Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

What does professional development and learning for environmental sustainability facilitators look like?

Colin Hocking1, Steve Ray2 and Teresa Day2

1Victoria University, Sustainability Group, PO Box 14428,MCMC, Vic 8001
Victorian Association for Environmental Education, Statewide Resource Centre, 150 Palmerston St, Carlton, Vic 3053


This paper describes a major project for identifying and distilling best practice learning and behaviour change for environmental sustainability which is currently underway in Victoria, funded by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), as part of the State’s Learning to Live Sustainably Strategy and Environmental Sustainability Framework. The project pedagogy of transformational learning, framed from extensive experience nationally and internationally, is to bring together experienced sustainability facilitators, to build a shared view of what facilitation for sustainability looks like, and to consider how the frameworks, processes and skills for facilitation can be fostered in others. Key elements of professional learning are drawn from a range of disciplines, including environmental project management, social psychology, community development, advocacy, personal development, and communications practice. The paper discusses how these interplay to produce effective sustainability facilitation. In particular the level levels of operation of the sustainability facilitator need to be clarified and re-framed, as well as the key focus of learning and change, to foster expansion of learning and change beyond the committed minority. Professional learning material also needs to be framed in ways that promote transformative learning and change processes, rather than encouraging prescriptive and transmissive approaches.

Three key learnings: (1) Lead facilitators need to focus on developing the frameworks and skills of newly recruited champions and early adopters so that they in turn can evoke change in other, less engaged audiences; (2) A ‘wormhole’ model can describe the various levels of operation and professional learning of the sustainability facilitator: the personal, inter-personal, network base, organisation and wider community levels; (3) ‘Sustainability facilitation’ requires a combination of defining and implementing actions for change (kicking goals) and deliberate advocacy and long-term strategic planning for ongoing change (shifting the goal-posts).

Key Words

Transformative, behaviour change, models, reflective, participant-based

Introduction: Why the need for professional development?

Consultation and research carried out by the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) as part of the Learning to Live Sustainably Strategy (DSE 2005) has identified a priority need for coordinated, state-wide professional development (PD) support for Education & Behaviour Change (E&BC) practitioners and managers. This derives from the requirements of the Victorian State Government Environmental Sustainability Framework ,which states:

“The Victorian Government has already introduced strategies to improve the sustainability of our rivers and reservoirs, forests and cities. Now we need to take the next step, which is to incorporate environmental sustainability principles into all the things we do.“ (DSE 2005 pg 7)

The PD project will develop the founding stage of a long term program of professional learning support for practitioners and managers. This initiative will make a substantial contribution to meeting Victoria’s need for a pool of skilled practitioners and managers with the capacity to provide the scale and quality of service needed if effective education and behaviour change for environmental sustainability is to be achieved.

Aims of the professional development project

The project aims to achieve a widely agreed framework (best practice philosophy and methodology) for PD in this sector and will develop and trial the first stage of a delivery system for PD. The project is being developed collaboratively between a range of partners including representatives from:

  • The Victorian Association for Environmental Management (VAEE)
  • Victoria University - Institute for Community Engagement and Policy Alternatives
  • Swinburne University - National Institute for Sustainability
  • CERES Environment Park and the Gould League
  • The Western Region Environment Centre
  • Village Well Incorporated

What is education for environmental sustainability?

Education for environmental sustainability is the development of knowledge, skills, values and attitudes leading to changed behaviour in support of environmental sustainability. This is not confined to formal education and includes all the ways in which people learn and change (DSE 2005). For the sake of brevity, it is often also referred to as “sustainability education”, although technically, the two terms have some differences. A critical outcome of education for environmental sustainability, in addition to specific behaviour changes, is an ongoing capacity of citizens to effectively respond to future challenges. Successful sustainability education depends strongly on the learning that comes from active involvement in processes for change that definitions often include an objective or pre-condition of “opportunities for every citizen to become involved” or “must involve active participation”.

“We need to recognise that we do not have the solutions for environmental and social problems. We all need to learn along the path to sustainable development and particularly how to manage in new ways in a participatory process.” Denise Hamu, Chair, IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.

