Chapter 1 - The Focus of My Inquiry:
Transformative Environmental Education for Adults

Sustainable development learning can serve as an enticement to environmental learning and action. This thesis explains the importance of teaching not just for sustainable development, but about sustainable development as well.

GreenHeart Education's Julie Johnston received her master's degree in
adult education (M.Ad.Ed.) from St. Francis Xavier University (Nova Scotia, Canada) in 2003.

After a literature review that sought out barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action, Julie researched the intersection between adult education and sustainable development — and discovered that learning about sustainable development can lead to further environmental learning as well as environmental action.

Chapter 1 - The Focus on Inquiry

Chapter 2A - Review of the Literature on Barriers to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 2B - Review of the Literature Enticements to Environmental Learning and Action

Chapter 3 - Description of the Study

Chapter 4 - Discussion, Implications, and Recommendations

Johnston, J. D. (2003). Sustainable development learning as enticement to environmental action. Unpublished master's thesis. Antigonish, NS: St. Francis Xavier University.

The main issue for this study is how to develop and facilitate enticing environmental education opportunities for adults. What barriers keep adults from participating in environmental learning? If adults do not come to environmental education, how might environmental adult educators reach out to them? And what kinds of environmental education opportunities can have transformative effects, resulting in environmental action?
— Julie Johnston

Chapter 1 - The Focus on Inquiry


The Problem

Purpose of the Study

Background to the Study

Scope and Limitations


Definition of Terms

Plan of Presentation


According to my family's mythology, I was one of those young children placed outside on warm days in a pram and, later, in a playpen. In the context of my culture, that made me a lucky child. My earliest memories are of playing on sunny days in the ditch in front of the house, safely close to home yet creating my own little world populated by weeds and insects and the trickle of water meandering by.

Thirty years later, following a career in language teaching, the activist's voice inside me emerged in the urgency to save my beloved Nechako River in northern British Columbia (and save it we did — not with marches and protests, but through an energetic community education campaign). This led to a shift in my teaching and learning priorities; my area of academic interest evolved into environmental adult education.

In my often volunteer but increasingly professional role of "eco-inspirationalist" or "facilitator-as-catalyst," my goal is to help people make lifestyle choices that respect the ecological principles governing life on this planet. I want to do this by reconnecting people with the rest of nature, by evoking for grown-ups their childhood experiences in the natural world. I want to be the matchmaker who helps people (re)kindle their love for the Earth, so that they will choose to do right for their home planet, for themselves, for people in less privileged parts of the world, and, ultimately, for their children and grandchildren and all future generations.

This ambition led to three questions, which in turn led to their study. How can environmental adult educators entice adults to this kind of transformative learning opportunity? How can they ensure that it leads to action? And, can learning about sustainable development lead to environmental action?

Because my area of interest is environmental adult education (with a focus on barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action), and as a way of responding to these questions, I wanted to discover how to design and facilitate a transformative learning experience in workshop format that would help adults overcome the multiple barriers to environmental action. I also wanted to learn how to assure the transfer of this learning. What follows is the story of my unexpected discoveries about the potential of sustainable development learning to entice environmental action.


For several decades, Canadians have been hearing of growing concern about environmental crises afflicting the biosphere’s ecosystems, human beings, and the rest of nature all over the world: ozone depletion, global climate disruption, desertification, destruction of rainforest, air and water pollution, topsoil erosion, species losses, militarism.

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro saw an unprecedented 172 countries and 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations meet to "find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet" (United Nations, 1997). "The terror here," according to O'Sullivan (1999), "is that we have it within our power to make life extinct on this planet" (p. 70).

With Our Common Future, a report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987), Brundtland and her colleagues stressed the importance of widespread public involvement in environmental issues:

  • If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through to today's parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children's fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment.... We call for a common endeavour and for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all. The changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations that [our] report urges depend on vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation. (p. xiv)

In 1992, the message of the Earth Summit — that nothing less than a transformation of people's attitudes and behaviour would bring about the necessary changes — was transmitted by almost 10,000 on-site journalists and heard by millions of people around the world. The Earth Summit led to adoption of Agenda 21, a blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide (United Nations, 1997), which includes a section on education, public awareness, and training (Sitarz, 1994).

My concern is that, although Canadians rank first in the world on environmental and scientific knowledge (T. W. Smith, 1997), as North Americans we continue to use more energy, create more waste, and contribute to more pollution per capita than almost anyone else in the world (Ryan, 1999, p. 4).

