Where are the children in research on sustainability education?
There are very few empirical studies of primary school children in relation to sustainability education. In order to provide an overview of what studies there are and what they say about children, we have reviewed articles published in the last five years in some key journals - Environmental Education Research, Australian Journal of Environmental Education and Canadian Journal of Environmental Education. We have only included articles that contain empirical data from or about children of primary school age, and we have categorised these articles according to their methodological approaches as Positivist/quantitative, Interpretive, Critical and Posthuman.
This category includes four studies that aim to measure children's attitudes to the environment or changes in attitudes in response to environmental education. One large scale study analysed the variables related to environmental knowledge and behaviour in 1,140 Turkish elementary school children. The study found that the main impact factor for students' environmental knowledge was the education level of their fathers; it also revealed that girls had more favourable attitudes to the environment than boys (Alp, Ertepinar, Tekkaya, & Yilmaz, 2008). Students' behaviours towards the environment were independent of their knowledge of environmental issues in this study.
Two other studies used different validated instruments to measure changes in children's attitudes to the environment in response to environmental education programmes. A study of 385 North American children found that the amount of time they spent in nature, and their age, predicted their connectedness to nature (Ernst & Theimer, 2011). Another US study used Bogner and Wiseman's Model of Ecological Values to measure the impact of an earth education programme on 729 upper elementary children's environmental perceptions (Johnson & Manoli, 2008). Both of these studies found, not surprisingly, that children's attitudes changed in a positive direction as a result of participating in environmental education programmes. A study of Greek children similarly found that their understanding of waste was positively impacted by recycling programmes in schools (Malandrakis, 2008).
However, from our perspective, children and their thinking do not become visible in these studies and there is little sense of what their experience is or what it means to them to participate in these programmes; close attendance to what children say or think about the environment is precluded by children's attitudes being defined in broad terms of positive or negative as judged by adults.