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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Crossing borders through reflective and participatory practice: Learning, researching, teaching and facilitating sustainability

Natalie McGrath, Dora Marinova and Peter Newman
Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP)
Murdoch University

The complexity and diversity in a globalised and rapidly changing world require knowledge and skills by citizens, professionals and leaders that cross the borders of disciplines and institutions, cultures, gender, power, privilege and realities of society. The primary challenge of sustainability in higher education is to prepare sustainability professionals for this. Critical thinking and reflection will be necessary skills. An education in sustainability must therefore nurture these skills and in itself practice and reflect upon its foundational theory and ethic. This article analyses and reflects upon the practice of education at the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy in preparing professionals for sustainability. The analysis has been categorised into the different types of borders that this practice crosses and these include: crossing disciplines, institutions, theory-practice dichotomy, teacher-student dichotomy and difference. The article demonstrates that the best practice case studies within the analysis are closely aligned to the theoretical foundations that guide the ethic of education at ISTP. The writing of this article was in itself an act of reflection necessary for the ongoing process of an education in sustainability.


The current era of globalisation is witness to rapid transmigration and change. Local conditions are diverse and complex and subject to both opportunities and obstacles that are unprecedented within human history. The global power structures that have become entrenched through capitalistic forces have created a world of vast and tragic inequity. Spiraling environmental decline is an ongoing consequence and cause of this. The minority in the world who do have access to opportunities are faced with a choice and ultimately a responsibility to initiate change for the better.

Sustainability is a field of education and research which is searching for solutions to a more just, equitable and peaceful global order that protects and conserves the environment. The challenge of sustainability in higher education is to prepare professionals for the dilemmas and demands that arise in practice. Sustainability professionals will be required to cross traditional borders in order to find, initiate and sustain solutions of relevance to the real world. Critical thinking and reflection will be necessary skills. An education in sustainability must therefore nurture these skills and in itself practice and reflect upon its foundational theory and ethic.

The writing of this article was in itself an act of reflection necessary for the ongoing process of an education in sustainability. Section I provides a review of the theoretical framework that guides the teaching, learning and researching at the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP), Murdoch University. The integral relationship between the theory and practice at ISTP is presented through the use of best practice case studies in Section II.

Section I: Theoretical framework

The teaching, learning and researching at the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy reflects and contributes to the recent and growing fields of sustainability and transciplinarity in higher education. The first part of this section provides a brief overview of some important developments. Secondly, a short critique of normal professionalism is provided and an alternative paradigm of development is suggested. Thirdly, a synthesis of literature supporting the importance of reflective practice in higher education for sustainability is presented.

Higher education and sustainability

Sustainability can be broadly defined as a framework of principles and philosophy of practice that engage people and organisations in a systematic approach towards better environmental and social health whilst simultaneously allowing economic wellbeing. Sustainability emphasises the importance of the local, of knowledge and action, but relates this to a broader global perspective in which interrelationships are recognised (Newman & Kenworthy, 1999; Government of Western Australia, 2003).

An education in sustainability increases awareness of the complexity and interrelationships of environmental, economic, social, political and technical systems and also increases respect for the diversity of voice that exists amongst cultures, race, religion, ethnic groups, geographic localities and intergenerational populations (Wheeler & Byrne, 2003). The Talloires and Kyoto Declarations, the Copernicus University Charter for Sustainable Development and other international statements represent growing global consensus on higher education for sustainability. This consensus is based around the promotion in universities of sustainability in all disciplines; research on sustainability issues; the greening of university operations; engaging in academic cooperation; forming partnerships with government, NGOs, industry and the community; and the moral obligation towards sustainability (Corcoran et al., 2002; Calder & Clugston, 2003).

Transdisciplinarity is a growing field of education and research within higher education that holds great potential to make an important contribution to a sustainable change (Marinova & McGrath, 2004). A transdisciplinary approach focuses on the dynamics of simultaneous action of several layers of reality beyond the disciplinary framework (Nicolescu, 1997). The goal of transdisciplinarity is the holistic understanding of the world and the unity of knowledge that is required. Such approaches could provide people not only with the tools to understand reality but also to confront the changes taking place around them. They develop a new vision and a new experience of learning (Morin, 1999). Transdisciplinarity is a growing field of education and research that provides a framework for the participation of society as a whole and work towards global sustainability, with universities as one actor.

