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Botanic Gardens and Education For Sustainability

Number 15 - December 1997
J. Willison

Education for Sustainability (EfS) is a holistic approach to education which emphasises the interelationship of disciplines. There is high level acknowledgement of the importance of EfS. Both Caring for the Earth, (IUCN, 1991) and Agenda 21 (which emerged from the UNCED conference in 1992) clearly state that Education for Sustainability (EfS) should be the central goal of environmental education.

The origins of EfS are found mainly in environmental education (EE) and development education (DE), emphasising both environmental sustainability and social justice. Implicit, by the very nature of EfS, is that it is influenced by other 'adjectival educations', such as peace, health, political, multicultural, citizenship, human rights, futures, etc (Tilbury, 1995:200, Najda, 1993:5, UNESCO-UNEP 1992). Creating a more sustainable future (which in effect means transforming society), will require EfS to respond to change and interpret it as well as become part of the change (Sterling, 1996).

This type of education is associated with more radical forms of education - education that enables students to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in society. Education about sustainability, which develops an understanding of sustainability problems and new forms of sustainable management, is not enough. To challenge the dominant ways of thinking and behaving in society, which have resulted in our present state of global unsustainability, botanic gardens need to engage in 'stronger' forms of EfS - and this means education for sustainability.

Exploring the Work of Botanic Gardens

In attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the constraints and opportunities relating to the implementation of EfS in botanic gardens, research was undertaken with sixteen botanic gardens using qualitative questionnaires and in-depth discussions. The gardens that participated in the research were chosen from a wide geographical spread - Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America, Australia and Europe.

The questionnaires and discussions focused on the gardens' education programmes, asking educators to define what they believed EfS to be. For each definition, a conceptual model was created to illustrate a set of linked activities logically implied by their definition (soft systems methodology, Checkland, 1984). The models were compared with the actual work of the gardens in education, noting similarities and differences between the participant's view on EfS and their work. A conceptual model for EfS was also produced by the researcher with which to compare the actual work of the gardens in education (see below).

Analysing and Interpreting the Results

From the ranking of the gardens' education work, compared with the researcher's 'ideal' conceptual model of EfS, it is evident that some gardens are involved in stronger forms of EfS than others:

To illustrate the range of EfS practise in the gardens surveyed, three groups were identified: Group 1 - ranks 4 & 5; groups 2 - ranks 6 & 7 and group 3 - ranks 8, 9 & 10.

Group 1
These gardens provide information to their public about biodiversity through publications, lectures and guided tours. None of them however, provide opportunities for students to discuss and debate issues or participate in protecting the environment. This suggests that the education officers have interpreted 'increasing awareness' as information provision. All four of the gardens stated that they explore issues of biotechnology, desertification, habitat destruction, plant species extinction and trade. None of them however, explores issues of democracy, equality, gender, poverty and population control, suggesting that not only do these gardens not see it as their role to explore such issues but that they also examine issues in isolation.

Teachers are considered transmitters of knowledge while students are receivers. A concern with this approach is that the gardens will be seen as the 'authority' on how to resolve environmental issues which, in effect, disempowers people from making decisions for themselves. The gardens can therefore be seen to be teaching weak EfS, in other words education about sustainability. This is confirmed in comparing the gardens' education work with the researcher's model of EfS in that the gardens only satisfy two areas of the model - that of providing information and first-hand experience of nature.

Group 2
Key words and phrases used by gardens in this group, to define EfS (eg. provide awareness; develop respect and a responsibility towards other forms of life), indicate that there is an emphasis on promoting behaviour and attitude changes and encouraging people to understand the links between themselves and the environment.

It appears that the gardens explore developmental issues as well as environmental issues. Several educators felt that exploring issues had more to do with the way they worked rather that what they actually taught. While modelling no doubt conveys powerful messages, this highlights a concern that perhaps not all educators in group 2 see teaching issues of equality, gender and democracy as central to EfS. Could it be that educators hope students will understand issues by picking them up subconsciously? In the researcher's model of EfS, educators are expected to create situations for students to see links between their lives and other issues.

The gardens use a wide range of teaching methodologies with their audiences, in particular experiential learning and group teaching. However, while their programmes clearly contribute to EfS through developing personal and interpersonal skills, they do not involve critical reflection. It could therefore be argued that, rather than challenging the dominant social paradigm, a taken-for-granted way in which most people view the world, they are actively supporting it. The type of education group two gardens are practicising can therefore be seen to result in weak EfS, ie. education about sustainability.

Group 3
In comparing the education work of the gardens with their conceptual models and the researcher's model of EfS, it would appear that these gardens come closest to the models. Similarities include:
1) The gardens actively encourage students to make connections between their lives and other issues.
2) Three of the gardens are active in supporting 'target' groups to engage in social and environmental action.
3) Three of the gardens show concern about developing democratic structures for class control and power sharing with teachers and students. For other gardens the picture is more complex as teaching styles appear to differ depending on the group of people the education officer is working with.


This research demonstrates that while most botanic gardens practice weak EfS, there are a number of botanic gardens actively engaged in strong EfS. Common constraints, identified by educators that inhibit the development of EfS programmes include: lack of funding; lack of time; lack of staff resources and' lack of support by senior management. While these constraints are no doubt significant, the results of this research point to the world view of the education officer and staff as the main constraint affecting the development of EfS in botanic gardens. This suggests that to develop strong EfS programmes in botanic gardens there will need to be a radical shift in staff perceptions, values and attitudes.

Botanic gardens clearly have much to offer EfS and are ideally placed to work with their local communities to resolve environmental problems. Participatory action research and experiential and cooperative learning are just some of the pedagogical approaches botanic gardens can and are using. Considering the global environmental concerns we face, all botanic gardens would do well to examine their programmes in light of EfS.

Education for Sustainable Development – Guidelines for Action in Botanic Gardens

BGCI has published Guidelines on Education for Sustainable Development. Suitable for those working in botanic gardens and other site-based education centres, it features tips and case studies from botanic gardens around the world. The Guidelines are freely available to all in PDF and printed format.


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