I write to you having just returned from the Australian Science Teachers Association annual conference, held in Canberra over four days. This was a fantastic opportunity to hear about contemporary science in action from experts in a variety of fields. However, my observations and discussions over the past few days have been of great concern with respect to the state of education for sustainability in Australia.
I have been the member of several expert panels to provide feedback to ACARA regarding the national senior science curriculum for “Earth and Environmental Science“. Only one of these meetings was attended by equal numbers of stakeholders with experience in contemporary Environmental Science teaching – all other meetings have been dominated by geologists, earth science advocates and others with very little understanding of contemporary education for sustainability. ACARA’s framework is that there should be four senior secondary science courses, of equal cognitive demand. However, I believe that Earth and Environmental Science, although they have been taught together historically, cannot be deemed equivalent to the major sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics).This belief is detailed by Prof. Annette Gough who writes as follows: “Environmental education cannot and should not be confined by the conventional curriculum jigsaw frame – the jigsaw needs to evolve as the field continues to evolve and our understandings about the environment and sustainability evolve.” (Gough, 2011)
One of the arguments against a separate Environmental Science course is that education for sustainability is a cross-curricula priority, as demonstrated in the Foundation to 10 national curriculums. However, until the ideal of an environmental ethic underpins the “whole curriculum and indeed the life and practice of the school and educational system…. environmental subjects need to exist to exemplify what environmental education is” (Fensham, 1990 p.18). In addition, until students with sufficient understanding become teachers, or those teachers are supported by free and convenient professional development, the enacted curriculum will be quite different to the written curriculum, as teachers will teach what they know best from an overcrowded, content-heavy document.
The EES course arose through ACARA and the Federal Government from lobbying by principally NSW and WA, the mining industry and environmental groups that a course in addition to physics, chemistry and biology should exist to cater for the “fourth” traditional science of Earth Science. It was thought this would satisfy everyones needs as the 4 “science disciplines” were covered. Therein lies a major concern, teaching authorities and schools grab whomever is available to teach courses such as EES, that requires a multi disciplinary approach, a broad understanding of the systems involved and whom are missing part of that knowledge base, so teach to their respective strengths and in so doing do not give a full account of the course material.
To clarify, this is my understanding of a contemporary education for sustainability:
“Education for sustainability is a critical component of 21st century learning, to allow our future leaders to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will allow human society to develop in ways that meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their needs. In addition to the content knowledge of the way that the earth’s systems work, students also need opportunities to engage with the issues of how humans impact on their environment and how these impacts can be reduced. They need to be able to think critically, be ethically and environmental aware and have the knowledge and ability to participate effectively in decision making. Contemporary education for sustainability should prepare students to live and work in ways that minimize their impact on the planet that sustains us – they will need to be able to engage in the debate about carbon emissions, understand the life cycle of products they consume and make choices about the energy and water they use and the waste they produce. An Environmental Science course should include aspects of all the other sciences and Maths, including evaluating evidence and developing communication skills.”
Due to global scientific research into climate change over the past few decades, we have a vast amount of information and the development of new techniques to investigate issues such as the greenhouse effect, ocean temperatures, currents and acidification, measurement of biodiversity and changes in biotic distribution, renewable energy technologies, carbon sequestration, the effects of land use changes etc. It is crucial that we provide students with the opportunity to investigate these issues so they can be informed and aware global citizens. These issues, and more mentioned at “Science Teachers for Climate Change Awareness“, are vitally important to the understanding of climate change. They are very appropriate, if not indispensable, for a senior secondary science curriculum. By attempting to combine the traditional earth science course with these new areas of environmental science, we have a very content-heavy curriculum that cannot be taught in sufficient depth to engage students. Teachers attempting to balance the two will have great difficulty providing opportunities for students to investigate, analyse, synthesize and evaluate the key concepts in a two year course. Hence, parts that teachers have less understanding of will be omitted, in favour of areas that teachers have current experience with.
In addition, I believe there is a conflict between the philosophy and values of advocates of these two sciences. Students selecting an Earth Science course may be primarily interested in careers such as geology, engineering and mining – of course they should also have an understanding of erosion, pollution sinks and sources and land rehabilitation. Students selecting an Environmental Science course, in my ten year experience (confirmed by the Victorian Association of Environmental Education VCE Teacher’s network) are passionate about conservation, wildlife, renewable energy, effects of pollution and sustainability issues. These students are interested in careers in the emerging “green collar” sector. It is time that we put students at the centre and give them opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills to realize their goals of working towards a sustainable future.
It seems to me that the majority of teachers in all other states, apart from Victoria and Tasmania, have a strong bias towards Earth Science, due to the prevalence of mining industries in those states. Extensive free professional development opportunities have been provided by the mining sector in those states, enabling a high level of expertise in the earth sciences and consequently a focus on earth science and the search for and extraction of finite resources. My deep concern is that these same stakeholders do not have the same knowledge of sustainability issues that enable them to provide a balanced and contemporary education to our future leaders. In addition, many of the stakeholders have a vested interest in the status quo, in terms of textbooks, employability and convenience. For example, the textbook for “Earth and Environmental Science” in WA is sponsored by Woodside Petroleum and the ESWA (Earth Science Western Australia). This text has 19 chapters – 16 of which are traditional earth science topics and 3 that include climate change, ecosystems, human activity and biodiversity. In addition, the Minerals Council of Australia and Teacher Earth Science Education Program (sponsored by Exxon Mobil, Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, Australian Institute of Geoscientists and the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, amongst others) provide free or low-cost professional development.
Popular media has also influenced attitudes of the vast majority of Australians, ranging from the dismissive to the blatantly skeptical of the dangers of human induced climate change, biodiversity loss, human population issues, salinity, waste, an economy based on finite resources and more. This destructive influence is documented by Keith Burrows in his presentations at VicPhysics. It is the responsibility of science teachers, who have the knowledge base to understand climate change and the communication skills to explain it, to increase community understanding of this most crucial issue.
If these concerns are of interest to you, you may like to give feedback to ACARA, either by registering and completing a survey or by email, with a cover sheet. More information at the National Curriculum Consultation site.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this lengthy appeal. I hope I have made my concerns clear and that you can offer some advice as to what actions can be taken to inform ACARA, the State Science Associations and relevant Curriculum Authorities of these important issues. I look forward to discussing this with you, if you have the time and the willingness to engage in what may be a battle against the odds, but with morality on our side.