Construction Of Relationship Between Science And Education for Sustainability

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Science and education for sustainability have recently become estranged. Both of these learning areas are also experiencing issues that are affecting students’ understandings in these areas.
1. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education
International Journal of Environmental & Science Education
(2013), 8, 451-478
Vol. 3 , N o. 3 , J uly 2 0 0 8 , x x - x x
Reconstructing the relationship between science and
education for sustainability: A proposed framework
of learning
Sally Birdsall
The University of Auckland
Received 24 November 2011; Accepted 11 March 2012
Doi: 10.12973/ijese.2013.214a
Science and education for sustainability have recently become estranged. Both of
these learning areas are also experiencing issues that are affecting students’
understandings in these areas. This paper presents a framework of learning
containing 12 components that reconstructs the relationship between these two areas
and could have the potential to overcome their current issues. A 15 week scien-
ce/education for sustainability programme that was undertaken by 22 New Zealand
students aged 11-12 years was analysed in terms of the components of the proposed
framework. An interpretive analysis of the learning that took place showed beneficial
effects on students’ understandings. Not only did these students demonstrate
understandings of sustainability and development of their scientific literacy, they also
showed an emerging politicisation in that they were able to take action on an issue in
a number of ways. It was also suggested that further components could be added to
the proposed framework in order to develop additional knowledge and skills that
could enable students to gain a deeper understanding of and ability to make decisions
about the multifaceted environmental issues found in today’s world.
Key Words: Science education; education for sustainability; children’s learning
Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability: A
Proposed Framework for Learning
Even though part of education for sustainability’s foundations were located in science education,
since the 1990s these two areas of learning have grown apart (Gough, 2007). Recently there has
even been argument that science education is not needed in education for sustainability [EfS]
programmes (Tsevreni, 2011). This paper argues that there is a need to reconstruct the
relationship between science education and EfS in order to facilitate the type of learning needed
by young people who live in a world where an understanding of complex environmental issues is
needed. However, in order to gain maximum benefit from this amalgamation, this paper asserts
that a different approach to learning when studying an environmental issue needs to be employed.
Firstly this paper will discuss the approach to science education required for such a
reconstruction. Then the advantages of a reconstruction of the relationship between science and
ISSN 1306-3065 Copyright © 2006-2013 by iSER, International Society of Educational Research. All Rights Reserved.
2. 452 S. Birdsall
education for sustainability will be outlined. A framework of learning that represents the
reconstruction of this relationship will then be put forward. A classroom programme using this
proposed reconstruction will then be analysed using the proposed framework.
Towards a Different Approach to Science Education
There is no doubt that education for tomorrow’s citizens must include science. Science is an
important part of a person’s education because it is seen by the public as powerful and
authoritative as it shapes people’s lives and the development of societies (Kim, 2011). Science
education is also essential because science occupies a central place in today’s knowledge-based
societies since science knowledge, together with technology, are now able to bring about
enormous transformations to Earth’s natural systems in an unprecedented way (Colucci-Gray,
Camino, Barbiero & Gray, 2006). For example, scientific and technological knowledge now
enable people to travel distances on aeroplanes at faster speeds and at a cheaper cost, accelerating
the rate at which business negotiations can take place, and even allowing people to use aeropla-
nes for commuting between countries. However, this increased use also brings with it the potenti-
al for pandemics, such as swine flu, the use of dwindling oil supplies and increased greenhouse
emissions (Levinson, 2010).
At this point, it is important to discuss the relationship between science and technology.
There has always been a close collaboration between the two (Bensaude-Vincent; Loeve, Nord-
mann, & Schwarz, 2011). However, over the last twenty-five years, the distinction between these
two fields of endeavour has become blurred as both science and technology are being used to
bring about innovations, often in association with private enterprise (Colucci-Gray, Perazzone,
Dodman & Camino, 2012). This blurring has also given rise to new amalgams of science and
technology such as bioinformatics (Levinson, 2010). As a result of this blurring, the term
‘technoscience’ has been coined to represent the fusion of science and technology (Bensaude-
Vincent et al.) and recognises that scientific knowledge is developed in response to societal, poli-
tical, technological and economic concerns (Levinson). As a consequence, many issues facing
contemporary society involve both science and technology, for example the production and dis-
tribution of food which involves monocultures that require pesticides and artificial fertilisers
along with the use of fuels to harvest and transport food into cities and the consequent
greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, when using the term ‘science’ in this paper, it is
acknowledged that there is this interrelationship between science and technology although it has
not been made overt.
There is a problem with science and it could be in the public’s perception of scientific
knowledge and scientists. Despite science occupying a position of cultural dominance, referred to
as “scientific imperialism” (Tsevreni, 2011, p. 55), and being the powerhouse of civilisation
(Ravetz, 2004), the public tends to be distrustful of science (Levinson, 2010). Although science is
viewed as the “ultimate authority” (Ashley, 2000, p. 271), over the past 50 years public
confidence in science has dwindled as was illustrated by the public protests against the release of
genetically modified organisms in New Zealand (France, 2011). Despite the way that scientific
knowledge has resulted in innumerable benefits for people, such as increased longevity, these
benefits have given rise to concern and even apprehension about their potential hazards (Levin-
son). For example, while nuclear reactors are able to supply people with electricity that does not
involve the release of greenhouse gases or large-scale alteration of landscapes as is the case with
hydro-electricity, there is still the potential danger of managing radioactive waste in the event of
a nuclear accident.
Furthermore, science is often cast in the “role of the villain” (Hodson, 2003, p.649) when
these environmental tragedies do occur, further eroding public confidence. For example, the use
3. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 453
of DDT was banned worldwide in the 1970s because of its perceived detrimental effects.
According to Harrison (1978) and Mellanby (1992), the ban was the result of media campaigns
and litigation that took advantage of public naivety about DDT’s environmental effects. Not only
were the media campaigns based on exaggerated accounts of DDT’s toxicity, but because the
public were more familiar with DDT given its earlier widely reported successes, they mistakenly
attributed the effects of more toxic pesticides such as 2, 4-D and maleic hydrazide to DDT usage.
Thus DDT, as a product of science, was tarred with the same brush as the more toxic pesticides
and till recently, its use banned.
One reason for this lack of public confidence in science is that the public are “anti-
science” (Littledyke, 2008) and hold a naïve view of it (Ashley, 2000). Instead of being able to
make informed decisions about complex socioscientific issues such as finding out what type of
personal actions to take to mitigate the effects of global warming, they rely on politicians for
guidance who are in turn reliant on the advice of scientific experts. In this way, the public is
forced into a paternalistic relationship with politicians and scientists and are unable to engage in
debate about evolving scientific knowledge or contribute effectively to decision-making in de-
mocratic societies (Ashley). According to Ravetz (2004), this lack of ability to make informed
decisions is not desirable because a free society needs public participation and should not rely
solely on the contribution of experts.
Science education is seen as fundamental to solving this problem of the public’s naïve
understandings and perceptions of science. The central goal of science education is viewed by
many as scientific literacy which aims to develop “well-informed, good citizen[s]” (Lee & Roth,
2003, p. 403) who are able to engage in debate about scientific issues and take an informed per-
sonal position. Although exactly what scientific literacy should entail is both problematic and the
subject of debate (Hodson, 2003; Millar, 2006), there is agreement that being scientifically
literate should involve three aspects: understanding about the nature of science; being aware of
the way that science and society interact; and knowing important scientific concepts (Skamp,
2009). Being scientifically literate also involves being able to critique the work of scientists. This
general understanding of scientific literacy acknowledges that the majority of students will not
become scientists, who are the producers of scientific knowledge. Instead they will become
citizens in a society where they are consumers of science, needing to be able to make intelligent
and informed decisions about socioscientific issues in their lives (Millar, 2006) and be able to
make changes to society if needed. When science education is viewed in this way, it has the po-
tential to assist people to acquire knowledge so that they can “develop effective solutions to its
global and local problems” and also encourage an “intelligent respect for nature that should in-
form decisions on the uses of technology” (AAAS, 1989, p. 12). Moreover, developing scientific
literacy through formal education could also result in a more active scientific community where
they could see the purpose in informed citizen debate (van Eijck & Roth, 2007). Consequently,
development of both the scientific community’s and the public’s scientific literacy could then
lead to a partnership where solutions for socioscientific issues could be found together.