Challenging normal professionalism: A new paradigm

University of Sussex's Robert Chambers (1993 p3) critiques a normal professionalism which "refers to the thinking, values, methods and behavior dominant in a profession or discipline". He argues that the core-periphery structure of knowledge and knowledge generation in normal professionalism encourages actors in universities, government and industry to move geographically to larger urban centers, to specialise rather than to diversify, and to move upwards through hierarchies of power and privilege whose apexes decide which and whose knowledge counts (Chambers, 1993; Chambers, 1997).

Normal professionalism is based upon the dominant modernist development paradigm of the twentieth century with centralised, specialised and hierarchical planning and a focus upon investment in infrastructure and capital. This ignored the social, cultural and quality of life issues which are diverse, complex and unquantifiable and are thus deemed difficult. In recent decades this approach has been heavily critiqued by a growing body of literature which advocates the importance of transformation through participation, empowerment and capacity building.

The theoretical traditions of critical and interpretative social science and of feminism and post-modernism have contributed to the ongoing development of this alternative literature. In a critique of the positivist Cartesian philosophy these traditions recognise that knowledge is a form of power that is socially constructed by changing social and historical processes, relations, perspectives and interpretations, and instead emphasise the need for multiple discourses, collaborative and non-exploitative relations, the placement of the professional within the project and a praxis that is transformative and emancipative (Herron, 1996; Neuman, 2000). This has started to challenge and transform the role of professionalism.

Two paradigms of development are now evident. These include firstly, a paradigm of 'things' (modernisation through infrastructure and capital), and secondly, a paradigm of 'life' (participatory and empowering development). Actors within academic, government and industry institutional systems are now faced with a growing personal and professional choice in the face of this paradigm shift.

Reflective practice in higher education for sustainability

The global environmental and social challenge is above all a crisis of values, ideas, perspectives and knowledge and is thus primarily a crisis of education (Cortese, 2003). Bawden calls for a new paradigm of education which develops a new systemic discourse as a foundation for responsible, sustainable, and inclusive wellbeing and also where universities better engage the community, government and industry in this discourse (in Taylor & Fransman, 2004).

There is a growing recognition today that in order for development to be responsible, sustainable and inclusive it is imperative that the foundations are rooted within a local framework of knowledge that is based firmly upon people's cultural values (Thaman, 2002). Sustainability requires recognition of different knowledge systems, the equal importance of tacit, lay, intuitive and also intellectual knowledge. This differs greatly from normal professionalism which separates facts from values in a 'conceptual alienation' (Fien, 2002).

An education in sustainability must emphasise the development of critical thinking and reflection. Cultivating critical thought in this regard requires an emphasis upon valuing abilities to transcend ordinary elements in language, to question assumptions and worldviews, and to mediate differences between contesting values and knowledge systems (Wals & Jickling, 2002). Transformation through critical thought and reflection should ideally take place at the personal (values, assumptions, attitudes, behaviour, lifestyles etc); social (reframing realities at household, community, regional, national or global level) and discursive (challenging and opening for debate the underlying assumptions, values and worldviews behind knowledge and learning). Experiential learning is complementary to transformative learning in which theory and practice are unified in accordance with Friere's praxis, whereby theory is grounded in and leads to active practice (Taylor & Fransman, 2004). Reflective education, including transformative and experiential learning models, develop skills such as: independence and collaborative learning, interpersonal skills, ability to view situations from multiple perspectives, organisational skills, introspection, self-awareness and self-assessment, communication skills, use of evidence to support or evaluate a decision or position, decision-making skills, to accept responsibility for decisions and actions, research skills, and skills of implementation and application (Ashcroft & Foreman-Peck, 1994; Doerre Ross, 1989; Dewey, 1933).

In reflective education it is not only the student but also the teacher that needs to be aware of and examine their attitudes, values and behavior (Ashcroft & Foreman-Peck, 1994). Schon (1983) writes that reflective practice is influenced by the practitioner's appreciation system including values, knowledge, theories and practices. In the classroom the appreciation system of the teacher generally guides the types of dilemmas that are recognised within the classroom, the manner in which they are framed and re-framed in addition to judgments on desirable solutions (Doerre Ross, 1989). Dewey, a founder of the progressive school movement, advocated in the early twentieth century that teachers should be more like facilitators and guide and help rather than direct and impose their own interpretation of knowledge which is based upon an individual appreciation system. This has since been supported throughout the twentieth century by a growing body of literature (Dewey, 1938; Hogan, 2002). The educational process then becomes participatory and engaging which is particularly important in relation to sustainability issues (Pretty, 1995). A facilitative approach to teaching and learning thus also requires ongoing critical reflection and transformation by the teacher as well as the student.

