Eco-literacy : the "missing paradigm" in environmental education

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Cutter- Mackenzie, A 2003, 'Eco-literacy : the "missing paradigm" in environmental education', PhD thesis, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Qld.

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This thesis is about the knowledge and beliefs of primary school teachers. The study is aimed at assessing the scope and range of Queensland primary school teachers' knowledge and beliefs about environmental education. More specifically, the thesis addresses a perceived gap within environmental education research and literature which, to date, fails to provide an elaborate account of Australian primary school teachers' knowledge about and beliefs towards environmental education.

In Chapter One, the Background to the Study and Review of Literature, I present an overview of the various international environmental education policy developments and initiatives, and reveal that there are established goals, objectives and principles for environmental education. In Australia, environmental education policies have been developed, although state departments have been slow to incorporate environmental education into key curriculum documents. Environmental education is predominately incorporated into and practised through existing curriculum areas; principally the 'Studies of Society and the Environment' (SOSE) key learning area. The implications of concentrating environmental education into specific curriculum domains are yet to be fully explored.

There are a variety of disparate views about the proper role of environmental education. In Australia, the dominant approaches are: education about the environment, education in (or through) the environment and education for the environment. For the past two decades education for the environ-ment has been identified by particular proponents in the field as the preferred approach for environ-mental education. Notwithstanding, there is a growing number of researchers who argue that education for the environment is theoretically and conceptually flawed. Four issues have been identified as the basis of these criticisms. These are: its indoctrination and anthropocentric tendencies; its definitive usage of the concept sustainable development; its inappropriate use of social-critical theory; and the lack of empirical research concerning the implementation of education for the environment in schools. To this end, I argue that the field of environmental education is characterized by theoretical assumptions, flaws and contradictions and a dearth of empirical research.

To this extent, little is known about the extent to which environmental education has been incorporated into school systems, particularly in primary schools. Despite the various policy advancements in environ-mental education, the evaluation studies that have been conducted indicate that policy expectations are rarely met. There are many barriers which impede the implementation of environmental education, namely: time and resource constraints for teachers; lack of teacher knowledge and skills; lack of knowledge of departmental regulations regarding environmental education; and differences and gaps between the theories (with respect to environmental education) held by policy makers, curriculum developers and educational researchers and the theories held by practitioners. In this way, environmental education research has tended to conclude that the provision of further or restructured teacher education is the 'priority of priorities' for environmental education. However, such propositions tend to be based on both a lack of empirical evidence and a flawed theoretical presumption that environmental education and the structure, politics and organisation of school systems are unprob-lematic.

The identified theoretical and empirical 'gaps' formulated the impetus and justification of this study. In so doing, Chapter Two presents a theoretical framework for the thesis problem set out in Chapter One. This framework is utilised later in the thesis for the interpretation, analysis and synthesis of data reported in Chapter Four. The theoretical framework establishes links between the major concepts of teachers' knowledge, teachers' beliefs and environmental education. As such, complex pedagogical content knowledge underpins the conceptual framework of this thesis, which is positioned within a theoretical model based upon ecoliteracy and adaptive management. Eco-literacy comprises complex pedagogical knowledge centred on ecological, sociological and educational concepts. Adaptive management, in addition, shows what happens with individual learners and the capacities of teachers with the practical interest of conceptualising how an ecologically literate population might be developed through participation in an education system.

Chapter Three outlines the combined-methods approach utilised to investigate primary school teachers' knowledge and beliefs (eco-literacy) about environmental education. To this extent, the methodological approach consisted of two stages. For stage one, a total of twenty-six primary school teachers volunteered and partici-pated in one intensive ethnographic interview. So as to elucidate the findings discovered in the stage one phase of data collection, a quantitative survey (stage two) was administered in five Education Queensland state primary school districts.

In Chapter Four I present and analyse the data collected in 'Stage One' and 'Stage Two' of this study. The data are presented in four sections, namely: Teachers' Preparedness; Teachers' Knowledge; Teachers' Beliefs; and Correlating Teachers' Preparedness, Knowledge & Beliefs - A Path Analysis. In short, the data revealed that the participants: had received no or very little in-service and/or pre-service training in environmental education; possessed mis-conceptions and simple understandings of environmental education and environmental concepts; either did not practise environmental education or practised it incidentally through curriculum areas such as Studies of Society and Environment; did not consider it a priority in their teaching or in schooling generally; perceived time constraints, over-crowded curriculum, constant change and ongoing pro-fessional demands as the major barriers preventing and/or limiting the implementation of environmental education; revealed a general concern for the environment, although various views about the environ-mental crisis were apparent (between stage one and stage two); and displayed a range of environ-mental philosophies, with participants agreeing most with the 'Ecocentric Eco-socialist' and 'Ecocentric Gaia' perspectives. Essentially, the participants' knowledge, beliefs and amount of in-service training significantly influenced their priority for and level of intention to implement environmental education in the primary school classroom. Significant trends are also reported between male and female teachers of different age-groups.

In Chapter Five I synthesis the data, presented in Chapter Four, in relation to the theoretical framework and overall research problem. Based upon the data presented, I contend that current primary school teachers are likely to be functioning at a level of eco-illiteracy and/or nominal eco-literacy. I conclude that the introduction of eco-literacy in educational policy and the espousal of adaptive management strategies may advance the goals of environmental education, although such initiatives are unlikely to significantly change the current 'status' of environmental education unless there is a system-wide commitment to environmental education and knowledge management on the part of governments, education departments, pre-service and in-service teacher education providers, schools and teachers themselves.