However, scientific, or any type of literacy is more than decoding and encoding print.
Being literate has a far wider connotation in that it relates to the notion that language is a system
of socially constructed signs, rather than being representative of reality (Stables & Bishop, 2001).
Colucci-Grey et al. (2012) go further, arguing that language reflects the embodiment of the way
in which people perceive their world – it is an expression of how they view, sense and see their
‘place’ in the world. Norris and Phillips (2003) concur with this view of literacy and argue that a
wider conception of literacy is needed because the majority of people gain their information
about scientific issues through text and scientific literacy cannot be achieved by being able to
read scientific material and information by knowing the words, locating information and recalling
4. 454 S. Birdsall
content. Norris and Phillips assert that the ability to paraphrase, critique and summarise scientific
material is also insufficient. They argue that when reading and writing scientific material,
students need to have an understanding that the text has been created by a person; that it is an
artifact that can be analysed and evaluated in terms of its author’s expressions of doubt or
certainty about scientific statements. For example, students reading scientific text need to be able
to distinguish between observations and scientific statements, understand the account of the
methods followed, differentiate between doubt and conjecture and identify the reasoning used to
make scientific statements. These skills and understandings are referred to as the “conceptual
relations” that are intertwined into scientific material that is well-written (Norris & Phillips, p.
234). Furthermore, they extend their conception of literacy to include media such as television
and newspapers as many people use these sources to access scientific information. Therefore,
according to these authors, scientific literacy needs to be extended to include literacy in a broader
sense so that people can understand these conceptual relations found within scientific material.
While the goal of scientific literacy is included in science curriculum documents, there is
an issue with many people’s epistemological view of science. Many people, including teachers,
hold an epistemological view of science that can be regarded as modernist and this type of view
can affect the development of scientific literacy (Littledyke, 2008). A modernist view of science
has its roots in the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution. This view has a reductionist tradition
which focuses on how individual parts of a system function. This view involves searching for
linear relationships of cause and effect at a micro-level in order to make changes at the macro-
level, while ignoring the complex functioning of a system as a whole. This view of science is also
considered mechanistic, objective, values-free and largely makes claims of absolute truth
(Colucci-Gray et al., 2006, Littledyke, Ravetz, 2004).
For some science educators, this modernist view of science has been replaced by a post-
modern view or what Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) call post-normal science. Ziman (2000) refers
to this view of science as post-academic. A post-normal or post-academic view rejects the idea of
science being values-free, objective and providing absolute truth. Instead science knowledge is
recognised as being dependent upon the culture in which it is constructed (Littledyke, 2008). It
also recognizes that the construction of scientific knowledge is affected by the political and
economic institutions that fund scientific research, resulting in some scientists losing their
autonomy over their research (Ravetz, 2004; Ziman, 2000). Furthermore, neurophysiology
findings have shown that total objectivity is not possible because people actually construct their
understanding of the world through “constructionist neurological processes”, by building on
existing knowledge (Littledyke, p. 5). Lastly, it is now recognised that science is uncertain as it
cannot offer guaranteed outcomes because it is impossible to accurately predict the outcomes of
interactions that take place in complex systems, such as Earth’s biosphere. Instead scientists in-
terpret these systems and convey information in terms of probability, which is in turn expressed
in terms of risk and uncertainty (Littledyke, 2008).
This post-normal view of science which acknowledges uncertainty and unknown
consequences, especially when considering today’s complex socioscientific issues that are high
stakes like global warming, means that experts and scientists alone can no longer make decisions
about solutions (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006). In addition, because these complex issues are
contextual and values-dependent, many points of view about potential solutions are put forward
with experts often having conflicting ideas. Since post-normal science takes context and the
complex nature of socioscientific issues into account, it recognises that science alone cannot
provide solutions. Instead there is a need for experts, scientists and the public to form
partnerships so that the public can take part in the decision-making process because they are the
5. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 455
stakeholders in any issue. People with this view of science argue that there is a greater need for
the public to be scientifically literate to be able to take part in decision-making processes.
Even though a post-normal view of science is often found in science education literature,
for example Hodson (2011), Levinson (2010) and Skamp (2009), in many countries school scien-
ce appears to have retained its modernist view of science which can be seen in the way that much
science education is still content driven and does not relate to students’ everyday experiences
(Levinson). Science knowledge is often taught in discrete ‘chunks’, with students required to
learn concepts such as photosynthesis or anaerobic respiration (Gray & Bryce, 2006; Kim &
Roth, 2008). Such concepts are usually presented in a decontextualised manner, which can make
it difficult for students to relate science to their own experiences (Lester, Ma, Lee & Lambert,
2006). As a result, students do not learn about the uncertainty of science or to give consideration
to whole systems (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006). In addition, there is the issue of assessment
affecting learning programmes as one of the goals of secondary science education is enabling
students to achieve the standards set to gain admission to tertiary education (Ashley, 2000;
Gough, 2007). As a result of these pressures, learning in science at school mostly involves the
cognitive domain and rarely involves the affective or social aspects of learning (Hodson, 2003).
In recent years some science educators have proposed different ways of teaching and
learning in science in an attempt to present science to their students in a postmodern manner. One
such approach is the STS (Science-Technology-Society) movement which has recently been
expanded to become STSE to include the environment (Hodson, 2011). The central tenet of this
particular type of science education was to include study of the many perspectives of science – its
social, political, cultural, historical, philosophical, ethical and economic perspectives (Lester et
al.). STSE promotes “habits of mind”, such as skepticism, open-mindedness, familiarity with
forms of inquiry, managing uncertainity and critical thinking and was based on a theoretical
framework that drew on the sociology of science (Hodson, p. 30). It included two elements:
1. The way in which scientists interact with each other within the scientific community
(internal interactions)
2. The way in which scientists and science interact with issues, institutions and society out-
side of the scientific community (external interactions).
Although STSE had this theoretical framework, it was not tightly prescribed in order to allow
a wide range of approaches and interpretations (Solomon & Aikenhead, 1994). However,
concerns about the STSE approach have been raised. For example, Kim and Roth (2008) assert
that teachers have treated STSE as an add-on to their content-rich programmes, giving students
little opportunity to discuss new scientific ideas and their impact on society. Zeidler, Sadler,
Simmons and Howes (2005) go further, pointing out that while STSE affords learners the
opportunity to examine the ways in which science and technology affect society, STSE neglects
the moral and ethical dimensions needed when making decisions about science-based issues.
They promote another form of science education that uses learning situated in the context of a
socioscientific issue (SSI). An SSI is a scientifically-based social issue that is contentious and is
connected to either scientific conceptual or procedural knowledge (Sadler, 2011). It is an issue
that is open-ended with many possible solutions that can be partially but not totally informed by
science. In this way, an SSI approach can involve values, ethics, politics and economics. Sadler
argues that by situating science learning in the context of an SSI, students can explore an issue
relevant to them, by learning to cope with the way in which science is represented in an issue
relevant in today’s society.
