Environmental education through listening to children

Kopelke, David (2012) Environmental education through listening to children. Professional Doctorate thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Environmental education centres contribute to schools and communities in Environmental Education and Education for Sustainability through nature and urban -based, experiential learning and action learning approaches. An underlying assumption of these centres is that intensive, short-term, outdoor/environmental education experiences can change key attitudes and/or actions leading to positive environmental behaviour. This study reflects the interests of a researching professional who investigated aspects of a program that he designed and implemented as principal of an environmental education centre. Most evaluations of similar programs have used quasi-experimental designs to measure the program outcomes. However, this study considered the experiences of the program from the perspectives of a group of key stakeholders often overlooked in the literature; the children who participated in the program.

This study examined children’s accounts of their own experiences in order to contribute new understandings of children’s perspectives and how they can be considered when designing and implementing environmental education programs. This research drew on key theoretical assumptions derived from the sociology of childhood. Within sociology of childhood, children are considered to be competent practitioners within their social worlds, who, through their talk and interaction, participate actively in the construction of their own social situations. This approach also views children as capable and competent learners who construct their knowledge through everyday participation in social experiences.

This study set out to generate children’s own accounts of their experiences of a five day residential program at the Centre. In total, 54 children participated in the study that used a multi-faceted data collection approach that included conversations, drawings, photographs and journal writing. Using content analysis, data were analysed by means of an inductive approach to develop themes related to the children’s perspectives of their experiences. Three interrelated and co-dependent components of the experience emerged from the analysis; space and place; engagement and participation; and responsiveness and reflection. These components co-exist and construct the conditions for effective experiences in environmental education at the Centre.

The first key finding was the emphasis that the children placed on being provided with somewhere where they could feel safe and comfortable to interact with their environment and engage in a range of outdoor experiences. The children identified that place was an outdoor classroom where they could participate in first-hand experiences and, at times, explore out-of-bound spaces; that is, a place where they had previously been limited, often by adults, in their opportunities to interact with nature.

A second key finding was the emphasis that the children placed on engagement and participation in environmental experience. The children described participating in a range of new primary experiences that involved first-hand, experiences and also described participating in collaborative experiences that involved interacting with peers and with teachers, who appeared to behave differently to how they behaved at school. Finally, the children described a different type of interactional relationship with teachers, comparing the active educational role they played on camp to a more passive role at school where they sat at a table and the teacher wrote on the board.

The final key finding was the emphasis that the children placed on responsiveness and reflection in the experience. In responding to their experiences, the children described the fun and excitement, confidence and satisfaction that they gained from the experience. The children also identified how their experiences contributed to the development of a caring-for-nature attitude and the value of a disorienting dilemma in promoting responsiveness to the environment. This disorienting dilemma was an event that caused the children to reassess their own beliefs and attitudes.

From the three main findings, a theoretical framework that represented the children’s accounts of their experiences and a pedagogic approach that respected their accounts was developed. This pedagogic approach showed how a disorienting dilemma could create a disequilibrium in relation to a child’s existing ideas and experiences. As a result, children were challenged to reflect upon their existing environmental beliefs and practices.

The findings of this research have implications for the field of environmental education. Adopting sociology of childhood provides an alternative foundation to research and can present a deeper understanding of what children believe, than an approach that relies solely on using scientific methods to undercover and analyse these understandings. This research demonstrates the value of gaining children’s accounts to assist educators to design environmental education programs as it can offer more than adult and educator perspectives. This study also provides understandings of environmental education practice by describing how the children engaged with informal learning situations.

Finally, two sets of recommendations, drawn from this study, are made. The first set considers nine recommendations about and for future research and the second relates to redesigning of the environmental educational program at the research site, with six recommendations made.

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ID Code: 60239
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Supervisor: Danby, Susan J. & Davis, Julie M.
Keywords: environmental education, education for sustainability, environmental learning processes, child participation in research, Environmental Education Centre, sociology of childhood
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Education
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 27 May 2013 01:17
Last Modified: 02 Jul 2017 14:43

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