Despite all this, environmental adult education has barely made it onto the map of the adult education field (National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, UK, 1993, cited in Clover, 1995; Solar, 1998). Despite national and international efforts aimed at promoting environmental education (Government of Canada, 2002; Meadows, 1989), most adults are not enrolled in educational or environmental programs to help them learn about their environmental impacts or to gain skills for changing their lifestyles (Clover, 1995). Although there is "a flurry of adult environmental activities ... they are so widely divergent that there is no central clearinghouse to locate or classify them easily" (Professor Jane Dawson, personal communication, February 24, 2003).

For the most part, the citizens, consumers, workers, employers, and parents who make critical decisions affecting the Earth and its inhabitants every day rely on media for their environmental information, a source that offers only a "superficial, passive, and transitory" learning experience (Prazmowski, 1990, p. 4). But, as Anne Camozzi, founding chair of the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (quoted in Government of Canada, 2002) urges, time is of the essence:

  • We don't have time to wait for this generation of children to grow up and change attitudes and behaviours towards the environment. Education should be directed at all ages, especially adults in the home, community and workplace. Parents and grandparents, in particular, have a critical role to play in helping the next generation of leaders learn about the environment. This means that adult environmental education programs should be developed to help change attitudes, and teach new knowledge and skills. (p. 6)

Clover, Follen, and Hall (2000) believe that the task of adult educators in this century is "the production and distribution of ecological knowledge and the learning of new skills and methods of educating" (p. 9). According to Sumner (2003), "environmental learning can enable a revolution in learning if it is reconceptualized within an understanding of sustainability as a set of structures and processes that build the civil commons."


The main issue for this study is how to develop and facilitate enticing environmental education opportunities for adults. What barriers keep adults from participating in environmental learning? If adults do not come to environmental education, how might environmental adult educators reach out to them? And what kinds of environmental education opportunities can have transformative effects, resulting in environmental action?

Many experts agree on the urgency of solving environmental problems, yet most adults that I know cannot or will not or simply do not give a lot of time to environmental learning, perhaps because they do not know where or how to begin. In response to this urgency, this study began with my search for a way to offer environmental education to as many adults as possible, in the shortest and simplest educational format possible, with the most transformative effect possible given the many constraints facing adult learners.

With a focus on barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action, I went about learning how to design and facilitate a transformative learning experience in a workshop format that would contribute to reducing the multiple barriers to environmental learning that adults face. I also wanted to discover whether this type of learning might help participants to surmount barriers to environmental action and make more sustainable choices in their lives.

Hence, the purpose of my study is to improve my professional facilitation of transformative learning experiences that lead to environmental learning and action, by finding out how adult learners are enticed to environmental learning, and how they can be helped to overcome their barriers to environmental action. The purpose of this thesis is to describe the process I used, and to tell the story of my surprising experiences and unanticipated findings.

My hope is that this study will contribute to the body of knowledge on environmental adult education, in particular, barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action, and sustainable development learning.


In my geographic setting (a rural island in British Columbia, Canada), the tension between knowing and doing, learning and action was playing out within a community that was divided between those who see development as good for the local economy and those who see development as bad for the local environment. Some people in this small community would not talk to each other, let alone work together, to ensure that we live within the ecological carrying capacity of our island by developing support for sustainable lifestyles.

Through this study, I have come to realize that my quest, for the sake of all the children of all species for all time, is to facilitate collaborative learning, rapprochement, and healing, and to create development opportunities that are socially equitable, economically viable, and environmentally friendly — in short, sustainable development.


As 19th century poet Edward Dowden once said, "Sometimes a noble failure serves the world as faithfully as a distinguished success." A research project that I originally undertook did not provide enough data to meet my learning intents. (I mention this setback because it helped me understand an important barrier to environmental learning, which I discuss in Chapter 4.) That is why a local forum on sustainable development, which I organized, promoted, and facilitated in my community under the auspices of the local conservation group to meet our education mandate, subsequently (and serendipitously) became the focus of my research.

The Community Forum on Sustainable Development, held at the community hall on Saturday, September 22, 2001, was an afternoon-long event broken into two sections: theory (with an invited keynote speaker preceded by my introduction to sustainable development) and practice (roundtable discussions of community issues).

The purpose of the forum was to introduce community members to the concept, history, definition, principles, and practices of sustainable development, in order to create more peaceful interactions in the community.