The Learning to Live Sustainably Draft Strategy outlines the following range of objectives for education & behaviour change (E & BC) for environmental sustainability (DSE 2005):

  • embrace all the different ways in which people learn and change – sometimes described as the “formal”, “non-formal” and “informal” processes for learning, draw on and integrate methods from the wide range of disciplines and professions that offer useful methods for learning-based behaviour change for sustainability;
  • use an interdisciplinary approach with methods drawn from areas as diverse as psychology, communications, community development, formal education, marketing, community engagement, knowledge management and information technology, extension, organisational management and change management
  • build on the substantial work already done in this field, including the consensus on key success factors for Sustainability Education established by sustainability educators;
  • be founded on successful existing programs. Continuing development of these programs and cross-program collaboration will be a priority. Gaps, needs and opportunities will be identified and addressed, to achieve greatly increased quality, scale and efficiency of delivery;
  • be based on a strong commitment to best practice and continuous improvement in learning for sustainability, guided by effective research and evaluation. A key input will be consideration of the impact and effectiveness of the range of activities undertaken to date under the umbrella of “Sustainability Education”;

Transformative Learning – New approaches to professional learning

A set of principles has been developed for the PD project, including a specific sub-set for transformative learning. There is a focus on promoting transformative learning, at the international, national and state focus – because transmissive approaches have been shown to be inefficient, and in many cases ineffective. For a more extensive discussion of the limitations of current transmissive approaches and the potential for promoting change via transformative approaches - see (Orr 1992) and (Stirling 2001).

In considering how to implement these principles in professional learning, we have recognised that there is a spectrum of approaches to learning and facilitation as shown in Figure 1.


‘Learning About Sustainability’

More transmissive



‘Learning For Sustainability’

More adaptive



‘Learning As Sustainability’

More transformative


Figure 1: Three roles of the sustainability facilitator (Adapted from Stirling 2001).

As outlined by Sharpley (2004) in his report on approaches to sustainability education in Victoria, the problem we face is, not so much that one of these is preferable over the others (each of them have an appropriate place) but rather that there is a heavy imbalance or bias towards more transmissive, ‘learning about’ educational approaches, which have been shown repeatedly not to be effective on their own. What we envisage instead, is a move towards a balance of approaches as shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Rebalancing the focus of sustainability facilitation

Because there has been an over-emphasis on more transmissive approaches to learning and behaviour change, both in the sustainability programs developed and the disparate pre-service training of most sustainability education (see (Orr 1992)and (Hocking 2005) for a discussion of the transmissive orientation of higher eduction and its impacts on learning for sustainability) the professional learning program will have a compensating bias towards more enabling and exploring styles of engagement. A major focus of the PD project has been on ways to evoke learning of the frameworks and skills for transformative approaches in professional learning.

Methods used in the project

The primary method used in the project was a action learning, modified so that the cycles of reflection would fit within the timeframe for this first stage of the project, and to cover the range of stakeholders (Wadsworth 1984). Input into the development of the project was elicited through a combination of half day forums, small group discussions and stakeholder conversations. These were summarised and used as key elements of reflection by the project partners (see above). As the underlying pedagogy of the project was transformative learning and change, input from stakeholders began with a series of questions, rather than statements, and stakeholders were asked to summarise the key outcomes of the input sessions at the end of each session. Additional input and feedback was elicited by setting up a discussion facility on the VAEE website, with a mail-out list to all stakeholders who had participated in the project, and other key stakeholders. Regular updates and summaries were posted on the website and emailed directly to stakeholders, inviting their input.

Results and outcomes

Figure 3 depicts a new framework for PD for environmental sustainability facilitators that aims to address the lack of effective transformative approaches. The framework was developed out of consultation with a range of experienced sustainability facilitators, across sectors and levels. Its key purpose is to address the problem: How do we effectively learn transformative frameworks and approaches, if our PD is organised around transmissive approaches to learning and design. We have called this new style of PD ‘The Guide Beside’ approach.

