Module 6


Investigating Coastal and Marine
Environments through SOSE





Reading 1

Science - A Curriculum Profile for Australian Schools


Reading 1

A Process for Addressing Environmental Issues

Source: Adapted from Pennock, M.T. and Bardwell, L.V. (1994) Approaching Environmental Issues in the Classroom, National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, pp. 6-10.

To incorporate environmental issues in our classrooms we need to recognise some basic characteristics of environmental issues:

  • Environmental issues are complex. Their elements and ramifications can be economic, social, cultural, scientific, and political as well as environmental.

  • There are usually more than two sides to an issue; often, there are multiple perspectives.

  • It takes more than facts to understand environmental issues. It also requires understanding for the context, seeing the problem from various perspectives, and exploring possibilities.

  • There is rarely only one way to resolve an environmental issue.

  • Solving environmental issues is an ongoing process - as we progress toward positive change, we encounter new challenges and more information.

Of the many ways for teachers to approach environmental issues with their students all are reflected in the simple, fundamental problem-solving process described in the next section. By following this process, teachers are less likely to be subjected to accusations of bias and indoctrination, because their students will have explored several dimensions and discovered how to make careful decisions.

Five Step Process for Problem Solving

Most complex problems are solved with the same basic steps. Once learners have selected an issue for focus (Step 1) they must define the problem if they are to understand it fully (Step 2). When they have in-depth understanding of the nature of the problem and different viewpoints, they can consider a variety of solutions (Step 3). They need to analyse and evaluate those options (Step 4); this sometimes creates an interplay between creating solutions, evaluating them and recreating them. The final step, Step 5, is to put that idea into practice to contribute to some type of actual change.

These steps are shown in OHT 7.

Teachers need not start at the beginning of the process and stop at the end. Good programs and solid educational opportunities may involve fewer than five steps or may jump and skip among them. The following examples illustrate this flexibility:


  • Teachers who focus on an issue-investigation process, involve students in Step 2, Define a Problem.

  • Teachers who instill hope from analysing success stories involve students in Step 3, Search for Solutions, and Step 4, Evaluate Options.

  • Teachers who empower students with an action-taking process involve students in Steps 2-5: Define, Search, Evaluate and Act. They could have begun the process by evaluating existing alternatives and then going back to collect more information.


Using the entire five-step process can also be appropriate to current trends in education reform, which emphasise problem solving and critical thinking. This emphasis reflects the growing awareness that students need to be able to assess and manage information to more creatively handle and solve actual problems they will encounter. These skills are built into the five-step model.

Step 1: Choosing the Issue

The first step in addressing an issue is choosing an appropriate one to investigate. Students often need guidance on how to best choose an issue to investigate. The list below offers some options.

Generating Ideas to Pursue

  • Identify student concerns
  • Review local newspaper stories for one month
  • Brainstorm and rank ideas
  • Tour the neighbourhood
  • Interview other students
  • Ask parents of other adults.

Choosing an Issue

  • Vote with two-thirds agreement
  • Vote with simple majority
  • Vote with simple majority but record the minority opinion
  • Allow students to lobby each other, then vote
  • Reach 100 percent agreement
  • Use artwork to explore feelings about issues.
  • Examine the issue against established criteria: time, interest, access, complexity, significance etc.

Issues often present themselves, as well. For example, three students from one primary class may have seen a television show on the depletion of the dugong. They shared their concerns with their teacher, and that issue become the focus of a group project. In another case, a teacher who was teaching a class on environmental issues learned about an upcoming plan to limit highrise development on the foreshore. She offered the topic as a possibility for the class to study. Together, they discussed the reasons for and against choosing that issue and identified what it would take to study the issue in depth. The students voted to go ahead, and they ended up making presentations. Even though the teacher presented the idea, the decision was left up to the students.

The process for deciding upon an issue can set the tone for the entire experience. If the teacher selects the issue, students might not be very interested in it unless it is relevant to them or they see why it is important. When students pick the issue, the teacher needs to help them choose one they can take on with some measure of success: one that coincides with their capabilities and resources. In either case, students need to make an investment in their problem. Ultimately, they will realise insights to contribute to addressing the problem.

Step 2: Defining the Problem

Although the ultimate aim of problem solving is coming up with a solution, the problem-definition phase is extremely important; good solutions require a solid understanding of the problem. Until students have experience, they may have trouble focusing on the problem definition. Instead, they will want to get to work on a solution. They may find it frustrating not knowing what to do next and being told "Don't worry about solutions, yet!" in order to pursue a more systematic analysis. Stress that this step is necessary and should not be slighted for the more glamorous steps of choosing a solution and taking action.

Teachers will know the problem is well-defined and understood if the students can:

  • identify the organisations and groups with an interest in it;

  • explain how those groups perceive the problem and what assumptions they made about it;

  • identify the values and social interests that sustain the group's involvement in the issue;

  • identify their own interests and concerns about the problem or issue; and

  • understand the issue well enough to be able to frame it in several ways based on different assumptions and perspectives.

