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International Research in
Geographical and Environmental
Education
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Education for environmental


sensitivity: The experienced urban
environment in Finnish teacher
education
a
Lea Houtsonen
a
Department of Geography , University of Helsinki , PO Box
4, Yliopistonkatu 3, 00014, Finland
Published online: 10 May 2010.

To cite this article: Lea Houtsonen (1997) Education for environmental sensitivity:
The experienced urban environment in Finnish teacher education, International
Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 6:2, 161-169, DOI:
10.1080/10382046.1997.9965042

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10382046.1997.9965042

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Education for Environmental Sensitivity:
The Experienced Urban Environment in
Finnish Teacher Education
Lea Houtsonen
Department of Geography, PO Box 4, Yliopistonkatu 3, 00014 University of
Helsinki, Finland
The task of developing environmental education in Finland is closely connected
with the wider issue of the processes of social change taking place at the present
time, marking the breakdown of old values, ways of thinking, institutions,
practices and power bases. The manifestations of these processes are to be seen
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in surface structures, the rise of economic coalitions and the construction of data
networks, and in deep structures such as values, outlooks on life, world views
and lifestyles (Hirvi, 1996). Young people are particularly sensitive in perceiving
such trends, and the school system, through its pupils, is therefore more closely
engaged in the reality of these changes than any other institution in our society.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest changes of all apply to the area with which the
education system is most concerned, learning and psychological development,
which occupy a key position as society steps out into the future.
This period of change is reflected in education above all in the fact that
increasing weight is being attached to the construcnvist view of learning, the
central idea in which is that knowledge is not transferred as such but learners
construct it for themselves, selecting from among the information presented to
them and interpreting and analysing it on the basis of their existing knowledge,
and that it is in accordance with this that they build up through the medium of
experience an image of the world in which they live and of themselves as a part
of that world (Rauste-von Wright & von Wright, 1996).
One question that has emerged as central to our notion of education is how to
guarantee the best possible future for our children and young people and equip
them to solve the problems that will face them by themselves in an active manner
(Ojanen & Rikkinen, 1995: 12). It is for this reason that desires have been
expressed in Finland in recent years for an intensification of the environmental
education provided in schools, leading to a greater emphasis on such topics in
the training of teachers as well. Earlier the environmental education given in
schools in particular was weighted heavily towards ecological questions and
nature conservation, whereas considerably more emphasis has come to be placed
during the present decade on the examination of built environments, from the
point of view of their state, their history, future trends and the ecological
implications of building. Even matters concerned with the possibilities for
influencing environmental planning have been discussed both in teacher
education and in schools.
As our cities grow in size and the regulations governing our lives in society

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International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education Vol. 6, No. 2,1997
161
162 International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education

become more complex, it is becoming more important than ever to take


individual citizens into account and ensure that they have adequate chances of
participating in decisions concerning their built environment. Opportunities
exist, but many people are reluctant to make use of them. It is possible by means
of environmental education to increase people's knowledge of the principles of
community planning and the way in which the objectives of such planning are
decided upon, and of environmental values and their significance (Tarjanne,
1995:122-24).
It has been felt to be important in Finland to consider what pedagogical
measures will serve best to promote environmental awareness and responsibil-
ity. Learning by experience can support more profound thinking and assist
individuals in forming their own picture of how they should act. The important
thing is that knowledge, emotions and actions should be properly integrated.
Appropriate weight should be attached to the views expressed by the learners
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themselves, and they should be given an opportunity to plan their own learning
and decide upon it. Environmental education should represent an attempt to
combine a sensitivity for perceiving one's environment, knowledge about our
environment, skills for resolving problems, critical thinking and a clarification of
the individual's own environmental values.
There are many ways of looking at people's interactive relations with their
environment. This comment will concentrate on the experienced environment,
with the aim of deducing how and in what form a person experiences an urban
environment and evaluating methods by which teacher education can provide
practice in experiencing urban environments to the full.

Evaluation Criteria for Environmental Education


A set of criteria have been proposed in Finland for evaluating the success of
environmental education (Houtsonen & Rikkinen, 1997). These are constructed
on the basis of the literature, most notably the works of Hiisivuori (1994), Jeronen
et al. (1994), Kapyla (1994), Lappalainen (1994), Wahlstrom (1994), Dibble (1995),
Jaaskelainen (1995,1996), Matikainen (1995), Ojanen (1995), Posch (1995), Charles
(1996) and Houtsonen (1996). They may be expressed most concisely in the form
of the questions listed below.

