PhD project This thesis focuses on young students’ experiences and meaning-making processes in school practices within environmental and sustainability education. Earlier research has shown this to be an area of complexity; besides a transdisciplinary perspective requiring relational thinking, it also involves conflicting interests as well as emotions and values.
With a certain interest in emotions being part of learning as a meaning-making process, this thesis aims to investigate the character of experiencing, and the function of aesthetic experience in environmental and sustainability education. Through a mixed-methods approach a comprehensive questionnaire was used in the first study, and a more in-depth case study investigated the most important findings from the questionnaire even further in the second one by using multiple data. 209 students, age 10-12, from six different schools in Sweden answered the questionnaire. One class in grade six participated in the case study during four months, where both in- and out-of-door activities were studied. Both qualitative content analyses, and quantitative statistics were used to analyze the material from the two studies. Furthermore, John Dewey’s theoretical perspectives and neo-Aristotelian philosophers, mainly Martha Nussbaum, guided the interpretations of the empirical results.
The main findings show that young students' experiences in environmental and sustainability education are characterized by relational understandings both within and among ecologic, economic and social aspects, but also that perceived school activities of a value-laden and more cognitive kind correlated. The results further show that aesthetic experiences function as links in the transactional and continuous processes of meaning making. Furthermore, of importance for students' meaning making and formation of values in environmental and sustainability were also prior experiences, encounters with outdoor environments and artifacts (both natural and digital), social interactions and felt independence. A holistic picture of understanding, emotions and values hence appear as an intertwined unity in students' written responses, action and talk. A conclusion suggests that contributing to students' possibilities of making meaning in environmental and sustainability issues requires openness to personal emotions and values as a starting point. Activities allowing for social interaction, independence, and relevant contextual encounters should also be considered in the pedagogical practice of environmental and sustainability education.