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Teachers’ stories of environmental education: blurred boundaries of professionalism, identity and curriculum

About the Author

Seyoung Hwang completed her doctorate at University of Bath in August, 2008, and now she is a post-doctoral research fellow at University of Sussex, working for the research project that concerns Science-Technology-Society (STS) and biotechnology in East Asia, with a focus on stem cell research. Her research includes science and environmental education, and narrative inquiry.

Contact the author: Seyoung Hwang

Forward by Paul Hart, University of Regina, Canada

This qualitative study explores how Korean teachers’ understandings of environmental education theory and practice can provide grounding for the articulation and critique of discourse-practices within educational and cultural contexts. Using life history interviews of eleven Korean school teachers, whose primary focus was differentially designated as science-based, arts-based or environment-based, the study rests on the assumption that teachers’ stories can provide insight into their interactions with discourse-practices that constitute teacher thinking. In so doing, this study extends thought on current approaches to narrative inquiry that lack focus on exactly how it is that teachers come to perform their educational roles within larger discursive spaces. Thus, the dissertation warrants readers’ attention because it addresses questions of the relational kind (i.e., agency-structure) that have not received attention within the environmental education research literature.

In reading introductory sections, readers will begin to develop a sense of the extent and depth of the theoretical frame that Seyoung has constructed to ground her thesis. Over the course of the first half of the dissertation, she critically examines historical ideas about the nature of the gaps between teacher thinking and practice, and relates them to struggles to secure pedagogical spaces for environmental education within fairly rigid educational systems. She then builds these ideas into solid arguments for methodological approaches capable of getting inside these spaces in search of agency-structure issues. Qualitative inquiries, she says, have begun to deconstruct educational discourses in ways that serve to reveal how crucial teachers’ perspectives are for understanding what is really going on in our schools. Seyoung grounds her study methodologically within narrative-hermeneutic perspectives that are both critically aware and post-informed. She uses these to move beyond the mimicry of naïve narrative inquiry in ways that begin to account for complex institutional and cultural pressure on teacher performance. This discursive analytic work expands the ability of research on teacher thinking and practice to get inside issues of identity and agency in full awareness of larger discursive frames.

I believe that there is a substantial thesis here that not only delivers what the Abstract promises in terms of opening spaces between environmental education and education for more critical and culturally sensitive debate, but also raises several conceptual issues, as follows:

First, narrative inquiry, informed by critical and post-structural perspectives, is proffered as a plausible means to explore relationships of the agency, identity and structure complex. Within such broad methodological frames, researchers are left to construct methods that will work to layer complex meanings derived from storied processes within multiple larger stories. Just how we choose to represent these methods in terms of the dominant socio-cultural ideology remains an unanswered question. Seyoung’s thesis seems to me to at least raise these issues of method/methodology as conceptual dilemmas, given her concerns (as the dissertation title foreshadows) about the kinds of representational practices that themselves contribute to the blurring of boundaries between personal and cultural spheres of meaning. For example, in her representation of the voices of teachers, we might see how their stories appear to reveal, or how they may have been used to represent, totalizing concepts of certain discursive practices from which their individual experience has not been able to escape. This is a complex issue for environmental educators and researchers because, in its asking, it demands some understanding of, and at the same time skepticism toward, the role of language in deriving meaning across somewhat blurred methodological boundaries (i.e., as interpretive strategies connect with social constructivism). The point is crucial, it seems to me, in a thesis that argues for a narrative-discourse approach premised on questions of how multiple interpretations of stories and voices (i.e., personal meanings) can address each of these perspectives and at the same time push the boundaries of discursive categorizations. In other words, what can stories reveal, and what do they conceal, beyond personal interpretations, about how teachers have, in various ways, been produced by discourses when they have been unaware of both the means and effects of their production? In broaching conceptual issues such as these, Seyoung’s thesis provides openings for inquiries that ‘work the hyphens’ between fact and fiction in relational stories of discourse-practices.

Second, readers may note the care that Seyoung has taken to construct a critical reflexive stance in respect of her research design decision points (e.g., different interviewing strategies for science and for environment teachers). She has based this positioning strategically on insight gained from many sources, including readings, discussions with supervisors and pilot study fieldwork. She reveals many of her struggles to conceptualize and contextualize complex and obfuscatory directives from both theory and methodology. For example, she describes how she learned to access, to clarify, and to understand her own and her participants’ value positions. She seems well aware of their complex interactions in becoming more critical of existing approaches derived from literature sources in questioning the face value of her participants’ stories. Her thoughtful reflection on connections between methodology and representation have raised questions about whether emphasis on meaning making as a social learning process fully accounts for the role of language as signifier in memory work-derived data. In the dissertation, Seyoung’s attention to ways in which reflexivity has informed her ability to critique her own practice on the ground suggests ways in which narrative-based researchers can begin to examine their own decision making. In other words, her work provides strategies for telling the reflexive self and at the same time decentering the singular voice in this process. This seemingly contradictory process foreshadows the researchers’ ethical responsibilities in locating power relations that inform the research process.

