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Ahearn M, 2018, 'An tairseach (threshold) : an exploration of connecting the emerging scientific story of the universe to authentic Catholic primary school environmental education', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright M Ahearn 2018


This thesis explores ways of connecting the emerging scientific story of the universe to authentic primary school environmental education, in Catholic education. More specifically, the study sought to understand the extent to which students’ environmental values could be informed and extended through the impacts of a pedagogical intervention around the scientific origin story.

There is clear evidence that international, national and whole-systems policy documents address the need for holistic, interdisciplinary and values-based environmental education. Existing literature also identifies a clear mandate from Catholic Church official teachings and documents for Catholic schools to foster ecological consciousness and conversion. Values are embedded as foundational to the development of the Australian Curriculum, with sustainability named as a cross-curriculum priority for Australian education. However, there is evidence in research literature, if a wider worldview is not introduced, that students’ environmental values are permeated by their own culture’s historical metaphors and story. In particular, evidence suggests that anthropocentric thinking can be addressed through the transdisciplinary nature and socioecological impacts of an understanding of the place of the anthropocene within the deep time of the emerging scientific story of the universe.

The theoretical framework of this study is grounded in socioecological education, linking environmental values to whole systems thinking and curriculum theory. In underpinning the study to transdisciplinary learning, students could incorporate an understanding of the deep time of the history of the universe, around the interconnected interrelationships of ecological, social, economic and holistic perspectives of socioecological education.

The research methodology of this study was qualitative, applying an action-based methodology. The methods consisted of semi-structured interviews, conducted before, during and after the implementation of a Big History pedagogical program with 8- to 9-year-old students and their teacher. Data were gathered from student writing, recorded research journal observations, semi-structured interviews and child-framed deep learning opportunities on the shared understanding with children that both the classroom teacher, and myself as researcher, were lead learners in the classroom.

Analysis of data centred on a cyclical model, based on the developing complexity of the unfolding universe story. Student values were interpreted in the context of the local school setting. Qualitative analysis of these interviews indicated that primary students could successfully access Big History, which provided them with a shared, evidence-based and flexible narrative for future learning. They were then able to apply this narrative as a framework for whole-systems based, socioecological learning. Five interdependent themes were identified as significant to the conclusions for the study: students’ growth in critical knowledge, local school values, Catholic cultural setting, transdisciplinary learning and socioecological learning.

The power of transdisciplinary Big History learning was foundational to the research conclusions in that it allowed students to engage in meaningful discussions, integrating shared knowledge of their own origin stories alongside knowledge from both their Catholic teaching and their local school values. As the pedagogical intervention progressed, the research findings showed that children realised their new Big History learning needed a holistic, rather than a siloed approach that informed environmental values and in turn embraced socioecological learning.

The study affirms that the impacts of employing Big History as a teaching vehicle for the scientific universe story achieved a cohesive, wider worldview for primary-aged learners, empowering them to engage in transformative, socioecological thinking for the future. These findings have wider implications for systems-wide education and curricula development, providing evidence that Big History is accessible and relevant to primary-aged students where environmental education is not taught as a silo discipline, but as a transdisciplinary based and socioecological learning structure.