PET03250 ® The Importance of Adults’ Conceptions of the Environment for Education

Abstract

Environmental education is an important strategy in achieving environmental improvement. Previously, we have analysed school children’s conceptions of “environment” using a phenomenographic approach. An important qualitative difference was found between conceptions that treat the environment as an object and those that treat it as a relation. The findings reinforced other calls to locate environmental education beyond the formal school situation, using industry bodies and government departments. It seems that it may be more effective to take environmental education out of the formal school system and locate it in the community. In this paper, we report on the results of a survey of adults carried out by one such government department, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, and describe the responses to the question “What does the environment mean to you personally?” Real change in thinking about the environment requires a creative approach to pedagogy, combining the conceptions of adults as well as the views of the students in their care. Environmental education needs an integration between formal and informal learning situations to effect change in people’s thinking. Introduction It seems axiomatic that our environment is subject to an increasing range of pressures, and as a result is suffering from an increasing range of problems. While any individual problem can be defined and tackled, essential improvement requires substantial change. Environmental education is widely seen as one important strategy for achieving environmental improvement. However, despite the best efforts of a generation of environmental educators, the situation appears to be getting worse rather than better (Hicks & Bord, 2001; Connell et al., 1999). Recent reports based on surveys carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics point out that there seems to be a decline in concern for the environment in Australia over the last decade. In 1992, 75% of Australians stated that they were concerned about the environment, but the equivalent figure in 2001 was 62%: moreover, the drop was most pronounced in the youngest group surveyed (18–24 year olds), falling from 79% in 1992 to 57% in 2001 (ABS, 2003). We have previously been involved in a study of Australian school children’s ideas about the environment carried out in New South Wales (NSW) using a large-scale survey. The overall aim of the project was to ensure the development of more appropriate and studentcentred environmental programs and curricula by a wide range of educational and environmental bodies (Walker et al., 2001). Using an approach to qualitative analysis known as phenomenography, we carried out an analysis of school children’s conceptions of “environment” based on their response to the statement “I think the term/word environment means ...” (Loughland et al., 2002). We found an important qualitative difference between conceptions that treat the environment as an object and those that treat it as a relation. It would seem that a view of environment that emphasises its relationship and interconnectedness with humankind would be a more appropriate view to aim for in environmental education. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of students seem to hold such views (only about 1 in 8 students or 12% in our sample), while the majority consider environment as an object, a place “out there”, removed from personal considerations and essentially separated from themselves. Moreover, as students pass from primary to secondary school, the proportion holding relation conceptions seems to drop by a factor of somewhere between five and six (Loughland et al., 2003). Further, knowledge of environmental issues (as measured by a series of multiple-choice questions) seems to be independent of environmental conception in secondary school, and is negatively correlated with relation conceptions in primary school. This is surely the wrong direction, and seems to highlight a failure of school-based environmental education programs. In our report on the previous study (Loughland et al., 2003), we suggested that it may be time to focus on other sources of environmental education. The ‘industry’ partners in that study – a museum and government departments connected with environment – all produce environmental programs for schools and all have an integrated policy on the environment. Maybe they could take a lead in environmental education. Likewise, family and other social groups are in a position to take a greater role in the education of young people about the environment. For instance, the rise of ecotourism, and an awareness of the idea that maintaining and enjoying the environment is a family-oriented leisure activity, may also lead to the development of concerned and active social groups (Welford et al., 1999; Bjork, 2000). It may be more effective to take environmental education out of the formal school system and locate it in the community in which young people live. It seems that much of the research related to environmental education, and applications derived from such research, focuses on discrete problems. Recently, Environment Australia has called for tenders for the Australian Environmental Education Foundation, which aims to integrate cross-sectoral research and to adopt an holistic approach to environmental education. In this paper, we report on the results of a survey of adults carried out by one Australian government department, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The survey was inspired by the results of the previous study of school children, and a desire to investigate the differences between the views of children in the formal schooling system and those of adults in the general community. Here we give an example of the integration of studies generated in different areas of environmental research. Such integrative studies, and their applications to community, industrial and education sectors, can help to alleviate the crises of the world today. The Survey The survey was commissioned in 2001 by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for the purposes of investigating attitudes to and knowledge about conservation and wildlife in urban communities (Woolcott et al., 2002). The survey consisted of a series of 1006 telephone interviews conducted with people aged over 18 years in NSW, Australia. The sample was selected by computer from the White Pages telephone directory (CD-ROM), stratified by location and dwelling type, age and sex, and quotas assigned for each stratum to reflect the population and situation of the NSW population in urban areas. Although the focus was on “urban” communities, this was defined in the brief as “population clusters greater than 1000 people comprising more than 250 dwellings”, and hence included 89% of the population of the state (ABS, 1998). All respondents were asked background demographic questions and a common core of questions; then the sample was randomly divided into two, and each group was asked a different set of questions (in order to broaden the scope of the survey). Here we are concerned only with the answers to the question: “What does the environment mean to you