Navigating Through New Terrain: Pre-service Teachers’ Journeys in Teaching ‘Sustainability’

  • Alison LuggEmail author
Part of the Schooling for Sustainable Development book series (SSDE, volume 3)


This chapter explores the roles of situated and experiential learning in the development of an innovative sustainability education program established in partnership between a local secondary college and a regional university campus in Bendigo, south-east Australia. The chapter draws on “communities of practice” and ecological theories of learning to examine the experiences of a group of pre-service teachers working in teams to develop and implement an interdisciplinary sustainability unit integrating outdoor education, science and humanities. In a context where the curriculum and pedagogical approaches were new for all concerned, the chapter examines the challenges facing teachers, pre-service-teachers and teacher educators as they “feel” their way forward together. Tentative findings from a case study are described and discussion considers possibilities and pitfalls for educators involved in communities of practice for sustainability education.


Sustainability Issue Curriculum Framework Legitimate Peripheral Participation Sustainability Education Teaching Practicum 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

An Introductory Vignette

… the trip gives the opportunity to chat and I found that the kids I conversed with learned about my passions and… I think they were more engaged with me through those discussions than with me standing there talking about other stuff… things like riding bikes, there were a few kids that talked to me about riding bikes for a long time and we had long discussions about eating food out of a bin and we spent half the camp talking about that with some of the kids – they loved it. (Jim, Post-program Focus Group 2009)

Here a pre-service outdoor education teacher reflects on his participation in teaching in a year 9 “sustainability” unit during a four-week teaching practicum in a school in north-central Victoria, Australia. He focuses on the benefits of the less formal context of an outdoor education camp for engaging students in learning about sustainable living practices through lived experience.

During previous classes Jim and his peers had worked with the year 9 students to design the camp activities and to build sustainable practices into the structure of the camp so that they were modelled and experienced rather than just talked about. For example, the year 9 students and their teachers chose to ride bikes to the campsite (approximately 30 km) rather than taking a bus, as a way of minimising their greenhouse gas emissions (see Fig. 7.1). Meals were cooked from foods that the classes had collectively decided were more “sustainable” (for example; kangaroo bolognaise, vegetables grown locally and bread baked with organic flour). Rather than pay for the use of the camp facilities, the students and staff worked for a morning on maintenance of the garden and buildings as a reciprocal arrangement benefiting both parties. After the camp, classes were dedicated to exploring year 9 students’ learning from their experiences of the “sustainability” camp and issues arising from that. Students then made group presentations on their learning about sustainability from the unit of work.
Fig. 7.1

Students cycling back from camp in the SOIL program

Jim clearly enjoyed being able to share his passions with students in an informal (and possibly more authentic) way than is possible in the classroom. What is less obvious from this quotation is the dilemma he and some of his peers experienced when considering whether to tell students about their “dumpster-diving” habits. In saying “eating food out of a bin” Jim is referring to the fact that he and some of his peers regularly obtain their household food from local bins (or dumpsters), outside food stores. Much of the discarded food is still within its use-by date but packaging may be slightly damaged so Jim and others retrieve the food from the bins (“dumpster diving”) and call it “freegan” food! Initially the pre-service teachers did not talk about this with students because it could be negatively construed, but during the camp they were observed discussing and eating their “freegan” food. This led to interesting discussions with the year 9 students about the environmental and social impacts of dumping food that is still fresh and the ethics of retrieving it from bins once discarded.

Jim’s comments here relate to his experiences in teaching in the Sustainability through Outdoor Integrated Learning (SOIL) program which is the focus of this chapter. His insights are used throughout the chapter to introduce some of the key issues arising from the practicum project and theoretical concepts framing the case study. The chapter describes the SOIL program, its context, the research project and its theoretical framework. Some initial results are discussed and tentative issues emerging from the ongoing research are highlighted.

Sustainability in Teacher Education

In the transformative work of sustainability education, skills in experiential, critical and participatory pedagogy are considered essential in teachers’ repertoires. To this end teacher education is considered a critical site for future teachers to develop such knowledge and skills (Ferreira et al. 2009; Hopkins and McKeown 2005; Steele 2010). Hopkins and McKeown (2005) proposed a “reorientation” of teacher education to address ESD as “an essential part of a larger conversation regarding the quality of life for all the inhabitants of Earth” (preface). However a decade later, at the beginning of the UNESCO Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014), little progress had been made on an international scale.

More recently, in a context of increasing public concern about issues such as climate change, there is a growing interest in sustainability education in Australian schools and, finally, universities (Ferreira et al. 2009; Steele 2010). Recent Australian Government support for sustainability education in schools is evident in the publishing of its action plan, “Living Sustainably” (2009). This plan recognises a need to “reorient education systems to sustainability” (p. 5) identifying undergraduate teacher training as a priority for Government support in educating the community (p. 15). The current Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) P-10 curriculum framework identifies sustainability as one of the goals underpinning the framework and as a cross-curricular focus of study.1 The SOIL program was developed within the VELS framework. The new Australian National Curriculum identifies sustainability as a cross-curricular priority, outlining how it can be addressed by teachers of the stage one subjects; english, maths, science and history (ACARA2).

