Education for Sustainable Development in English

Education for sustainable development

Brief Description

This project assessed the impact of ecocriticism on students’ awareness of environmental issues by means of questionnaires and focus groups. It aimed to assess the baseline awareness of environmental issues in English undergraduates at Bath Spa University and see how taking different modules modified it. It also aimed to disseminate examples of best practice in education for sustainable development (ESD).


Promoting (ESD) is an urgent moral and political priority. Within English, the field of ecocriticism has been slowly growing in recognition, with the publication of introductory undergraduate texts and the development of organisations such as the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment of which there is a UK branch. A number of HEIs now offer undergraduate modules in ecocriticism and related topics. In the USA, where ecocriticism has had more of an impact on English, ASLE has encouraged and published research into the pedagogy of ESD, but there has thus far been no research in this area in the UK.


A survey of ESD pedagogy was undertaken, along with a detailed analysis of the place of ecocriticism in the curriculum at Bath Spa University. Quantitative (questionnaire) and qualitative (focus group) evidence of ESD awareness was gathered before and after students taking certain modules. The selection included 3 modules in which ESD awareness might be thought to increase, and 2 controls with no specific ecocritical content. We also conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with students taking the module ‘Writing and Environmental Crisis’. The quantitative analysis gave a broad but crude sense of the impact of ESD (with controls), while the qualitative analyses explored in more detail just what the students learned, and why and how they learned it. The interviews also questioned students about their broader commitments to sustainability, and invited suggestions as to how it might be promoted more successfully in the subject.

Learning Outcomes

[adapted from an article in the journal Pedagogy, see below under ‘Outputs’]

Although rates of return to the questionnaire were good, the quality of responses was poor because of time constraints and the lack of student stake in the outcome.  However, the returns suggest:

  • moderate levels of environmental commitment  with no clear variation over the course of a degree
  • Very low levels of environmental knowledge, be it global or local
  • Significantly increasing knowledge over the years of concepts such as sustainable development and ecocriticism

There is significant interest and concern about environmental issues among students, but also a serious knowledge deficit with which modules in the humanities must come to terms.  Given this deficit, it is possible that even an English module should involve students in collecting and discussing basic environmental knowledge, otherwise they are liable merely to repeat received ideas and environmental platititudes.

Using games such as the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ in the classroom can help to contextualise individual action and reveal where political and economic pressure is best applied.  Field trips or learning journals can enhance students’ sense of ownership of sustainability concepts. It may also be possible to engage students in productive critique of their own institution’s values and practices.  But lecturers need to acknowledge that ESD is teaching with an overt political agenda and does not therefore sit altogether comfortably with student autonomy.


Ecocriticism is a thriving field within academic literary research. However, its effectiveness in promoting sustainability seems not to have tested, and it remains pedagogically under-theorised. This paper gives a brief outline of ecocriticism for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it. It then goes on to describe a project on Education for Sustainable Development funded by the English Subject Centre. Combining the results of that project with an analysis of ESD research in the field of environmental education (mostly at school level), the paper argues that ecocriticism must move beyond the Environmental Education model that has characterised it thus far. Taking students in search of wilderness epiphany has some educational value, but fails to address systemic and political dimensions of sustainability. Furthermore, British ecocritics in particular face a choice between literary analysis of canonical literature (which will probably fail to fulfil the transformative ambitions of ESD) and a truly environment-centred curriculum that shaped by economic and ideological questions as well as cultural ones (thereby forfeiting the distinctive pleasure and learning associated with great literature).

  • The project is also summarised, together suggestions for addressing the issues raised by the research, on the ASLE UK website.

Project leader

Dr Greg Garrard
School of English and Creative Studies
Bath Spa University

Research Period

2005 – 2007