Geography and geography-based fieldwork are imperative for sustainability education

Casinader, N., & Kidman, G. (2018). Fieldwork, Sustainability, and Environmental Education: The Centrality of Geographical Inquiry. Australian Journal Of Environmental Education, 34, 1 - 17.

Environmental education (EE) and education for sustainable development (ESD) aim to create a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world. EE tends to prioritize environmental literacy and pro-environmental behaviors to protect earth from human activities, while ESD considers social and economic factors to be of equal importance and strives to find a balance between environmental and human needs. Although ESD has been added into curriculum around the world, trends suggest that people mainly associate “sustainability” with the environment instead of all three pillars of sustainability (environment, social, economic). The authors of this paper argued that social and economic factors of ESD need to be re-prioritized to reflect the nuance of human interactions with nature. By using the Australian sustainability education curriculum as an example, the authors discussed the ways Geography and Geography-based fieldwork are effective and imperative in advancing the goals of sustainable development and ESD, and suggested that the focus on interdisciplinary curriculum content should be reconsidered.

The authors indicated that ESD is a stronger framework than EE because the concept of sustainability should identify humans as an integral part of the environment, instead of being a separate entity. Environmental education became influential in the late 1960s after the UNESCO Biosphere Conference in Paris. In 1987, the United Nations brought the concepts of sustainable development and education for sustainable development (ESD) to the forefront, and both concepts were integrated into school curriculum globally. Education for Sustainability (EfS) is another framework that gained popularity later. These concepts overlap in many ways including their focus on interdisciplinary curriculum: the idea that environmental issues and sustainability should be taught in multiple areas of study across a student's education. Sustainability education has increasingly been associated with the environment yet less so with the other concepts of sustainable development (social and economic). This has resulted in sustainability being taught largely in Science classes, with less focus on the social and economic components of sustainability, which are central to sustainable development.

The authors suggested that there should be less focus on interdisciplinary curriculum, and more focus on interdisciplinary perspectives. This means that sustainability would not only be integrated into diverse areas of study through content, but also through an integration of diverse attitudes and perspectives from within an area of study. The paper pointed to critiques of the national Australian sustainability curriculum as an example of how interdisciplinary curriculum content can be less effective at achieving ESD goals. In the Australian curriculum, sustainability is a mandatory cross-curriculum priority (CPP), so it is supposed to be taught in every subject area. However, critics of this strategy argue that by making sustainability a CPP as opposed to its own independent subject area, it becomes less of a priority. Many educators do not have specific knowledge of sustainability, have prioritized the learning objectives of their given discipline over sustainability objectives, and have struggled to include sustainability into their teaching. In contrast, Geography is a subject that could allow for interdisciplinary perspectives and attitudes to be considered by educators and students from within a single subject, while effectively addressing sustainability learning objectives.

The authors argued that Geography as an area of study is better suited for sustainability education than Science because it encompasses the social and economic pillars of sustainability as opposed to only the environmental pillar. Geography is also place-based and promotes connections between humans and the land around them to contextualize local and global sustainability issues. The authors used the required learning objectives within the Australian sustainability CPP curriculum as evidence that Geography and Social Sciences are better suited for teaching sustainability than Science. Between year level 1–10 (about ages 5–16 years) there are 24 sustainability learning objectives within Geography and Social Science, in contrast to five sustainability learning objectives within Science. In addition, sustainability is addressed as early as year one within Geography, while it's introduced in year four in the Science curriculum. Sustainability is also consistently incorporated into Geography and Social Science curriculum in years one, two, four, and five, which establishes an early and enduring connection to sustainability practices.

The authors stated that the strongest argument for using Geography to teach sustainability is found in how well Geography-based fieldwork aligns with the goals of sustainability education. Geography fieldwork is inquiry-based, focuses on human-environment interactions, and allows for observation of nuanced 'real-world' solutions which balance the goals of economic, social, and environmental development. Geography fieldwork also tends to focus on gathering holistic data from a place, in contrast to science, where a narrower data set is traditionally collected. This makes Geography inherently more interdisciplinary than Science, which supports the principles of sustainability education.

This paper has limitations. The paper is organized as a theoretical discussion of sustainability education and how Geography and fieldwork could be effective in supporting the goals of ESD as opposed to a formal study to prove such conclusions. Both authors research and study Geography, which may have biased their views on comparing Science and Geography as vehicles for sustainability education. Although the authors recommended mandatory fieldwork in sustainability education, they also acknowledged that barriers to fieldwork exist, including difficulty assessing student learning, safety issues, financial expenses, and time intensity.

The authors recommended that sustainability be taught through the academic subject of Geography. They also suggested that including interdisciplinary perspectives within Geography may be more effective than prioritizing interdisciplinary sustainability content across multiple subjects. The authors also strongly recommended that global ESD curriculum should incorporate fieldwork. Specifically, the authors suggested there should be required Geography fieldwork to support sustainability education goals.

The Bottom Line

<p>Environmental education (EE) and education for sustainable development (ESD) help promote a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world. However, EE tends to focus more on environmental sustainability, whereas ESD equally considers environmental, social, and economic factors. Using Australia's sustainability curriculum as an example, this paper discussed how ESD can be effectively advanced through the study of Geography and engagement with fieldwork. The authors suggested that sustainability should be taught primarily through the discipline of Geography as opposed to Science, and that global sustainability education curriculum must mandate fieldwork to promote the goals of sustainable development.</p>

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