The Distinctive Characteristics of Environmental Education Research in Australia: An Historical and Comparative Analysis

By Stevenson, Robert B.; Evans, Neus "Snowy" | Australian Journal of Environmental Education, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Distinctive Characteristics of Environmental Education Research in Australia: An Historical and Comparative Analysis


Stevenson, Robert B., Evans, Neus "Snowy", Australian Journal of Environmental Education


Any story of the history of environmental education research depends on who is doing the telling. Histories are grounded in particular people and places and times, and so not only will a history of environmental education research in Australia have different touchstones than in, say, Canada (Russell & Fawcett, forthcoming) or South Africa, but the history we present here will differ from that of other Australian authors or from one written for a different temporal space. Efforts to identify the touchstones or any uniqueness of a country's research, which invariably demands some kind of historical analysis, are similarly individual and socio-cultural constructions. Thus, our attempt to identify or construct an identity, unique or otherwise, for Australian environmental education research is confined to taking a snapshot of one of its potentially many histories.

There is also the challenge of deciding how to approach an inquiry into a history of a country's research and specifically, what might shape its identity in the field of environmental education research. Our first entry point into examining the characteristics or touchstones of Australian environmental education research was the premise that a uniquely Australian environmental education research identity might be grounded in a distinctive sense of place. The rationale, inquiry and explanation of the outcome of this first effort to identify such an identity are documented in an accompanying article in this special issue (Stevenson, this issue). Given that place was not a dominant characteristic of this first analysis of Australian environmental education research we turned to other approaches to interrogating Australian environmental education research. The approach, on which we settled, is to examine first, the specialist areas of focus (e.g., philosophies of environment, education or environmental education; discourses, policies, curriculum, teaching and learning) and second, the focus of debates within the Australian environmental education research community.

Areas of focus are reflected in the purposes and kinds of research questions that are seen as important. Scholarly debates also centre on a number of other issues. These include: the theoretical orientations and methodological approaches that illuminate our understanding of, for example, the historical, philosophical and pedagogical development of the field, the nature and interpretation of policies and discourses, the goals and effectiveness of different approaches to teaching and learning, the understandings and ideologies of teachers and learners, and the quality of outcomes of programs and activities. The field of environmental education has been a ferment of debate on many of these issues since the 1970s when the term came into vogue.

In an entry in the Sage Encyclopedia of Green Education, Alan Reid (in press) identifies five research frame(work)s that can be differentiated by the way in which they engage with debates in the field of environmental/sustainability education and focus research questions. These frames are summarised as follows:

1) Prepositional frame that draws distinctions between theories or practices of education about, in, through, with, for the environment and, more recently, sustainability. Research is "framed in terms of its priority and usefulness to focusing, broadening or advancing environmental education approaches and methodological innovation" (Reid, in press).

2) Currents frame that includes both those traditions historically significant in the development and shaping of environmental education (e.g., nature study, conservation education) and more recent emerging currents (e.g., bioregionalism, eco-feminist, sustainable development or sustainability). Research is "framed in terms of their [currents] fit with and support for invigorating local and wider approaches to framing and practicing environmental education" (ibid).

3) Reconceptualisation frame that explores and examines possible (re) conceptualisations of environmental education based on: (i) a philosophy, (ii) a context for intervention, or (iii) an inspiration or category of interest.

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