Section II: Crossing borders in learning, researching, teaching and facilitation

In the current era of globalisation we are witnessing the creation of a condition of 'diaspora space' which is characterised by 'the intersectionality of contemporary conditions of transmigrancy of people, capital, commodities and culture' (Brah, 1996 p242). Sustainability professionals will be required to cross a diversity of borders in practice. This section utilises case studies from the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University to demonstrate how a transdisciplinary, reflective and participatory approach to research and education in sustainability can prepare emerging professionals for their life long challenge of border crossing within a new paradigm of professionalism for sustainability.

Crossing disciplines

Global and local realities are in the majority harsh and tragic. The sustainable solutions that are required are complex and are between and beyond the traditional disciplines and paradigms within the Western knowledge structures. Schon (1987 p3) comments that professionals can stay on the high hard ground of specialised research-based theory and techniques or can choose to descend to the swamp where the solutions are messy and require more than pure technical resolutions but are also where the problems are of greatest concern. The teaching of Sustainability for Professionals (see Box A) demonstrates such an attempt to cross the disciplines and traditional realms of the professions by confronting professionals with the complexity of the real world.

Box A: Sustainability for Professionals
The unit Sustainability for Professionals was run for the first time in February 2004 in the week prior to semester. The primary aim of the course was to examine how professions can think practically about sustainability and how this could be broader, more long term, integrative and participatory. A number of professionals from government, industry, community and academia were invited to speak and attend panel discussions. Topics included mining, sustainability assessment, Indigenous perspectives, natural resources, governance and participation. Tools for sustainability within each of the topics were examined.

The unit was offered to professionals on a fee-paying basis and also to currently enrolled students. The professionals attended the first four days whilst the students were required to attend a daylong tutorial on the fifth.

Teaching, researching and learning means integrating different methodologies, disciplines and knowledge frameworks in a process that is of relevance to the real world. The development of the Pilbara Regional Strategy (see Box B) through the teaching and particularly the assessment component of the unit Global Environmental Issues (see Box C) is a best practice example of how real understanding of and real contribution to real issues can be achieved.

Box B: Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy
The Western Australia Sustainability Strategy highlights the need for developing a methodology for Regional Sustainability Strategies. The Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy was initiated in May 2004 and is a partnership project involving the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP), the Western Australian Sustainability Roundtable of the Premier and Cabinet, the Western Australian Planning Commission, the local governments through the Pilbara Regional Council, the Pilbara Development Commission and major mining companies.

The over-riding mission statement as outlined in the terms of reference is "to help create a better future for the Pilbara by applying the ideas of sustainable development as set out in the State Sustainability Strategy whilst creating a methodology for doing Regional Sustainability Strategies that could be applied to other regions". The project team is composed of Murdoch staff and postgraduate students from ISTP.

Another aspect of crossing disciplinary boundaries is the collaboration between different sections of the university (see Box C). University departments should set examples of effective teamwork in the delivery of interdisciplinary courses, such as Sustainable Development or Local Governance offered at Murdoch University and coordinated by ISTP.

Box C: Global Environmental Issues
Global Environmental Issues is a semester length unit and is divided into three main areas: (1) Global Sustainability: Trends and Goals; (2) Global and Regional Sustainability: Theory and Case Studies; and (3) Global and Regional Sustainability: Institutional and Change Processes.

In 2005 the unit title will be modified to reflect its new regional focus which is being taught for the first time in 2004. The course is a hybrid between the natural sciences and social sciences and is run in partnership between ISTP and Environmental Science at Murdoch University. It emphasises the need for a holistic understanding of global environmental issues, social, political, economic and technical in order to work towards effective change mechanisms.

The tutorial assessment is based upon the facilitation of a tutorial in addition to participation (including active listening) throughout the semester. In 2003 the students were given an optional project to investigate an aspect of sustainability (eg education or mining) in the Pilbara. This information has been used to create a data base and formed the first stage of the Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy. In 2004 the students have again been offered an optional project which relates to the Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy. Topics include: Indigenous regional agreements; education and training; indicators; regional governance and a participatory school project which is seeking youth participation through art into visions for the future.

