30 SES 02 A, Schooling and ESE
How should the relation between schooling and sustainability issues be understood? In a very influential text from 1987, Robert B. Stevenson (1987/2007) identified a gap between the discourses of environmental education (EE) and schooling. In short, Stevenson points out four points of tensions or gaps between schooling and EE. First, while environmental education aims at transforming the values that undergird Western society, the dominant aim of schools has instead been about the reproduction of society’s values and norms. Second, while environmental education requires an interdisciplinary approach that enables students to encounter real-world problems, the dominant organization of schools has instead been about theoretical problems organized in separate disciplines (p. 146). Third, while environmental education require that students encounter “ill-structured” problems where the solution is not obvious, teachers tend to focus on structured problems as structured problems are better compatible with the expectations of assessment procedures and criteria. Fourth, and last, environmental education challenge teachers’ epistemological assumptions because environmental education depends on a holistic and subjective understanding of knowledge. As Stevenson puts it: “Introducing environmental education into a school challenges the dominant conception, organisation and transmission of knowledge, creating for most teachers a conflict with their approach to teaching and learning” (Stevenson, 1987/2007, p. 151).
The aim of this paper is to develop a theoretical perspective of what the suggested gap between schooling and environmental and sustainability issues can mean in classroom practice today. By drawing on Dewey’s (1938/1997) pragmatist notion of habits we propose a re-conceptualization of the gap. From a pragmatist perspective, “habit” is a broader concept than the everyday use. A habit can be understood as a person’s disposition and approach to the world. In our theoretical outline we argue that Stevenson’s argument can be understood in terms of two competing habits: on the one hand the habit of task solving (schooling) and on the other the habit of inquiry (cf. Östman, Van Poeck & Öhman, 2019).
With help of empirical classrooms examples, we illustrate both the habit of task solving and the habit of inquiry. When students encounter environmental and sustainability issues (ES-issues) within the habit of task solving it means that they do not encounter them as the burning, affective or existential issues of our time. Instead, they encounter them as a task to solve before the lesson ends. Thus, when students encounter an ES-issues, such as global inequality, within a habit of task solving, the problem for students is not inequality, but rather: “what should we write here?”.
However, this is not always the case. With our empirical classroom examples, we illustrate how the teacher’s action can transform a problem of task solving into a process of inquiry. When students encounter an ES-issue within a habit of inquiry they encounter the issue as a real-world problem. The real-world problem puts the students in a situation which they cannot handle by relying on their habit of task solving. To handle their problematic situation, the teacher enables the students to explore the problem and develop their understanding. In other words, the outcome of this process can be that the students form new dispositions toward ES-issues.
When Stevenson’s argument is reconceptualized with this notion of habit in the foreground, the relation between schooling and ES-issues appears as a relation of risk. In classroom practice there is a prevailing risk that students merely encounter ES-issues within their habit of task solving. However, this is a risk that the teachers can handle by transforming the students’ task solving problem into a genuine environmental and sustainability problem.
This is a theoretical paper that uses empirical findings to illustrate a theoretical argument. Our theoretical outline takes its starting point in Stevenson’s argument and proposes a reconceptualization of it from a pragmatist perspective. The theoretical methodology. To outline our theoretical argument, we followed two methodological steps. In the first step we mapped Stevenson’s argument and identified what characterizes the relation between schooling and EE/ESD in the argument. In this step we also read texts that in different ways have used, developed, and discussed Stevenson’s argument (Aikens, McKenzie & Vaughter, 2016; Blenkinsop, Telford & Morse, 2016; Hart & Hart, 2014; Payne, 2015; Vare, 2020). In the second step we deployed Dewey’s notion of habit as a theoretical tool to conceptualize of the relation between schooling and ES-issues. With the notion of habit in the foreground, the relation between schooling and ES-issues emerges as relation of risk rather than a contradictory relation. The empirical illustrations. In order to clarify how the relation between schooling and ES-issues can be understood as a risk, we make use of empirical illustrations. The empirical material for the illustrations was collected within the research project Teaching global equity and justice issues through a critical lens, funded by the Swedish Research Council. The material consists of video- and audio recordings from student discussions in a Swedish upper secondary school and was collected in accordance with the ethical research guidelines formulated by the Swedish Research Council. In the empirical illustrations the students discuss Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in small groups and prepare to give at short presentation at the end of the lesson. We use the empirical material to illustrate two things: First, we illustrate the risk that students solely use their habit of task solving when they encounter ES-issues in the classroom. Second, we illustrate how the teacher’s actions can transform the students’ habit of task solving into a habit of inquiry that open for the affective and conflictual dimension of ES-issues.
It is not obvious why one should pick up a 30-year-old argument about environmental education and schooling and propose a re-conceptualization of it in relation to classroom practice. However, Stevenson’s argument is not just any argument within the research field of ESE. Twenty years after its first publication, the journal Environmental Education Research, dedicated a special issue, 13(2), to Stevenson’s argument. Drawing on Stevenson’s article, Barratt Hacking, Scott and Barrat (2007) named the gap between the schooling and the discourses of EE, as “Stevenson’s gap” – which also is a terminology that has been picked up by others (Breiting & Wickenberg, 2010; Mogensen & Schnack, 2010). While there has been a discursive transition from EE to ESD in policy since 1987, Stevenson argues that the gap has, if anything, widened (Stevenson, 2007b). With a school system that is driven by accountability, the gap has become more accentuated. It is in dialogue with this research context that we propose a pragmatist re-conceptualization of Stevenson’s gap. Yet, there is nothing new in exploring, discussing or make us of Stevenson’s gap in relation to concrete educational practices (e.g. Smith, 2007; Barrett Hacking, Scott & Hacking, 2007; Lotz-Sisikta & Schudel, 2007; Blenkinsop, Telford & Morse, 2016; Vare 2020). The novelty of our proposal is therefore not found in our use of Stevenson’s gap in relation to classroom practice, but in our suggestions on how this gap between schooling and ES-issues can be understood theoretically. Our result points to how the relation between schooling and ES-issues is characterized by a prevailing risk, where ES-issues are merely treated as tasks and not as burning, affective and existential issues. Our result also point to how the teacher is the one who can overcome and handle this risk by transforming task solving processes into processes of inquiry.
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