The project has identified and affirmed the importance of encouraging and empowering sustainability facilitators to build their own professional learning, at the same time drawing on the extensive written and electronic resources (manuals, toolkits, etc.), and the considerable experience of others (a community of experienced sustainability facilitators). Our approaches and processes (pedagogies) for professional learning need to be consistent with the practice we are trying to foster in sustainability facilitators in their interactions with those they seek to change. The Guide Beside approach directly addresses the questions:

  • How do we get better at facilitating participatory learning & change, if we keep running information transfer style professional development?
  • How do we learn to adapt & contextualise our approach if our practice is standardised across contexts?

The approach we have taken, in positioning the outputs of professional learning as an assistant or adjunct to professional learning, rather than as a lock-step, how to do it training program, emphasises the importance of placing written materials within contexts of transformative learning. What we envisage is that interest groups of sustainability facilitators (however defined, by sector, or by project, or by some other common interest) will be encouraged and facilitated to build their own professional learning, using The Guide Beside as one key source of ideas, and as a prompt for other ideas, materials and people that facilitators seeking professional learning might draw on.

Features of the Guide Beside* approach

Each section of the Guide Beside* will start with a series of questions, which are themselves prompts for sustainability facilitators to ask, at the start of designing their professional learning ‘What are the key questions of most importance to me and the group I will be undertaking professional learning with?’ From these questions, there is a listing of example activities, content and resources that the professional learning program might like to consider as part of their PL design.

The material in the Guide will bring together some of the latest information and ideas about what leads to effective learning and behaviour change, and how this information might be best utilised across a range of sectors, contexts and levels. A key in building the Guide Beside* approach will be to foster ongoing discussion and contribution to our expanding, adapting and transforming knowledge and expertise in this area, by assisting and enabling the development of a community of experienced sustainability facilitators across Victoria, linked through the Victorian Association for Environmental Education, its website, newsletters, professional learning initiatives and data-bases.

The Guide Beside will contain, in summary:

Question: When facilitating for learning and change for sustainability, how important are values and ethics?

Content: The values of participants or future actors play a role in affecting behaviour, but are mostly not determinants of behaviour … Can do mapping of which of the values and interests of the policy makers overlap with those of the audience / potential enactors of change.

Activity Example: For your project, map the aspirations of your audience, and your stakeholders – the overlap between the two is where you are likely to focus your actions.


Robinson & Glanznig outline a version of this activity

(Fein 2003) has a good discussion of relationship between values and attitudes & how to approach these.

Figure 3: How The Guide Beside is used to assist in planning and design of participant-based professional learning

[*Thanks to Vox Bandicoot Inc. for this excellent encapsulation of our primary approach]

Who is the sustainability facilitator? – Key learning 1

The question of who facilitates learning and change for sustainability came to the forefront of numerous discussions, across project forums, structured discussions and small scale consultations, as we have explored putting the paradigm of participant –based (transformative) learning and change into practice.

Figure 4 shows the styles of sustainability facilitation that are most commonly in use:

Figure 4: Current approaches to sustainability facilitation – which tend to foster transmissive methods

For participant-based learning and change, the alternative is at least three levels of facilitation

(adapted from Robinson and Glanznig 2003), and we need to design professional learning programs so that facilitators not only learn transformational, participant based approaches themselves, but also to facilitate uptake of transformative-style skills and frameworks by others involved in facilitation roles at various levels of engagement. The model in Figure 4 uses language from the ‘diffusion of innovation’ model of change to describe these multiple levels of facilitation:

Figure 5: Lead facilitators will need to foster the learning of facilitation skills in project champions, etc.

The wormhole model: At what levels and in what contexts does the sustainability facilitator work for learning & change? – Key Learning 2

Wormholes in space might one day allow individuals to travel with ease and instantaneously between galaxies and perhaps even universes. Wormholes in the compost allow worms to move between areas which provide warmth and company, and those areas less digested but rich in nutrients and the primary materials for transformation.

The sustainability facilitator wormhole is the individual, and the personal and eco-social elements of the individual, who moves across sectors and levels, at once learning and facilitating learning and change in others, while maintaining the personal support and networks needed to be healthy and effective.

