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Innovation through action research in environmental education from project to praxis
Ph. D. Griffith University 2003

This thesis is a work-in-progress that articulates my research journey based on the development of a curriculum innovation in environmental education. This journey had two distinct, but intertwined phases: action research based fieldwork, conducted collaboratively, to create a whole school approach to environmental education curriculum planning; and a phase of analysis and reflection based on the emerging findings, as I sought to create personal "living educational theory" about change and innovation. -- A key stimulus for the study was the perceived theory-practice gap in environmental education, which is often presented in the literature as a criticism of teachers for failing to achieve the values and action objectives of critical environmental education. Hence, many programs and projects are considered to be superficial and inconsequential in terms of their ability to seriously address environmental issues. The intention of this study was to work with teachers in a project that would be an exemplar of critical environmental education. This would be in the form of a whole school "learnscaping" curriculum in a primary school whereby the schoolgrounds would be utilised for interdisciplinary critical environment education. Parallel with the three cycles of action research in this project, my research objectives were to identify and comment upon the factors that influence the generation of successful educational innovation. -- It was anticipated that the project would be a collaboration involving me, as researcher-facilitator, and many of the teachers in the school as active participants. As the project proceeded through its action cycles, however, it became obvious that the goal of developing a critical environmental education curriculum, and the use of highly participatory processes, were unrealistic. Institutional and organisational rigidities in education generally, teachers' day-to-day work demands, and the constant juggle of work, family and other responsibilities for all participants acted as significant constraints. Consequently, it became apparent that the learnscaping curriculum would not be the hoped-for exemplar. Progress was slow and, at times, the project was in danger of stalling permanently. While the curriculum had some elements of critical environmental education, these were minor and not well spread throughout the school. Overall, the outcome seemed best described as a "small win"; perhaps just another example of the theory-practice gap that I had hoped this project would bridge. -- Towards the project's end, however, my continuing reflection led to an exploration of chaos/complexity theory which gave new meaning to the concept of a "small win". According to this theory, change is not the product of linear processes applied methodically in purposeful and diligent ways, but emerges from serendipitous events that cannot be planned for, or forecast in advance. When this perspective of change is applied to human organisations - in this study, a busy school - the context for change is recognised not as a stable, predictable environment, but as a highly complex system where change happens all the time, cannot be controlled, and no one can be really sure where the impacts might lead. This so-called "butterfly effect" is a central idea of this theory where small changes or modifications are created - the effects of which are difficult to know, let alone determine - and which can have large-scale impacts. -- Allied with this effect is the belief that long term developments in an organisation that takes complexity into account, emerge by spontaneous self-organising evolution, requiring political interaction and learning in groups, rather than systematic progress towards predetermined goals or "visions". Hence, because change itself and the contexts of change are recognised as complex, chaos/complexity theory suggests that change is more likely to be slow and evolutionary - cultural change - rather than fast and revolutionary where the old is quickly ushered out by radical reforms and replaced by new structures and processes. Slow, small-scale changes are "normal", from a complexity viewpoint, while rapid, wholesale change is both unlikely and unrealistic. Therefore, the frustratingly slow, small-scale, imperfect educational changes that teachers create - including environmental education initiatives - should be seen for what they really are. They should be recognised as successful changes, the impacts of which cannot be known, but which have the potential to magnify into large-scale changes into the future. Rather than being regarded as failures for not meeting critical education criteria, "small wins" should be cause for celebration and support. -- The intertwined phases of collaborative action research and individual researcher reflection are mirrored in the thesis structure. The first three chapters, respectively, provide the thesis overview, the literature underpinning the study's central concern, and the research methodology. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 report on each of the three action research cycles of the study, namely Laying the Groundwork, Down to Work!, and The Never-ending Story. Each of these chapters presents a narrative of events, a literature review specific to developments in the cycle, and analysis and critique of the events, processes and outcomes of each cycle. Chapter 7 provides a synthesis of the whole of the study, outlining my interim propositions about facilitating curriculum change in schools through action research, and the implications of these for environmental education.
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