Well, that might not always be the question, but when curriculum audits are in the offing, it certainly is an important one.
This issue cropped up (again) last week at the HEA sustainable development advisory group, and in a separate conversation with an experienced academic, interested in ESD, who’d been asked by a Deputy Vice Chancellor to audit their institution’s curriculum in order to identify ESD practice. I was asked for my advice.
I did what I always do whenever I am put on this particularly tricky spot, I asked him about framing. I asked whether he wanted to use a tight conceptual frame where it is made pretty clear to respondents what is to count as ESD (and, hence, what is not), and where there is an attempt to restrict respondents’ leeway for interpretation – or whether a looser conceptual frame would do where the guidance to respondents is less conceptually tight, and where interpretation is more possible.
The potential advantages of a loose framing are that:
[i] you get more responses, and
[ii] how individuals and groups view their own work on ESD is validated.
However, this is not necessarily always a win-win outcome.
The potential advantage of a tight frame is that any responses you get might have more validity. I say “might” because a tight frame doesn’t necessarily mean a conceptually valid one. However, I’d say that the more conceptually valid a frame is, the tighter it will prove to be, although the converse doesn’t apply. But then, who's to say, definitively, what's a conceptually valid frame of sustainability - which takes us back to loose(r) frames.
A good example of the difficulty can be found in the 2007/8 benchmarking exercise that was carried out for HEFCE where an attempt at a tight framing ran into trouble. Here's a comment on the framing used in that work. In a more contemporary context, this is a pertinent, but perhaps unresolvable, issue for the development of the new LiFE's evaluation frameworks, in the development of which I have a walk-on part.