Educating students for effective decision making

Conference of the Victorian Science Teachers Association
Thursday, November 26, 1998

Science isn’t what it used to be. To turn out students who understand how their world works and who can make decisions for the world to work for all, a broader view of science teaching is needed. Some aspects of this broader view are discussed and some implications for the way science teachers work are presented.

Close your eyes and let your mind wander – to your favourite place, where you most like to go, where your mind goes to relive most pleasant times.

Where is your place – is it in a tall silent forest, a broad alpine plateau, a deserted and tranquil cove? Or is it the dining room at Georges, a streetscape in parts of North Carlton, a smoky mosh pit with a thrash band in a suburban pub? I’ll wager it in the first group rather than the second. The natural environment is extremely important to us, for more than the instrumental reasons of resource extraction. The natural environment has a psychological, even spiritual, appeal. We need it!

Now try to imagine what the natural environment will be like at the brink of the fourth millenium. Will there be a natural environment, as distinct from altered or built environments? Melbourne now stretches from Sunbury, 35 km to the northwest to Frankston, 40 km to the south east, from Lilydale 35 km to the northeast to Werribee, 35 km to the south west. There’s not much natural environment there. Consider the major conurbations of the world, and their current growth rates. If we wish to have natural environments for our descendants, clearly citizens will need to enact on differenet decisions than they are doing now.

People know that there are problems, though. Surveys show regularly that concern for the environment is widespread. So why the problems?

An American ecologist, Garret Hardin, in his celebrated paper The Tragedy of the Commons, argues that this is an inevitably. His argument goes as follows:

Picture a pasture open to all.  It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.  Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land.  Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality.  At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.  Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”  This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.  Since the herdsman  receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal.  Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.  And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons.

Therein is the tragedy.  Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited.  Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.  Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

I have an example of the tragedy of the commons from times a little more recent. I saw a home car detailing company (people who cut and polish the duco, blacken the tyres, vacuum the interior, etc) preparing to do their best on a yellow Mercedes. The car was sitting in a driveway, surrounded by the tools of the trade, a steam cleaner, an industrial vacuum cleaner and 5 litre containers of our most effective cleansers.

The detailer had, no doubt. quoted a price to do the job, including the costs for labour, materials and for use of the specialised equipment. The car owner would have accepted that price, possibly in anticipation of the increased value of the vehicle due its spanking new appearance.

But what about the price we have paid, to both the owner and the detailer? That the gunk, detergents and solvents, has passed down the drain and into the environment, which, after all, is collectively ours, means that we are accepting, knowingly or otherwise, the costs for disposal of these effluents. The alternative is that the detailer would contain all the wastes produced in performing the task, and use some environmentally-appropriate means of disposing of them. That this is not done and that we all share a degraded environment as a result effectively means that we are subsidising the whole operation.

The cost borne by each member of the community is infinitesimally small and is rarely evident, except on days of high pollution or when a combination of natural factors make such things apparent. Yet that cost is assuredly there. You will be able to think of myriad examples all around you.

Back to Garrett Hardin, if ruin is not our preferred outcome, what will we do about it? We can legislate to manage human behaviour, though this is not a preferred option, particularly with the current laissez-faire approaches of economic rationalist governments. People frequently break laws whose moral force they do not accept. Alternately, we can educate, such that rational humans , mindful of the outcome of individualist rather than collectivist approaches, will make decisions that include the interests of all. When citizens understand the law, accept why it is law and support its universal application, they will rarely flout it. Education is to be preferred.

What are the characteristics of this education that will lead us to the future that we all think is so important, that has natural environment in abundance? What is the role of teachers in this, and what sort of characteristics will these teachers have? More precisely, how are we, as science teachers, going to work towards our preferred future?

How to develop each next generation of students for their roles as Australian and global citizens is described in the curriculum documents of our education systems. These, of course, don’t give the complete picture, just the school bits, and then this is only the overt bit. We must always remember the covert or hidden curriculum that is a powerful determinant of student learning. Then there are the non-school bits – parents, peers and community. We must be realistic with regard to our role, and there can be more or less overlap, depending on how we do our jobs.

So to the curriculum bits. Schooling in Australia is underpinned by three values positions – ecological sustainability, social justice and democratic process. The first might help us get to our preferred future – we only develop that which can be developed without compromising our environment. We all should have access to, and the benefits of, the environment – this is the social justice bit, and we should use democratic processes to resolve conflict around environmental matters.

