Investigating the relationship between whole-school approaches to education for sustainability and student learning.

Funding year: 
2 years
University of Waikato
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2007
Project end date: 
January 2009
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Chris Eames
Research team members: 
Barry Law, University of Canterbury; Miles Barker, University of Waikato; Heidi Mardon, Enviroschools Foundation
Research partners: 
Advisor-researchers, Lyn Rogers and Anna Scott, University of Waikato; Anne Radford and Jock McKenzie, Massey University; Private consultant, Rosemarie Patterson; Faye Wilson-Hill, University of Canterbury; Teacher researchers, Cathy Carroll, Kevin Booth, Andrea Soanes, Jo Barlow, Jill Crossland, Jenny Clarke

Project Description

Education for sustainability (EfS) has been rapidly growing in New Zealand schools, bringing with it an interest in whole-school approaches to develop EfS and a focus on action competence as a means to understand student learning in this field.

It is currently UNESCO’s decade of education for sustainable development, which calls for “a new vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future” (UNESCO, 2002). Education for sustainability (EfS) fits with such a vision in that it expands on environmental education to include social, economic, political and cultural perspectives, as well as a focus on global equity in the use and distribution of natural resources.

Our literature review and experience suggested that action competence offers the greatest promise for understanding and supporting student learning in EfS. Jensen and Schnack (1997) define action competence most simply as “the ability to act with regard to the environment”, which they argue goes well beyond pro-environmental activity or behaviour modification. Instead it incorporates intentional, participatory and authentic action taking that requires knowledge about underlying causes of unsustainable practices and is guided by students’ experiences, attitudes, values and local contexts (see for example, Uzzell, 1999). The New Zealand curriculum key competencies converge well with the action competence literature.

There is little empirical research available on what whole-school approaches and action competence look like in practice. Nor do we have reliable instruments to examine progress in these two areas. Our previous TLRI project examined action competence in a New Zealand context and led us to recommend that a research-based tool for evaluating action competence be developed (Eames et al., 2006). The current TLRI project provided an opportunity to do this alongside our parallel work on whole-school approaches.