6. 456 S. Birdsall
These approaches to science education appear to address some of the problems
encountered when teaching with a modernist view of science within science education and are in
line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s [OECD]
recommendation that students need to engage in authentic and real issues in order to foster a
lifelong interest in science (OECD, 2007). However, Hodson (2003, 2011) argues that the STSE
approach to science education falls short because it does not include students developing political
literacy, namely knowledge and skills about political processes such as lobbying and making
submissions so that they can participate in democratic processes in a critically informed way
(Tilbury, 1995) and it would appear that SSI education also lacks this aspect. As discussed
before, effective science education should enable students as future citizens to be: informed
consumers of science; capable of critical thinking; able to make changes to achieve a more
socially just society; and contributors to efforts to develop and maintain a sustainable environ-
ment. While STSE does assist in helping students to understand how scientific knowledge is
constructed in a socio-political context and SSI-based education has a focus on the moral deve-
lopment of learners, because they do not develop students’ abilities to take considered action for
change, both fail to meet Hodson’s vision of effective science education.
A further problem with science education is the lack of students’ affective engagement
(Hodson, 2003). This lack can be seen in the way that students feel disillusioned and alienated
from science (OECD, 2007). In addition, students’ attitudes towards science are becoming less
positive as they progress through their education, leading to fewer people choosing to make
science their career on a worldwide scale (Littledyke, 2008). This downward trend of interest in
science is evident in the latest data available from New Zealand where 64% of Year 4 (8-9 years
old) students said that they enjoyed doing science at school but by Year 8 (11-12 years old), the
numbers of students enjoying science at school had dropped to 24% (Crooks, Smith & Flockton,
What is clear is that a different approach to science education needs to be implemented
that presents a post-normal view of science, is relevant to students’ lives and will enable them to
be consumers of science who can take a personal position on issues, then make informed
decisions and take action to effect change.
A Reconstruction of the Relationship between Science Education and Education for
One way through this problem could be to integrate a form of post-normal science and EfS pro-
grammes for the mutual benefit of both areas of learning. Science and EfS do have an historical
link since it was scientists such as Rachel Carson with her publication of Silent Spring and Paul
Ehrlich’s book Population Bomb that began to raise the public’s awareness about environmental
degradation in the 1960s (Tasar, 2009). EfS in its earlier form of environmental education came
into education through the science curriculum (Gough, 2007). However, in the latter part of last
century, concerns about the role of science in EfS emerged which culminated in UNESCO cal-
ling for a re-orientation of education towards sustainability that was formalised in Agenda 21
(Tilbury, 1995). Environmental educators thought that science educators had a narrow and
superficial view of what EfS entailed (Skamp, 2009). These concerns centred around a perception
that science education had a modernist view of science and lacked an ability to engage students in
both personal and community issues. This type of science education was also seen as not
including the affective and social dimensions of learning, as well as being unable to acknowledge
and clarify people’s values and assumptions about the underlying power structures of society
(Tsevreni, 2011). Environmental educators had recognised the political nature of EfS and realised
7. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 457
that science education in its modernist form would not meet the needs of the type of education
that was now being advocated (Gough, 2007).
As a result, a ‘re-orientation’ of EfS was promoted, a type of education that was
interdisciplinary, values-focused, participatory and aimed to politicise students (Tilbury, 1995)
and shifted from a single focus on environmental (ecological) knowledge to include
understandings about a far broader range of factors that contribute to environmental issues, such
as societal, economic and political factors. In this way EfS and science education became
estranged. However, EfS has its own particular set of problems. For example, in New Zealand
EfS is marginalised due to teachers viewing it as yet another pressure in an already overcrowded
curriculum (Eames, Cowie & Bolstad, 2008). In many countries EfS does not have the status of
being a learning area in its own right and the cross-curricular or infusion approach that is usually
adopted can also affect its teaching (Eames et al.; Skamp, 2009). Furthermore, there are funding
issues. In 2008 with the change to a more right-wing government in New Zealand, funding for
supporting teachers to implement EfS programmes was cut. Australia’s EfS programme, the
Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI) that provides support to over 30% of
Australian schools has also had all of its federal funding cut (The Australian Education for
Sustainability Alliance [AESA], 2012).1
Recently some environmental educators have called for a reconstruction of the
relationship between EfS and science education (Gough, 2007; Skamp, 2009). One of the reasons
is that the concept of sustainability is generally perceived as having three components: social,
economic and environmental (Sterling, 2010). The environmental component of sustainability,
where an understanding of how the many different ecosystems in our biosphere function is
required, needs scientific knowledge which informs people’s decisions about actions to be taken
to resolve an issue. However, when considering an environmental issue, the social and economic
components also need to be taken into account. For example, one study found that scientific
knowledge can help move students’ understandings about the effects of litter on the environment,
from an aesthetic viewpoint to a scientific understanding, such as decomposition issues and bio-
logical oxygen demand. This scientific knowledge not only gave substance to students’ feelings
of concern for the effects of litter on the flora and fauna of a waterway, it also provided
justification for their actions taken to resolve an issue (Birdsall, 2010).
This idea is reflected in the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable
Development Implementation Scheme which states:
The role of science and technology deserves highlighting as science provides
people with ways to understand the world and their role in it. Education for
Sustainable Development [another name for education for sustainability]
needs to provide a scientific understanding of sustainability together with an
understanding of values, principles and lifestyles that will lead to the transiti-
on to sustainable development.
(UNESCO, 2004, p. 18)
Further weight for the argument of integrating science and EfS in schools is found in the
results from 2006 Programme for International Student Achievement [PISA], an international
survey of students. These results suggested that the better students’ understandings of science, the
more aware they were of environmental issues and the greater their feelings of responsibility for
sustainable development (Uitto, Juuti, Lavonen, Byman & Meisalo, 2011). Sterling (2010) also
agrees that knowledge is needed when dealing with the complex issues facing today’s world.
8. 458 S. Birdsall
Gough (2007) asserts that reconstructing this relationship could also address the decline
of students’ interest in science, especially amongst girls. She argues that since students’ interest
in environmental issues is increasing, EfS could be a vehicle for re-igniting interest in studying
science because of their environmental concerns. In addition, given that EfS occupies a
marginalised position in the school curriculum (Eames et al., 2008; Gough), its inclusion in
science education could provide EfS with space in the curriculum, thus moving it out of its
currently marginalised position.
Similarly to science education, EfS has its own particular pedagogical philosophy and
approaches. At the core is the belief that EfS should be transformative in nature (Nolet, 2009;
Sterling, 2010). Both Nolet and Sterling argue that our current education systems serve to
perpetuate beliefs, values and behaviours that have resulted in our current environmental and
social issues. Such reproduction occurs because schools continue to transfer contemporary cultu-
re and values (Hart, 2010). Therefore, in order for education systems to bring about change, edu-
cation itself will need to change first. It is hoped that EfS could generate that change.
With the aim of effecting this type of change, EfS is conceptualised as learning that
involves the head, heart and hands, a term first coined by Lucas (1979). These three types of
learning can be summarised as:
 Heads learning that is located in the cognitive domain and involves the development of
understanding about sustainability; content knowledge about environmental issues;
critical thinking skills (Sipos, Battisti &Grimm, 2008); and a whole systems approach
when considering an issue (Sterling, 2010).
 Heart learning that is located in the affective domain and involves the development of
values and attitudes (Sipos et al.).
 Hands learning that is located in the psychomotor domain where learners are able to take
informed, practical actions based on understandings, values and attitudes developed
(Sipos et al.)
