Action Competence
Health Education - Environmental Education
A resource website from The Research Programme for Environmental and Health Education, Danish University of Education, Copenhagen, Denmark
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Action competence as the goal for Health Education and Environmental Education

SB 20.12.02
2. Draft

Discussion paper for Central Concept Seminar of the SEET programme January 2002:

The evolution of Environmental Education concepts and approaches

By Soren Breiting

This paper can only take up a few positions related to the evolution of EE. In this version I am not aiming at describing the historical development of EE in Thailand. Such a work would be useful to have done. In a number of countries there already exists papers to describe the development of EE in the respective country (e.g. Great Britain, USA and Denmark).

Reactions to the challenge of environmental issues

To a certain extent the background for EE is clear: Each country is facing a number of changes in its environment. They become environmental issues when they are regarded as unwanted by at least some of its inhabitants.

In the evolution of EE a kind of logic from this situation has mainly been that because not everybody in each country (and internationally) have taken the above mentioned situation serious, the goal of EE in schools and other learning situations should be to increase the learners' awareness of the seriousness of the environmental situation, to get knowledge about different types of environmental problems and their scientific background, and to pass their knowledge and awareness on to other family members. It is hoped that this teaching will make the learners willing and active in participating in the immediate solution of some problems related to daily life and lifestyle, like problems linked to the consumption of water and electricity, and handling of waste (e.g. by helping recycling).

This general approach has often been a part of a rationale, where EE should give the learner a positive attitude to nature and to appreciate the beauty of nature before the introduction of the more depressing environmental aspects. Some will express it like: Learn first to love nature, and then the engagement in protecting nature will come more or less by itself.

This entire approach has been criticised from a number of perspectives, of which we can mention a few:
- It is very individualistic
- It is focussing too much on lifestyle and too little on living conditions and how they shape the actual living of people.
- It induces a feeling of guilt, which is not justified - a "prosecuting the victim" syndrome.
- It doesn't prepare the learners for problems, which are not already identified, or to newer - for the moment unknown - solutions to old environmental issues.
- It doesn't support the development of a critical and constructive citizenship.
- It is quite apolitical, and might fuel an understanding of environmental issues to mainly be rooted in bad individuals, or a simple na?ve understanding, that the whole issue is due to a lack of knowledge of the main stakeholders.
- It easily supports a "learn from nature" understanding, that is not in accordance with how knowledge is generated and revised by human activity, and which is counteracting the involvement of people's involvement in sustainable development.
- The environmental problems are easily seen as problems between nature and people, and not as issues between people about how nature is treated
- The na?ve understanding of the root of environmental issues often causes to a disappointing clash with people in charge of environmental aspect which might give the learner an apathetic view on their own possible influence on environmental issues.
- It is not linking the quality of human health with the quality of the environment.

In its original (or extreme) version this understanding has been labelled a "behaviour modification approach", as the main idea has been to optimise the most efficient ways of having people to change their attitudes to give the highest priority to environmental concern (often setting the concern for Nature as the main issue), and to act environmentally friendly to give a substantial contribution to the solution of the current environmental issues in the community.

A substantial amount of research has been done to identify the main factors, which generate environmental concern and environmental friendly behaviour. The research has been used as steps to be better able to develop instruction and campaigns to move learners (and a population) toward a more environmental friendly behaviour and lifestyle.

A part of this has taken the point of departure in the concept of "significant life experiences", originally developed by Thomas Tanner, and in later years developed in an international team with Joy Palmer as a key figure.

Environmental science

At college and university level environmental education has often been the general label for environmental science. As long as these disciplines, often several traditional science disciplines combined in different packages as interdisciplinary education, are not integrated with a clear and open-ended emphasis on the value loaded nature of environmental issues, they don't deserve the notion of environmental education.

Alternatives to environmental behaviour modification

The above mention critics of versions of EE with elements of behaviour modification have been supplemented with different approaches, building on ideas like the following, but not restricted to these:
- Environmental problems are issues in the community, and not problems in nature or problems between nature and people.
-Environmental issues are value-loaded issues without simple correct or incorrect solutions, but with the possibility of different solutions, which will be judged as better or worse by different people with different beliefs and interests.
- The main goal of EE is to support the learner's understanding of the complexity of environmental issues and to help them to be able to handle controversial issues of the community and to develop to be a reflective, critical, responsible, constructive and active part of civil society.
- Environmental issues cannot be treated separately form other aspects of human life and from other issues of the community.

One of the well-described and researched alternative approaches to behaviour modification EE is the action competence approach. This has been developed in Denmark, but through much interaction with international co-operation including other Nordic countries, researchers mainly from Australia and England, and in its roots inspired especially by The Frankfurter school in Germany.

The action competence approach to EE

In the action competence approach to EE the main aim of EE is to further develop the "competence" or capacity or ability of the learner to be influential related to solving environmental issues. By action we mean something based on decisions which you have been involved in yourself, and not just some activities which others (e.g. the teacher) has told you to do. This approach shares a lot of thinking from education supporting democracy in a society in general.

Democracy implies that disagreement is accepted and that each individual should have the right and opportunity to voice his opinion. (It can be said that democracy is a civilised way of handling disagreement.) So in that way different from manipulation or the situation when powerful smaller groups just push their own will and interests through.

In the action competence approach to EE pupils should learn to analyse complex and controversial issues in the community and develop their ability to make up their own mind of what they would like to see in the future related to environmental problems. And - very important - they should get experience with how to act towards their ideas. This will typical happen together with other class mates and may be even with others outside the school. The teacher shall not be a person who delivers or teaches the children the "right solutions", but a person who helps the pupils investigate the issues and at the same time support their learning in relevant subject matters. The core of the focus for "environment" in EE is the conflicting interests in human's use of natural resources.

Some general pitfalls to avoid in EE - A personal view

- Avoid as a teacher to be a part of an environmental conflict yourself. This means don't represent the side of environmental conservation but get another spokesperson for that, even if your students are not in doubt about your personal viewpoints.
- Don't look at your students as your target to persuade to be more environmentally concerned but let them identify and investigate environmental issues and let them develop their own position.
- Avoid activities, which are not stimulating the concept formation of your students. If you find it useful to produce products from waste material, be sure that your students are not believing that to produce e.g. fancy hats of used plastic bags will solve any waste problem. Instead let them understand that the distinction between the concepts (= understanding) of "waste" and "resource" depends on the actual situation. An empty can is a resource, if you strand on an inhabited island, but waste in a modern big city.
- Be aware of the distinction between an 'activity' and an 'action'. If your students are "acting" then they have a goal about to change something by their act.
- If you want your school to be a more "green school" let your students be the main driving forces in shaping ideas and priorities and plan changes, so it can be a continued process over many years and by that with many generations of learners involved.
- Avoid activities and actions with health hazards to students, teachers or technical staff of the school, like handling hazardous chemicals, liquids, waste water and waste in general.
- When you use creative activities be sure your students are in fact in charge of the creativity and that they are not just modelling some creation from the teacher or a source.

Soren Breiting, EE advisor, SEET Programme



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