It is not only OK that our teaching has these attributes, they should have these values embedded throughout. But let’s get to the content of the curriculum that will help us create the future that we want. I argue that it is in the interdisciplinary area of environmental education rather than in the traditional discipline that is Science that this content is to be found. Let me give you an example of the sort thing I mean.

Suppose I want to examine in my class debate surrounding the siting of a toxic waste within the metropolitan area. Our manufacturing processes inexorably churn out volumes and/or tonnes of chemical by-product, some or all of which must be disposed of lest it cause severe consequences. We are all, at least collectively, consumers of the major products of these manufacturing processes, and we all therefore have a responsibility for the resolution of the waste issue. In order to assist students make effective decisions, I will need in my unit some chemistry (Natural and processed materials) and perhaps some biology (Life and living) from Science. But how will knowing a little chemistry and the effects of volatile hydrocarbons on local residents help students through the myriad issues surrounding the optimum locality for a waste site? Won’t they also need some economics (Resources) and politics (Systems) from Studies of Society and Environment, and to present their views perhaps some graphics (Arts) and expression (English).

Will the school organisation, timetable, subject groupings, policies regarding off-site visits, etc.  allow me to do this? If I am a secondary teacher, what subject do I do it in? I am a Science teacher – I get a little edgy talking to impressionable students about community politics – I can’t weigh them on a triple-arm balance.

Where issues of science and society intersect, and that is in much of our science, what is an appropriate curriculum? To deal with our toxic waste example This was the subject of national mapping exercise in 1992 to see what environmental education, through all KLAs, was considered to be around the country. More simply, it was an investigation of what each education system’s policy and curriculum documents had to say on environmental education. Following are the key concepts, skills and values regarding environmental education.

Ecosystems: All things are interconnected and share the same resources from the sun and earth.

Resources: All living things have varying degrees of access to the resources they need to survive.

Growth: The ability of environments to sustain growth is limited.

Heritage: Natural and built environments provide a sense of belonging.

∆sthetics: Environment is an inspiration for creativity and offers sources of beauty and joy.

Environmental ethics: Humans have a moral responsibility for the well being of all living things in the global community.

Decision making: Effective decision making about environmental issues requires consideration of ecological and social factors.

Participation: Everyone should be prepared to take action for the environment.

A curriculum that featured comprehensive, sequential programs in these areas would turn out environmentally-educated students. Science would play a central part, but programs should also include components from SoSE, Arts, Health and Physical Education and English. In other words, environmental education is not an area of the curriculum, rather it is an outcome of the curriculum. Good science is also good environmental education.

Good Science, though, has a number of features that were not found in the classrooms in which I was a student, and, I would have to confess, not found in my classroom when I started teaching. Australia is involved in an OECD project Environment and School Initiatives with many other member countries. In this projects, the impediments (in bold) to environmental education being investigated in schools were investigated. See if you can recognise any of these issues in your school?

Environmental education was seen to be marginal in a school program. It required a committed teacher and motivated students and was typically an ‘add-on’ to the curriculum.

The idea of the add on is not on! A comprehensive Science program, with creative and professional teachers, will also be involved in good environmental education. As I have argued above, environmental education is not additional to a current school program – it should be embedded in a current school program. We do not need the separate subject, jostling for position in a crowded curriculum, to produce the environmentally-educated. What we do need is to examine our current offerings to ensure that the elements of a comprehensive environmental education are all there.

From the programs or units, etc. that are taught currently, how can a slightly different flavour be added to bring a science energy unit to one that has an environmental education outcome? Learn about electrical systems, wiring, the role of fuses, what wattage light globes, etc. and then talk about energy conservation measures, and then give the assignment to implement these measures at home. Discuss renewable and non-renewable resources, and then establish a school recycling scheme.

Teachers of environmental education experienced difficulties with colleagues who felt threatened and were unconvinced of the merits of environmental education programs.

There is always a danger of tones of sanctimony creeping into our voices when we talk of the inalienable rights of other species, of the needs of generations to come, and of our own domestic conservation programs. Our compost bins can become altars at which we give thanks for the high moral ground. We have the one true way, and colleagues should/must/have to … do whatever we say. Students are often ahead of public opinion on matters environmental, and it can be tempting, for young teachers particularly, to identify with their students and against their colleagues. This can alienate the other teachers and lead them to discount the involvement in environmental matters that is the basis for the teacher/student relationship.

Change agents in a school have to walk very warily and be proficient in a wide range of strategies. They have to be exceptionally political, as the intrinsic merits of a program have rarely, if ever, been enough to see the program introduced. Seek legitimacy for your proposed change from school policy, talk to faculty or year level heads and tell them, well in advance of decision-making meetings, of your proposals.