Despite these policy initiatives, pre-service teachers in Australia are inadequately prepared for this emerging cross-curricular focus on sustainability education or for participation in whole school approaches such as the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI). Pre-service teacher education programs are either not addressing sustainability education at all or adopting piecemeal approaches (Tilbury et al. 2005; Ferreira et al. 2009; Steele 2010). To address this situation, Hopkins and McKeown (2005), Tilbury et al. (2005) and Ferreira et al. (2009) recommended a focus on collaboration, partnerships and networking between teacher education institutions, schools and community stakeholders to build capacity for sustainability. Interdisciplinary or cross-curricular approaches to learning in ESD were advocated along with pedagogies that emphasise the interconnectedness between environmental, social justice and economic issues. In particular these reports recommended that student-teachers develop skills in critical thinking, participatory pedagogy and a capacity to critique their own values and lifestyle choices. Hopkins and McKeown (2005) suggested that teacher educators lead by example by trialling new programs, and pedagogical approaches to sustainability education.

Outdoor Environmental Education

Jim’s teaching in the SOIL program was conducted in the context of an outdoor education teaching practicum. While outdoor education practice is often not directly related to notions of “sustainability”, a strong connection may be construed as Nicol (2003, p. 11) succinctly explains,

In theory the connection between outdoor education and sustainability is quite straightforward. Sustainability is an objective of environmental education (Smyth 1999) and environmental education is an objective of outdoor education…

Recent challenges to the personal development paradigm in outdoor education, suggest a shift towards ecological or “place-based” frameworks (see for example, Brookes 2002; Loynes 2002; Martin 1999; Nicol 2003; Payne 2002; Wattchow 2005; Wattchow and Brown 2011). An ecological framework sees humans as part of the “web” of nature and culture where human action both shapes the world and is shaped by natural and cultural characteristics (Blewitt 2006; Orr 2004; Sterling 2004). This ecological conceptualisation of people as interconnected with the “whole” earth system, suggests a pedagogical reorientation to learning with rather than about the world (Gough 1987; Orr 2004; Sterling 2004).

Outdoor environmental education has potential to contribute to sustainability education through holistic pedagogy in an ecological framework, by emphasising physical, cognitive and affective connections with natural systems (see Higgins 2009; Higgins and Kirk 2006; Lugg 2007, 2009; Martin 2008; Nicol 2003; Nicol and Higgins 2008). As Higgins and Kirk (2006) point out, the emphasis in such a framework is on relationships and the notion of “ecology” extends beyond the physical and biological to recognise social and cultural processes as an integral part of these systems. An underpinning assumption is the expectation that direct, sensory experience in outdoor environments may generate embodied, affective connections with particular places, possibly fostering environmental concern and action (Higgins and Kirk 2006; Martin 2005; Nicol 2003; Orr 2004). Wattchow and Brown (2011) suggest that a “sensorial presence” coupled with a deep understanding of the cultural and natural histories of places is necessary for developing “place responsiveness”. Martin (1999) advocates developing affective relationships and critical pedagogy in outdoor education contexts as means of generating connections with places and critique of unsustainable “human-nature relationships”.

Experiential Learning in Outdoor Environmental Education

Experience in outdoor environments, wherever they may be, is fundamental to learning through outdoor environmental education. The nature of those experiences is, at least partially, determined by the educator as well as by the participants, and the place itself. As is evident in Jim’s reflections on the SOIL camps, learning emanating from lived experience can make it memorable and, possibly, more meaningful, than a disembodied discussion about the same topics in a classroom. The outdoor education context described by Jim, afforded experiential pedagogy, seen by many as essential in sustainability education (see Tilbury et al. 2005; Ferreira et al. 2009; Steele 2010). The nature of the SOIL camp activities – riding bikes to the venue, eating lunch in the outdoors, cooking “sustainable” meals to share with others, weeding gardens and cleaning the facilities together – is essentially experiential within a sustainability framework. That is, the intent of the activities was to allow students to learn through collaboratively planning, implementing and evaluating sustainable lifestyle alternatives.

The nature of student participation in this context can be varied but includes elements of sensory engagement often unavailable through classroom learning. Wattchow and Brown (2011, p. 73) regard sensory experience as enabling “embodied” learning, a critical aspect of outdoor education in developing a “sense of place”,

It is the learner’s bodies that remain the ultimate centre of their learning. Learning cannot be considered separate from their embodied interactions and connections with place. Thus there is the possibility of a mutualism of embodied and reflective/interpretive learning which establishes the pedagogical boundaries of an educational practice that occurs within a place. We might think of this as a pedagogical meeting ground of body, mind and place.

Orr (2004) and Louv (2005) argue that this meeting of mind, body and place is essential for affective engagement in environmental and sustainability education. Embodied experience in the outdoors can (but may not) enable students to develop more holistic understandings of the consequences of human interaction with ecological processes such as the water or carbon cycles (Higgins 2009). In this respect experiential learning in the outdoors is arguably, a distinctive contribution that outdoor education can make to environmental and sustainability pedagogy.