Does environmental education develop an understanding of the topics


to be studied?
The education provided can be regarded as successful if the pupils have
personally internalised the matters that have been discussed, are able to solve
related problems and are able to appreciate, analyse and interpret such matters
and learn to communicate them to others. Pupils should develop an ability and
desire to acquire, evaluate and operate with information on the environment and
threats to it, and this discussion should add to their understanding of environ-
mental questions. Rather than memorising isolated facts, pupils should be able
to perceive larger entities and understand the connections between sets of
contributory factors. This is a matter of developing learning skills, which include
critical examination and the desire and ability to develop oneself. At the same
Forum: Environmental Education and Research 163

time it is a matter of obtaining the skills required for living in the ever more
complicated and unpredictable world of the future.
Is environmental education based on the pupil's own experiences and
processing of these?
Learning by experience is a way of educating people to be aware of the
environment and willing to act accordingly in practice. The dynamic learning
that arises in this way stems from the tension between earlier experience and new
knowledge, so that learners' attitudes change and their cognitive structures
develop. This also implies ethical considerations and the acceptance of responsi-
bility for their actions.
Since people are active and commit themselves better to environmental values
when the action concerned involves them personally, learning situations should
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be problem-centred and connected with pupils' own experiences, observations


and thinking abilities. Attempts should be made to select topics that are of interest
to the pupils and are associated with their personal needs, and to link the content
fo their everyday lives whenever possible. Teaching should also contain an
element of volition and action, and also imaginative thinking in the search for
solutions to problems.

Does the environmental education involve knowledge, emotions and


action?
A good environmental educator is one who adopts a reflective attitude
towards his or her work, possessing a conscious relationship of his own to the
subject matter to be taught. This reflection should be seen in his consideration of
the set of values that form the basis for his teaching. In addition to this awareness,
good teaching skills also presuppose a commitment to constant personal
development, as a capacity for learning by investigation can only arise when the
teacher is ready to revise his ways of acting and has acquired the dual orientation
of a teacher and investigator.
Environmental education should develop pupils' ability and desire to act
independently and responsibly in matters concerned with the natural environ-
ment, built environment or social environment. It is the experiences connected
with learning that can inspire a love of nature and a willingness to protect it. The
principal values from the point of view of environmental education are a joy and
pleasure in living and a love of life, as these will move a person to become
involved, make choices and take action. It is important that pupils should become
capable of independent, responsible action on behalf of the environment and
other people on their own initiative. The essential thing is to create an open, fertile
atmosphere for the learning situation. Pupils need to be encouraged to express
their feelings and should be given positive feedback. The acknowledgement of
successful results and the rewarding of activity on their part will support the
development of their self-image and adaptation of their moral values.

Is environmental education implemented in cooperation and


interaction with other sectors of the community?
Environmental education should develop pupils not only as individuals but
164 International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education

also as members of the community and its organisations, a task which places
emphasis on cooperation and social values. It should arouse empathy for all
people and for future generations, and should inspire a desire to support plans
aimed at preventing the pollution and destruction of nature and to bring about
environmental changes that operate in the direction of sustainable development.
Many pupils are prevented from acting for the good of the environment by a lack
of information on the opportunities for such action within the community.
An international outlook can also enhance the quality of environmental
education. International cooperation in this sphere arises from a genuine need
for corporate action, for global problems call for solutions implemented through
international cooperation. It is possible to join with schools in other countries to
study and discuss common problems and to consider what has been done in
different parts of the world to solve these problems. A very positive outlook on
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this is contained in a textbook devised by instructors in teacher education from


all over the world, Global Issues of our Time (Lidstone, 1995), which not only
mentions the problems as seen by people from different countries but also
considers the possibilities for solving them and the progress made in that
direction.
The increase in international interaction as people, goods, services and capital
begin to flow more readily across national boundaries lays further emphasis on
the need for cooperation. The use of joint projects, correspondence, telecommu-
nications, publications and action networks for the purposes of environmental
education can serve at the same time to teach pupils the skills of international
collaboration, in addition to which an accent on the future is also a vital condition
for successful environmental education.
Does environmental education contain an element of enthusiasm?
Pupils should be able to plan the forms that their study will take with the
teacher and determine what topics will be dealt with and in what depth, as this
will help them to evaluate their knowledge, attitudes and skills critically.
Shared experiences, workshops, meetings and other events can lend an air of
reality, rhythm and prominence to the work. Various kinds of projects and
themes, excursions, fieldwork opportunities and school camps are well suited to
environmental education, as they provide situations for learning by experience
and generate enthusiasm for the subject as a whole.
The above criteria proposed for environmental education served as a frame of
reference for the exercises held in connection with the field course and enabled
their success to be evaluated from this point of view.