In addition, EfS involves learners being involved in real world problems, rather than
hypothetical situations in the belief that such involvement will assist them learn the way in which
their world works and their place in it (Sipos et al., 2008). By tackling real world problems
learners have opportunities to relate to and further develop their understanding of environmental
issues (Brundiers, Wiek, & Redman, 2010). Working to enact solutions to real world issues
enables learners to gain practical experience linking understandings to taking actions as well as
raising their awareness of their values position and those of others. Also, being engaged in a real
world issue means that learners are faced with the ‘messiness’ of an actual issue and the need for
negotiation and conflict resolution in order to come to agreement about solutions (Brundiers et
Finally, EfS is seen as participatory, democratic learning (Sterling, 2010). Such an approach
involves a less prescriptive type of education where learning is open-ended and students are
encouraged to be autonomous. Because learning is done with others, skills of cooperation and
negotiation are important (Stevenson, 2007a).
Reconstructing a relationship between science and EfS could result in a revised framework of
learning that could be located under the ‘umbrella term’ of sustainability education (Nolet, 2009).
Such a framework could then be used when investigating an environmental issue. Therefore,
based on a post-normal view of science, incorporating EfS pedagogy mentioned above, along
9. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 459
with Tilbury’s (1995) EfS components, such a revised framework could include components such
as a(n):
 Development of an understanding of sustainability
 Issues-based form of learning that is set in relevant contexts for students
 Understanding of the conceptual and theoretical scientific knowledge related to the issue
 Ability to access and critically evaluate information as required using technologies
 Appreciation of the nature of science and scientific inquiry so that the quality of evidence
claims can be evaluated
 Ability to express and justify an informed personal viewpoint
 Appreciation that people’s differing viewpoints that promotes diversity
 Clarification and examination of personal and social values
 Ability to envisage possible and probable futures
 Ability to reach conclusions and make decisions that can be justified through critical
 Political literacy to empower students to take part in democratic processes such as lob-
bying or making submissions to local governments
 Ability to take action to mitigate or resolve issues and reflect on its efficacy
(Adapted from Hodson, 2011; Sipos et al., 2008; Sterling, 2010; Tilbury, 1995).
However, as Hodson (2011) notes, enacting a curriculum that includes these components
is an “extraordinarily tall order for teachers” (p. 297) that requires change at all education levels
from the classroom to teacher education institutions to educational policy. The inclusion of these
aspects not only fundamentally changes the curriculum and challenges the traditional functions of
schooling, such as the reproduction of society and the production of a workforce for the global
economy (Stevenson, 2007b) but their inclusion could lead to widespread social change
(Hodson). Nevertheless, Hodson argues that a drastic change to a sustainable way of life is impe-
rative for the survival of future generations of people. Sterling (2004) concurs and views this
change as risky because no one actually knows what a sustainable society would look like, thus
making it extremely difficult for educators to know how to achieve the goal of preparing students
for an unknown future.
The purpose of this paper was to explore whether components of science and EfS could
be combined in a way that could reflect a revised approach to science education and EfS. It was
anticipated that the outcomes could be that students gained a deeper understanding of scientific
concepts and were able to take action on an environmental issue. In addition, this paper sought to
provide a compilation of an account of teaching science in the manner suggested by Hodson
(2011). He argues that we need such compilations so that other educators can learn about the
successes and failures of teaching in this way, as well as identifying barriers and their possible
solutions. The following sections in this paper illustrate the way in which some components from
this broader framework of learning were implemented during an investigation of an environmen-
tal issue by a group of students and the effects on their learning.
Research Design
These illustrations of the framework’s implementation were framed using an interpretive research
design that used a qualitative methodology. This type of design was chosen because it allowed a
naturalistic approach that aimed to understand students’ ideas and opinions (Sarantakos, 2005).
This approach also allowed the researcher to interpret these students’ experiences and
10. 460 S. Birdsall
understandings based on the view that people construct their view of reality through their interac-
tions with others as they make sense of their world (Merriam, 1998).
Context and Participants
This research was carried out in a high decile ranking New Zealand school 2 in which EfS pro-
grammes were not taught at all. Although the entire class of 28 students who were aged between
11-12 years participated in the learning programme, a complete data set was gathered from 22
students. These students had given their consent to participate and had also gained parental
consent. Additionally, permission for the research to take place was sought from the school’s
principal and the students’ teacher. These consent forms were pre-approved by a university-
based Human Participants Ethics Committee.
There were approximately equal numbers of girls and boys in the sample. This group of
students exhibited abilities that were above average for their age. For example, approximately
74% had a reading age above their chronological age and just 9% were reading below their
chronological age according to school records.
The Programme
The researcher and the classroom teacher planned the programme collaboratively based on the
requirements of New Zealand’s national curricula documents (See Appendix 1 for details). The
programme covered many learning areas, such as technology, social science and visual arts, as
well as including two characteristics of science education, scientific concepts and process skills.
Examples of the concepts taught were the water cycle, eutrophication, weathering and erosion,
food chains and indicators of a healthy waterway. The process skills developed included observa-
tion, data collection, collation and interpretation.
The programme was set in the context was the local freshwater lake that these students
visited as part of their school’s outdoor education course that involved swimming, kayaking and
sailing. This context was chosen because there had been conflicting reports about the lake’s water
quality in local newspapers. When brought to their attention, these reports sparked the students’
interest and they wanted to find out if the water quality was good enough for them to be able to
continue using the lake.
The programme ran for 15 weeks of the school year within the class’s usual timetable. It
was mostly taught by the students’ teacher with the researcher teaching the science and drama as
well as facilitating discussions. The programme did change the way in which the learning areas
of science, social science, health, technology and drama would have been taught. However, wri-
ting, reading and art were taught in the same way. A separate maths programme ran concurrently
along with an additional reading programme.
Because the purpose of the programme was to integrate both science and EfS, the pro-
gramme was underpinned by the concept of sustainability. Since sustainability is a contested and
complex concept (Corney & Reid, 2007), it was contextualised in terms of the lake’s ecosystem
and the complexity of the information provided took into account these students’ young age.
Consequently, throughout the programme sustainability was referred to and discussed as
comprising of two components:
 Environmental making careful decisions about the environment that keep or improve its
quality together with ecological understandings about the lake in terms of the
characteristics of biodiversity, interdependence and cycles
11. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 461
 Social the decisions made about the environment in the past affect the present and the fu-
ture, and the decisions made about the environment in the present will affect the future of
the students’ children. The idea that decisions made in the present should not reduce the
choices of people in the future was also included.
The economic component was not included in the contextualisation because the students’
teacher wanted a focus on scientific concepts and processes during the programme. In addition,
since the lake is a community resource and available for all residents to use free of charge, the
teacher thought that the environmental and social components were of greater importance and
enough of a challenge for students to comprehend.
Data Collection
Data were collected using the following instruments: semi-structured interviews with individual
students; interactions with a values continuum; an annotated drawing showing a future use of the
lake and justification in terms of its sustainability; and a written task involving choosing a scena-
rio related to a way of using the lake with similar sustainably-based justifications. These written
tasks provided an opportunity for students to indicate their understanding of scientific concepts as
they justified their decisions for possible sustainable solutions. A further opportunity arose to
collect data when a notice was found in the local newspaper, notifying the community about the
local council’s proposed changes to the management of the parks and reserves that partially sur-
round the lake. Students took up this chance and made a submission based on their findings about
the lake’s water quality and their ideas about its management.
Data were collected at five different points during the sustainability education program-
me. Pre- and post-teaching semi-structured interviews were carried out with individual students
where each student was asked to explain their understanding of sustainability. Students’ ideas
were then discussed with the researcher to clarify and probe their ideas.
