September 3, 2011 by sgoobie
Daring to question
Three teachers walk into a school. You can choose only one to teach students about sustainability. Now, do you opt for the teacher of fine arts, humanities or science?
It sounds like an unusual take on an old joke, but this hypothetical situation raises an important question. Where do schools currently place their focus when it comes to sustainability education? From what I have observed, more often than not, the focus is on science. Indeed, what is the place of science in sustainability education?
A note of caution: From time to time, modern science comes under fire from very real fringes of society. Personally, throughout degrees in astrophysics and teaching physics, as well as during years of science instruction, I too have experienced these kind of rebukes. Educators are right and proper to be a bit cautious of those who question the legitimacy of scientific projects in society.
That said, when so much is at stake, when ecological changes increasingly threaten the land, air and water to a planetary scale, we cannot afford to shy away from holding up that which is sometimes deemed sacrosanct in education. We must ask questions of science. We must openly engage in putting up not only science but also scientism against the supposed goals of sustainability education.
The term scientism denotes the faith in modern science as the ultimate source of truth and knowledge about the world 1. In other words, scientism is a way of thinking in which scientists and scientific knowledge are given the highest authority, a status above all other systems of knowledge. Scientism, we can assert, is a powerful component of the modern ecological thoughtprint.
The question follows: Does present-day schooling contain the hallmarks of scientism?
Upon examination, we find that much of the learning which takes place in schools, both in general and specifically around ecological issues, is steeped in the scientific perspective. This learning is commonly carried out under such titles as environmental education, nature education, education for sustainable development (ESD) or, recently, sustainability education. Whatever the name, these pursuits tend to be conceived as “science education regarding the environment” 2. With abundant vigour, educational pedagogies tend to use mainly physical scientific approaches and methods through which students can gain “knowledge” of ecological aspects of the environment 3.
Specifically, sustainability education carries with it a strong emphasis on biological science 4. Some educators, academics and activists go so far as to claim that when it comes to issues of sustainability there needs to be an even greater focus on science than at the present 5.
In the domination of ecological discourse by science in schools whereby sustainability education is framed as a “sub-division of science” 5, other disciplinary perspectives tend to become marginalized. The role of the arts and the humanities in schools is generally underplayed in environmental education, pushed aside by “scientific ecology” 6.
What about the role of teachers? As in the above “joke”, who do students and colleagues naturally trust to spearhead sustainability initiatives? Who do schools look toward as mandates for sustainability education fall upon schools? Art teachers? Those guiding students through English literature? Music instructors? Probably none of the above.
It is committed science teachers whom are frequently found at the forefront of environmental education within their own schools 7. Again personally, I admit that I too am an example of this. Science teachers are sometimes even expected by other colleagues to fill such a role, and they self-report as feeling that they have a broader contribution to make around ecological issues. One researcher points out: “For science teachers and science education specialists, the environmental theme can be a ‘hook,’ a subject that stimulates an interest in sciences…” 3. In some cases it is assumed for science teachers like myself to gravitate toward authoritative involvement in ecological discourse.
Educators have been criticized for limiting the scope of their lessons to the scientific and technological aspects of ecological issues, to the exclusion of social and cultural elements 8. According to one researcher’s concerns, “too many science educators seem to believe that their discipline is the vehicle for environmental education” 9. He interprets this as a sort of “omnipotent disciplinary chauvinism” by which these teachers presume that the Western scientific worldview (or modern ecological thoughtprint) is a perfect fit for learning about complex ecological issues. Even early on in the history of environmental education there were warnings by those such as Hall, who claimed that “science teachers will do environmental education a grave disservice if they try to take it over” 10.
There are of course exceptions to these trends. Particularly at elementary levels, examples of diverse instruction led by innovative teachers of equally diverse backgrounds can be found in many schools and in many shared lessons archived in such educational magazines as Green Teacher. There are also capable science teachers who approach sustainability from a broad perspective.
But given the overwhelming evidence found in mainstream school programs, we must conclude the current dominant approach to sustainability education is securely grounded in scientism—and increasingly so.
No one is suggesting that science education is not an important part of a young person’s education in the modern world. However, with stakes as high as they are, we must question this entrenched approach to sustainability education in particular. What are the consequences of teaching about ecological issues from a narrowly scientific – and scientistic – perspective? Is it right to rule out the perspectives and
knowledges of the arts, humanities, and other disciplines toward learning about sustainability?
Now more than ever, we need teachers in all areas of knowledge to step forward in dialogue with students about their relationship with the air, water and land and with their animal kin. If this means science teachers taking a small step aside from their dominating role, perhaps – just perhaps – this may allow for the creativity and innovation we need.
Adapted from: S. Goobie, Yes We Can: Sustaining a Language for the Land in Education (Master’s capstone paper), 2009.
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