Learning Barriers to Sustainability and Environmental Learning and Action

Education is an important institution of socialization, but many critics see formal education as biased in favour of the status quo. We must consider, as Gary Gardner has done, whether education today "is capable of standing outside of society and critiquing it in a way that creates a worldview grounded in sustainability" [37].

When I did research into barriers to environmental learning and action for my master's degree, I was focusing on adult education. But the adult learning barriers to sustainability below can be applied to the education of children as well.

I divide these learning barriers into four categories.

(Numbers in square brackets refer to the References page. Feel free to contact me if you need exact page references.)

1. General Barriers to Participation in Education

Adult educators distinguish between perceived barriers and actual barriers to adult learning and form these into three categories: institutional barriers (practices that exclude or discourage adults), "situational barriers (arising from one's life situation), and dispositional barriers (attitudes and perceptions about oneself as learner)" [25].

Darkenwald and Merriam use the term psychosocial barriers to describe "beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions about education or about oneself as a learner," and add a fourth category: informational barriers [cited in 62] (not getting the message about adult education offerings out).

Merriam and Caffarella raise another interesting barrier for environmental adult education: 64 percent of participants in a 1984 survey indicated that they participate in adult learning for job-related reasons, which leaves only 36 percent for all other adult education offerings [62]. (Not much time left for sustainability education!)

Learning barriers exist for children, too. In many parts of the world, free public education is still not available for all children. And where access to education is universal, children with special learning needs still struggle to recieve the full support they need.

2. Lack of Motivation-Focused Teaching

Professor Raymond Wlodkowski suggests three motivation-related barriers to adult learning. First, new learning asks a lot of adult learners, who are independent thinkers and have strongly held convictions based on past experience.

"New learning often asks them to become temporarily dependent," he says, "to open their minds to new ideas, to rethink certain beliefs, and to try different ways of doing things. This is somewhat threatening to them, and their attitudes can easily lock in to support their resistance" [96].

This resistance is based on the least effort principle, which sees adults applying past solutions to present problems, or past reactions to present experiences [96], a strategy that is clearly ineffective in the face of environmental problems that humans have never before faced.

The second motivation-related learning barrier is the instructor, who can be a demotivating force in adult education. A learner's negative attitude toward an instructor can become a barrier to learning, according to Wlodkowski. Instructors must be passionate about what they teach without resorting to exhortation, says Robert Mager [cited in 96].

The third motivation-related learning barrier, as Wlodkowski explains, is that despite the complexity and mysteriousness of changing adults' attitudes and behaviours, most adult educators do not undertake explicit motivation planning to ensure their students are motivated to learn.

Young students certainly suffer from motivation-related learning barriers. Much of what they are taught in school is no longer valid, isn't part of the sustainability solution, or won't be relevant in their carbon-free world.

3. Unsuccessful Transfer of Learning

Not being able to apply learning to solve problems or to change behaviour is another learning barrier to action. Parker and Parikh present Prochaska's transtheoretical model of change in adult behaviour as a framework for needs assessment, course design, and evaluation that helps explain why learning initiatives do not always change performance.

According to the Prochaska model, change is a gradual five-step process; if learners are not ready to change, or if the offering does not match their stage of readiness, they will not be able to transfer their learning to effect change in their behaviour [72].

Adult education guru Rosemary Caffarella explains other reasons for unsuccessful transfer of learning. Program participants might lack the time and interest to incorporate changes into their daily lives, or might find those changes unrealistic or too disruptive.

If program design does not include follow-up strategies, participants might be unable to overcome community forces that present rewards for not changing, or societal norms that are not supportive of change.

Program content might focus on irrelevant knowledge instead of needed skills and attitude changes, especially for participants confronting unsupportive family members or colleagues and peers, or "key leaders who are openly hostile" [16].

Younger students certainly face this learning barrier. We teach many things that children can't transfer to their day-to-day lives, and we often forget to help children make connections between their new learning and what they already know.

4. Missing Elements in the Adult Education Curriculum

The very institutions that house and offer adult education can act as barriers to environmental action due to the philosophical foundations upon which they are built and upheld. David Orr asks whether harmony with Nature and ecologically appropriate values can be communicated if learning always takes place indoors, in a competitive setting [68].

"The campus as land, buildings, and relationships is thought to have no pedagogic value .... Without anyone saying as much, students learn the lesson of indifference to the ecology of their immediate place," Orr explains.

Transformative education professor, Edmund O'Sullivan, calls for a switch to a biocentric or ecocentric curriculum [69].

Bioregion-based learning is another missing element in adult education. Orr laments that the importance of place in education has been overlooked, because "to a great extent we are a deplaced people for whom our immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation, or sacred inspiration" [68].

As Gregory Bateson noted in the 1970s, most learning ignores the natural world:

    "Official education was telling people almost nothing of the nature of all those things on the seashores and in the redwood forests, in the deserts and the plains. Even grown-up persons with children of their own cannot give a reasonable account of concepts such as entropy, sacrament ... metaphor, topology, and so on. What are butterflies? What are starfish? What are beauty and ugliness?" [6]

Applying this to pedagogy, we see that children are also affected by this learning barrier. Their schoolyards are barren remnants of rich ecosystems, covered over with sports fields or asphalt. Schools as we know them were first "invented" and designed about the same time as prisons and factories!

Also, students sometimes find themselves studying the Arctic or the Amazon rainforest without ever learning about the plants and animals right outside their classroom window. They grow up recognizing a thousand brands and logos without ever learning the names of a dozen local "neighbours" of other species.

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