A values continuum was also completed both pre- and post-teaching. The continuum
was developed by the teacher and researcher for this project. It had seven statements relating to
waterways with a five point scale under each statement ranging from ‘Strongly Agree’ to
‘Strongly Disagree’ and the students had to choose one point (See Appendix 2). When
completing the continuum at the conclusion of the programme, students were asked to explain
any changes they had made to their continuum at the end of the teaching programme.
The first written task was completed six weeks into the programme. It was developed by
the teacher and researcher as means of both collecting data and assessing the students’ progress
for school records. It involved the students identifying a possible future use of the lake and then
justifying their choice in terms of their understanding of sustainability.
The second written task was completed 13 weeks into the programme. Similarly to the
first written task, it was developed for both data collection and assessment purposes. It involved a
structured role-play activity known as a goldfish bowl technique (Cheek, 2010). The class was
divided into seven groups and each group was provided with a different scenario. Each scenario
described the way that a particular group of people in the community wanted to use the lake. For
example, one scenario was the Forest and Bird Society who wanted to create a sanctuary for nati-
ve wildlife, eliminate all exotic plant and animal species, close off access to certain areas for
native forest regeneration and control pests like dogs and cats living around the lake. In contrast,
another scenario featured a land developer who wanted space to erect 20 residential units for
elderly next to the lake, create a park-like atmosphere surrounding the development and construct
a concrete carpark for residents and visitors. After each group had presented their scenario to the
class in a role-play, the class discussed the merits of each scenario. Following this class discussi-
12. 462 S. Birdsall
on, each student had to choose a scenario that they felt was the most sustainable and then justify
their choice in terms of their understanding of sustainability. Finally, there was the submission to
the local council mentioned above.
Data were analysed thematically (Braun & Clark, 2006) in terms of the revised frame-
work components, the scientific concepts used and the way in which scientific ideas were used to
justify their ideas or actions. In addition, students’ responses were analysed in terms of the two
components of sustainability taught. This analysis resulted in three categories of responses,
namely environmental, social and a combination of both.
Validity and reliability are an important part of carrying out research. However, as an
interpretive project, the criteria for assessing these are different (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Three
strategies were used to enhance this project’s validity and reliability, or what is termed credibility
and dependability in interpretive projects (Merriam, 1998). Firstly between-method triangulation
was used as different types of data gathered using different instruments were used to measure the
same phenomena. This use of multiple methods of data collection also enhanced the
dependability of the findings as cross-checking of analysis and students’ responses could take
place. Secondly, the students’ transcripts were returned to them for verification following
transcription. Finally, a pilot study using the interview protocol was conducted, enabling
refinement of the process to take place prior to the main study (Neuman, 2003).
As a small-scale study in a particular context, it is difficult to make generalisations.
However, interpretive studies rely on a reconceptualisation of generalisability where the extent to
which a study’s findings apply to other situations is left up to the reader (Merriam, 1998). In or-
der for the reader to be able to do this, a “rich, thick description” of the students’ ideas and acti-
ons has been provided so that a reader will have sufficient detail to be able to make such a gene-
ralisation (Merriam, p. 211).
It has been suggested that a reconstruction of the relationship between science and EfS could
result in a revised learning framework that contains 12 components. Data were analysed using
these components and illustrations of each component will now be presented in turn.
Development of an understanding of sustainability
The first component in the revised framework is developing an understanding of sustainability.
Students’ understandings were analysed over the duration of the programme. The findings show
that at the beginning of the programme three students had an understanding of sustainability and
by its conclusion, 21 had developed some understanding (see Appendix 3). While Appendix 3
illustrates that all but one of these students were able to express an understanding of
sustainability at the conclusion of the programme, it also shows that 19 expressed their unders-
tanding in terms of either environmental or social ideas. Only two students were able to express
a combination of both, which is suggestive of a more complex understanding. This finding
illustrated the difficulty of developing a complex understanding of sustainability that involved
more than one component.
Student responses that were placed in the No Related Ideas category did not relate to an
environmental or social idea of sustainability and examples from the initial interviews were:
... it means clean and tidy ... (S12)
... it’s something that is really good or beautiful ... (S8)
13. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 463
Responses that were placed in the Environmental Understanding category related to caring
for the lake and often included scientific concepts. An example of such a response included:
The lake wouldn’t be sustainable if it was filled with rubbish, then the water would
get polluted and the animals in the water wouldn’t have clean water ... so the fish
can breathe, otherwise they get clogged up gills ... so the plants can’t get light
through the water so they can’t make their own food ... (S18)
In this response during her final interview, S18 showed her understanding of sustainability
through the effects of rubbish decomposing in the lakewater, affecting its oxygen level and sub-
sequent effects on fauna. She also believed that fragmentation of rubbish would adversely affect
the lake’s sustainability by blocking light, which would impact on plants’ ability to
Ideas that were placed in Social Understanding category related to concepts such as inter-
generational equity, past decisions affecting the present and decisions made today affecting the
future. An example is S14’s response in her final interview and she said:
I think that the word sustainability means something to be healthy and safe like
when we went down to the lake we made sure everything was healthy ... because it’s
in our area and we’re trying to keep it ... for the people of the future so they can go
down and because it’s one of the most historical things that we have ... (S14)
S14’s response illustrated her belief that the lake needed to be kept in the same condition
as she found it so that future generations could visit the lake just like she had. It also showed her
feeling of responsibility for the lake because the lake was part of her community.
S11 was one of two students who were able to combine environmental and social ideas to
in his expression of sustainability in the final interview and he thought sustainability meant:
... keep something good and something healthy that ... will last a long time so that
people after you will benefit from it as well ... like the lake really. Like we tested the
water quality and we found out that it was good and now we’re going to try and
improve it so that the people after us will benefit from it and so it won’t just dry up
and it won’t be there anymore. But it will be because we’re helping to keep it clean
and healthy ... if we plant trees, they won’t grow straight away but after a while they
will grow and they will help make shade around the lake ... cools the water and it
means more dissolved oxygen ... it’s easier for the macroinvertebrates. (S11)
The example that S11 gave about trying to improve the lake’s water quality for the benefit
of people in the future showed that he was able to apply his understanding of sustainability as
both caring for the environment and intergenerational equity to a real life example. It also showed
that he was aware of the need for people to take informed action for the environment to ensure it
is cared for and preserved for future generations. Furthermore, his response demonstrated his
understanding of the relationship between water temperature and the oxygen level of water and
the way in which macroinvertebrates are dependent upon oxygen for survival.
Issues based form of learning set in a relevant context
The next component is situating the learning around an issue that is relevant to the students that
provides a relevant context for learning. In this study, the issue of the local freshwater lake’s
14. 464 S. Birdsall
health had been raised in local newspapers and provided conflicting reports about its water quali-
ty. These reports provided the impetus for beginning the study because students were familiar
with the freshwater lake and used it for a water-based outdoor education programme on a regular
basis during summer. Their familiarity with the lake had an influence on their developing ideas
about the concept of sustainability. For example in her final interview, S19 gave this response as
an illustration of sustainability that was categorised as a social understanding:
… if we make a little school for teaching children how to kayak and sail that might
be a pretty sustainable thing because like it won’t harm the lake and in the future
children can actually learn how to use the lake more … (S19)
Here S19 took her experiences at the lake and thought children in the future also could take
part in these activities, just like she had. In addition, she thought that kayaking and sailing would
be sustainable because they would have no impact on the lake’s water quality.
Understanding of the conceptual and theoretical scientific knowledge related to the issue
Students’ responses showed that during the programme, they developed relevant conceptual and
theoretical scientific knowledge, which was the second of the revised framework’s components.