Teachers were constrained by existing patterns of curriculum and time-table organisation in schools, which prevented them from working together as inter-disciplinary teams, and their students from synthesising subject matter to deepen their awareness of real environmental problems. This detached learning of bits of information, instead of helping to resolve an environmental issue, becomes part of the problem. Attempts at approaching environmental issues by coordinated teaching across a number of relevant subjects requires flexibility in timetables that rarely exists.

This is why we can often find more comprehensive environmental education programs in primary schools than we can at secondary level. The latter are used to working within their discipline, and if, for example, the discussion, which started with resource use, becomes one of the ethical base of Western consumer society, we might stop it there, saying to take it up with your English or Social Education teacher. I’m a Science teacher (or English, so I don’t know about mineral extraction and overburden removal and regeneration requirements) and that’s not Science and I feel guilty if I’m not teaching Science. And there the momentum dissipates and is lost.

So the solution becomes one of working in inter-disciplinary teams, not necessarily in the classroom, as teacher/student ratios, and school-staffing may not allow it. But how often do year level meetings concentrate on the rogues gallery of discipline problems, the term’s excursion program, the out-of-uniform-day and not much else? Where is the detailed discussion of the curriculum program in each subject, matching of possibilities of teachers in different subjects taking up similar issues, or planning the one unit across the subjects? Can the timetable be varied on a particular day to allow out-of-school survey work, of involvement in the community support program?

Activity to overcome this problem requires a collective commitment on the part of the staff, and most likely a formal process for implementation and to monitor progress. A fixed agenda item on, and regular reports to, staff meetings is one way to start. Staff who are confident, not just in their discipline but in the broad context for their discipline and in the professionalism of their colleagues, have a head start here. There are many professional development opportunities aimed at improving knowledge in a wide range of areas. This of course, brings up the issue of a school professional development policy. Professional development needs should be another regular agenda item at staff meetings.

Environmental education requires a marriage of knowledge and values, something that the natural sciences, the traditional home of environmental education, don’t often foster.

Education about and for values is not something eagerly embraced by many teachers, whether science teachers or any other kind. Yet we readily agree that there is no such thing as a value-free context, and that we hold values positions, which in our more honest moments, we admit to consciously or unconsciously promoting.

The values that we might speak of in classrooms are often described in the following terms – procedural values and substantive values. There is little argument that we be involved in promoting such procedural values as honesty, tolerance of divergent opinion, co-operation, respect for individuals and equal rights for everyone in this generation and in the next. These are the values of democratic process, ecological sustainability and social justice and that underpin the Science Curriculum Statement and Profiles. It is in the area of substantive values, what we as individuals and groups within a pluralist community believe about the nature of that community that will vary. Our personal beliefs towards animal experimentation, duck shooting and logging rainforests are simply that, our personal beliefs. As environmentalists there is a greater degree of unanimity of opinion than there would be in the larger community, on at least some of these issues, but as educators we should be wary of our treatment of these issues in the classroom.

In general, we teach for procedural values, and about substantive values. In our classes, we should use a range of material that presents a range of values positions. Students should be able to form their own views, free from undue influence in any direction We do them a disservice otherwise.

The educational approaches required challenge teachers to examine their practice and for both teachers and their students to take risks.

There are many that would argue that teaching is essentially a conservative profession, that classroom practice, the chalk and talk and the personal dynamics that accompany it, is similar to that experienced by the previous generation. Of all the teachers we had in front of us, some were much revered and we probably mimic some of their teaching style even now. Further, teaching and learning is an isolated process, each classroom an island unto itself. Sometimes a colleague may go to an office at the back of another’s classroom, but a teacher in front of their class is not a public being, apart from the eager minds in front them. We often get little constructive criticism from our colleagues regarding our teaching.

With regard to risk taking, as teachers with carefully planned units, and a timetable that will allow coverage of work before the camp/holidays/end of term exam, to allow students time to explore a curious issue, or to follow a novel workplan, can be quite threatening. Who will allow the education meanderings to take their own course?. If the variation that threatens the carefully laid plans will, in our professional judgement, lead to a more thorough result, then we could hesitantly take the risk! When a teacher at Queenscliff Secondary College in Victoria started talking about E coli counts and water testing, the campaign in the paper, the public profile and the changed water board sewage disposal process was not foreseen. Those students will get ten out of ten for water testing, for knowledge of the local democratic process, for aspects of civil engineering and for media studies. Further, they are are well-versed in taking initiative and confident in carrying out an active role in the community, and hasn’t that been sound education?

