Sustainability: ambiguity and aspiration in teacher education

Document Type

Book Chapter




Faculty of Regional and Professional Studies


School of Education (RPS) / Centre for Sustainable Regional Futures




This chapter was originally published as: Wooltorton, S. J. (2012). Sustainability: ambiguity and aspiration in teacher education. In Down, Barry and Smyth, John (Eds.). Critical voices in teacher education: teaching for social justice in conservative times (pp. 257-272). Springer.


This chapter offers an activist-based socially critical perspective on the UNESCO-driven agenda to reorient schools and universities towards sustainability. In it, I have bared a range of tensions and constraints that lurk behind sustainability education policies, curriculum documents and local initiatives. I show that in practice, sustainability education is a messy, contested picture with overlays of contradictory visions, oxymoronic objectives and often only barely masked neoliberal agendas. To contextualize this depiction, I sketch issues in the literature around sustainability education, to show that the idea is fraught with a heavily contested, ambivalent centre: one that is challenged from inside and out by a range of vested interests. Nonetheless, a large number of academics struggle to keep alive a notion of sustainability as a radical idea, one that could potentially destabilize the status quo. To illustrate this viewpoint, in a respectful way, I incorporate a place-based story of political quandary and local practice. The outcome of working with people also committed to making the world a better place, and students who think and act from a standpoint of compassion, care and commitment, is worth my personal struggle.