Importantly however, Higgins (2009) cautioned that experiential learning alone is not sufficient for understanding complex environmental and social issues. Additional knowledge and “critical reflection”3 processes are essential for making informed judgements about issues and for recognising assumptions underpinning unsustainable discourses and practices. He proposed a “Five Cs” model (see Fig. 7.2) as a guide for developing the notion of “taking responsibility” in relation to citizenship, sustainability and health education. The model encourages outdoor education teachers to develop their own critical reflection skills and students’ critical capacities to examine the relationships between their own attitudes and behaviours and broader environmental and social issues.
Fig. 7.2

Taking responsibility and the “Five Cs” (Source: Higgins 2009, p. 49)

In Higgins’ (2009) Five Cs model, the nature of participation is complex and contingent on interacting social, cultural and environmental factors. For example, in the SOIL program, pre-service teachers’ experiences of teaching were variable, depending on multiple factors such as: the relationships they had with students, teachers and peers; how they participated in teaching and planning activities; what artefacts or “tools” were used; how they interacted with the physical environments they encountered; their past experiences and their attitudes and predispositions.

Knowledge in this context is clearly subjective and emergent. The teacher acts as a guide or facilitator of students’ learning. Unlike mechanistic “production line” models, generative approaches to experiential learning propose that there are no boundaries between “experience” and reflection. From this perspective embodied and tacit understanding are as important as cognitive interpretation and the learner cannot be separated from the social, historical and geographical context (Brown 2009; Loynes 2002; Seaman 2008; Wattchow and Brown 2011). Thus a situated approach to experiential learning emphasises socially negotiated meaning in relation to the physical and cultural “place” in which learning occurs (Brown 2009; Lave and Wenger 1991).

A Situated Perspective on Outdoor Learning

In the example of Jim outlined above, any learning that occurred for himself and his students, could be seen as partly intentional and partly serendipitous, arising from the affordances of the outdoor experiential context. The physical environment and structures were significant in shaping the nature of the conversations in that the outdoor spaces, activities and dynamics of people moving in those spaces afforded different types of interactions and encounters than often occur in the classroom. As illustrated by Jim, encounters with other group members or with aspects of an environment, can precipitate conversations or debates about issues in an emergent rather than (necessarily) planned manner (Higgins and Kirk 2006; Nicol 2003).

In the SOIL program, the bike riding, “dumpster diving” episode provides an example of the significance of the social and cultural context in framing the conversations. In the slums of Mumbai for example, where such activities are more common and necessary for survival, the conversation may take quite a different turn or not even arise. In the Australian context however, bike riding is usually a recreational activity of choice, not the main mode of transport, and “scavenging” food from bins is often associated with homelessness or antisocial behaviour. By framing “dumpster diving” as a sustainable alternative in redistributing foods and reducing food waste, students’4 ideas may have been challenged about what and how food should be consumed and what constitutes health or waste. Jim’s informal conversations about such issues with students, reinforced by his personal commitment to sustainable living practices, may precipitate change on some level (i.e., individual or collective questioning of personal/social values or changes in attitudes or behaviours). In this way learning can be seen as a co-constitutive activity, that is, it both shapes and is shaped by, social interaction and cultural values on these issues (Jarvis 2006; Rogoff 2003; Wenger 1998).

Similarly the context mediates the nature of the relationships and roles of the pre-service teachers, students and supervising teachers. For Jim, the outdoor education setting creates a fresh context for student learning and for establishing more positive relationships by disturbing some of the negative associations with school,

Our class is not a very academic one and lots of students… end up with detentions and things. So when these students are at school, their idea of what school is, is that. So when you put them in a classroom with four walls and a roof, that’s what they’ve got in their head. When you take them away from that and they don’t have these things hanging over their heads it changes them a little and … it takes away some of those barriers and you can start again and actually have a relationship with these students beyond being a dictator. (Jim, Post-program focus group 2009)

Having a positive relationship with students is important to Jim and he clearly conceptualises his teaching role as one of a guide or facilitator rather than a didactic or managerial role (see Fig. 7.3 for example). In this respect we can see that his pedagogical preference is oriented towards practical, outdoor learning and responsive, informal relationships with students. He understands the power of the material and cultural context of the school in shaping students’ attitudes towards teachers and learning and the potential of the outdoor education context to foster more personal and, possibly, transformative relationships. He is aware of ways in which social and cultural values are embedded in educational structures and practices. To this extent Jim’s perspective on learning could be described as socio-cultural, situated and experiential. We will return to Jim later in the chapter. The next section will provide further context and explanation of the SOIL program and the associated research project.
Fig. 7.3

Students, pre-service teacher and teacher working together on camp gardens and grounds during a SOIL camp

Sustainability Through Outdoor Integrated Learning (SOIL) Program

In this educational context, the SOIL program, central to this case study, provides an example of an innovative pilot program that was developed in partnership between a teacher education faculty and a local secondary college. The school-based program intentionally integrated teachers from different discipline areas in a team teaching model, in an attempt to address sustainability issues through interdisciplinary approaches. As highlighted in the literature, the pre-service teachers (and teachers) involved in SOIL had only limited education or training relating specifically to sustainability pedagogy.

