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Towards Place-Based Education in the Murray Darling Basin

Murray–Darling basin

Chief Investigator: Associate Professor Philip Roberts.

Co-Investigators: Dr Jo Caffery, Ms Natalie Downes, Dr Amy McPherson (ACU), and Emeritus Professor Bill Green (CSU).

Funder: Murray-Darling Basin Authority

Project Timeline: October 2013 – December 2016.

Overview: The project explored the ways in which sustainability is understood in Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) communities (including Indigenous, rural, small towns and regional centres). The project then examined how local understandings are, and can be, engaged within education to achieve more collaborative outcomes. To achieve these collaborative understandings the project explored approaches to place-conscious education as a vehicle for social inclusion and community representation. By surfacing various understandings of sustainability, the project aimed to help educators, in both the school and community sector, engage more effectively with ideas around sustainability in their work.

Research Approach: This project involved a literature review on education, sustainability and place-based education, an analysis of state and national curriculum and policy documents pertaining to sustainability, a survey of teachers and community members, followed by interviews and focus groups in selected case study communities.


Findings: The project identified that sustainability is a complex and much contested concept, with the term having different meanings to different people, different cultures and different disciplines. While curriculum and policy documents reference what is referred to as a ‘triple bottom line’ definition of sustainability (A definition that balances economic, community and environmental outcomes), in practice they privilege ‘environmental’ meanings and actions. In relation to understandings of sustainability a non-alignment between communities’ understandings and those of teachers/education policy was identified. Communities were largely using expansive meanings of sustainability that encompassed the maintenance of the community, the rural sector, and the environment upon which they depend. Teachers however tended towards meanings that related to environmental meanings only, and as such were at odds with the understandings of the communities they work in. This should be seen as a function of education policy and the curriculum, as these direct teachers actions, and as such it is these that need to be amended. The project found that when we facilitated discussions between teachers and community members common ground for productive action could be identified.

Related Publications:

  • McPherson, A., Roberts, P., Downes, N. (2017). Rural-regional sustainability in the Murray Darling Basin: School / community difference and the politics of water in rural Australia. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 27 (2) pp.93-107.
  • Roberts, P. & Downes, N. (2016). Conflicting messages: Sustainability and Education for Rural-Regional Sustainability. Rural Society.25 (1) pp.15-36.
  • Roberts, P. & Downes, N. (2015). Community and School Understandings of Sustainability: Survey Summary. University of Canberra, ACT.
  • Roberts, P., Downes, N., Cooke, L., Heiner, I. and Caffery, J. (2014) Education, Place and Sustainability: A Literature Review and Overview of Curriculum and Policy in the States and Territory of the Murray-Darling Basin. University of Canberra, ACT.