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Extending our study to the Gippsland region

In 2012 we extended our study to eight primary schools in regional towns and rural locations across Gippsland (Somerville & Green, 2012). These eight schools had volunteered for in-depth research on the basis of their sustainability education activities through a survey we had conducted to map sustainability initiatives across the Gippsland region (Somerville & Green, 2013). The mapping survey aimed to understand how sustainability initiatives that are dispersed across a region can be linked as a meaningful system. The concept of place as 'bioregion' was helpful to our thinking in relation to this expanded study. A bioregion is defined as an important socio-ecological unit of analysis comprising an area of land and/or water whose limits are identified by 'the geographical distribution of biophysical attributes, ecological systems and human communities' (Brunckhorst, 2000, p. 37). Bioregions have distinctive ecosocial characteristics that determine the nature of sustainability issues within that region. To examine the characteristics of any particular region is to begin to understand the meaning of collective actions towards sustainability and how those actions arise within constellations of local places.

The larger area of Gippsland, which includes the Latrobe Valley, is a distinctive region in southeastern Victoria, Australia. The region is 41,538 square kilometres (slightly smaller than Denmark), representing 18 per cent of the Victorian land mass with a population of approximately 256,000. Most of the region's population lives in the major centres and surrounding towns, with the remainder living on farms, in small villages and settlements of less than 500 people. The settled and colonised Gippsland region of today can be understood as composed of a number of bioregions with socio-ecological characteristics related to its biophysical attributes and histories since white settlement. These bioregions include the large expanses of coastal plains, dense forest areas, the high country bordering the Snowy Mountains, rich pastoral lands and the post-industrial constellation of townships of the Latrobe Valley. For governance purposes the Gippsland region is divided into six local government areas, each with their own identifiable sustainability challenges.

Another way of thinking about a bioregion is through the practices of Aboriginal language groups and their relations with areas of land. The traditional owners of Gippsland, the Gunnai/Kurnai people, evolved a complex ecosocial system that linked people to place with local clan groups occupying particular ecozones within the region. The region was divided into five clan areas corresponding to north, south, east, west and fire country, each with distinctive local ecosystems: Brayukaloong (west), Brabiraloong (north), Krowatungaloong (east), Bratowaloong (south) and Tatungaloong (fire country) (Thorpe, 2011, p. 9). While all of the clan groups shared a distinctive language that belonged only to Gippsland people, there were differences in dialect between the different clan groups that reflected the different socio-ecological relationships of the people with their places. Gunnai/Kurnai clan territories have a remarkably similar land mass to the local government areas and continue to offer a storyline of the connection between collective cultural practices and the ecologies of those places. We hypothesised that this connection between the social and the ecological could be paralleled in bioregional sustainability practices.

We mapped the eight schools in our study with marker pins on a wall map showing the Gippsland region with its local government boundaries. They were spread across five of the six local government areas of Gippsland. With the exception of two schools, all were located in rural areas with school populations of less than 200. The remaining two schools were located in a large regional centre in the Latrobe Valley. Our research with these eight schools sought to understand the nature of sustainability education through the study of its practice by children, teachers and principals across the region. We asked them the following questions in order to frame our investigation:

How is sustainability understood in your school?

What are some of the key sustainability initiatives in your school?

How is sustainability education implemented in the curriculum?

Where does sustainability learning occur?

What are some of the challenges in teaching sustainability at your


These questions were posed in digitally recorded semi-structured focus groups with principals, assistant principals, classroom teachers and a specialist gardening teacher. In this chapter we analyse the storylines of the transcripts from these focus groups and the large body of photographic data of the schools' sustainability activities. From this analysis of the data we developed four overarching themes that best represented the ways sustainability education was understood and practised. Through these four themes sustainability education could be characterised as:

  • • constituted within constellations of local places;
  • • collective with community partners;
  • • incorporating creative methods of inquiry and representation;
  • • connecting material practice to abstract thought.
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