The pre-service teachers had all completed degrees in outdoor education and/or nature tourism and had a range of other teaching methods, the majority being physical education. They had minimal formal education in “sustainability” or sustainability education, but their outdoor education degree courses had a strong “green” orientation. Many of the subjects in this course included different aspects of environmental learning including; environmental ethics, naturalist studies, ecology and land management issues. Some had also studied science or geography as their other teaching discipline. Prior to participating in the SOIL program all had opportunities to attend professional development workshops on different aspects of sustainability education. Some attended as many as possible while others chose not to attend any. Two teachers from the school also attended one of these workshops but most of the teachers had no training in teaching about/for sustainability.

SOIL – Local Context

The SOIL program was initiated in 2009 in the regional city of Bendigo in north-central Victoria in south-east Australia. Bendigo was established in the goldrush of the 1850s and is now a thriving regional city of over 100,000 people. The urban area is surrounded by bush reserves and national parks primarily of Box-Ironbark forests. Fresh water sources are limited in the Bendigo area so drought and water shortage are ongoing issues as the population increases.

Bendigo has a predominantly Anglo-Saxon and relatively low socio-economic demographic (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006). It is well serviced with education facilities with 45 primary schools, 10 secondary colleges, a TAFE and 2 university campuses. The main university campus is that of La Trobe, which has 4,000 students across a number of schools and faculties. The Faculty of Education focuses mainly on primary and secondary teacher preparation and is the principal faculty located on this campus. The Department of Outdoor and Environmental Education offers degree and postgraduate courses within this faulty.

In 1995 the Bendigo Education Plan (BEP), established for Bendigo’s government (state) schools, set out a long term plan for transforming secondary education in Bendigo to improve student learning and retention in school education. This was to be achieved through a student-centred focus on well-being, engagement and “personalised learning” (BEP 2005). Sustainability is one of the broad cross-curricular themes identified in the curriculum component of the plan. Bendigo’s government schools organisational structure consists of one senior secondary college (years 11 and 12) and four year 7–10 colleges. As part of the BEP the year 7–10 colleges now have new, purpose-built learning spaces based on a flexible learning design.

Within the BEP teachers are expected to develop flexible and cooperative approaches to pedagogy including team-teaching and cross-disciplinary collaboration. A focus on joint professional learning, professional networks and research-based practice is also advocated in the plan. La Trobe University Faculty of Education is working in partnership with local schools to support the BEP innovations through collaborative teaching practicum programs.

The SOIL Project

In the context of significant change due to the implementation of the BEP, the SOIL project was developed in partnership between La Trobe University and one local year 7–10 co-educational secondary college. It involved 18 pre-service teachers of outdoor education working in teams with nine teachers of humanities or science to develop and teach a year 9 semester unit on “sustainability”. This was the first time the majority of teachers at the school had addressed sustainability in their teaching and the first time they had been asked to teach in teams. None of the teachers had any training or experience in outdoor education and held a range of perceptions about what outdoor education entails and what the pre-service teachers might know or be able to do.

The SOIL program was instigated as part of a year 9 Aspire program aiming to engage year 9 students actively in their learning through a range of cross-curricular activities. The school considered that the focus on “sustainability” would interest students and that, including an outdoor education component such as a camp, would enhance their level of engagement. By combining teachers in teams of two – one science teacher and one humanities teacher, the aim was to provide an interdisciplinary approach to learning about sustainability issues.

For the university the SOIL program offered an opportunity to trial a new, collaborative and interdisciplinary form of practicum for pre-service secondary teachers. For the pre-service teachers who elected to participate in the SOIL program, it provided an opportunity to plan, teach and evaluate an outdoor education program on a sustainability theme. It comprised their second and final teaching practicum which involved 4 weeks teaching in the school and 6 weeks of half-day visits prior to the 4 teaching weeks. This allowed the pre-service teachers to get to know the students and teachers in their year 9 classes.

SOIL Planning

Prior to the start of the program the author and the teaching practicum coordinator from the university attended several meetings with key school staff to conceptualise and plan the program. The information gleaned from these meetings was conveyed to the pre-service teachers in SOIL so that they could start working on their teaching plans. The author was teaching the subject in which they prepared their plans so provided guidance and support for this process. The year 9 staff developed their sustainability units within the school and VELS5 curriculum structures.

During the practicum program pre-service teachers taught classes in pairs with one teacher supervising each pair, both in the classroom and beyond. A 4-week teaching plan linked to the VELS curriculum framework was developed by each pair prior to the teaching practicum. For the “sustainability camps” two classes were combined thus planning and running the camps occurred in groups of four pre-service teachers with the support of two supervising teachers.

The Research Project

This SOIL program comprised three main areas of interest to the author (who was also the researcher); sustainability education, outdoor education pedagogy and pre-service teacher professional development. Broadly the research project investigates how these three dimensions of the SOIL practicum intersected to enable and constrain the pre-service teachers’ experiences of learning to become teachers. Questions underpinning the research project are:
  • How did the pre-service teachers approach sustainability education through outdoor education practice?

  • How did they conceptualise sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective?