personally?” which was asked of around half of the sample. The initial responses were followed by prompting and probing questions to encourage further thoughts from the participants (such as “Anything else?”, “What do you mean by that?, “Are you sure that’s all?”). A total of 495 responses were obtained, of which 59 were null or unusable, leaving 436 usable responses. These form the raw data that we have used for our analysis, carried out using the same approach as we used in our previous study of school children’s conceptions (Loughland et al., 2002, 2003). The Phenomenographic Analysis Our theoretical framework was phenomenography, a qualitative orientation to research that looks at how people experience, understand and ascribe meaning to a specific situation or phenomenon (Marton & Booth, 1997). Phenomenography recognises that each participant’s experience is an internal relation between the participant and the phenomenon. However, it is the structure of the variation across the group that emerges through individuals’ descriptions of their experience. Phenomenography defines aspects that are critically different within a group involved in the same situation: it is these differences that make one way of seeing the situation qualitatively different from another. The outcome of a phenomenographic study is a set of logically related categories – conceptions of the phenomenon. These categories and the relations between them provide the outcome space for the research. The categories are usually reported in order of their inclusivity and sophistication, and they are defined by their qualitative difference from the other categories. Thus, the categories describe the range of different ways in which the particular group involved in the study, in this case, adults in NSW, Australia, experiences the phenomenon, in this case, the environment. Data are typically collected through a series of in-depth, open-ended interviews that focus on allowing each person to fully describe their experience of learning (Bowden, 1996). However, analysis of written materials describing the participants’ understanding of a phenomenon has often been used (Marton & Saljo, 1976; Crawford et al., 1994; Keogh et al., 1994), and indeed this is the approach we took in analysing the responses of school children in the previous study (Loughland et al., 2002). In the present project, we were in an intermediate situation: we analysed the written transcripts of responses to questions asked in a telephone interview, both the initial question and the non-directive prompts that followed. Results Analysis of the comments made by a selection of adults in NSW in response to the question “What does the environment mean to you personally?” showed six qualitatively different conceptions of the environment. Cross reference to our previous study of young people’s conceptions of environment showed that the range and variation across the two groups is similar. It is appropriate, therefore, to maintain the established categories. Essentially, and perhaps surprisingly, adults in NSW have the same range of conceptions of the environment as school children in NSW, even those in middle primary school (year 3). The implications of this will be discussed later. Below, we report the adults’ conceptions of environment as categories and describe the essential structure of the group’s experience. We describe each category, and illustrate each with a number of quotes from the interviews. Comparison with the quotes given in Loughland et al. (2002) confirms that, while the language used by some of the adult participants may be more sophisticated than that used by some school students, the conceptions of environment are essentially the same. As in the previous study, the limiting conceptions are associated with an idea that the environment is some sort of object, whilst the more integrated conceptions are associated with an idea that there is some sort of relation between people and the environment. The range of conceptions is shown in table 1. Table 1: Adults’ Conceptions of Environment Object Focus Conception 1. The environment is a place. Conception 2. The environment is a place that contains living things. Conception 3. The environment is a place that contains living things and people. Relation Focus Conception 4. The environment does something for people. Conception 5. People are part of the environment and are responsible for it. Conception 6. People and the environment are in a mutually sustaining relationship. We have placed the categories in order, from the most limited and least sophisticated (Conception 1) to the most inclusive, expansive and holistic (Conception 6). We have also arranged them to show the most important qualitative difference between the categories: people who describe the environment using conceptions 1–3 understand it as an object, a place, possibly containing different living things, whilst people who describe the environment using conceptions 4–6 understand it from the viewpoint of a relation between various aspects. Another key component of the variation is the adults’ description of an underlying ideological stance. In conceptions 1–3, the environment may be described as ‘polluted’ or ‘clean’, implying negative and positive connotations. The more integrated and expansive conceptions focus on a more dynamic and interactive model including the notion that the environment can be “safe”. In the first three conceptions the environment is experienced as an object. In Conception 1, the environment is described as a place. Adults with this conception describe their understanding by using relatively short descriptions, and even when prompted, keep the focus of their description on the notion of place. Despite linguistic differences, the meaning of the statements indicates that these people only experience the environment in a limited or uni-structural way. Here are some examples of statements in this category (the / was used in the original transcripts to “indicate separate thoughts in the response, possibly after probing”, and has been retained here): • Just your general surroundings • Just where we live and whether it’s polluted or not • It’s where we live / the type of things that are around us • The environment is the quality of the air and the general condition of the area as a whole • Like all the bush outside and stuff / bushland, just green shit • Just the area around us • My surroundings / where I am / the area around where I am • Mainly bushland and keeping a fair bit of bush around • Our surroundings / my immediate surroundings / my house to my suburbs In Conception 2, the environment is also described as a place, but a place including living things such as trees, plants or animals. This second conception is an additive conception, building on the first. Examples in this category are: • Well I suppose that it means the flora and fauna around you. I know that it can mean the city too, but to me it means the flora and fauna • Oh God, clean air, um, plants, trees, animals, birds

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Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Petocz2004PET03250T, title={PET03250 ® The Importance of Adults’ Conceptions of the Environment for Education}, author={Peter Petocz}, year={2004} }