It is no news for anyone in the field of environmental education that learning environmental and sustainability issues requires interdisciplinary understanding. On the contrary, the bullet point requiring interdisciplinary environmental education existed already in the UNESCO Tbilisi declaration in 1978, so the theme has been around for quite a while. Environmental problems tend to be complex and value-laden, and there is not necessarily any right or wrong answers to them. For understanding environmental issues, not just narrow interdisciplinarity among a few neighbouring fields of science, such as chemistry and biochemistry, is enough. No, you’ve got to get the whole lot from a variety of natural sciences to social sciences and philosophy.
In my latest research article, published in June this year, I discuss the views of nine Finnish subject teachers on the challenge of teaching an interdisciplinary topic. Since the paper is written in Finnish but the topic might interest a wider audience, I decided to publish a shortcut to the main results here in my blog.
Interview with ecologically minded social school subject teachers
The aim of the paper is to describe the process of integrating an interdisciplinary topic in a discipline-based school subject, and to understand the challenges subject teachers meet, in relation to interdisciplinarity and uncertainty of information. The key concepts are interdisciplinarity and critical thinking.
Environmental issues are often connected most strongly to school subjects based on natural sciences and geography, but social and ethical aspects to environment can be considered to be equally important subject matter. Therefore, I chose to interview ecologically minded social subject teachers who did not have extensive education background in natural sciences. School subjects they teach include history, social studies, religious education, secular ethics, and philosophy – each interviewee teaches at least two of these subjects.
Integrating environmental issues within the social scientific and ethical subject-matter
The interviewees presented three types of views about interdisciplinary environmental education: views emphasizing natural sciences, views drawing on the specific content of the discipline, and views reaching for interdisciplinarity. I present these types in the table below.
|Emphasis on natural sciences:
Teacher considers environmental issues to belong mainly in natural sciences
|Drawing from the field of specification:
Teacher draws environmental subject-matter especially from his/her own field of specification
|Aiming at transdisciplinarity:
Teacher aims at transdisciplinary environmental education
|What kind of environment-related subject-matter does the teacher consider belonging to his/her school subjects?||Little, because the school subject is not based on natural science||Topics related to the teacher’s field of specification, such as environmental ethics or economical growth and sustainable development||Environmental issues relate to many or most topics in the subject. Teacher actively searches for connections between environmental issues and the subject-matter.|
|How does the teacher argue for integrating environmental issues into the social school subjects?||Content in textbooks, potential questions in national exams, current media discussion||Curriculum guidelines, connection to the background discipline of the school subject, current media discussion, interests of students and the teacher||General significance of environmental issues, curriculum guidelines, locally significant environmental problems|
|How does the teacher react to questions concerning natural science during his/her lesson?||Sticks to his/her own school subject||Sticks to his/her own school subject||If needed, discusses also questions concerning natural science|
Table 1. The role of environmental issues in a social school subject according to perspectives emphasizing natural sciences, drawing from the field of specification, and aiming for transdisciplinarity.
Views emphasizing natural science describe the environmental subject-matter of social school subjects to be rather narrow. There is, however, an outer motivation to discuss some environmental issues in class: textbooks and current issues that might come up in national exams. Views drawing from the field of specification of the teacher highlight those environmental issues that clearly relate to the background discipline in question. Interviewees find connections between environmental issues and subject-matter even when there are no explicit mentions of environmental issues in the curriculum guidelines. However, these teachers are not willing to go beyond their own school subject in their teaching.
Views aiming at transdisciplinarity include holistic visions of environmental education, where environmental issues widely relate to the school subject in question. These teachers are strongly committed to environmental issues themselves and capable of discussing also aspects of natural science with their students, in addition to their own field of specification.
The challenge of interdisciplinarity
It is clearly challenging to teach an interdisciplinary topic. Many of my interviewees felt insecure about natural scientific questions, especially issues related to climate science. Some of them did not consider themselves to be qualified to assess the truthfulness of climate information. In addition, even ecologically minded teachers might not recognize the environmental content drawing from their own disciplines.
On the other hand, a personal commitment and thorough understanding of the topic make it remarkably easier to implement interdisciplinary environmental education. Having a clear vision of the connection between environment and their field of specification supports especially those teachers drawing from their own discipline. A teacher with a wide perspective to the content and purposes of a school subject is more likely to find these connections. Therefore, in higher education, it ought to be ensured that student teachers recognize the environmental content relevant for their own discipline. Optimism, enthusiastic attitude, support from the headmaster, cooperation with colleges teaching other school subjects, and curiosity towards the interdisciplinary content most certainly help.
The original article (in Finnish) can be found here:
Aarnio-Linnanvuori, Essi 2016. Ympäristöaiheiden tieteidenvälisyyys yleissivistävän opetuksen haasteena aineenopettajien näkökulmasta [Interdisciplinarity of environmental issues as a challenge in general education according to subject teachers]. Kasvatus & Aika 10:2, 33-50. http://www.kasvatus-ja-aika.fi/site/?lan=1&page_id=774
Wish to read more about interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary environmental education? Check out these references:
Kagawa, Fumiyo & Selby, David (eds.) 2010. Education and Climate Change. Living and Learning in Interesting Times. New York: Routledge.
Hens, Luc ja Stoyanov, Stoyan 2013. Education for climate changes, environmental health and environmental justice. Journal of Chemical Technology and Metallurgy 49(2), 194–208.
Krasny, Marianne & Dillon, Justin (eds.) 2013. Trading Zones in Environmental Education: Creating Transdisciplinary Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.
MacMillan, Emily & Vasseur, Liette 2010. Environmental education: interdisciplinarity in action. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 5(3), 435–445.
Tapio, Petri. & Willamo, Risto 2008. Developing interdisciplinary environmental frameworks. Ambio – A Journal of the Human Environment 32(2), 125–133.