  • How did they participate in a teaching program that is emergent and evolving in and through practice?

  • How did their participation in the practicum program shape both the program and their learning to become teachers?

This case study investigates how 12 pre-service teachers conceptualised their participation in “real life” events in the complex process of becoming a teacher (Yin 2003). In this case study the participants’ actions are contingent on the context (Lave and Wenger 1991). Their understandings of teaching, outdoor education and sustainability are culturally and socially co-constructed. Participation is shaped by school and university protocols as well as the affordances and constraints of the local community setting. The participants themselves form part of the context through their participation, so the boundaries between the phenomenon of investigation and the context are somewhat blurred (Yin 2003).

Participation from this perspective has been aptly described as a “choreography of participation” (Davis et al. 2008, p. 170), suggesting a creative “dance” between actors. Learning is seen as a participatory process of transformation in relation to other people and places. That is, learning occurs as individuals and groups co-construct identities in relationship with each other (Edwards and D’arcy 2004; Edwards 2005) and through participation in social and cultural activities (Wenger 1998). The relational and emergent nature of participation in the SOIL program necessitated a case study methodology to enable investigation of, “… uncertain, complex, messy and fleeting properties… of lived dimensions that are indigenous to each learning event” (Freebody 2003, p. 81).

Research Methods

Since the focus of the research is on pre-service teachers’ perspectives of their experiences, semi-structured interviews and focus groups were the main methods of data generation. Surveys, field observation and document analysis were used to elicit different perspectives and information. Interviews and surveys were conducted pre and post-program with the final interviews completed just recently, a year after the program finished. Focus groups were conducted during and immediately after the program. By using a range of methods of data generation, both individual and collective (teaching group) perspectives were explored over a period of time, allowing for changing conceptualisations and levels of participation. Supervising teachers were also interviewed before and after the program to provide further context for the pre-service teachers’ experiences. This data was based on a view that, in practicum situations, the supervising teachers can be significant resources for and mediators of pre-service teachers’ learning (Edwards 2005). While data generation is now complete, data interpretation is ongoing. The thematic coding process is still in process so findings are limited and tentative at this stage.

Juggling Multiple “Hats”

The author’s involvement in the SOIL program as part of her teaching work, provided a strong basis for a naturalistic enquiry. It enabled her to investigate phenomena with which she was familiar and in which she had multiple roles – researcher, Outdoor Education Method lecturer, SOIL convenor (La Trobe) and a practicum supervisor. This “insider” status enabled a “natural” legitimacy to her participation in both the university and school settings. It also afforded personal experience of the processes, structures and relationships involved in both the university and, to a lesser extent, the school.

It is perhaps unsurprising that these multiple roles were also problematic. The pre-service teachers were ultimately being assessed by the author/researcher for the Outdoor Education Teaching Method subject thus raising possible conflicts of interest. Also some SOIL participants chose not to engage in the research project and could potentially have felt left out or discriminated against since the author’s role as researcher involved more contact time with the research group. To minimise fear of discrimination through assessment, the author’s lecturing role was separated from assessment in the Method subject and she did not do the practicum assessment for the research group. Another potential issue with the author’s multiple “hats” was how she would be perceived when she visited the school – as practicum supervisor, SOIL convenor or researcher? Perceptual confusion of this kind was hard to avoid especially since the author sometimes needed to take on multiple roles in one school visit. This issue was managed where possible, by trying to be clear with teachers and pre-service teachers about the purpose(s) of the visit in each instance.

The other issue relating to the researcher’s roles relates to the need for reflexivity in interpreting and reporting data. Given the nature of naturalistic enquiry, data interpretation is intentionally subjective. The researcher’s perspectives and interests are necessarily involved in the entire research process. Critical reflexivity and openness are essential in this situation where the researcher forms part of the context of the study and therefore needs to position herself and identify a standpoint or point of view (Cresswell 2008). An outline of the author’s relevant professional background is therefore provided below.

The author and researcher for this study has lived and taught in secondary schools, outdoor education centres and universities in Australia, Canada and Scotland for 28 years. Her teaching subject areas were Physical Education, English and Outdoor Education. She has lived and worked in Bendigo for 20 of those years. As an outdoor education lecturer she has been immersed for many years in the production of outdoor education curriculum frameworks and materials for Victorian schools and universities and has contributed to outdoor education discourse. She has also published papers that the pre-service teachers have read throughout their degree courses. Therefore in her roles as a lecturer she has possibly contributed to some extent to their conceptualisations of outdoor education and, to a lesser extent, sustainability education. As researcher, teacher and program convenor, the author had vested interest in the program’s success and, primarily, an outdoor environmental orientation to conceptualising sustainability education. As in all ethnographic research, these interests and experiences inevitably shape the nature of the research questions, the research processes and interpretation of the data.

SOIL Program Outcomes

Since the analysis of data from the research project is ongoing the findings discussed here are partial and merely indicative rather than conclusive. The first section is an overview of an evaluation of the SOIL program conducted by the school. This data obtained via an evaluation survey with year 9 students, was conducted by the school immediately after the SOIL program.