Enhancement of Environmental Sensitivity Through Sensory


Perception
Environmental sensitivity has been named as one of the most effective
preconditions for the formation of responsible behaviour in matters concerning
the environment (Hungerford & Volk, 1990), and therefore its development is
regarded as one of the principal aims of environmental education. The term is
usually used to refer to an emotional relationship to the environment which is
the product of the individual's experiences and perceptions and to which various
Forum: Environmental Education and Research 165

values, beliefs, attitudes and interpretations are linked (Wahlstrom, 1997:20-21).


Alternatively, it has been defined as the set of affective properties by which the
individual develops an empathic relationship with the environment. Palmer and
Neal (1994: 3-10) emphasise the importance of positive, favourable emotional
experiences in this. In any case, an emotional bond and identification with the
environment is regarded as important for the development of sensitivity. An
environment which is looked on as one's own is usually one which has, or can
have, favourable meanings attached to it, while one to which such meanings
cannot be attached is felt to be alien and is avoided where possible (Tuovinen,
1992:4).
It is essential for the purposes of environmental education to recognise the
pedagogical means by which responsibility for the environment can be instilled
in pupils. This may be defined as an ethical commitment or readiness to take
action on behalf of things that one holds valuable. Thus environmental education
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is value-directed action and can be regarded as a branch of ethical education that


sets out from the notion of sustainable development.

From the Analysis of Urban Images to the Interpretation of


Perceptually More Complex Environments
How is a city experienced? People such as town planners, environmental
psychologists and 'behaviourally' oriented urban geographers have been seeking
an answer to this question for a long time. The city as a spatial concept may be
defined as a relationship between an individual and his environment. The classic
work in this field is held among geographers to be the classification of structural
features of physical urban environments based mainly on visual impressions put
forward by Kevin Lynch in his work The Image of the City (1960). Isolation and
recognition of such features can help people to analyse urban environments and
can add emotional certainty to the environmental decisions and actions that they
have to take. Later, Rapoport (1977) broadened the conceptual field of the event
of experiencing an urban environment to extend beyond visual experiences.
Much consideration has also been given in academic circles to the question of
what kind of urban or socio-cultural environment young people should grow up
in, for which purpose a great deal of scientifically justified experiential
information is required. The essential basic skills that democratic societies require
of their urbanised members are that they should be able to extend their level of
consciousness beyond the structure of their own immediate environment and
changes in this, to analyse what they observe and to articulate their own opinions
(Houtsonen & Peltonen, 1996).
The solutions proposed in the course of urban planning in the Helsinki area,
for instance, were only seemingly based on objective data, leading Schulman
(1990:137,183) to note that subjective values and experiences are crucial even in
present-day practices, but that the lack of attention paid to such information,
values and experiences in public is a major problem. The humanistic approach
points chiefly to a form of 'planning by participation' in which citizens, politicians
and planners all learn through interaction with each other. As Schulman also
points out, the preferences and needs of the local people, their situations in life
and their requirements for smooth discharge of the tasks facing them in their
166 International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education

everyday lives give rise to quite different criticisms of planning proposals from
those engendered by the 'spatial' way of thinking that places emphasis on
economy and efficiency.
Discussion has now begun on the topic of urban images. These are multiple,
ambiguous, multi-layered concepts, the symbolic and psychological influences
of which are gradually being understood more extensively in society. They are
concepts that refer to the physical environment on the one hand and to that
created by the perceptions or the imagination on the other. The one thing that
these approaches have in common is that they lead to a visual image of a greater
or less degree of abstraction. The urban image is a subjective, personal experience,
but the experiences of different individuals are frequent similar in direction, to
the extent that one can speak of common, generally experienced images.
Although an urban scene consists of all the things that an observer can see from
a certain place, streets, buildings, parks, surrounding items of nature, activities
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and people, its character will sometimes be determined by one powerful,


