ERG SES H 05, Teachers' Practices and Innovations
Amidst a growing environmental crisis, environmental education efforts are often positioned outside of dominant educational paradigms. Here, environmental education, characterized by Kopnina and Cherniak (2016) as a ‘subculture’ that threatens neoliberal education, is inhibited in its ability to foster environmentally concerned citizens who have the necessary skills and motivations to make changes (Kopnina 2012, Kopnina, Cherniak 2016, McKenzie, Bieler et al. 2015). Meanwhile, questions about the purposes, processes and outcomes of environmental education have long been contested (Stevenson 2013) across the domains of research, policy and practice.
This paper seeks to make a substantive contribution to these debates by proposing the capabilities approach as a useful perspective for clarifying the purposes, processes and outcomes of environmental education. It offers practitioners, policy makers and researchers an innovative theory of practice applicable to the design and evaluation of environmental education efforts. The capabilities approach was first developed by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in the late twentieth century to challenge the dominant theories and practices within development economics. It has since been taken up and applied widely by a diverse group of international scholars (Sen 1980, 1992, 2010, Robeyns 2005, 2006, Walker 2005, Walker, Unterhalter 2010) to design and evaluate policies, practices and institutions across numerous fields, particularly international development, healthcare and education.
This paper’s central contention is that the capabilities approach provides a way of bridging the conceptual gap between theory and practice of environmental education and of resolving questions about the field’s purposes, processes and outcomes. With the support of an illustrative case study that describes a sixth form biology trip to a residential field centre, the paper shows how the capabilities approach adds theoretical depth and clarity to understanding single environmental education experiences, and to understanding the field at large. The paper will argue that, through a capabilities lens, transformative and critical environmental education should aim to provide students with opportunities to develop a capability for ‘environmental engagement’. The paper will then examine how a capabilities analysis can enable the identification of factors that help or hinder the achievement of this aim. In so doing, it will illustrate how a capabilities analysis can help to translate the aims and principles of environmental education into practice and provide a basis for evaluating and validating approaches of practitioners. A capabilities approach can therefore act as a useful theoretical framework to: 1) support the resolution of debates about the purpose of environmental education; 2) enable the identification of the full complexity of outcomes of environmental education; and 3) provide a clearer articulation of the factors that influence the processes and outcomes of environmental education.
The case study drawn on in this paper was one of three residential field visits undertaken by A-Level Biology students from London, UK, and examined as part of a broader evaluation of Field Studies Council (FSC) resources (Glackin 2016). Rich qualitative data was generated from semi-structured interviews with teachers (pre- and post-visit), field centre staff (pre- and post-visit) and students (pre- and post-visit). Lesson observations were undertaken at the field centre and at the school before and after the visit, field notes were taken, and teaching resources, and printed and electronic materials used to organize the visit were collected. Interviews and observations were audio recorded and transcribed. A reflexive interpretive data analysis allowed multiple rounds of analysis (first manually, then using NVivo software) to identify patterns and themes, test against the literature for plausibility and cluster the data to generate findings. Given the conceptually exploratory nature of the study, Cohen, Manion and colleagues ‘fitness for purpose’ principle (2013) was adhered to by adopting a coding taxonomy that was designed to enable exploration of participants perceptions of the experience, rather than to cross-check perceptions against actual outcomes. The capabilities approach lens then allowed for an analysis that reached beyond more conventional evaluations to reflect on the emerging themes and unpack the affordances of this environmental education experience. These affordances help to illustrate the value of the capabilities approach as a theory of practice.
The capabilities approach has significant potential to act as a ‘framework of thought’ (Robeyns 2005) for establishing the purposes of environmental education, as well as for understanding the outcomes of environmental education experiences and the interconnections between factors influencing those outcomes. It guides thinking about the nature of the opportunity that the examined field visit provided to students and the breadth of possible outcomes arising from that opportunity. In so doing, the capabilities approach reveals itself as a new theory of practice with a ‘useful conceptual vocabulary’ (Unterhalter, Walker 2007) for thinking about the purpose, processes and outcomes of environmental education. For practitioners, policy makers and researchers working across contexts and countries the capabilities approach can bridge the gap between the principles of transformative models of education and the practicalities of doing so.
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