Environmental and Sustainability Education Research, Past and Future: Three Perspectives from Late, Mid, and Early Career Researchers

By Stevenson, Robert "Bob"; Ferreira, Jo-Anne et al. | Australian Journal of Environmental Education, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Environmental and Sustainability Education Research, Past and Future: Three Perspectives from Late, Mid, and Early Career Researchers


Stevenson, Robert "Bob", Ferreira, Jo-Anne, Emery, Sherridan, Australian Journal of Environmental Education


Robert (Bob) Stevenson's Perspective on the 1970s and 1980s

Growing up in the 1960s near the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, I often walked through the bush to reach and climb along its rocky shores. Many of these foreshores remain in their natural state today, which a former federal government Minister attributed to occurring 'more by accident than good planning'. This statement does not explain the full story. The accident was a military history, dating back to the late 19th century, of using these areas to guard against invasion by naval vessels. When the Australian Government in the early 1970s began discussing transferring some of these foreshore lands, local grassroots social movements worked to save portions of the Sydney Harbour foreshores from urban expansion and property developers. This community activism led to the declaration of the Sydney Harbour National Park in 1975. This declaration was not by accident--it was the result of a national and global environmental movement that created a new cultural context in which the protection of nature was valued and community-based political and conservation activism was socially acceptable.

Surrounded by this context, environmental education (EE) at this time had a nature conservation education focus, with the dominant EE research concern identifying what students gained from experiences in nature. The assumption was that the earlier the experience the better, and that awareness of nature would lead to changes in individuals' attitudes and behaviours. The goals of environmental education were modest--none challenged the dominant socioeconomic structure of Australian, or indeed of Western society (Stevenson, 1987).

A more defined and progressive agenda for EE came in the second half of the 1970s with the Belgrade Charter (UNESCO-UNEP, 1976) and Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCOUNEP, 1978), both of which expanded the concept of the environment to include the built, and specified the goals of active student involvement in investigating and working toward resolving environmental problems. These goals resonated with my experience of the community political activism that led to the establishment of the Sydney Harbour National Park and supported my belief that education should be about working towards a better environment and society. These international intergovernment conferences and reports were highly influential on EE theory and national and state policies in Australia, including in Queensland during the time of a highly conservative pro-development government.

In the 1980s, theorising about curriculum and educational research was particularly fertile, with debates about ideological, ontological, and epistemological positioning strongly in evidence. In particular, critical theory illuminated the socially reproductive role of education and argued instead for a social reconstruction approach that emphasised educating for transformation to a more egalitarian and just society--to which EE scholars added, and an ecologically sustainable one.

A socially critical perspective to theoretically frame EE research was led from the mid 1980s by Australian scholars such as Ian Robottom (Robottom, 1984, 1987), Annette (Greenall) Gough (Greenall, 1986, 1987), Noel Gough (Gough, 1984, 1987), John Fien (Fien, 1988), and, to a lesser extent, myself (Stevenson, 1987). John Huckle in the United Kingdom (Huckle, 1983, 1988) was another critical theorist who also influenced the international EE field. This scholarship challenged the dominant focus, especially in the United States, of viewing EE as about changing individual behaviour to predetermined ends. This U.S.-led behaviourist and positivistic focus assumed that so-called 'pro-environmental behaviours' are the desired outcome of EE. This 'deficit model', strongly represented in educational research efforts to identify ways of eliciting 'responsible environmental behaviour', usually fails to recognise the influence of socioeconomic structures on individual behaviour. …

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