All outlined case studies in this paper are initiatives with intent for transdiciplinarity. Integration of social, economic, environmental aspects is a most important aspect within each case. Crossing discipline boundaries and working on different levels of reality is a major component of the work students and teachers do as reflective practitioners.

Crossing institutions

Sustainability requires the active engagement of industry, government, community and universities within a process approach. The engagement of these institutions is imperative for universities to help influence change and development and also for the theoretical models being developed within universities to retain real world relevance.

All of the case studies within this article engage these actors in the search for solutions to sustainability. Students and professionals from all sectors of society were encouraged to work together in an assessment model in the Sustainability for Professionals unit (Box A). The Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow (see Box D) and the Global Environmental Issues component (see Box C) in the development of a Draft Regional Sustainability Strategy aim to actively engage other sectors and institutions, particularly within the Pilbara region, in addition to the university's involvement.

Box D: Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow
Dialogue with the Pilbara: Newman Tomorrow was a participatory forum held in Newman on 30 September 2004, hosted by the Western Australian Minister for Planning and Infrastructure with the aim of planning Newman's future.

Newman is a small mining town in the heart of the Pilbara, Western Australia. Murdoch University provided partnership support to the process which forms part of the Future Visioning Stage of the Pilbara Regional Sustainbility Strategy. The forum is supported by the Shire of East Pilbara, the Pilbara Development Commission and BHP Billiton Iron Ore. The steering team is compromised of community, local and State government and industry members who are overseeing the process to ensure its appropriateness to the local setting. Approximately 130 people, including Indigenous representatives, were divided randomly into groups of 10 to engage in dialogue with the guidance of a facilitator.

The Pilbara Regional Strategy through the Dialogue and the Global Environmental Issues projects will provide an integrated draft framework for sustainability in the Pilbara for public comment.

Crossing the theory-practice dichotomy

Higher education has typically followed a technocratic model which pursues a simple sequence of conceptual theory being learnt first at school and then typically is later applied in professional practice. Sergiovanni (1986) notes that contrary to this style of education most "professional knowledge is created in use as professionals face ill-defined, unique and changing problems, and decide on courses of action" (Sergiovanni, 1986 p. 28). The integration of theory and practice is considered to be an essential component of preparing professionals for practice (Bullough Jr., 1989).

The unification of theory and practice at ISTP has been achieved in a number of ways within the case studies. Within the curriculum of Global Environmental Issues (see Box C) the students are encouraged to reflect on the theory and practice of facilitation and participation with theoretical materials available in the unit and unit reader in addition to the practical assessment component in the tutorials. The Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy has enabled undergraduate and postgraduate students to cross the boundaries of theory and practice and participate in real world learning situations. The students are required to not only engage with the theory, for example of Indigenous regional agreements, but also to make contact and engage government, industry and community in their work. The participatory school project has vastly extended student learning of the theory and practice of participation. The use of the previous year's data has this year provided an opportunity for action and reflection in relation to wider methodological issues of regional sustainability that is guided by the teachers.

The Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy (Box B) and the Dialogue with the Pilbara (Box D) have provided a number of postgraduate students with an opportunity to explore their theoretical frameworks through critical reflection in a real world setting in terms of government policy, industry practice and community engagement. This in turn provides a fresh perspective to bring into the classroom for those PhD candidates who are also tutors.

Assessment in Sustainability for Professionals (Box A) was based upon case studies of innovation in sustainability and students were encouraged to partner with professionals, either teaching or taking the course, with the aim of publishing the case studies on the Western Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet's website. Networking to this end occurred and was assisted through morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea during the unit. Students and professionals were encouraged to discuss both the theoretical and practical dimensions of the case studies.

Crossing the teacher-student dichotomy

The teacher-student dichotomy is based upon a model of teaching in which the teacher already has all of the answers and the student is required to deposit these answers in a banking approach. This approach discourages critical thought and reflection and the transformation that this entails. It also creates a situation where the teacher is in a position of power and the student is relatively powerless. A sustainable future will require the sharing of power in a model whereby individuals are empowered and encouraged to think in a critical manner.