The second section considers summary findings from pre-and post-program surveys conducted by the researcher with the whole group of pre-service teachers participating in the SOIL program. The third and final section returns to the example of Jim, focusing on his process of becoming a teacher. This discussion points to some of the issues beginning to emerge from the principal research data but should not be interpreted as conclusive findings since data analysis is still underway. Other interview and focus group data is not discussed in this chapter.

Year 9 and Teacher Perspectives on the SOIL Program

Although the case study research does not include year 9 student perspectives, the results of a school-based evaluation are discussed briefly to provide further contextual background for the discussion of pre-service teacher perspectives. One hundred and thirteen year 9 students completed the sustainability unit evaluation surveys. Of these 74% attended the SOIL camps since attendance was not compulsory. Those who did attend the camps were asked to assess their value. The results are shown in Table 7.1.
Table 7.1

Year 9 student evaluation of the value of the SOIL camp

No value










Clearly the majority (85%) of students who attended the camps found them valuable. The reasons given included: team building, fun, activities and location. Fourteen per cent said the two-day camp was not long enough. Some mentioned not enjoying discomforts such as using bush toilets and being cold. Evaluation of classroom learning was included in the survey but these data incorporated the lessons taught by the class teachers (which were not part of the SOIL program) so are not reported here. Since this SOIL program will continue in 2011, a detailed study of year 9 student learning would be warranted.

Learning to Teach Sustainability

The following data are based on surveys of the whole group of pre-service teachers (including the research group) prior to the SOIL program and immediately after the program finished. The intention of the survey questions was to establish how the pre-service teachers conceptualised sustainability and sustainability education and how they felt about participating in the new SOIL program. The post-program survey was conducted to identify any changes in their perceptions. Participation in the survey was voluntary so the data represents the views of 15 out of 18 SOIL participants.

Knowledge of Sustainability Concepts and Issues

The Pre-service teachers were asked to rate their knowledge of sustainability issues or principles before and after teaching in the SOIL program. Figure 7.4 indicates a marked increase in their confidence in their knowledge as a result of participating in the SOIL program. Comments on this improvement related to becoming better informed, undertaking research on different issues and “learning through teaching”. Two participants expressed uncertainty about whether they were teaching the “right thing”. This latter comment is interesting in that for these two, the uncertainty about what to teach and the opportunity to make their own decisions may have been a hindrance rather than the liberating experience reported by all members of the research group.
Fig. 7.4

Personal knowledge of sustainability issues/principles

The SOIL participants were also asked in the initial survey to indicate the sources of their knowledge on sustainability issues. The results reveal that popular media are the most significant source of information for these pre-service teachers. University subjects and professional development seminars were the next most mentioned sources. The significance of the popular media is particularly interesting since there is such variation in what and how issues are reported. There is considerable potential here for the reader to be misinformed. That these are the principal sources of information on sustainability issues points to the need for pre-service teachers (and teachers) to develop some depth of knowledge on key issues and critical analysis skills to assess the information they obtain from popular media sources.

Pedagogy for Sustainability Education

The data in Fig. 7.5 were derived from the post-program survey. The SOIL pre-service teachers were asked to identify whether their thinking had changed about how sustainability should be taught in year 9 in schools and also which teaching strategies they had found most successful. Since the survey method did not allow for interrogating the meanings of terminology such as “hands on” activities or “holistic” approaches, all key terms have been recorded thus there is likely to be some overlap between these terms. Clearly “active” pedagogies such as “hands on” and outdoor activities are highly valued by this group, hardly surprising given their backgrounds. It is worth noting however that the pedagogical approaches listed align with the recommendations from sustainability education research reports such as those by Alvarez and Rogers (2006), Hopkins and McKeown (2005) and Tilbury et al. (2005).
Fig. 7.5

Successful teaching strategies in the SOIL program

Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

The widely recognised need for inter or cross-disciplinary approaches to sustainability education arises from the general agreement that sustainable development issues are complex and embrace three broad dimensions of human experience: environmental, social and economic. That all three dimensions are interconnected on local and global levels, coupled with the dynamic nature of each dimension, makes an inter or trans disciplinary6 approach to curriculum and pedagogy seem necessary (Capra 2003; Orr 2004). Alvarez and Rogers (2006) for example, strongly recommend “real life” learning opportunities in local communities and environments to help tertiary students grapple with the multi-faceted dimensions of complex issues as well as the social and emotional impacts.

In the SOIL program the intention was to integrate humanities and maths/science with outdoor education as a way of addressing environmental and related social issues from different perspectives. In practice, the level of actual integration of the different disciplines varied, depending on the efforts of the teachers and pre-service teachers in each team. Table 7.2 shows the kinds of knowledge and skills that the pre-service teachers considered appropriate for developing year 9 students’ sustainability literacy. The emphasis on environmental knowledge and impacts is not surprising given their prior outdoor environmental education backgrounds, however the range of knowledge and skills listed suggests perspectives coming from different disciplinary bases.
Table 7.2

Sustainability literacy for year 9 students in schools


No. of responses

Environmental knowledge & impacts


Sustainable energy use, issues & initiatives


Creating social change


What is sustainability?