The process of defining the problem will ultimately require gathering information from several resources, clarifying biases, challenging assumptions and thinking critically about the consequences.

Step 3: Searching for Solutions

Searching for solutions involves understanding alternative views and the range of alternative solutions. It requires time to understand the scope of a problem and to experiment with several solutions. It means encouraging great creativity and then going back to the definition stage to learn more about what that solution might entail. This often happens by giving examples and exchanging ideas.

Additional Criteria Teachers May Want to Consider

  • What skills do students need to address the issue?
  • Do these skills match curriculum objectives?
  • What level of complexity are the students ready for? Can this issue be explored in a way to match this level of complexity?
  • Can the issue be adequately addressed in the time we have?
  • What is the probability of success if students try to take action?
  • How meaningful is the issue to the students?
  • What is the teacher's role information provider, facilitator, adviser? What skills does the teacher need to play these roles?

We often become 'stuck' when we cannot see other solutions. Examples, analogies, and practice can help build the skills for creative thinking. Teachers may encourage students to move from searching to defining several times as more information leads students to consider new potential solutions. Students may also develop a personal vision of how the issue can be resolved and negotiate a consensus view of the future with classmates. This provides students with an opportunity to imagine what kind of future they would like with regard to this issue, and how they can work toward it. This can also be a powerful way to work at the problem definition.

Searching for solutions can occur at two levels: identifying broad solutions to an issue (such as international agreements to protect whales and identifying solutions to which the class can contribute (publicising brand that are 'dolphin friendly' way. In both cases, students can gather and generate ideas from things they have read, people they have talked with, and their own good thinking.

Step 4: Evaluating Options

Once students identify a range of solutions, teachers can help them consider the constraints and possibilities of each and the values and interests they serve. Here are some questions you can use to direct this process.
  • What are the values and interests served by each solution?

  • What possible outcomes does each solution hold?

  • For each solution, what constraints might stand in the way of the desired outcome?

  • Is the solution win-win or win-lose?

  • Who gains and who might lose from each solution?

  • Do the solutions directly relate to the problem as the students defined it?

  • To which solutions could the class make a meaningful contribution?

  • What resources and time would be required?

At this point the role of the teacher is to support students in the evaluation process. One method is to provide a structure for evaluating the options. For instance, the teacher's questions can guide written work, small group discussions, and oral reports. Another form of support is encouragement. Answering these questions can be hard work even many adults have not learned how to evaluate solutions well, Imagery through examples is also helpful. Finally, teachers should give students adequate time and explain that it takes practice to learn to evaluate solutions.

Step 5: Taking Action

Taking action has to do with understanding what types of changes are possible to resolve the problem, how one can contribute to these changes, and, if appropriate, doing so. The five steps each involve different skills. For instance, the problem-definition step requires critical reflection and analysis; identifying and evaluating solutions involves looking at possible outcomes; taking action involves students in bringing certain possibilities to life.

Teachers and students can be involved in the action-taking step in personal, educational, or political ways. You can increase students' understanding of the breadth of possibilities by using these examples to give them some imagery:

  • Students can share what they learned with others.

  • Students can make personal commitments to contribute to a solution.

  • Students can help other organisations work toward environmental change by raising money, distributing flyers, putting up posters, or surveying the community.

  • Students can conduct direct action projects in their school or community with assistance from teachers.


The following guidelines are especially useful for teachers involved in community-based action projects.


  • Allow students to 'own' the process as much as possible. Ask them what they need and how you can help. Ask questions such as 'Have you considered ' rather than just issuing directions.

  • As much as possible, let students facilitate meetings and decisions. Use the action project as an opportunity for them to learn and practice key organising skills.

  • Encourage students to consider who might disagree with them, and ask these people to speak to them. Listen to their concerns and consider them while solutions are being evaluated.

  • Realise that students are not always realistic about time. When they identify a project, help them think through the tasks and responsibilities involved.

  • Remember that the process is as important as the product. Students with a narrow view of success may have quite a few disappointments in store. If you give them time to work through differences of opinion, the groups' efforts will be stronger.

What if the personal, educational or direct-action approaches do not seem appropriate for a particular group? The teacher can still use other strategies: providing imagery about how students could take action, sharing information about adult and youth groups, that have taken action to effect change, or having the class offer support to established groups working to effect change.


However teachers choose to accomplish it, the action step is a powerful way to move students' feelings about critical environmental issues from hopelessness to despair to hope and possibility. Young people can be influenced by simply knowing there are adults and other youth working to solve problems and create positive change. Teaching have a responsibility not to leave young people in despair about their future. The action step also lends itself to the ultimate goal of environmental education: learning how to participate in resolving environmental issues.