Not only did the number of students using scientific concepts in their explanations increase, the
students’ understandings of the scientific concepts became more complex as they were able to
use scientific concepts in their explanations or justifications. For example in the first written task
three students were able to justify their ideas about possible future uses of the lake in terms of
their understanding about the effects of rubbish in and around the lake. S13’s response showed an
emergent awareness of the effects of decomposition and biological oxygen demand on water
quality and consequently, fauna would be harmed that was placed in the Environmental Ideas
There will be a robot … will pick up all the rubbish around the lake … and protect
the wildlife … you’ll also face charges when [the robot] sees you throwing rubbish
and harming our precious wildlife. (S13).
While no students demonstrated an understanding of this concept in the second written
task, six students used their scientific knowledge of how decomposing water could reduce the
oxygen level to justify their understanding of sustainability in the final interview. S1’s response,
categorised as Environmental Ideas, illustrated that he not only had an understanding of the ef-
fects on fauna, he also had an understanding of effects on plants in that plants also need oxygen:
… when you put the litter in the lake, sometimes it might not go away and it will just
stay there and then the animals inside there [the lake] will find it hard to breathe …
or they might get trapped inside the litter it’ll dirty the lake and all the animals and
plants can’t breathe and they can’t find their food because it’s way too cloudy inside
there and it’s hard to move around. (S1)
These students also developed understanding of the effects of erosion on the lakewater and
that sedimentation will affect the amount of light and consequently photosynthesis. Four students
used this concept to justify their ideas that were categorised as Environmental Ideas in their final
interviews. For example, S18 referred to the rocks that had been placed at the edges of some parts
of the lake’s bank and said:
15. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 465
… there’s now stone around it so the lake doesn’t get bigger and shallower … the
fish can breathe otherwise they get clogged up gills … so the plants can get light
through the water so they can make their own food … (S18).
In this response S18 showed an understanding of the process of erosion and the transporta-
tion of sediment to the bottom of a lake. It also revealed that S18 also had an understanding of the
effects of sediment on the lakewater flora’s ability to photosynthesise and fauna’s gaseous ex-
change processes.
In their final interviews, some students were able to use more than one scientific concept to
justify their ideas. For example, S16 talked about the trees being planted around the lake
contributing to the sustainability of the lake:
… the trees are there because the roots grab the soil and … the soil won’t go down
to the lake because the soil … might have fertiliser in it and fertiliser’s bad for the
lake because of nitrates. Too much nitrates can upset the balance of the lake … the
soil would probably cloud the water and they [macroinvertebrates] won’t be able to
breathe and if it [soil] crawls onto the plants, then the plants won’t be able to
breathe and make food. (S16).
In this Environmental Ideas categorised response S16 demonstrated her understanding of
three scientific concepts the role of tree roots in preventing erosion, the effects of unstable soil
leaching nitrates and the effects of sedimentation on the lake’s flora and fauna. Not only did her
response illustrate her understanding of sediment affecting the ability of the lake’s plants to
photosynthesise and the lake’s animals’ gaseous exchange processes, she also demonstrated un-
derstanding of the effects of nitrates. The level of nitrates in a waterway is an indicator of its
health. If the nitrate levels are too high, it can alter the ion exchange in the water which in turn
has detrimental effects on a waterway’s flora and fauna. Four of the students used this concept to
justify their ideas in the final interviews.
Accessing and evaluating information using technologies
The third component is being able to access and evaluate knowledge as required by using techno-
logies. When studying the lake’s ecosystem and in particular, the types of macroinvertebrates that
could be found in the lake, these students gathered data by sampling macroinvertebrates, using a
clarity tube, thermometers, as well as nitrate and pH strips when carrying out water quality
testing at the lake. They then made sense of these data based on information found in books, on
websites and from a video. Based on data and information found, these students were able to
explain and justify their ideas. For example, when asked to discuss her ideas about the meaning
of sustainability in the final interview, S22 explained sustainability as:
… it’s [the lake] not polluted and there’s no rubbish or anything … then it would be
sustainable … because it [rubbish] would make it like really unhealthy and then not
the highly sensitive creatures like the stonefly nymph would live in the lake, only the
very unsensitive to pollution bugs would live in it. (S22)
In this response categorised as Environmental Ideas, S22 was referring to information
accessed that explained the way that particular macroinvertebrates were bio-indicators of a
healthy waterway whereas other species were pollution tolerant. She was able to use her
16. 466 S. Birdsall
knowledge about decomposing water and its effects on oxygen levels and then link it to her
knowledge about stonefly nymphs as bio-indicators of high water quality to justify her definition
of sustainability in the context of the lake.
Appreciation of the nature of science and scientific inquiry
The next component of the framework is gaining an appreciation of the nature of science and
scientific inquiry so that the quality of evidence claims can be evaluated, forming a basis for
informed decision-making about possible solutions. These students gained an appreciation of
scientific inquiry as they made observations about the lake’s catchment area and appearance of
the water. They tested the quality of the water by measuring its temperature, pH level, level of
nitrates present, turbidity and sampled the macroinvertebrate population. Data were recorded and
trends in the macroinvertebrate sampling identified. As a result, students were able to draw
conclusions about the lake’s water quality. Their ability to use data in this way was illustrated in
a report written and published on the National Waterways Project website:
We caught 42 macroinvertebrates altogether and we recorded what group they were
in according to their sensitivity to pollution. We found out the turbidity is 95% crys-
tal clear and the temperature is 12 degrees which means that the lake is very
healthy. We also found out the pH is 6.5, which is excellent and there are low levels
of nitrates … which also indicates very good water quality. (NWP Report pp. 2-3).
Students also gained an appreciation of scientific inquiry as they found out that the water
quality results differed slightly between groups. This finding provoked discussion about how
scientists cope with variation in data and one student made mention of this in his final evaluation:
If I were to change the study, I would do down to the lake a few more times and test
the water in a few different places instead of just one. (S1).
Express and justify an informed personal viewpoint
Another component in the framework is developing the ability to express and justify an informed
personal viewpoint that can also inform decision-making and taking of action. During the course
of the programme, these students developed personal viewpoints about how the lake should be
cared for and were able to justify their viewpoints using knowledge that they had developed.
Some used scientific knowledge such as S6 who in the second written task wrote:
I think the Forest and Bird Society is the best for the sustainability of the lake …
because we can use the lake as a sanctuary to save native birds and plants from
being extinct … we’ll control pests like cats and dogs near the lake. The reason I do
this is because cats will eat the birds and eggs. The dogs will scare the birds away
and they will never come back. (S6).
In his response, S6 demonstrated his understanding of conservation to prevent extinction
(Environmental Ideas). He also discussed predator-prey relationships when identifying the need
to control cats and dogs so they did not harm the birds.
Other students adopted a viewpoint of being guardians for the future categorised as Social
Ideas, justifying their opinions because of the lake’s beauty and intergenerational equity. S10’s
response in the second written task illustrated this stance:
17. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 467
I chose this scenario [Keep the Lake Beautiful] because it’s a beautiful lake and I
want it to stay that way so future generations also have a beautiful lake. It will also
attract people to come to the lake and enjoy the surroundings. It is a great place for
people to walk around and to have picnics without being disturbed … I also chose it
so future generations can experience what I have experienced at the lake. (S10).
Appreciation of differing viewpoints to promote diversity
A further component of the revised framework acknowledges the way that when working
towards a solution to a problem, there is a range of differing viewpoints that need to be respected
by all. During this programme students did have differing viewpoints, especially when it came to
writing the submission where there were two groups with strongly held views. After discussion, it
was decided to include both viewpoints and the following extract from their submission to the
local council about the management of the reserves surrounding the lake illustrated these
opposing viewpoints about the management of rubbish:
We think that the current level of litter in and around the lake is unacceptable,
dangerous for wildlife and could be affecting the water quality of the lake … had
two different ideas about the number of rubbish bins. One group of people in our
class thought that more rubbish bins would help reduce the amount of litter.