The island's general public (with a population of 1,800) was invited and 66 participants attended, of all ages (6 months to 86 years old, but mainly middle-aged to retired) and many walks of life. The ratio of male to female participants was fairly balanced, as was representation of those who align themselves with economic issues and those who think of themselves as environmentalists.

I attempted to derive meaning from data collected as observations in my fieldnotes, in informal conversations with several people after the forum, and through in-depth interviews with 13 forum participants (supplemented by short email responses from a 14th participant who lives outside the community).

My semi-structured one-on-one interviews with about one quarter of the participants were conducted 6 to 8 weeks after the forum. They lasted 30 minutes to 2 hours. The findings that emerged from a qualitative analysis of the data led to practical facilitation guidelines for transformative environmental adult education using sustainable development learning. Further details on the research methodology are provided in Chapter 3.


At the time that I was organizing and participating in the Community Forum on Sustainable Development, I had not even a hint that this event would become the focus of my research. I therefore went into it with no research-related preconceived notions or expectations. In fact, whereas many scholars stress the importance of turning research into action, I feel fortunate that this study enabled me to turn action into research. As I undertook this research, I assumed that the forum and the interviews would hold many insights about barriers and enticements.


The term sustainable development has been redefined in numerous ways since it was first conceived and introduced. In order to use an internationally accepted philosophical framework, I work with the popularized definition that comes from the United Nations WCED (1987) report, Our Common Future: "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (p. 43). This definition integrates the three pillars of (a) environmental protection, (b) social equity, and (c) economic growth (particularly for developing nations).

I use the term roundtable as a compound word in order to distinguish between the sustainable development principle and process, and the actual round tables that were used in the forum, about which several participants commented. The term Round Table is used in the literature to refer to a committee of people who meet regularly to discuss sustainable development issues.

The editorial we is used quite often in the literature cited in this thesis. I interpret this term to include me and most North Americans, consistent with a definition proposed by Mack (1995): "by 'we' I mean, by and large, citizens of Western and other industrialized nations, for many native cultures experience and avow a very different relationship to their environment" (p. 282).

The terms West and Western refer to the dominant modern culture and world view of Europe and English-speaking societies in the world, including northern North America, Australia, and New Zealand, which grew out of the scientific and industrial revolutions, Christianity, and commercialization (Merchant, 1980).

Many cited authors use the term earth when referring to planet Earth (as in Mars and Saturn), which is the term employed in this thesis.

The term barrier is self-explanatory. The term enticement holds negative connotations for some people, but this is not my intended use. Webster's Dictionary (1981) defines the verb entice as "to draw on artfully or adroitly or by arousing hope or desire" (p. 377), so it appears to be an appropriate term for the field of environmental adult education.

More fascinating, perhaps, is the derivation of the verb entice. From the Latin in + titio, meaning firebrand, comes the idea that an "enticer" is "one that creates unrest or strife: agitator" (p. 427). I view enticements, then, as agitating situations or events that arouse hope and draw people to (environmental) learning and action.

The term environmental learning and action refers to any learning and action (including non-action) that leads to fewer harmful impacts on Earth.


Following this introductory chapter, the literature review in Chapter 2 presents what I learned about cultural, psychosocial, adult learning, and environmental adult education barriers and enticements to environmental learning and action, as well as barriers and enticements to sustainable development. The discussion of barriers and enticements includes insights into several aspects of adult learning, including motivation, transfer of learning, and participatory and transformative educational approaches.

Chapter 3 presents the story of my project, my research methodology, and my research findings. The participants in my study are described, using fictitious names, in this chapter. Chapter 4 presents my analysis and interpretation of these outcomes, with connections to the literature, and closes with implications and recommendations for both my professional practice and the field of environmental adult education.

Through this study, I have come to realize that my quest, for the sake of all the children of all species for all time, is to facilitate collaborative learning, rapprochement, and healing, and to create development opportunities that are socially equitable, economically viable, and environmentally friendly — in short, sustainable development.
— Julie Johnston

Go to Chapter 2A - Literature Review (Barriers)

Go to Chapter 2B - Literature Review (Enticements)

Go to Sustainable Development Learning Thesis - Chapter 3
(Description of the Study)

Go to Sustainable Development Learning Thesis - Chapter 4
(Discussion and Recommendations)

Go to References

Return to GreenHeart Education Homepage