To thine own self be true

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Environmental education will benefit from a value-fair approach, argues Graham Wilkinson Much of what is written about values in environmental education appears to be based on the premise that people's behaviour and values are consistent. So if people do not demonstrate sound environmental practice, we conclude that it is their values which have to be informed or modified. Environmental education then becomes an activity primarily aimed at clarifying and analysing one's own values or those of others.

Research with third-year Bachelor of Education (BEd 3) students casts some doubt on these assumptions. Nearly 200 were asked to complete an environmental audit which asked whether they acted in certain ways, and where they felt that they ought to do so.

The results showed many inconsistencies between people's actions and their professed values. The Austrian Peter Posch makes a distinction between values in action and assumed values. Although people profess to believe in one type of action (assumed values), the values implicit in other observed actions (values in action) are not consistent with these assumed values.

The results from the personal audits based on 35 questions showed students admitting to an average of 11 examples of such inconsistent behaviour. Most already profess to hold the values that will support sound environmental practice. The awareness of environmental issues already exists, but often appears irrelevant to producing positive environmental actions.

If this is the case, it suggests that a largely cognitive approach to environmental education has not been particularly successful in engendering appropriate action.

The need for emphasising action in courses which promote environmental education seems apparent from our research. Education for sustainable development is clearly dependent upon the ability of teachers to provide opportunities in schools for pupils to practise strategies founded on values consistent with sustainability. The evidence from our research would suggest that, for many students - the teachers of tomorrow - values need to be placed in an active context.

More importantly, the emphasis on the practice of the skills and strategies of environmental education should enable teachers to foster the development of values in action. The acquisition and refinement of skills through practice will not only increase teachers' confidence in using these skills, it is also likely to make them more accomplished advocates of education for sustainable development. In these ways, values will be sustained through a constant cycle of action and reflection as theory and practice become congruent.

What is important in these circumstances is that a value-fair approach is adopted in the education of children. Teachers and their pupils are the agents of change, and practice in making informed real choices about which options are the best under given sets of circumstances is vital if they and we are to achieve sustainability by living more lightly on the planet.

There is a problem in maintaining value systems supportive of environmental education. Values education is clearly underpinned by a constructivist, process-based epistemology. The value-fair approach is a cornerstone of values education.

How then can environmental education guarantee to deliver the appropriate values with which it is charged, if it is built on a value-fair approach? The conflict between neutrality, fairness and indoctrination is not just a problem for environmental educators. How can this critical dilemma be resolved?

Two distinctions are important in seeking a resolution and, in the process, sustaining sustainable values in teachers. The first is between the formal, operational curriculum and the hidden curriculum. The second is between neutrality and value-fair strategies.

The formal, operational curriculum as evident in classroom practice, must be value-fair in its delivery of all subjects. The multi-faceted nature of many controversial issues needs to be presented to children without an overt inculcation of some viewpoint.

If the hidden curricula of schools are parables of good environmental practice, however, the "values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment" (a description used by the Department of Education in 1993) will pervade the atmosphere of the school. Practising what you teach is the best way to educate for sustainable action.

In his book, Special Places, Special People, W Titman wrote: "Because children in our research learned about the importance of the environment through the formal curriculum, they became confused when the theory of what they learned was not mirrored in the immediate environment of the school grounds. The messages they read from this were akin to 'adults say one thing but do another'. The children's often deep and instinctive need to care for living things led them to question the integrity of what they were being taught and those who were teaching it."

A flaw in environmental education has been its domination by cognitive strategies which often reinforce hypocrisy. If children perceive this inconsistency, adults will often arrive at similar conclusions. Such hypocrisy is rife within our educational institutions and arguably at its worst in higher education. The lesson for teachers and training institutions is quite clear.

A strong institutional ethos is perhaps the only genuine model for cross-curricular environmental education. Teachers are role models. The school itself should also exude best practice in its organisation. It is the hidden curriculum which is the most pervasive ethical persuader. If teachers show courtesy and consideration, values are likely to be nurtured rather than imposed.

We also have to lose our fear of showing a sense of direction in ethics and morality. To say that something should be presented in a value-fair way is not the same as saying that information is neutral. Schools cannot be neutral in what they stand for, but they should rationalise how their institutional ethos will reflect the value system shared by the whole school.

The lack of a community base for environmental education in Scotland means that where values and actions for sustainable development are promoted by schools and training institutions, these are inconsistent with day-to-day experience. Hypocritical behaviour could be perceived as the norm, and hence pupils may well be socialised into inconsistent action.

If we continue to make the mistake of not reinforcing the formal and operational curriculum with an empathetic and coherent hidden curriculum, we are in grave danger of seeing education for sustainable development wither into sterile theory.

If sustainable values are not reinforced in education, there is little hope of them receiving major social and political support. Schools and colleges cannot achieve sustainability alone, but if they are not part of the educational solution, in the widest possible sense, they become part of the problem, and a major part at that.

Graham Wilkinson is at Northern College, Dundee. His article, based on a paper he and Tony Shallcross, of Moray House Institute, presented at a Prague conference, first appeared in the bulletin of the Values Education Project administered by Jean Squires at Northern College.

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