Another group suggested that all rubbish bins be removed and users and visitors to
the reserves have to take all of their rubbish out with them. (Submission pp. 2-3)
Their submission also illustrated the use of students’ scientific understanding about the
decomposition of rubbish and biological oxygen demand to justify their recommendation to the
One student revealed her appreciation of differing viewpoints about pet ownership when
residing next to a wildlife sanctuary when justifying her choice of scenario in the second written
The idea of controlling pests like cats and dogs from going near the lake is a good
idea because cats love to catch birds and dogs might chase the birds away but the
problem is that people that live close to the lake would have to move to another pla-
ce to live or give away their pets. (S19).
S19’s reasoning also illustrates her growing understanding of scientific concepts such as
conservation and the need to foster a wide diversity of flora and fauna. Her response also reveals
her understanding of issues that arise when people interact with their environment. In this instan-
ce it is the issue of pet ownership next to a sanctuary and S19 was able to identify two potential
Clarification and examination of personal and social values
The next component in the framework is clarifying and examining personal and social values.
These students completed a values continuum at the start of the programme and again at the end.
They were asked to give reasons if they had changed their position since the beginning of the
programme. Their learning did appear to help these students clarify their personal values. For
example at the beginning S9 marked the ‘Strongly Agree’ point for the statement ‘It is better to
18. 468 S. Birdsall
use an unspoiled river for recreation, rather than keep it as a natural habitat’ but he changed his
position to ‘Strongly Disagree’ at the end giving this reason:
I strongly disagree from changing the lake to an unspoiled river for recreation
because I want the birds to be safe. (S9).
This change in response illustrated a change in the value that S9 placed on birdlife. Prior to
the programme he thought that a river should be used for recreation. However, after having learnt
about the lake’s fauna, he changed this belief and now valued the lake as a ‘natural’ place.
The continuum exercise also allowed students to explore social values because one of the
statements related to the idea that New Zealanders care for their environment. At the end of the
programme this statement was changed by 13 of the students, the most significant amount of
changes made. Except for one student, 12 out of the 22 students made a change towards the
‘Strongly Disagree’ end of the continuum. Reasons given were similar and related to the amount
of rubbish that the students had observed in and around the lake and their realisation that people
were responsible for leaving this rubbish. S20’s justification is representative of these students’
I changed my opinion on the statement ‘New Zealanders care for the environment’.
At first I strongly agreed about it but now I’m not so sure [changed to neutral]
having discovered all of the rubbish around the lake. (S20).
This response illustrated the way that initially students thought that everybody looked after
the environment in New Zealand but their observations showed them that their perception was
not applicable to all New Zealanders as evidenced by the rubbish at the lake.
Envisaging possible and probable futures
Having the ability to envisage possible and probable futures is the next component in the frame-
work. Students developed this ability as is shown in S23’s justification for her choice of scenario
in the second written task:
The Forest and Bird Society has the best ideas for helping New Zealand native ani-
mals and plants. The ideas would help the native animals by keeping them from
extinction and would help the native plants by giving them an area to grow and re-
generate. The lake would be a completely native area for people to enjoy … now
and also people in the future would still be able to enjoy the lake in the same way …
where it is safe for native animals and plants … and where there isn’t any pests.
Her response which was categorised as a combination one, demonstrated the way in which
she used her scientific knowledge to envisage a future for the lake. She used concepts such as
maintaining biodiversity of native flora and fauna and predator-prey relationships to justify her
S21’s explanation of sustainability in the final interview also demonstrated ability to
envisage a future for the lake and people:
It’s good for the environment because could be more options ... for people of the fu-
ture ... like for the lake to keep it sustainable you could have a group who wanted to
19. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 469
build native bush walks and that would be good for people and it would be
sustainable because it would help the environment grow back ... from when people
cut down all of the trees ... [when asked why, replied] because then people might
understand about how New Zealand was before people came and chopped down
trees and they might want to help. (S21)
In this response S21 articulated her vision of the future as being the construction of native
bush walks around the lake. Not only did she view this as a restoration project from which both
the environment and future generations would benefit, S21 also envisioned that it would
encourage other people to care for the environment. This response was categorised as a
combination one.
Reaching conclusions and making justified decisions
Being able to reach conclusions and make decisions that can be justified is another component.
This component was evident in the students’ submission to the local council about managing the
lake’s reserves. As a group, they decided that there were too many mallard ducks, geese and
black swans at the lake and instead they wanted more native birdlife. Their submission stated:
We think that the exotic birdlife should be controlled so that we can encourage our
indigenous species … so provision has to be made to provide them with a suitable
environment … we think that dogs should continue to be restricted from lakeside
reserves and predators controlled through education and trapping programmes …
should be extended to cats as they … have a significant effect on our indigenous
birdlife. (Submission, pp. 1-2)
Again, their understanding of scientific concepts was used to justify their decisions. They
realised that populations of the exotic birds needed to be controlled in order for native species to
have space to survive. In addition, they used their knowledge about predator-prey relationships to
justify their decision to exclude both dogs and cats from reserves and agreed with the council’s
proposal to run education programmes about the need to exclude pets and also to trap those pets
intruding on reserves.
Developing political literacy for empowerment
The penultimate component in the revised framework is the development of political literacy.
Prior to this programme, these students had no knowledge about the role of the local council in
maintaining reserves and waterways or the way that ratepayers could participate in making
decisions about waterways. When the advertisement for submissions was published, it provided
an ideal opportunity to discuss how ratepayers could lobby or make submissions about issues that
they considered important. These students took this opportunity along with informing their
parents, peers and community of their findings and consequently their political literacy skills
could be regarded as emergent.
Taking action to resolve or mitigate issues
The final component in the revised framework is the ability to take action. The actions planned
and/or taken included a litter clean-up, oral presentations to their peers and the school’s Board of
Trustees, a report to the National Waterways Project co-ordinator that was placed on their websi-
20. 470 S. Birdsall
te, reports that were published in two local newspapers and a report for the local council’s Envi-
ronmental Officer as well as a submission to the local council about the management of the
reserves and parks that surround some of the lake.
These results suggested that reconstructing a relationship between science and EfS into a revised
learning framework had been beneficial for students’ learning in a number of ways. Firstly, these
students were able to develop an understanding of sustainability. However, the majority could
only express an understanding in terms of one component, either the environmental or social.
This finding suggests that developing an understanding of sustainability in terms of its three
components is very difficult for children of this age. It also indicates that the teacher’s decision to
not include the economic component was justified. Such a finding suggests that children’s un-
derstanding of sustainability needs to be developed over time, with careful consideration given to
aligning sustainability components to particular issues, for example in this instance, the environ-
mental and social components seemed to be the best ‘fit’.
As previously discussed, the goal of science education is to develop students’ scientific
literacy so that they can engage in debate and take an informed personal position on scientific
issues. Development of their scientific literacy can be seen in the students’ submission to the
local council where they were able to take an informed position on two issues that is the need to
create a wildlife sanctuary and forming an opinion about the effects of the amount of rubbish on
this area. These decisions were based on their scientific understandings and these students went
further, using their scientific understandings to suggest possible solutions.
In addition their actions demonstrated their emerging politicisation, in other words their
knowledge about advocacy, in that they publicised their findings to their community through
presentations and reports as well as writing a submission to the local council. According to
Hodson (2011) and Tilbury (1995), the possession of political literacy is crucial in both science
and EfS because it enables students to work individually and with others to bring about change
towards a more equitable and sustainable world.