Figure 6. The ‘Wormhole’ – explains how sustainability facilitators need to be able to move between sectors and levels to be effective – and employ appropriate strategies for learning and change at each level

This diagram describes the organisation of professional development into sections that recognise the range of levels and demands within which sustainability facilitators need to operate effectively. For each of these, generic and sector specific professional development can then be identified, and the relationships between these types of professional development can also be identified. In most contexts, the sustainability facilitator will be looking for appropriate champions, influencers and participants in each of these contexts (depending on the nature of the work) and to facilitate the design and participatory implementation of actions and approaches that are most effective at each of these levels.

Importance of the internal personal – how to sustain the sustainability facilitator! – Key Learning 3

Probably because of the wide variety of contexts across which sustainability facilitators are required to work, as well as the combined advocacy and adaptive roles they are required to straddle, many sustainability facilitators have drawn attention to the levels of stress and potential conflict they are called on to deal with. Many feel as though they are required to ‘walk the talk’ despite the difficulty we all have in making major reductions in our ecological impacts. The following summary, derived from one of the project forums, will need addressing in any effective professional learning program:

Knowing how to/having ability & resilience to ‘get back on the bike’

  • in the face of challenges thrown up by those one seeks to change
  • in the face of attack/challenge by those resisting change
  • swimming against the inertia of major regional, national global challenges

A key issue identified for facilitators is that of fostering change within existing organisational goals (kicking goals) and at the same time being expected to facilitate a broader agenda of assisting organisations to strategise for further change towards sustainability (shifting the goal posts). This means that identifying the role and valid work of the sustainability facilitator(s) within the organisation can be difficult. Compounding these tensions are the significance of values and commitment in effecting change for sustainability, and the need for facilitators to balance their personal commitment, beyond the workplace, with the realities of the sometimes slow pace of change and level of resistance encountered in individual workplaces. PD arising from projects such as this one will need to include elements and approaches that address these issues. Transformative, participant-based and contextually responsive approaches to PD will assist in this task.

The journey of learning and discovery for our learning community of sustainability facilitators will be an interesting one indeed over the next decade.


The action research approach taken by the professional development for sustainability facilitators project in Victoria, based on a reflective, transformative pedagogy, has yielded new understandings about how to frame facilitation and professional learning. The new Guide Beside that has resulted re-defines the purposes and organisation of professional learning materials, as assistors of PL design and implementation, putting PL facilitators and participants in control of the process. Who the PL is for has also been reframed, so that recognition is given to the need for development of facilitation skills in champions, influences, advocates and other levels of action, as well as for traditional ‘lead facilitators’. The various levels at which facilitators are required to operate at has also been recognised, as well as the pressures and tensions that facilitators are required to work under. PD for developing skills and frameworks to manage these tensions, including the relationship between the important personal values of sustainability facilitators, and the professional approach that they need to take in dealing with differences in values by others in organisations and communities, are important elements of the transformative Guide Beside approach.


DSE 2005, Learning to Live Sustainably: Draft Strategy. Victoria's approach to learning based change for environmental sustainability, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria, Melbourne,

Fein, J. 2003, 'Learning to care: education and compassion', Australian Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 19, pp. 1-13.

Hocking, C. 2005, 'Reclaiming the connections between biodiversity, community and spiritual wellness. 1. Dislocations, dead-ends and future directions.' Earthsong Journal: Perspectives in Ecology, Spirituality and Education, vol. 3, no. Spring, pp. 21-3.

Orr, D.W. 1992, Ecological literacy : education and the transition to a postmodern world, SUNY series in constructive postmodern thought, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Robinson, L. & Glanznig, A. 2003, Enabling ecoaction. A handbook for anyone working wth the public on conservation, Humane Society International, in association with World Wildlife Fund and World Conservation Union, Sydney, Australia.

Sharpley, B. 2004, Auditing and evaluating the effectiveness of public education programs in Victoria. A scoping paper., Victorian Association for Environmental Education, Melbourne, Australia.

Stirling, S. 2001, Sustainable education: Revisioning learning and change, Green Books & The Schumacher Society, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Wadsworth, Y. 1984, Do it yourself social research, Victorian Council of Social Services, Collingwood, Australia.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page