dominant factor, location beside a lake or in a valley, or an esker chain or green
belt running through the city, which can then become symbolic of the city itself.
An image can arise both in situ, by experiencing the city itself, or by means of
maps or pictures. It must be remembered, of course, that while the physical
environment and observations of it may seem to be visual images, they are in
reality a product of all the senses, and consequently what a city looks like and
what it feels like may be two quite different things. A person's age, sex, way of
life and personal sources of motivation may be decisive in governing the occasion
of interaction that causes the physical environment of a city and also its image to
be internalised (Syrjala, 1990; Tuovinen, 1992; Horelli, 1995; Virtanen, 1995).
Finland has a long tradition of research into perceived environments,
beginning with the work of the internationally renowned landscape geographer
J.G. Grand in the 1930s, who set out from a human-centred environment
perceived by the senses in which the visual landscape occupied a prominent
position (Grano, 1930). Other Finnish landscape geographers have then been
active in later times in emphasising the holistic sensory perception of landscapes.
A landscape communicates itself to us through its sounds, smells and everything
that we sense through our skin. The trend during the present decade has been
towards the development of an analytical method for use in planning (see
Tuovinen, 1992).
Environmental planning has characteristically placed emphasis on the visual
aspect, with little attention paid to the other senses, and it would now be possible
for environmental education to take a lesson from this and attempt to develop
pupils' sensory perception to apply to all the senses. It is only then that we can
speak of gaining possession over our environment (Lehtimaki, 1995:127), which
can be done only by making it part of the environment of our soul, of the world
in which we live. An internalised environment of this kind could well serve as
an antidote for indifference, alienation and destructive behaviour.

From Objectives to Action


It is important from the point of view of environmental education that children
and young people should learn to recognise what is special and original about
Forum: Environmental Education and Research 167

their own living environment and to protect and develop this both aesthetically
and ecologically. For this reason students' environmental sensitivity should be
developed so that they can perceive the essential characteristics of their
environment and changes taking place in these in an open, receptive and
comprehensive manner. It is important that people care about the environment
and that pupils achieve personal contacts and relations with questions concern-
ing the quality of an environment created simultaneously by nature, affluence
and human effort. Education should also provide an opportunity for practising
various forms of corporate action and an ability to face up to the conflicts that
arise in the course of community planning (Jaaskelainen & Nykanen, 1994). The
activation of citizens to undertake action of their own in these respects must be
seen as one of the social tasks of educators, which in turn means that education
should forge closer links with popular action, the diversified planning of
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environmental policy and decision making, to which it should also lend support
(Paldanius, 1992).
All the major pressures for change in our future society will have a demand
for ecological sustainability attached to them. A clean, pleasant environment is a
significant factor contributing to human well-being, and as life increases in
complexity both in small local communities and on a global scale, it will become
more difficult to exercise control over one's life, so that feelings of uncertainty
will become more common (Redclift, 1995). These feelings will be compounded
further by the threat of an ecological catastrophe. Thus the rapidly changing
world of the future will call more than ever before for an ability to see what things
are of significance and what things are not. That is, what kind of life may be
regarded as good and of inherent value (Pitkanen, 1996). This vision of a good
life can then provide a yardstick for use in practical situations that require choices
to be made, a goal in relation to which values and preferences can be placed in
order of priority. The appreciation of values will thereby become the art of living
a good life. This adjustment of people's sets of values in the direction of
sustainable development may be seen as a process of instilling a new lifestyle
through education. This was indeed the original aim of environmental education,
which 'evolved in response to concern over the quality of the environment and
the need for education to improve the existing environmental predicament'
(Tilbury, 1997:106).
The model for the work of developing environmental education in Finland has
been that defined in the UNESCO programme (Venalainen, 1992), where the
instructions with regard to content advocate examining the environment as a
whole and concentrating on the right actual and potential environmental issues
and their reasons and consequences. The approach should be multidisciplinary
and should be directed at environments on local, regional and global scales.
Particular emphasis should be placed on cooperation in the solution of
environmental problems. The methodological instructions put forward by
UNESCO emphasise that environmental education is a continuing, lifelong
process, and one in which value should be attached to the views of the learners
and in which they should be given the chance to plan and decide upon their own
learning. Methods should be found for combining sensitivity in the sensory
perception of environments with information on the environment, problem-solv-
168 International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education

ing skills, critical thinking and clarification of one's personal values in this
respect. Particular emphasis should be placed on personal experiences and
practical activity.
The above view of environmental education implies, of course, a thorough
re-examination of the way in which we evaluate our environment, assigning
greater prominence to an awareness of our own set of values, the definition of
our own objectives, the learning process and the notion of collective responsibil-
ity Qeronen et al., 1994). The teacher's role in this is to encourage and support the
recipients of this education, to stimulate them and to open up new perspectives,
but at the same time to provide safe, caring guidance towards the adoption of a
sustainable lifestyle.

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