Environmental Education in Singapore: An Analysis of Environmental Knowledge in the Lower Secondary Geography Curriculum, pp. 2 of 9

Literature Review

Environmental Education in Geography Education

The interdisciplinary nature of geography has been widely acknowledged to be an ideal platform for the delivery of EE (International Geographical Union, 1992; Tilbury, 1997). Geography studies the interactions between human and natural/physical systems, which can be understood through geographical concepts like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘urbanisation’. Similarly, integral to EE is the concept of ‘human-environment relationship’ (Tilbury, 1997). It is hence an unsurprising trend for formal school geography of many countries to embrace EE and ideas of sustainability (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2010). Chang (2015) articulates the same belief that “the geography classroom is the best place” (p. 3) to provide the lens for unpacking this complex concept such that students can develop an interest and an ability to act as stewards of the Earth. A good example is shown in the secondary school geography education of Switzerland, which has made major shifts towards a more eco-centric view of the Earth with the deliberate incorporation of EE (Reinfried, 2004). Closer home, progressive efforts to increase the prominence of EE in the geography curriculum has been noted (Goh, Chuan, Tan, Chang, & Ooi, 2009), particularly in the Lower Secondary Geography (LSG) curriculum (Chang, 2014). Unlike the past syllabuses which were conceptual or systematically framed, the issue-based framework found in the 2014 syllabus enhances the potential for secondary geography education in Singapore to promote EE.

While EE’s aim is internationally established, its interpretation within a school setting is less defined or consistent. For instance, in an empirical study by Ho and Seow (2017) comparing three Singaporean geography teachers and three Filipino teachers teaching social studies (which contains the discipline of geography) on their perceived role as climate change educators, it was found that differing beliefs of teachers led to distinct differences in pedagogical choices. The Singaporean teachers tended to “adhere closely to the official geography curriculum that focused on presenting scientific information about the causes and consequences of climate change in what they felt was a largely “objective” manner” (p. 250). The Filipino teachers, on the other hand, channelled their time towards maximising the subject’s interdisciplinary nature by highlighting the complexities of environmental issues and “developing a sense of civic agency” (p. 247) among their students, which meant engaging them less with scientific information on environmental issues. These teachers’ perception of EE as an advocacy tool is consistent with the literature (Fien, 1993; Huckle, 1983; Morgan, 2012) as they chose to actively promote pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours among students (Lee, 1993; Ho & Seow, 2017). Conversely, teachers who believed that they ought to be neutral when conveying the curriculum tend to avoid discussing their opinions and focus on facts provision (Baildon & Sim, 2009; Ho & Seow, 2017; Stenhouse, 1975).

Environmental Education Research in Geography Education in Singapore

While there is rising attention given to EE and geography education in Singapore, research in this field appears narrowly scoped when compared to the progress in global EE discourse in at least two ways. Firstly, much of the research is concentrated on climate change education or CCE (e.g., Chang, 2013; Chang & Pascua, 2016; 2017; Goh et al., 2009; Ho & Seow, 2017; Seow & Ho, 2014; 2016) which is a specific topic under EE. Secondly, when research does examine EK in the school setting, they largely seek to understand how much students know about an environmental topic. Tan, Kay, Lee and Goh’s (1998) study is one of the few early research studies that collected first-hand data on the knowledge levels of secondary students and concluded that more emphasis should be made to increase students’ level of factual EK. Chang, Tan, Tan, Liaow and Kwek (2017) express the persistent gap between environmental awareness and action among students as a significant problem, detailing how secondary geography students’ environmental conceptualisations are “found to be erroneous, inaccurate and incomplete” (p. 1). The common assumption made by these works appears to converge towards the idea that knowledge should lead to action, which begs the question of what knowledge should students have before they can act for the environment. The study by Ho and Seow (2017) is perhaps one of the few local studies that brought the discussion a step further by differentiating two essential types of knowledge needed for an effective CCE. Beyond the scientific knowledge, they emphasise the promotion of civic knowledge as a critical contributor in achieving the goal of EE. It is clear from this literature review that a potential research area would be to uncover the kinds of EK that should be imparted to students in the geography curriculum.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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