Sustainable living


Learning/research skills


Community building


Climate change/global warming


Transport issues and options


Water saving/quality


Critical thinking & problem solving


Land management practices and cultural heritage impacts


Resources in local area


Food garden development


Waste management


Global trading issues


Food production


Consumerism – impacts


Soil testing


Flora/fauna identification


Since outdoor education is interdisciplinary by its very nature, the pre-service teachers might be expected to draw on different disciplinary skills, perhaps inadvertently, as we can see by Jim’s comments;

… sometimes without noticing it… you’d realise they’ve been doing group team work there, now they’re doing oral presentations and they’ve also … had to calculate distances on a map. So the more you thought about it the more you could see that they were incorporating different subjects. (Jim, Post-program Focus Group 2009)

The pre-service teachers were able to intentionally integrate some aspects of science and humanities into their teaching by conducting activities such as water quality testing or traffic audits. However most found the notion of an integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum quite conceptually challenging as did the teachers. Effective interdisciplinary curricula and pedagogy is an area that requires time for collaborative and considered planning and remains a challenge for the SOIL program.

Becoming a Teacher – Jim’s Experience

Learning “how to be” is a process of identity formation or “subjectivity” that involves conscious decision-making about who or what activities to be involved in, what values are important and what roles one might undertake (Hart 2007). This notion of learning as identity formation draws partly on the work of Lave and Wenger (1991), Wenger (1998) and Rogoff (2003) who see learning as a process of participation in socio-cultural activity rather than of individual cognition. The notion of “becoming” is critical to an understanding of learning as identity formation since it underscores a lifelong process of changing relationships between what we do and with whom (participation), who we (and others) think we are (identity/belonging) and who/what we aspire to be (trajectory) (Jarvis 2006; Wenger 1998). As with sustainability education the notions of participation and relationship are central to this perspective on learning. Participation occurs in relationship with others and with cultural and material contexts without which it has no meaning (Rogoff 2003).

The relationship between learning and identity formation is relevant not only to the education of school students in sustainability but is particularly relevant to the development of pre-service teachers, on the cusp of “becoming” teachers. Pre-service teachers during practicum need to act professionally as a teacher without having the full responsibilities or authority of a teacher. In this “in-between” role they have to sensitively negotiate the values and ideals of students, staff, the school and the university as well as notions of professional conduct. This is a complex process, especially if their personal and/or professional values differ from any or all of these groups as was evident in Jim’s struggle,

I found it nice to develop my teaching, my pedagogical theories and what I believe in, in terms of teaching and I didn’t come up with any answers. I came up with a lot more questions for myself and it’s good to have that sort of program to be able to plan and implement and to be able to put your teaching philosophies in place to a certain degree. And to sit back and watch yourself do it and thinking, “hang on, am I doing this because (a) this is what I’ve been watching and this is what the school does, or (b) am I doing this because this is what I believe and this is how I want to teach? Sometimes it’s A and sometimes it’s B. I found it was more A… (Jim, Post-program focus group 2009)

Jim’s comments here are indicative of the tensions that often arise as pre-service teachers bridge multiple roles in different communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). The authors’ theory of participation-based learning, which they refer to as Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP), is based on the idea that learning occurs as “newcomers” are inducted into the shared cultural practices of a particular community (Lave and Wenger 1991). Legitimate peripheral participation is not merely about acquiring particular knowledge and skills but understanding the cultural norms, social expectations, roles, discourses and activities required to become a full member of a community of practice. Relationships of power, identities and individual trajectories will influence the LPP process and “newcomers” negotiate their way into full membership of a community (if that is their trajectory).

In this case study Jim’s professional roles bridge multiple communities of practice, each of which has shared understandings, repertoires and “tools”7 of engagement. Jim is simultaneously, a university student, pre-service teacher, outdoor educator, member of a teaching team and sustainability educator. According to Lave and Wenger (1991) in each of these roles Jim participates with varying degrees of membership in each community of practice. He will identify more with some than others. For example, as a novice secondary teacher, Jim is learning to become a teacher, a concept he is not completely wedded to. He may choose to remain on the periphery or work towards full membership (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998).

As a keen rock climber, outdoor educator and sustainability advocate, Jim’s favoured pedagogical approaches are practical, experiential and personal. To some extent these roles and attendant practices, conflict with his perceptions of teaching and learning in school contexts. He struggles with many of the conventions of schooling and questions its purposes and processes,

I have my own view that it is completely unproductive and ridiculous these students being in a school. But I suppose it depends on the school environment and their values and what they’re teaching. But it also depends on whether you’re looking at learning as cognitive learning and information or is learning about life and community and groups and people rather than just stuff. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with stuff but all to do with these other things in life. Maybe having that struggle in the classroom is part of that – so you need to have that struggle in life to move onto other things. (Jim, Post-program Focus group 2009)

From Wenger’s (1998) perspective Jim’s pedagogical struggles are part of the process of identity formation where identities are socially and culturally negotiated through membership of communities of practice. Wenger argues that we form our identities through a tension between investment in belonging to communities of practice (identification) and our abilities to negotiate the meanings of those relationships (negotiability). He describes these tensions and processes as a social ecology of identity and learning as a process of negotiating an identity in practice (Wenger 1998). Jim’s ability to align his identities may depend on the values he holds most highly and the degree to which he sees himself as belonging to each community of practice. At the time of interview this process appears to bring his personal and professional identities into alignment,

