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Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in Education: Explorations in the Context of Sustainability

Dr Stephen Sterling is a co-director of the Bureau for Environmental Education and Training (BEET), and an independent consultant in environmental and sustainability education working in the academic and NGO fields in the UK and internationally. He was a founder of the Education for Sustainability Programme at London South Bank University (LSBU), London, where he is an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Cross-Curriculum Studies and an academic tutor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at Centre for Research in Education and the Environment at the University of Bath, and a member of the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.

He has an extensive publications record, including Good Earth-Keeping: Education, Training and Awareness for a Sustainable Future (UNED-UK 1992), Education for Sustainability (Earthscan 1996) (with John Huckle), Education for Sustainable Development in the Schools Sector (Sustainable Development Education Panel, 1998), and Sustainable Education – Re-visioning Learning and Change, (Green Books/Schumacher Society, 2001). His interest lies in the interface between systemic thinking, ecological thinking, learning and sustainability and this was the subject of his doctoral research. He is the lead researcher/writer for the WWF Scotland Linking-Thinking project, introducing systemic thinking in education (WWF UK 2004).

Contact the author: srs@srsterling.org.uk

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postmodern ecological worldview, epistemology, systems
thinking, whole systems thinking, holism, sustainability, complexity,
paradigm and paradigm change, epistemic and transformative learning,
educational change and management, educational design


"I have had the personal and professional pleasure of knowing Stephen Sterling’s work for almost twenty years, and over this time I have observed the careful development of his innovative ideas, and noted their growing recognition and scholarly impact. Stephen’s PhD thesis draws on many years thinking and writing, and on much work on the ground with teachers, students, researchers and policymakers, both in Europe and farther afield. The thesis brings together ecological thought, systems approaches and complexity, and does this in a way that makes it directly relevant to theorizing about how we can live together well on this Earth, and about the nature and management of learning towards that end. Stephen’s research is highly original and generates an innovative theory of learning and change which has the potential for very wide practical applications as Stephen - and hopefully others - continues to explore how education can help us work (and learn) towards a more sustainable society.

"This thesis is a substantial document, but one that repays careful study. I warmly recommend it to you."

Professor William Scott
Director: Centre for Research in Education and the Environment


The main research problem is why education as a whole, and environmental and sustainability education in particular, are limited in their ability to make a positive difference to the human or environmental prospect by helping assure a more sustainable future - and what bases and qualities of change might lead them to become more transformative in this regard. The research takes a systems view of the subject matter, and five nesting contextual levels are explored:
1. the nature of what appears to be an emerging postmodern ecological worldview (PEW) and, by implication, the nature of paradigm change through learning;
2. the nature of whole systems thinking;
3. implications of 1.and 2. for change to the dominant educational paradigm;
4. the revisioning of environmental and sustainability education, seen as a subsystem of education as a whole.
5. the nature of sustainability, which provides an integrative and overriding context for the research.

The structure of the Thesis reflects these nesting levels.
The difference between ‘systems as discipline’, and ‘systems as worldview’ is elaborated, and the historical and current bases of a more encompassing whole systems thinking that reflects and articulates an emergent PEW and participative epistemology are explored. Whole systems thinking is presented as a critical syncretisation of the worldview of ecological thought (ecologism), of a co-evolutionary ontology, and the methodology of systems approaches. The PEW is seen as manifesting a third order of change which transcends and subsumes the antecedent yet still current cultural ‘moments’ of modernism (first order) and of deconstructive postmodernism (second order).

A key three-part model of paradigm and experience is developed alongside Bateson’s theory of staged learning levels, and these models are discussed as a basis for understanding transformative learning beyond the limits of modernism and mechanism, of postmodernism and text, and building on insights from revisionary postmodernism, systemisism, ecologism, and complexity theory. These ideas are employed to explore the difficulties, implications and possibility of intentioned paradigm change in education as a whole and in research paradigms. This discussion is then applied in more detail to the area of revisioning environmental and sustainability education, including implications for design and management.



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Main sections *
Title Page, Acknowledgements,
Abstract and List of Contents
7 pp.
310 KB
Preamble 21 pp.
275 KB
Part A - Introduction 89 pp.
631 KB
Part B - Worldviews in Change 119 pp.
758 KB
Part C - Whole Systems Thinking
in Education and Learning
73 pp.
554 KB
Part D - Revisioning Environmental Education through Whole Systems Thinking 36 pp.
403 KB
Part E - Conclusion 15 pp.
257 KB
References 36 pp.
285 KB
Appendix I - Elaboration of Whole Systems Thinking 57 pp.
460 KB
Appendix II (Footnotes and Diagrams) 24 pp. **
5.1 MB

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