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Exploring the learning dynamics of non-formal sustainable education: a case study investigation of the Eden Project

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posted on 2023-09-19, 15:48 authored by Rebecca Upton

The role and potential of Sustainable Education (SE) in tackling the ecological, social, and systemic crises is often overlooked, as technological solutions remain prioritised in scientific research funding. This investigation aimed to explore the dynamics and contributions of SE settings for rapidly addressing the complexities of climate change challenges. Where previous research has taken place, within the education field, this has focused primarily on Formal Sustainable Education (FSE). In pursuing the dynamics of Non-Formal Sustainable Education (NFSE), this research offers critical insights into developing impactful learning experiences in alternate settings from a systemic and an individual perspective.

The research used a single case study – the Eden Project (Eden), a visitor centre and education charity based in rural United Kingdom. To provide a synopsis of Eden’s NFSE dynamics, two streams of data were collected that sought to explore (1) learning approaches employed by Eden staff and (2) learning experiences of visitors (using a domains of learning and a depth of learning lens). These streams included, respectively: (1) the researcher spending five days per month as a participant observer. An ethnographic field-note diary was written from the researcher’s perspective and at the end of participant observation, the researcher was interviewed by a staff member from Eden’s research team to reflect on the experience; (2) the adults of 24 families (the most common visitor type) were interviewed, exploring on-site learning impacts of a day visit to Eden including the use of GPS data as prompts. Follow-up interviews with half these families aimed to investigate longitudinal impacts. Data from methods (1) and (2) were analysed using Dialogic Narrative Analysis (DNA) and data from method (2) was also analysed through the theoretical framework: the Level of Learning concept (Sterling, 2011) that classifies the depth of transformative learning occurring.

The analysis identified eight naturally developed and tacit learning approaches situated under four learning categories at Eden, aiming to provide a supportive, felt, connected, and empowered learning experience. Consequently, I propose a novel framework that theorises the learning approaches of Eden. Furthermore, the results indicate six diverse domains of learning embedded in the experience for visitors: (1) cognitive learning, (2) immersive learning (3) affective learning, (4) interconnected learning, (5) nature-connected learning and (6) conative learning. Domains of learning (2), (4) and (5) represent novel domains present at Eden not previously included in this way within a domain’s framework. Finally, it was found that visitors to Eden attained a depth of learning that incorporated challenging assumptions, beliefs, and engaging with sustainable practises, also known as second-order change (Sterling, 2011). Although this meant the impacts of a single visit to Eden are not transformative, the results indicate that visitors learning does stay the same over a period of three to four weeks. To conclude, Eden represents a unique space, highlighting what a sustainably developed place might be like; a setting that both raises awareness and encourages continuous reflective engagement. These results emphasise the potential of NFSE learning settings for engaging the public with a sustainable transition and the results present practical and accessible frameworks that could be used for Eden and potentially other NFSE settings to apply to learning programmes. In a rapidly changing world, this explorative research revealed the intricate dynamics at Eden which may be beginning to reorient learning paradigms through innovative and adaptable approaches to NFSE



Anglia Ruskin University

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  • Doctoral

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Faculty of Science and Engineering


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