Hodson (2011) recommended that science learning take place in contexts relevant to
students and Brundiers et al. (2010) also recommend studying real life contexts. Situating lear-
ning in their local lake where the students swim, sail and kayak did have an effect on their lear-
ning in that they became concerned about the amount of rubbish and exotic bird species in and
around the lake. Their developing scientific conceptual knowledge enabled them to understand
the effects of the rubbish and exotic birdlife on the lake and its environs and consequently, they
developed an appreciation of the lake as a whole system that included the people who lived
around the lake as well as those who made use of it. This appreciation then enabled these 11-12
year old students to envisage potential futures for the lake. Their visions empowered them to
make decisions about actions they could take to mitigate or solve the issues they perceived as
important to the lake’s continued health.
While this finding corroborated Uitto et al.’s (2011) assertion that possessing greater
scientific understanding results in more feelings of responsibility, this study went further and
illustrated how students can then take action based on their feelings. Such a finding suggested
that these young students found their learning personally relevant and engaging and substantiates
Gough’s (2007) suggestion that reconstructing this relationship could result in greater interest in
science. These students’ interest in science was apparent not only in their actions taken but also
in the way that when asked to evaluate their learning, 17 of the 22 students stated that going to
the lake to test the water quality and sample the macroinvertebrates was the activity they liked the
21. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 471
Furthermore, they were able to develop inquiry skills such as observation, sampling, re-
cording, identifying trends in data and drawing conclusions. Students also developed a deeper
appreciation of the way in which scientists work when confronted with groups having different
results from their water quality testing. However, there was no follow-up to explore whether this
interest was transferred into the next science topic taught and this highlights a space for future
Critique of the framework
The use of revised framework to design a programme of learning based on the environmental
issue of the local lake resulted in these students developing some understanding of sustainability.
Its use also enabled students to develop understandings about the lake, its environs and people as
a whole system. The findings show that these students were then able to make informed decisions
about actions to take based on their understandings. This finding implies that the development of
knowledge is an important part of being able to take informed action. It runs counter to Kollmus
and Agyeman’s (2002) assertion that there is only a weak link between knowledge and action,
indicating a gap for further exploration of this relationship.
However, the framework would benefit from the addition of further components. For
example, Hodson (2011) suggests that students develop media literacy so that they can critically
engage with all types of texts and images to evaluate the strengths and limitations of information.
Such a component would also relate to the idea put forward by Norris and Phillips (2003) that
people need a wide conception of literacy in order to be able to interpret texts. While the students
in this study did engage with some texts, there was the opportunity to think more critically about
the two media articles that initiated the learning to explore why they presented two different
Another addition to the framework that was not included in the current study was
developing knowledge about society’s underlying political, economic and social structures that
affect the adoption of sustainability-driven imperatives (Hodson, 2011; Tilbury, 1995).
Developing knowledge about such structures could have enabled these students to develop a
deeper understanding about the amount of rubbish at the lake, beyond just people leaving it there.
In addition, they might have developed a deeper understanding of why the lake was home to so
many exotic birds and how the native flora and fauna were displaced by colonising settlers.
Furthermore, during the many discussions that took place during the programme, there
was often disagreement between the students and they could have benefited from a final compo-
nent, that of conflict resolution skills (Hodson, 2011). Such skills could have assisted them to
resolve their disputes in a constructive manner.
Brundiers et al. (2010) argue that the use of real life contexts enable learners to interact
with people in their community who also have an interest in the issue being studied. Additionally,
such involvement offers another opportunity for developing an appreciation of diverse views and
the development of negotiation and conflict resolution skills. While the role-play activity leading
to the second written task did give these students the opportunity to examine different
viewpoints, these were hypothetical. Engagement with stakeholders in the community would
have brought more authenticity to these students’ learning and needs to be incorporated in future
use of this framework.
Finally, Hodson (2012) claimed that this type of learning was very difficult to implement
in classrooms. This paper has illustrated some of the difficulties. For example, there was the huge
proportion of time such learning needs that might not always be available. New Zealand primary
schools have four terms of approximately 10 weeks each and this programme took up 15 weeks.
In addition, it had to be organised around other school events such as assemblies, sports days and
22. 472 S. Birdsall
a whole school drama production. There was also the issue of assessment. The teacher required
data about student achievement for reporting to parents and school records and some of the lear-
ning was hard to quantify, for example the students’ emerging political literacy and values positi-
ons. Finally, there were no other EfS programmes taught in this school during that year. These
students had only begun to develop their understandings of sustainability and ability to engage in
environmental issue decision-making and needed further learning to build on what they had
learnt. Unfortunately there were no opportunities to do so.
In summary, a reconstruction of the relationship between science and EfS to form a
revised framework has many benefits for learners. These 11-12 year old students developed their
scientific literacy through the growth of their scientific knowledge and skills and the emerging
ability to take action on issues of concern to them. EfS was able to be incorporated within the
programme and these students demonstrated an increased interest in science. It would be fruitful
to research the effectiveness of similar programmes, exploring their effects on students’ learning
as well as the impact on their lives outside of the school setting.
Very recently EfS programmes in both New Zealand and Australia have received a modest amount of
governmental funding. See
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Corresponding Author: Dr. Sally Birdsall, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland,
PB 92601, Symonds St, Auckland 1150, New Zealand. E-mail:
Please cite as: Birdsall S. (2013). Reconstructing the relationship between science and education
for sustainability: a proposed framework for learning. International Journal of Environmental and
Science Education, 8, 451-478. doi: 10.12973/ijese.2013.214a
26. 476 S. Birdsall
Appendix 1 – Outline of Programme
Learning Area Knowledge and Skills Developed
Social Science Researching history of lake, including interview with long-term resident.
Studying consequences of past decisions on present day use of the lake.
Values identification and clarification.
Science Studying lake as an ecosystem.
Effects of pollution and erosion on ecosystem.
Water quality testing.
Skills of observation, data collection and recording, interpretation of
tables and graphs, drawing conclusions.
Technology Design, construction and evaluation of nets to sample macroinvertebrates.
Physical Education Identifying actions that people could take to maintain the lake’s water
and Health quality.
Planning and implementing actions.
Mathematics Using Excel to record data and draw graphs.
English Oral language – discussions to promote critical thinking (groups and
whole class) about lake in terms of sustainability.
Reading – selecting, gathering, evaluating and processing information.
Writing – writing explanations, letters and reports.
Visual – designing a slide show of results for peers, parents and other
teachers including the school’s Board of Trustees.
Drama Structured role-play activity about different uses of lake.
Art Construction and printing of cardboard blocks depicting an historic
building on lake’s shore.
27. Reconstructing the Relationship between Science and Education for Sustainability 477
Appendix 2 - Values Continuum Activity
Read the statements below. Beside each statement is a scale. Place a cross on the scale above the
word showing what you think about the statement.
Local waterways need to be protected.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
A variety of wildlife should be encouraged.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
People should be involved in local environment care.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
Only ratepayers should contribute to the cost of caring for the waterways.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
New Zealanders care for the environment.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
It is better to use an unspoiled river for recreation, rather than keep it as a natural habitat.
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
People should be made to spend some of their free time working towards helping the environ-
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
28. 478 S. Birdsall
Appendix 3 – Development of Students’ Understandings of Sustainability
Initial Interviews First Written Second Written Final Interviews
Task Task
No related un-
derstanding 19 7 2 1
understanding 3 13 6 3
Social unders-
tanding 0 2 13 16
Combination of
environmental 0 0 1 2
and social un-