Wals and Jickling (2002) discuss this transformation and note a number of changes that are required to move from a banking model of education to an approach in which students are engaged and encouraged to think critically. These changes include:

The project approach to assessment in Global Environmental Issues (see Box C) places the tutor in a position of facilitator and co-learner rather than as a teacher who already has the answers. This model has evidently empowered the students and has further encouraged research and learning in addition to openness with the tutor beyond the typical assessment model. A few of the students appeared uncomfortable with the model initially but overcome this discomfort quickly. In addition, the tutorials require to be facilitated by a student and this places the tutor in an equal position with the students as either co-facilitator or participant. The position of the tutor as assessor obviously means that this border is never completely erased but a facilitative approach helps to cross it for moments.

Within the Pilbara Regional Sustainability Strategy (Box B), the PhD candidates are placed in a position in which they are informing senior members of staff. Respect for all in a team approach has rendered the hierarchal structure of the university to become invisible.

Crossing difference

Sustainability requires the creation of an understanding of shared values and ethics needed for inter-species and inter-generational global justice, equity and peace. The foundations of this shared understanding will require tolerance and respect for other cultures, colours, religions, genders, opinions, animals and plants. Thaman (2002 p6) states that universities "need people who value different perspectives from their own, and who, through example and advocacy, help others, especially students, to do the same". This will necessarily involve developing a social critical consciousness that recognises the existence of inequalities of overt and hidden power and the oppressive elements of human society in addition to the recognition of the interrelatedness of all elements on the planet.

Teaching, researching and learning require the ability to relinquish power, a desire to realise the empowerment of others. It also involves being able to dream and to envision in a collective. Facilitation is the most appropriate approach in this regard.

Within the Global Environmental Issues (see Box C) curriculum in 2004 the participatory and facilitative aspects have been expanded through the inclusion of notes on participation and facilitation in the unit guide, an extra section in the course reader in addition to two workshops and a lecture. A major aim of this material is to generate reflection between the students about the complexities of difference within the search for sustainable solutions and how a participatory and facilitative ethic can best approach these differences. The Dialogue with the Pilbara process (see Box D) gave the PhD students experience at the organisational level of reconciling differences between government, industry and community more broadly in addition to cultural differences that exist within and between these sectors. The PhD students were also given an opportunity to facilitate the discussions during the day.


The challenges that face humankind today demand sustainability professionals who are trained to cross borders through critical and reflective practice. This article has utilised best practice case studies to analyse and reflect upon the practice of education at ISTP in preparing professionals for sustainability. These case studies demonstrate that the best practice is closely aligned to the theoretical foundations that guide the ethic of education at ISTP.

The essence of the ethic of education at ISTP when distilled to its most basic of levels is that of love and compassion beyond the borders, whether it be in learning, teaching, researching and facilitating sustainability. It is thus most appropriate to conclude with the words of Paulo Freire (1998 p3) who writes "it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented, and well-thought-out capacity to love".


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Authors: Natalie McGrath is a Lecturer at the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy (ISTP), Murdoch University where she currently teaches in Sustainability for Professionals and Global Environmental Issues. Her research interests cover sustainability, participatory research methods, women's development and indigenous culture. Natalie is currently involved in a number of inter-disciplinary research projects in partnership with government and industry investigating cross-cultural housing policy and regional sustainability.

Dora Marinova is an Associate Professor and Head of ISTP, Murdoch University where she teaches in the areas of demography and women and development. She is currently supervising 14 PhD students on topics related to sustainability. Her research interests cover technology policy and development, sustainable business and partnerships. She has published over 60 refereed journal articles and book chapters and has conducted research for Western Australian and Commonwealth Government departments.

Peter Newman is Director of ISTP, Murdoch University, Chair of the Western Australian Sustainability Roundtable and Commissioner for Sustainability for New South Wales. He is a world-renowned expert on sustaina. Peter recently worked for the Western Australian Government on the development of its State Sustainability Strategy as well as conducted research for international organisations, such as the United Nations Environmental Program, industry and government.

Contact person: Natalie McGrath
ISTP, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia
Phone: +61 8 9360 6104 Fax: +61 8 9360 6421 Email: N.McGrath@murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: McGrath, N., Marinova, D. and Newman, P. (2005). Crossing borders through reflective and participatory practice: Learning, researching, teaching and facilitating sustainability. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/mcgrath.html

Copyright 2005 Natalie McGrath, Dora Marinova and Peter Newman. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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