Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

Is Australia on the right path towards sustainability?

Daniella Tilbury
Director, Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES)

A recently published review of environmental education and sustainability practices in Australia has provided a vision of the task ahead as Australia moves to respond to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014).

A National Review of Environmental Education and its Contribution to Sustainability in Australia is a five-volume series produced by the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) based at Macquarie University. Each volume provides sector specific recommendations and highlights the opportunities for future work. Volume 2 focuses on school education. The research was undertaken on behalf of the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage and was funded by the Natural Heritage Trust.

The study provides a snapshot of environmental education and its contribution to a number of sectors within Australia. It looks at current sustainability practices and identifies educational needs across sectors such as business and industry, schools, the community and higher education. 

The research indicates that a major shift from environmentalism to sustainability is needed if we are to solve environmental problems. This implies a reorientation of the way educators, businesses, governments and communities think about, and teach, environmental issues. Education for sustainability, also referred to as ‘learning for sustainability or ‘education for sustainable development’, attempts to move beyond education in and about the environment to focus on equipping students with the necessary skills to be able to take positive action to address a range of sustainability issues.

The review examines national strategies for sustainability from around the world and the frameworks they offer, and looks at emerging trends. It also calls for a move away from the traditional ‘doom and gloom’ approach when dealing with environmental problems by cleaning up the symptoms of underlying problems. The key to change should be the development of specific education and learning strategies in sustainability. New learning approaches will not only help explore sustainability but also build skills that enable change.

The current situation in school education

In Australia, schools are the dominant focus of much Environmental Education thought and practice. However, curriculum policy and guideline documents across the States have been slow to react to the thrust for Environmental Education and have only recently begun to take on the language of sustainability. There are few Environmental Education programs with a sustainability focus and even fewer courses that promote learning for sustainability. 

Environmental Education remains a non-mandatory component of schools (with the exception of New South Wales) and still struggles for acceptance in the mainstream curriculum in Australia. Across the States and Territories, curriculum policy and guidelines documents have been slow to react to sustainability and only few have recently begun to take on its language and concepts.

As well as integrating sustainability content into the curriculum, whole school approaches to learning for sustainability need to be established. They will need to involve the infrastructure, management, curriculum and teaching approaches of the school. Rather than simply focusing on action elements of the curriculum there is a need to move toward a participatory approach based on equity, sharing, listening, reflection, co-learning, negotiation, ‘critical’ thinking, cooperation, collaboration, trust, futures-orientation and democracy. Building these capacities is a core objective of learning for sustainability and what differentiates it from previous Environmental Education approaches.

Whole school approaches, which involve staff, students and community in learning for change toward sustainability, are beginning to emerge. Sustainable Schools, for example, encourages schools to consider their approaches to teaching practice, curricula, infrastructure and management policies in light of sustainability principles and processes. Such initiatives are beginning to shift approaches to Environmental Education within schools from singular, teacher-led, knowledge-centred activities to student-centred, action-oriented, systemic approaches to learning for sustainability.

While some teacher education and professional development courses may include Environmental Education concerns, these programs generally do not adequately prepare teachers to effectively use learning for sustainability approaches to Environmental Education in the classroom.

The involvement of the school community through partnerships is becoming increasingly important. As schools look outside their grounds, Environmental Education Centres are becoming influential in guiding schools and communities toward local change for sustainability.


The research undertaken by ARIES has revealed a number of key needs with respect to strategic frameworks in learning for sustainability. The review proposes 29 recommendations derived from these key needs. They are listed in the summary of findings and in the full report of Volume 2 of the review. The recommendations identify practical steps at a policy, practice and research level that could strengthen the contribution of Environmental Education toward sustainability within school education in Australia.


Tilbury, D, Coleman, V and Garlick, D 2005 A National Review of Environmental Education and its Contribution to Sustainability in Australia: School Education. Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage and the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES), Canberra.

  • Volume 2 of A National Review of Environmental Education and its Contribution to Sustainability in Australia is available online in pdf format. A summary of findings is also available online
  • The full five-volume report may be accessed online at http://www.aries.mq.edu.au/project.htm. A hardcopy of the report may be ordered from the ARIES Coordinator at ariescoordinator@gse.mq.edu.au.




Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Sustainable development
School culture
Environmental Education
Educational planning
Educational evaluation
Education policy
Curriculum planning