Third, Seyoung’s identification of pitfalls of forms of interpretive work, such as narrative inquiry, that make the contingent (i.e., culture-discourse bond) seem natural (i.e., as common sense) is useful I in alerting researchers of the need to ‘work the boundaries’ of such inquiry. Seyoung enables readers to see how culture-bound perceptions may be used to expose ways that knowledge is personally construed. In her struggle to explore how Korean teachers take up cultural resources in their telling of personal stories, Seyoung has worked to raise theoretical concerns about the certain uncertainties of qualitative inquiry. She seems to recognize how, in not attempting to weave together multiple elements of our reflexive selves, we may fail to provide the multiple perspectives needed for these teachers to begin to rewrite the cultural narratives that produced them. The issue then for environmental education researchers to recognize is the importance of paying close attention to what the methods are doing that may be constitutive of the selves of participants. This is an issue of the politics of inquiry where assumptions about selves as coherent unities versus multiple subjectivities which are not coherent and may be contradictory (e.g., as science teacher and as environment teacher) come into play.

Finally, Seyoung’s thesis nicely represents the challenge, inherent in more critical and post-informed varieties of qualitative inquiry, of becoming more consciously subjective, as well as more participatory, in the generation of thoughtful counternarratives. The dissertation raises questions about how teachers can counter the self-disciplining effects of dominant discourses as environmental education-related instances of resistance to the Korean education system. Perhaps more could be said now, as a result of her work, about more political ways of accounting for the effects of the self-disciplining operation of meta discourses? Of course, the present study looks at fairly limited interview data in terms of outward resistances but provides openings for moving beyond simply taking personal narratives at face value, that is, as if they were real rather than as discursive resources. If we, as researchers, can make more strategic use of narrative strategies as ways to penetrate meanings more deeply in order to understand the mediated nature of counter (fictions) or counter-discourses, then we may have deciphered Seyoung’s main thesis amongst the voices of poststructuralists, but perhaps as a more tangible strategy for actually doing that work.

In summary, the dissertation raises many substantive issues. It works to betray simple, narrative-based accounts of seemingly innocent teachers’ stories in ways that implicate serious conceptual issues of the kind that environmental education researchers can interrogate as they ‘work the ruins’ of the interstitial space between teacher identity and cultural discourse. These issues will continue to challenge narrative research for some time. Careful examination of this dissertation is worthwhile I that it provides insight into forms of critical reflexive thought that may prove useful in shifting boundaries related to what stories can tell about cultural subjectification. While the narrative work foregrounds the difficulties of establishing meaning with particular clarity, it also, despite its obscurities, blind spots and contradictions, as well as the problems of language and textuality, remains our best hope of making sense out of our lives.



Environmental education, science education, teachers' thinking, narrative inquiry, teachers' stories, identity, professionalism, education for sustainable development, education in Korea, identity work, curriculum repertoire, personal narratives, narrative discursive approaches, narrative analysis, intertextual analysis, interdisciplinary approach, environmental education curriculum, environmental experience, life story, voice, agency, action, teacher learning, teacher beliefs, postmodernism, cultural narratives, science, contingency, complexity, environmental knowledge.



This study uses narrative inquiry to contribute to ways of valuing and utilising teachers' personal narratives as tools for understanding their thinking and knowing in relation to the environment and environmental education, and for critically examining and challenging dominant narratives and discourses of education and the environment in school education. The research develops teachers' stories as the main focus of inquiry and data, with the understanding that teachers' stories articulate the dynamics and interactions between discourses and practices that constitute teachers' thinking and experiences of environmental education. Based on life-historical and focus group interviews with eleven secondary school teachers in Korea, the inquiry also develops novel ways of understanding and analysing teacher narratives about environmental education, in three parts. 

As an introductory part of the analysis, five teachers' short stories are presented via framings of their plots ('vision') and key narrative themes, with a focus on the teacher's own ways of making sense of their environment-related experiences through blurring the boundaries of personal and professional identities. Two subsequent chapters develop a critical investigation into their discursive practices, illustrating the blurring of boundaries in professionalism and curriculum, through which the teachers' environmental education can create cracks and ruptures in school education. Narrative analysis of three teacher groups - science, humanities, and environment teachers - contributes to an examination of the tensions in arguing for 'environmental education teachers' professionalism within the institutional context of schooling in Korea. Finally, analysis of teachers' curriculum repertoires, via six topics - alternative energy, environmental issues, health and 'well-being', biotechnology issues, outdoor education, and green education - provides an examination of the contingencies and complexities in the processes of teachers' pedagogical rendering of cultural narratives of science and environmental issues. 

The study utilises narrative-discursive approaches to teachers' thinking and practice. Teacher narratives are located alongside other narratives of teachers, to elucidate the meanings of personal narratives as 'small' stories and explore their role in critiquing surrounding, 'larger' institutional and cultural narratives, including hero and exemplary teacher discourses, by opening up discursive spaces for alternative meanings of professionalism and curriculum. The study also includes a discussion of how teacher learning can be understood and facilitated by using teacher narratives as vehicles for examining the nature of teacher action, and in so doing, argues that school environmental education can be a catalyst for such teacher learning. 



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