Research Summary

Bureaucratic exercise? Education for sustainable development in Taiwan through the stories of policy implementers

Lessons learned from Taiwan’s nationwide education for sustainable development program

Environmental Education Research
2021

Taiwan created its nationwide ESD requirement, the Environmental Education Act (Act), as part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programs and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Act requires about one-sixth of Taiwan’s population, including all K-12 students and civil servants, to complete at least four hours of ESD instruction each year. Topics include the circular economy, climate change, sustainable development, reducing carbon emissions, and more. Courses are held in educational settings and are taught by officially certified policy implementers. Over 6,000 policy implementers had been trained by the time this study was conducted, and the group included government officers, professors, teachers, school administrators, and non-governmental organization (NGO) employees. Some policy implementers worked as freelancers for the program, while others were hired from ESD instruction consulting firms, and others volunteered to take on ESD responsibilities in addition to their existing job. During its eighth year of operation, Taiwan’s ESD program was faltering, but a general lack of critical policy research on ESD made it difficult to comment on the program’s faults. The researchers in this study aimed to understand the ways ESD policy implementers dealt with their complex responsibilities, to understand how ESD was received by audiences, and to measure outcomes of the ESD program.

The researchers reviewed literature on ESD research, UNESCO’s influence on the Taiwanese government, ESD-related policy, and the job materials used by policy implementers for this program. Between 2017 and 2018, they conducted two rounds of semi-structured interviews with 30 policy implementers. Interviews in the first round were 60 minutes long and focused on the participants’ background and vision for ESD. The second round of interviews were 90 to 120 minutes long and discussed the participants’ professional practice of teaching ESD and its impacts. With the permission of four participants, the researchers observed them on the job, including while participating in meetings and teaching ESD lessons to their pupils. The researchers carried out a total of 70 hours of observations with field notes. The data from both interviews and the field observations were analyzed thematically, and the researchers created a codebook of recurring themes.

Thematic analyses revealed three recurring themes: 1) policy implementation was seen as bureaucratic among participants; 2) its outcomes were seen as inconsequential; and 3) its goals were seen as shallow public relations for the Taiwanese government. One-third of participants said the ESD program led to limited/no improvement in sustainability, and almost all participants said they felt “frustrated” and “helpless” in their role.

Participants reported that their certification was a demanding role with many responsibilities. Two-thirds of participants said their responsibilities mostly amounted to filling out paperwork. Policy implementers had to act as brokers between the Taiwanese government and schools, ensuring that the schools complied with environmental regulations. This caused peers to disdain policy implementers and resist pressure to reduce their energy use and lifestyle practices. Many participants did not want to become ESD policy implementers but felt forced by their coworkers to take on the responsibility. Even those who did care about the importance of ESD reported a high burnout rate.

Most participants reported they felt their work had no meaningful policy or educational outcomes. Their audiences frequently participated in “band-aid solutions” such as stream cleanups to satisfy their requirements, without thinking about the importance of ESD. Several participants reported that their schools did construct solar panels or rooftop gardens, but out of obligation rather than out of positive environmental ethics. One participant explained his pupils lost enthusiasm for ESD as they got older, with many of them seeking to fulfill the lowest possible requirements.

Finally, participants complained the ESD program was governed by a “managerial mindset” that wanted “positive results” and felt pressure to emphasize positive outcomes. Several participants noted that Taiwan’s industrial sector accounted for more than 90% of the country’s energy use, and that sustainable initiatives should be focused there instead of schools. However, the funding and accountability structure in public schools limited their ability to act on these issues. Together, the results indicated that policy implementers and their audiences were disillusioned with the ESD program.

This study had limitations and is not generalizable to all countries implementing ESD programs. As noted by the researchers, Taiwan faces unique geopolitical pressures that influenced the creation and management of its ESD program, which may not be of circumstance for other countries or entities.

The researchers concluded Taiwan’s ESD program had not generated meaningful action to combat environmental harms and turned the practice of sustainability into government bureaucracy. Participants in ESD programs in Taiwan have lost sight of the deeper meaning of environmental issues and are instead striving to meet performance benchmarks. The researchers noted that Taiwan may be trying to artificially highlight its compliance with international initiatives to prove itself as a separate country, which may explain why its nationwide ESD policy emphasizes public relations and bureaucracy over transformative change. The poor outcomes of this top-down implementation indicate that environmental education relies on buy-in from teachers and pupils at every level, and when rendered bureaucratic, sustainability efforts become hollow.

The Bottom Line

At the time of this study, Taiwan required all civil servants and K-12 students to complete at least four hours of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) instruction each year. The researchers reviewed literature, conducted interviews with ESD policy implementers as well as field observations the ways ESD policy implementers dealt with their complex responsibilities, and to understand how ESD was received by audiences. Analysis revealed the participants felt this program was bureaucratic, its outcomes were inconsequential, and its goals were shallow. The researchers concluded Taiwan’s ESD program had not generated meaningful action to combat environmental issues and turned the practice of sustainability into government bureaucracy. The poor outcomes of this top-down implementation indicate that environmental education relies on buy-in from teachers and pupils at every level, and when rendered bureaucratic, sustainability efforts become hollow.