In April I presented at the Association of National Teaching Fellows and CATE Conference. I am catching up with myself to belatedly (!) post the slides and a summary from this event.

My presentation was, in many ways, a response to the very brilliant QAA/Advance HE Guidance on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The guide helped me to really conceptualise ESD as ‘the process of creating curriculum structures and subject-relevant content to support sustainable development’ (2021, p2). It helped me to see sustainability in higher education as being all pervasive theme, present in how we act as individual citizens and organisationally (e.g. our personal approaches to waste and power, and, organisationally how we manage our estates, our attitudes to travel and flexible working, and so much more!), how we educate and inform students (i.e. are they aware of the environmental and sustainability implications and issues in their subject area, be it accounting or zoology) and, how we equip students to face the challenges of tomorrow (i.e. are we giving them the curiosity and skills to go out and make a difference?). This guide is so informative I’d recommend anyone working in a teaching or development role should take a look.

As I grappled with the idea of ESD it became apparent that there was a great deal of synergy between ESD and Pedagogic Action Research (PedAR). I need to stress that I am not wholly original here, Woolerton and colleagues made this link too, albeit in a slightly different way back in 2015. In the conference session I proposed the action research may provide a framework to help us partially address aspects of ESD.

Lin Norton and I have articulated the characteristics of PedAR in numerous places (see Arnold & Norton, 2018, 2020), but Norton’s definition is helpfully simple and clear: PedAR is ‘to systematically investigate one’s own teaching/learning facilitation practice with the dual aim of modifying practice and contributing to theoretical knowledge’ (2009, p.2).  In brief PedAR: changes practice and the context of practice; challenges established ways of working; brings methodical rigour, but remains a flexible research approach to evolve with the situation; contributes to wider theoretical knowledge as well as local practice; and is ethically aware at every turn. PedAr is often conceptualised as a cycle of reflecting on practice, scoping a way forward, making changes to practice, researching to understand those changes, and establishing learning from that process. Reflection is omnipresent. I offered ESD and PedAR as siblings – the level of complementary characteristics between the two frameworks is strong. See below for a tabular summary.  

Features of action researchFeature of ESD (QAA/AdvanceHE, 2021)
AR brings change which is socially responsible and for ‘good’ – “There is, more than ever, an impetus to work together for the common good of humanity” (Norton & Arnold, 2021)ESD is part of an educational change agenda – creating a better world
AR changes should be aligned with organisation requirements – organisation, interest, questions/needESD is best aligned with institutional strategy
AR should be inclusive and ask who is heard (and who is not heard?)  ESD involves multiple stake holders inc. students, professional services, academics and more
AR is inherently critical and with stakeholders it requires multiple perspectives within a system to be consideredESD requires joined up and critical thinking to resolve complex challenges  
AR is concerned with emancipation and social justiceESD is concerned with social justice (and of course this is fundamental to the SDGs)
AR eats wicked problems for breakfast! (see for example Rittel & Webbe, 1973)  ESD is rich in ‘wicked problems’ – the nature of the challenges related to sustainability and climate change gives a high level of interconnection and complexity
AR is underpinned by reflection – AR offers strategies for this including reflection on and in action, reflection using literature as a prompt and collaborative reflection.ESD (demonstrated through UNESCOs competencies) include working with complexity, innovation and reflection

So why might it matter that there is an overlap in the two approaches….?

Given the synergy I believe PedAR and indeed AR more generally, may be able to help in a number of ways ….

  1. It offers a framework to work directly with students on projects of social action and social justice. Rather than working on passive projects, action research as a project framework can lead students to make an immediate contribution to the pressing problems of our time. This may be especially applicable to students on placement or students on work-based courses, but it may also be applicable to students working on projects with an element of civic engagement. Students themselves can use action research to learn, research and take-action in the socio-environmental space.
  2. PedAR particularly offers a framework to develop teaching to enhance ESD. This can be built in to PgC frameworks, or Professional Standards Framework provision, or it can be done more informally. Projects can be planned to directly address SDGs or other markers, for example with a focus on reducing inequality in teaching, working on gender equality or improving well-being. Such projects could also focus on specific discipline elements of ESD. Using PedAR allows research to be linked to urgent action, whilst attending to the complexity, moral dimensions and collaborative elements of ESD.
  3. Given that action research has a long tradition and there are many published works in this area, AR can provide a reference point on how some of the complex aspects of ESD can be attended to. Scholars have already looked at strategies for working with wicked problems (e.g. Blythe et al., 2008), they have already considered how to embed reflection (e.g. McIntosh, 2010; Simmons et al., 2021) and they have already walked the line between institutional compliance and disruption (Couture, 1994) when addressing tricky issues. Even if those working in the ESD space don’t opt to use AR approaches, there may be a value in looking at what has already been done.

To find out more about how to get started with action research consider the following sources:

Here are the event slides:

Arnold, L., & Norton, L. (2018). HEA Action Research: Practice Guide. HEA.

Arnold, L., & Norton, L. (2020). Problematising pedagogical action research in formal teaching courses and academic development: a collaborative autoethnography. Educational Action Research, 00(00), 1–18.

Blythe, S., Grabill, J. T., & Riley, K. (2008). Action Research and Wicked Environmental Problems: Exploring Appropriate Roles for Researchers in Professional Communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 22(3), 272–298.

Couture, J.-C. (1994). Dracula as action researcher. Educational Action Research, 2(1), 127–132.

McIntosh, P. (2010). Action research and reflective practice : creative and visual methods to facilitate reflection and learning. In Action research and reflective practice : creative and visual methods to facilitate reflection and learning. Routledge.

Norton, L. (2009). Action research in teaching and learning: a practical guide to conducting pedagogical research in universities. In Action research in teaching and learning: a practical guide to conducting pedagogical research in universities. Routledge.

Norton, L., & Arnold, L. (2021). Editorial. Educational Action Research, 29(2), 167–172.

QAA, & AdvanceHE. (2021). Education for Sustainable Development Guidance. QAA/AdvanceHE.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (2017). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Foundations of the Planning Enterprise: Critical Essays in Planning Theory: Volume 1, 4(December 1969), 67–169.

Simmons, M., McDermott, M., Eaton, S. E., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2021). Reflection as pedagogy in action research. Educational Action Research, 29(2), 245–258.