Assessment processes for environmental education, aiming as it does to develop changes in attitude, values and behaviour, are difficult to reconcile with traditional assessment methods.

Our understanding of assessment has changed considerably over the last decade or so. Multiple choice and true/false tests have given way to the assignment, the drafts of the folio piece, and the graphic representation and oral presentation. The range of skills and abilities developed, the thoroughness with which arguments are presented and the support for conclusions reached all become grist for the assessment mill in an outcomes-based education. Further, reports on action programs form an integral part of such assessment.

We didn’t actually assess attitudes (Was that sneer an E- or an F+?), more their results, as students who regarded something positively threw themselves into the task. Similarly with values. We might have commented upon the procedural values, but we accept that we don’t assess substantive values (Is preferring green over brown or grey worth an A?) And values and attitudes lead to behaviour, and that we have assessed over some time, perhaps not in the sense of being environmentally sensitive, however.

Student participation in action programs may lead to charges that students are being encouraged in inappropriate political activity and/or to adopt the values of the teacher.

I can recall a request to respond to a series of letters from Year 4 students to the Minister for Education, every one of them, in the same words, requesting a change to a government intention to build a freeway ‘because we wouldn’t be able to see the lovely birds any more’. One senior person wanted to charge the teacher for political indoctrination, another wanted to give the teacher a medal. And here is the crux of the problem. What is appropriate; the action program itself, the age of the students in the action program, the nature of the political activity, the role of the teacher? And who are the judges of appropriateness?

The action program must have a sound educational basis. When students taking part in a land rehabilitation scheme have investigated the causes of degradation, have investigated the means of arresting degradation, have planned for implementation of mitigating programs, have got their hands dirty and actually carried out the mitigation, and will carry out necessary monitoring to ensure the success of the program, then a charge of the inappropriateness of the activity cannot be sustained. If the students were simply supplying the labour at the end of a shovel, because they were told only to do so, that would be inappropriate. You could argue whether for year 4 students, understanding the effects of freeway proximity on bird habitat and not being voters, appropriateness meant argument around the dinner table, poster making in the classroom, or writing letters to Ministers.

There is a rather wide range of activities that fall under the heading ‘action program’. The media are somewhat fond of portraying environmental action as necessarily involving blockades and canoes or bulldozers. Students making posters for community display, measuring and sending salinity levels to a central data bank, conducting an energy audit of their school or home and taking part in a community revegetation scheme are far more typical, if less stridently newsworthy, of action programs in schools. At senior levels in secondary schools, the action program might involve taking the debate over waste disposal, based on primary data collected by the students, to local government in an effort to bring about a change of practice. The age of the students and the nature of the action program is something to be discussed widely in the school. When all the staff, with the diversity of opinion that is usual in such a group of people, support the program in which particular students are engaged, it would be very difficult to sustain a charge of inappropriate activity. The role of the teacher can be clarified in such an audience also.

That action programs have attracted criticism is not a reason to abandon them in favour of safer ‘educational’ activity – it is simply a very good reason for making sure that they are done properly. The educational process should be soundly based, the activities must be appropriate for the particular group of students and the desired outcomes, and the programs should have the support of the school and its council. They can be, for many students, a challenging educational experience that involves real learning, and enables them to see both them and their school in a community context in which they have a valuable role to play.

Early in my career, Science was known, safe and predictable. It had limits and I knew them – the textbook set them. But it was also boring and unreal – life just wasn’t like that and my studies were to prepare me for life. So Science has had to change and our teaching has changed with it. We would do our students a disservice if we schooled them in old science through old teaching. With a Science that is creative and divergent and teachers that are prepared to take risks, we can be involved in shaping that future. When, at a gathering of Science teachers, on the brink of the fourth millennium, they think of their favourite places, they might know, as we do, the joy of natural environments. 


The Tragedy of the Commons, Garret Hardin, Science, Vol 162, pp1243 – 1248, 13 December, 1968

Hobart Declaration of the National Goals for Schooling, Australian Education Council, September 1992

Environment and School Initiatives, Report of the International Conference on the Teaching of Environmental Issues in Primary and Secondary Schools, Linz, Austria, 26 – 30 September, 1988, OECD Secretariat

Studies of Society and Environment Curriculum Map  Part B: Environmental Education  A Report to the Australian Education Council, Australian Education Council, September 1991