21 Oct 2011

What unites those who joined SHED?

I sent a question to Shed-Share in the form of a conundrum. I, and colleagues at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, would like to develop a ‘special interest group’ to bring together university teachers who share an interest in the broad and undefined  area of higher-education contributions to ….(something along the lines of … sustainability). I made the case that terms such as environment, sustainability, development, being ‘for’ anything in particular, and advocacy, tended to divide rather than unite, in the context of perceived roles for higher education. I wondered if others had something working elsewhere that succeeded in bringing disparate mind-sets together.

I think that it was a fair question. As I have researched the field for many years I have been thinking about it for some time now. But I did not have high expectations of an easy answer as I do not have one myself. In some respects my question was rhetorical, but in others it was a plea for a good discussion on a way forward.

I had six responses and I am grateful for them all. I was helpfully reminded that: this should not be a ‘special’ interest; that academics characteristically may not notice the wood for the trees; that the issues are value-laden and that values are deeply-culturally embedded; that we may, if we wish, blame our current situation on defective leadership; that even where things appear to be working well at a superficial level, they may not be deep-down; that as individuals we are capable of making highly subjective interpretations of even simple language constructs; and that there are amongst us colleagues with a far greater proclivity for the esoteric, or academic, than I.

Two colleagues emphasised the value of embedding our concerns within the label of ‘graduate attributes’ but did not say how successful their own experience of this approach had been. [My own research, publications and institutional role do emphasise graduate attributes, but my experience is that many university teachers interpret these attributes (including as they often do, ‘literacy’ and ‘teamwork’) as ‘skills’ and doubt the extent to which they should be ‘teaching skills’. Graduate attributes can easily become another dividing line].

But the situation is serious. No doubt we share common interests but we appear to have some mutually exclusive goals. We are not communicating effectively. We have different conferences, journals and embedded academic values. It would be difficult to interpret these as strengths as we are in danger of undermining our commonalities. For example, as peer-reviewers (in a profession that is heavily dependent on peer-review) we may damage even those academic endeavours that could lead to common purpose. We have constructed an academic divide to match that between the disciplines themselves and wonder why we are not making progress.

Please do respond, support, criticise or develop. Useful discussions could, as examples:

·         Focus on bridging the most obvious divide amongst those likely to be reading these words [Those whose concern is ‘for’ sustainability, often in a human-centred paradigm and those whose focus is the environment, generally from an ecological and conservation perspective]. Pollution, habitat destruction, economic collapse and spiralling loss of indigenous cultures have failed to bring us together (sufficiently for Higher Education to unite) but surely something as basic as ‘HE’s role as ‘critic and conscience’ offers hope for mutual goal setting?
·         Address the structural issues that currently keep education for sustainability/sustainable development/environmental education outside of mainstream debates in higher education, or consign them to box-ticking exercises. Could our peer-review processes become more respectful of new, interdisciplinary or just-different perspectives? Could we collectively become more focused on evaluating our impact on our students, before we get too agitated or complacent about whether or not we should be trying to influence our students? What else could we do, collectively, to make progress?
Kerry Shephard
University of Otago


  1. The strongest reaction I get from colleagues who argue against 'Education for Sustainable Development' is that ‘Sustainable Development’, like ‘Big Society’, is a political slogan rather than a valid area of scholarly enquiry. Educating for a political slogan is dangerous because that slogan can be abused by politicians to serve narrow interests. And I can’t really argue with that. Just look how John Hayes, the UK Government’s Minister for Skills, represents ESD: "The Prime Minister has set an ambition for this to be the greenest government ever. To achieve this, government, employers and training providers must work together to deliver the skills that will enable our economy to achieve truly sustainable growth. (http://www.nsaet.org.uk/news/?p=44)". So ESD is about increasing economic growth in rich countries like the UK, rather than using increasingly limited resources in more social just ways? And the Government is trying to rip up the planning laws to allow development to go ahead anywhere, which they call a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ (http://www.communities.gov.uk/planningandbuilding/planningsystem/planningpolicy/presumptionfavour/). Is this kind of sustainable development what we want Education for? Of course not. Perhaps we don’t need to talk about 'Education for Sustainable Development' at all but instead talk about "Education". Obviously 'education' which fails to give graduates the skills and knowledge to consider the economic, social and ecological impacts of their decisions in future life is hardly deserving of the name education at all. Nor is 'education' which forgets to mention some of the overarching issues threatening the future of the human species (and countless other species). It may be possible to introduce the long list of important and interconnected concerns that have awkwardly and (in my opinion damagingly) been lumped together under the term ‘sustainable development’ in other ways, ways which don’t rely on ‘education for’ any particular slogan. I have ideas for how it can be done in my particular area in my particular kind of university but it will vary according to setting. There are threads that unite a great number of people in this group, but are there any labels that capture what unites us better than the ill-defined and much abused term "Education for Sustainability"?

  2. I responded to Kerry, and this is what I said (slightly edited to remove points I have already made on this blog).

    My experience suggests that your situation and concerns are not unique, but I do not suppose you thought they were. I offer a few observations:

    1. It is a strength of HE that it contains so many passionate experts focusing on important issues. It is clearly a weakness that they put so little store by others’ expertise in doing so. … . For the majority, I do not think that they find what you (and I) are uninterested in unimportant, they just find it less important to them than what they do, and that it hasn’t much to offer to what they do. For them, such a stance will be rational. I suspect you will never win the argument around relative importance, but you might have more chance around getting them more ‘on board’ by helping them do an even better job than they currently do in relation to their students’ learning. Question is: how?

    2. I don’t like the idea of a special interest group. Well, it’s the “special” that makes it problematic, given that there isn’t anything at all special about it in the high-value / exclusive sense of the word. I guess you mean particular interest group, but SIGs will always be preferred to PIGs, I guess. But I’d say find a term that will draw others in rather than push them out.

    3. So, what do you all have in common? This might be something to do with graduate attributes (an idea which is in vogue I feel, but none the less important for that), and also with employability which is, of course, related to attributes. My own feeling is that sustainability now has a strengthening purchase in relation to how we work in the wider (greening) economy, and with how we live one with another, and with the earth more widely, such that attributes with their relation to employment and to social interaction offers something that everyone can make a contribution to irrespective of discipline. Personally, I find the Melbourne attribute list


    to be a fine starting point. All this is also something that may even gain institutional approval. Now, that would be a turn up … .