SOIL had a very large influence over the choices that I make, whether it’s hitchhiking to New South Wales or trying not to eat meat – there are environmental and sustainability things that I’ve found myself participating in - I was already that way inclined but doing the SOIL program “sold” it to me in a way. (Jim, Final interview 2011)

Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Sustainability Education

At the time of interview Jim related strongly to his roles as an outdoor educator, rock climber and a sustainability advocate and enjoyed the freedom and scope offered by these roles. In the SOIL program he was excited and sometimes overwhelmed by the complexity and immensity of the sustainability issues that need to be tackled by society. While experiencing these conceptual and identity struggles, Jim valued the freedom of being able to make curriculum decisions and the sense of breaking new ground in developing and implementing the SOIL program. He saw this as an exciting aspect of the uncertain trajectory of sustainability education and the potential for a teacher in this “new” curriculum area,

…part of this program is that you don’t know what’s going on because it’s something new and that’s how doing new things is and making a new path is … that’s what you have to do in life. People don’t give you stuff to do, you don’t get a bit of paper that tells you what they want for the introduction, conclusion and body and this is your topic and this is what you write about. It’s like, here’s a room, make of it what you want, it’s yours. (Jim, post-program focus group 2009)

Jim’s observation illustrates Wals (2007b, p. 43) view that educators are necessarily, “reflexively fumbling towards sustainability”. Wals (2007a, b) argues that uncertainty and emergence are inherent features of sustainability education since the concept of sustainability itself is ambiguous and contextually constructed. It is not a fixed entity that educators can work towards in a prescriptive or didactic manner,

While there is a constellation of ideas as to what a sustainable world might entail, the lack of consensus about the implication of an exact meaning – if this were at all possible – in variable contexts, should prevent global prescriptions. Instead contextual solutions are required that are, at least partly, co-created and co-owned by those who are to (want to?) live sustainably…. Social learning – albeit as a spontaneously emerging property of people interacting together or as an intentionally introduced and facilitated process of change – not only allows for commonalities and social cohesion to form, it also provides space for disagreement and “dissensus”. (Wals 2007b, p. 43)

Wals’ argument that the ambiguous notion of “sustainability” implies a need for “social learning” processes, including collaboration and disagreement, is important for teachers and teacher educators. The notion of sustainability education (or education for sustainable development), suggests that teacher expertise and teacher preparation need to be reconceptualised in a more responsive, participatory and generative paradigm.


The survey results, along with Jim’s reflections on aspects of his experience in the SOIL program, illustrate the new “terrain” experienced by the pre-service teachers involved in this SOIL program. The program was new for those involved in almost every respect – curriculum content (sustainability in a VELS8 framework), pedagogy (experiential learning), teaching arrangements (working in teams) and the involvement of pre-service outdoor education teachers working with humanities and science teachers. In this novel situation the goals and “rules of engagement” were often unclear and teachers and pre-service teachers alike needed to negotiate a context characterised by uncertainty, change and procedural or structural challenges.

Nevertheless Jim found these challenges ultimately rewarding in that he felt that he and his peers worked hard to make the program work and, according to Jim, “that’s what made it worthwhile – you don’t get nothing for nothing” (Final Interview 2011). On a personal level Jim admits that he likes to live life a little “on the edge” thriving on challenges of both a physical and intellectual nature. He has found that his involvement in the SOIL program has significantly influenced his decisions and his identification with living and teaching sustainably. In the future Jim wants to continue working with young people in the outdoors and to pursue higher degree study at some stage.

Although this chapter introduces only initial, tentative findings, they point to interesting issues relating to how the challenges of sustainability education can contribute to pre-service teachers’ professional and personal development. These initial findings seem to suggest that uncertainty and ambiguity can, under some circumstances, be strengths of a teaching practicum program rather than constraints. In “navigating” the “new terrain” of sustainability education, pre-service teachers and their supervising teachers may need to be adventurous and work together to generate new resources and pedagogies. The case study research process is ongoing and will examine the roles of collaborative work such as team teaching and peer support in the SOIL program and in the process of becoming a teacher.


  1. 1.
  2. 2.

     See Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority website:

  3. 3.

     Critical reflection is an additional “C” that Higgins acknowledges should be added to this 5 Cs model.

  4. 4.

     Teachers’ and peers’ constructs about food may also have been challenged through these encounters.

  5. 5.

     Victorian Essential Learning Standards – is the current Victorian P-10 curriculum framework.

  6. 6.

     Rather than drawing on knowledge from different disciplines this refers to new knowledge, not developed through any particular disciplinary “lens”.

  7. 7.

     In this context “tools” refers to cultural artefacts such as language, methods, curriculum, texts, computers and other technologies.

  8. 8.

     VELS – Victorian Essential Learning Standards – is the P-10 curriculum framework in Victoria, Australia.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationLa Trobe UniversityBendigoAustralia

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