while simultaneously attempting to build capacity for negotiating a diversity of interpretations of the world.
The research instrument was initially conceived as a series of participatory workshops involving teachers and pupils,a format that Engeström terms a ‘change laboratory’. This approach proved too cumbersome for busy organisations operating in a policy environment characterised by narrow performance targets. After a number of false starts it was decided to switch to a less intensive approach among several schools with the principal instrument being semi-structured, one-to-one interviews of between 40 and 90 min. Activity Theory was not intended to be reduced to a set of questions for use in semi-structured interviews. That said, the model did provide an effective framework
for exploring a school’s activity system with busy professionals.
What emerged was a three-stage process that, on reflection, could be outlined as identify – assess – locate:
Identify – Based on discussions with system stakeholders (teachers, assistant staff, students) consider challenges that might be framed as contradictions; present these in the form of opposing statements to be distributed as a perspective document to stakeholders, i.e. dilemma analysis.
Assess – Guided by the responses to the perspective document, decide on the seriousness of each contradiction using Winter’s categories: judgements (where decisions can be made), ambiguities (requiring careful discussion and monitoring) or problems (true dilemmas).
Locate – Based on the activity system model, assign the strategic level of the contradiction within the system using Engeström’s hierarchy from primary to quarternary.
The outcome of such an analysis would support a deliberative, response to contradictions so that the activity system could effectively learn its way forward while being cognisant of the possible responses among stakeholders
Unawareness: There is no prospect of overcoming a discourse-practice gap (Stevenson 2007) if practitioners are not exposed to the discourse. In addressing this gap, the role of professional development in EE/ESD is critical.
Powerlessness: Half of the teachers in this study expressed frustration because their aspirations for EE/ESD in
their school exceeded those of their school leadership. Schools have their own rhetoric-reality gaps and making these
contradictions explicit would be an essential first step in confronting them.
Accommodation 1: Denial avoided a sense of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) induced by rhetoric-
reality gaps by simply focusing their attention elsewhere. she missed a potentially powerful learning opportunity for her students who might have observed, and possibly engaged in, an open discussion around the tension between Melanie’s consumer choices and those of the assistant. Powerlessness and denial appear to occur in cases where professionals feel most isolated or unsupported within their own activity system.
Accommodation 2: Satisficing finding good enough compromises based on professional judgements about what should be sacrificed in order to preserve that which is important to them. introduced EE/ESD themes into the mainstream discussions of the school without appearing to force these ideas onto busy colleagues. providing open-ended learning in the context of sustainability while apparently avoiding political issues. satisficing, accommodating change through daily judgements and adjustments is learning one’s way forward
Expansive learning expanding the system to overcome the contradiction. a contradiction between the school’s ambition to be ‘a sustainable school’ and non-negotiable maintenance contracts that tied the school to inefficient practices in relation to its energy use. focus on children’s learning as a core concern of EE/ESD enabled her to convince colleagues to see sustainability as a whole institution approach. the problem is expanded in order to overcome contradictions. requires a degree of risk-taking because it challenges conventional thinking. This requires self-belief, a degree of courage and, crucially, supportive relationships.
With a deliberative process on identifying problems, Unawareness may no longer apply as a result of this process while powerlessness and denial might also be avoided. A proactive decision could then be made as to whether each contradiction required satisficing through careful management or presented an opportunity for expansive learning. In this way sustainability would shift from being an indistinct goal to becoming “a capacity for critical thinking, reflexivity, and transformation”
A key to success is the level of engagement of the various stakeholders in the system.