Are There Inherent Contradictions in Attempting to Implement Education for Sustainable Development in Schools?

  • Paul Vare

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education (EdD)


Despite being ranked according to narrow measures of pupil achievement, many schools aim to become more sustainable. Faced with indicators suggesting the rapid degradation of social-ecological systems, these schools would prefer not to be part of the problem. However, environmental education/education for sustainable development (EE/ESD) in schools does not reflect the transformative rhetoric of academic discourse. Research into this ‘rhetoric-reality gap’ has focused either on academic discourse or the psychology of individual teachers; there is a lack of critical research on teachers-in-context. This enquiry explores the notion of inherent contradictions in developing a sustainable school (however subjects define this). It applies an Activity Theory framework designed to identify contradictions within ‘activity systems’ (e.g. schools). The primary method is a semi-structured interview conducted with fifteen teachers/headteachers in twelve schools (primary and secondary). The thesis offers a resource-efficient qualitative interview process that can bring Activity Theory to school-based research with minimum disruption and outlines a streamlined process of dilemma analysis. The data highlights contradictions in the way that schools conduct EE/ESD noting that these are often not recognised by educators themselves. Five different responses to contradictions are identified, including ‘expansive learning’ that redefines the activity itself. In terms of an ESD1/ESD2 framework, this might be termed ‘ESD 3’. Four approaches that schools may adopt in relation to sustainability are also outlined.An empowering vision of schools – and society – as autopoietic systems, i.e. as both products and producers, suggests that social reality is not as inevitable as it seems. By confronting contradictions, educators demonstrate the adaptive capacity required by young people if they are to engage in remodelling their world.Finally, the thesis proposes combining a two-sided conception of ESD with Activity Theory, potentially to the mutual benefit of both. Investigating this further is one of a number of options for further research.
Date of Award10 Jul 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorSteve Gough (Supervisor)


  • education for sustainable development
  • activity theory
  • Sustainable development

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