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Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future.

Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

Chapter 20 Conceptions of Sustainability among Undergraduate University Students Kevin Brady Centre for Regional Sustainable Futures Edith Cowan University: South West Campus 1. Introduction The unit on Technology and Enterprise Education for first year undergraduate students in the education programme faculty at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury includes a focus on the sustainable use of technology, and the adaptation of technology for cultural reasons. As such, the development of economic, environmental and cultural sustainability as key themes underpinning technological development has been incorporated into the unit. A key question regarding the unit is to what extent students conceptions of sustainability evolve throughout the unit. Development of this knowledge and related skill becomes imperative in developing the confidence that is required by teachers to support the teaching of such issues in their classrooms. A subsidiary question is what pre-existing ideas of sustainability students hold as they enter the course. Sustainability education programmes in classrooms require teachers who have sufficient confidence to be able to develop such programmes (Kim and Fortner, 2006). This confidence will be developed by enabling teachers to develop conceptual understanding and skills to enable them to question and act on the myriad situations they will be confronted with. However, these new skills and concepts will interact with students existing ideas, which is why it is important for educators to understand students pre-formed concepts of sustainability. According to Dale (2001), there are as many definitions of sustainability as there are commentators in the field. The Bruntland Commission (1987: 8) definition, for example, is deliberately quite vague: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. A range of definitions and the etymology of the term is described by Filho (2000), who agrees with other commentators that there is unlikely to be a consensus of opinion on the meaning of sustainable development. However, Filho provides four examples of the use of the term sustainability: 1. Systematic (through government policy) use of natural resources so that they are available for future generations; 2. Economic and social development that is accomplished without destroying their environmental resources; 3. Socially just and ethical development which is also economically sound; 4. Development which places equal emphasis on economic and environmental indicators.


Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future. Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

None of these examples is advanced as a single correct definition, and the author uses aspects of all of these in further discussions of academic misconceptions of the term sustainability. Locally, the Western Australian state government released a sustainability strategy (Government of Western Australia, 2003: 25) which defines sustainability as meeting the needs of current and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity. In the unit that is presented at Edith Cowan University, this is the definition that is put forward to the students. 2. Methodology The methodology for this survey is based on a concept-learning perspective of learner development (Eylon and Linn, 1988). A group of 60 first year undergraduate Education students from the Bunbury Campus of Edith Cowan University were provided with a two-question open-response survey prior to their scheduled lecture. The students had attended only three weeks of their course and had received no specific instruction in sustainability, or environmental issues in any of their units. The questions were deliberately open-ended and students were instructed to provide as complete a response as possible. The two questions asked were: 1. Explain what you understand is meant by the term sustainability. 2. Explain how sustainability is important to you in your own life in the SouthWest of Western Australia. This cohort of students was selected because these students had no specific instruction in sustainability, and were at the beginning of their course of study, so that the range of concepts they demonstrated would be similar to the variety of responses expected in the wider population. Furthermore, this sample would allow us to consider developments in these conceptual ideas as the students moved through their course. By keeping the questions open-ended, it allowed students to provide a wide range of responses eliciting the breadth of ideas that they held. Responses to both questions were independently read by two people to determine the underlying concept of sustainability that was held by each student. Responses that were similar were collated. Chosen classifications were compared between the readers and adjusted based on discussion. Selections of responses for each category were re-read, discussed and the category changed if necessary. A description for each of the categories was provided to reflect the nature of the students underlying concepts. The intention was not to score them as correct or incorrect, but to simply describe the nature of the concept that the student held regarding the term sustainability. As such, those responses that were complete and developed were included with responses that were more limited if it was felt that the underlying concept was the same. This did mean that some responses that were more complete and considered were classified with others that were less considered, however, it was felt that for the purposes of this survey this would provide a clearer picture of the nature of students underlying concepts. By selecting the responses in this way, it informs the underlying nature of the students thinking about the concept (Eylon and Linn, 1988). Thus, as a result, we were able to make decisions about what the student brought to a discussion about

Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future. Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

sustainability, and how different students would perceive the term in class discussions or when investigating sustainability issues. Responses were then re-examined to consider the object(s) of sustainability that is, what students described as needing to be sustained. Because this classification was less problematic, this was completed collaboratively. Again, some responses that were clearly more developed were categorised with responses that were not as highly developed if the object of sustainability was the same. 3. Results From examination of student responses, it was possible to identify seven alternative concepts of sustainability in student responses to the survey. These descriptions (see Table 1) represent a description of the concept that was decided after grouping of responses. Table 1: Categories of responses to the question Explain what you understand is meant by the term sustainability (N = 60) Conceptualisation of Sustainability (i) Durability; something that is long lasting, or development that is viable (usually economically). (ii) Maintaining something or keeping it in existence (often not specified). (iii) Management or effort directed at keeping something (usually resources) available for the future. (iv) Consideration of the impact of human behaviour, generally on the environment. (v) Recycling, conserving or effective use of resources (vi) Living in a balanced way. (vii) Describes an effect on the environment. Unable to be categorised. Proportion of Responses 28 % 25 % 15 % 10 % 10 % 7% 3% 2%

(i) Sustainability relates to viability or durability (usually economically). Although some students were not specific about what should be durable, there was generally a sense that the viability of something related to its economic sustainability. Examples provided often related to economic factors especially when related to farming, e.g., Sustainability to me means having a project or something that has ongoing viability. For example, if an artist produced a series of pictures or a film at reasonable expense, then allowed everyone to see it at no charge, there is no recoup of initial costs. Sustainability requires something to either sustain profit or growth into the future.

Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future. Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

(ii) Sustainability means maintaining something or keeping it in existence. This is very close to the dictionary definition of sustainability, however, responses usually implied passivity i.e., doing nothing or using something at a rate that would be replenished naturally, e.g., Maintaining the environment so that it can last indefinitely, and Sustainability is the extent to which something can be maintained how long you can keep doing something until your resources are used up. (iii) Sustainability relates to management, in order for something to be available into the future. In contrast to the above responses, responses in this category described human intervention and management practices that would ensure that something usually resources, but also heritage and the environment would still be available in the future, e.g., To me (it) means renewable resources. The ability for an area to forward plan what resources they need and plan ahead to provide replacement of these, e.g. pine foresting plantations, limiting fish catch bag limits. (iv) Sustainability is consideration of human impact and/or behaviour generally on the environment. Often the responses in this category focused on personal actions, or local actions that could sustain the environment, e.g., Sustainability to me means knowing every inch of my home, yard and work environment, then focusing on the 3Rs at this level. (It was assumed that the students used the term 3Rs in the sense of referring to reduce, re-use and recycle.) (v) Sustainability is about effective use of resources. For example: The ability to conserve and reuse natural resources to allow for future generations to be able to use them also, and: Sustainability is regarding using and re-using our natural resources (i.e., recycling). (vi) Sustainability means living in harmony with the environment, or living in a balanced way. For example: The environment in which we live and interact all working together like a cyclic chain, which makes the world move around we rely on each other, and the environment. (vii) Sustainability is related to the environment, but the relationship is not specified or unclear. For example: I understand that sustainability is related to the environment and refers to how a structure affects the environment, whether it sustains or not. Table 1 shows the proportion of responses for each of the identified concepts described above. One response was unable to be categorised. 4. Discussion Many definitions of sustainability identify that sustainability relates to the environment, the economy and social or cultural progress (Government of Western Australia, 2003). Student responses were examined to determine which of these

Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future. Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

were identified by students as objects of sustainability. Table 2 records the results of this categorisation. Many students described two or more objects. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the environment is the most frequently identified object of sustainability, with 70% of students identifying this in their responses. Forty percent of students described the economy as a significant focus for sustainability, and one fifth identified social or cultural issues as important areas in which to build sustainability. Only one in ten students included all three of the environment, the economy and society in their responses (see Table 2). Table 2: Proportion of responses by identified objects of sustainability (N = 60) Object of Sustainability The environment Economic indicators or issues Social or cultural issues Not specified or unable to determine Included environmental, social and cultural aspects Proportion of Responses 70 % 40 % 20 % 15 % 10 %

In a minority of cases, student understanding of the concept of sustainability is quite well developed and demonstrates a sophisticated balancing of the need for social, economic and environmental sustainability. More frequently, though, students relate the term to a single object or dimension of sustainability usually environmental. Furthermore, students often considered that sustainability required passivity as opposed to active intervention or management. While most students considered that sustainability meant long lasting or viable, often they linked this exclusively to economic factors. Some students expressed uncertainty in their responses, for example, not sure if this is right, or I am guessing here. These students are at the start of their university career, and so will come into contact with the concept of sustainability repeatedly over the next four years (including in the course that is the focus of this study). As such it can be assumed that these pre-existing ideas will develop as they complete their teaching programme, although this represents an area where further research can inform our practice. The question is, though, how important is it for teachers to have a deep understanding of the term sustainability, and equally importantly, whose understanding should they have? The introduction explored a range of definitions, none of which is seen to be incorrect, but all of which demonstrate subtle differences. Rather than arguing for a single correct definition, should students be allowed to hold conceptions of accountability that educators may not agree with? Warburton (2003: 49) describes sustainable development as a way of asking better questions rather than as a set of irrevocable answers. Therefore, it seems more important to support students to examine and broaden their own concept of sustainability. It is in this sense that understanding students preexisting ideas would be helpful for higher education practitioners. With a deeper understanding ourselves of student backgrounds, we can support students in the development of what Warburton (2003) calls deep-learning in sustainability. Warburton describes deep learning as a strategy for developing underlying

Wooltorton, S. and Marinova, D. (Eds) Sharing wisdom for our future. Environmental education in action: Proceedings of the 2006 Conference of the Australian Association of Environmental Education

meaning. He sees deep learning as a way of providing students with tools that enable them to move across disciplines to recognise patterns and causal relationships between economic, environmental and equity issues (2003: 45). He argues that holistic insight and an ability to organise and structure disparate types of information into a coherent whole is central to the whole exercise of sustainability education (2003: 46). Furthermore, this type of learning requires a sound understanding of the principles and concepts that underpin interdisciplinary study of phenomena. If we are to support this type of learning, we need to be able to understand ourselves the concepts that students enter our own classrooms with. As a basis for further study, that is where this has its genesis. 5. Conclusion This research highlights seven alternative concepts about sustainability that are held by first year undergraduate students at the South West Campus of Edith Cowan University and the proportion of students who hold these concepts. It remains to be seen how these concepts develop as students examine sustainability practices and concepts throughout their course. References Brundtland, G.H. (1987). Our common future: World Commission on Environment and Development. New York: Oxford University Press. Dale, A. (2001). At the edge: Sustainable development in the 21st century. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press. Eylon, B.S. & Linn, M.C. (1988). Learning and instruction: An examination of four research perspectives in science education. Review of Educational Research, 58(3), 251301. Filho, W.L. (2000). Dealing with misconceptions on the concept of sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 1(1), 919. Government of Western Australia (2003). Hope for the future: The Western Australian State Sustainability Strategy. Department of Premier and Cabinet, Perth. Kim, C. & Fortner R.W. (2006). Issue-specific barriers to addressing environmental issues in the classroom: An exploratory study. The Journal of Environmental Education, 37(3), 1523. Warburton, K. (2003). Deep learning and education for sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4(1), 4456.