The Earth systems education approach has been implemented in several countries over the past two decades. This implementation has been followed by studies, which have indicated its ability to raise students’ interest and to develop high order thinking skills and environmental literacy (Hoffman & Barstow, 2007). Moreover, the Earth systems approach was adopted by the International Geoscience Education Organization (IGEO) as the preferred teaching approach for ESE. Nevertheless, the implementation of the Earth systems approach worldwide is still limited, and additional research is therefore needed to study the professional and cultural barriers that hinder this implementation and to generate strategies for overcoming these obstacles. This section names and summarizes several key research objectives in the field of Earth systems education that have yet to be accomplished.
Objective 1: Exploring the development of environmental insight
There is growing evidence that citizens, young and old, need to be more informed and active in solving global problems, such as the current climate change, the need to exploit new minerals, make sustainable use of water resources and to protect bio- and geodiversity. Citizens cannot understand humankind’s rapid impact on Earth’s environments without first understanding Earth’s processes (Martin, 2018). However, the focus of the traditional environmental movement on the development of environmental awareness has failed to change the environmental behavior of citizens worldwide (Orion & Libarkin, 2014).
In light of the limitations of the traditional (environmental awareness) approach, researchers have suggested shifting the focus of the environmental movement towards developing environmental insight (Orion, 2007, 2017; Orion & Fortner, 2003). Environmental insight is composed of two central components: (1) the understanding that we live in a cycling world that is built upon a series of subsystems (geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere) that interact through an exchange of energy and materials; and (2) the understanding that people are a part of nature, and thus must act in harmony with its ‘laws’ of cycling. The study of the interacting Earth systems - within the dimension of deep time and the large spatial scale of geological processes – will enable students to appreciate the realistic influence of humans on the Earth in deep time perception. In addition, it will move away from the traditional altruistic environmental awareness approach towards the environmental insight (egocentric and geocentric) approach.
According to this new educational approach, the ultimate aim of Earth systems education is the development of environmental insight. Orion (2016) noted the relationships between systems thinking skills and the development of environmental insight among high school students and adults. However, an extensive research effort is still needed to explore the influence of system thinking skills and geological deep time perception on the development of environmental insight. Moreover, an additional avenue of study in this area is needed for better, broader and deeper understanding of the meaning of being an environmentally insightful citizen.
Objective #2: Understanding the relationship between ESE and social wellbeing
Inquiry-based learning in small groups at school is embedded within the Earth Systems Education (ESE) approach, both in indoor learning environments and in the outdoor learning environment. Thus, the ESE approach creates numerous opportunities for social interaction and depends on students’ social ability to interact with their peers in a learning process, and on the ability of teachers to deal with this social aspect. For example, teachers must be able to adjust the space of the laboratory to enable students’ mobility between different groups, to facilitate students’ interactions and to encourage spontaneous social interactions. Eyov (2017) presented a mechanism of interactions, where a positive social situation that includes social connections or a sense of belonging that stems from the existence of these relationships constitutes a fundamental factor for the development of independent learning skills. Levy, Kaplan, and Assor (2004) reckon that students who are preoccupied with their social function or state in class will find it difficult to focus on learning, due to a conflict between the social need and the educational need. There are several fundamental needs that are essential for the academic success of students in school, including a sense of belonging, a sense of connectedness and security. This social aspect is part of a broad domain called “social wellbeing” (SW). This social-emotional field refers to the subjective assessment of the individual’s social functioning and constitutes one of the components in defining the level of an individual’s mental health (Keyes, 1998, 2002; Robitschek & Keyes, 2009). Since learning in school takes place in a social environment, SW is expected to be a main factor that affects the optimal emotional state for learning.
The social aspect is not new in educational research, or in the more specific field of science teaching. In the 1970s–80s many studies were conducted that focused on cooperative learning in the laboratory (Abraham, 1976; Foster & Penick, 1985; Humphreys, Johnson, & Johnson, 1982; Johnson, 1976; Okebukola & Ogunniyi, 1984). However, research in the field of cooperative learning focused on the contribution of co-operation to learning itself, without focusing on the relationship between the social situation of the individual and the emotional state required for the existence of a learning process. It is also important to note that Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory deals with students’ socio-cultural environment and their cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1962), but does not refer to the emotional-social aspect, and certainly not to social wellbeing.
Under this theoretical framework, it seems relevant to examine the interrelationship between the social wellbeing of Earth science students and the learning and teaching of the ESE approach. This means, on the one hand, assessing the effect of the teaching method on the level of students’ SW (Social Wellbeing), and on the other, examining the contribution of SW to the students’ engagement in the learning process. This research area might deal with research questions like:
What indicators of social wellbeing can be identified among ES students?
To what extent does the students’ SW affect the level of their engagement in the learning process?
What is the effect of the learning method in the ES program on the students’ SW?
What is the effect of the teaching method on the SW of students?
Objective #3: Understanding and tapping into the ‘learning instinct’
Earth systems approach is the opposite of the traditional approach to teaching adopted in schools and universities. This traditional way is mainly focused on the transmission of information from teachers to students, who must memorize it and give it back through a one-time event called an ‘examination’. In contrast, the Earth systems approach is based on the construction of knowledge by learners through the mediation of the teacher, and is therefore based on a close engagement of the learner in the learning process.
Thus, the shift from traditional teaching to earth systems education requires, among other things, the understanding that learning is a natural process - it is an instinct. The learning mechanism in human beings, as in other animals, is instinctive, and therefore occurs in response to stimulation. Possibly, the difference between humans and other species lies in the relationship between learning and the characteristics of natural and intrinsic motivation for learning. For the human species, learning has evolved far beyond the most basic existential survival, and also serves humans’ natural curiosity and the inborn human tendency to seek novelty and challenges. Thus, in humans, the main stimulus for learning is emotional, and the cognitive ability follows this emotional need. Unfortunately, the classic classroom stifles this natural instinct, consequently encouraging boredom, absenteeism, and rebellion among the students.
This gap between the natural instinct of learning and the traditional schooling approach is a central reason for the worldwide phenomenon of children’s reluctance to attend and struggle to learn in schools. Children must find their own meaning and relevance in what they learn in school, since this sense of relevance is likely to stimulate their interest in the subject matter, this tapping into their learning instinct. Earth science education has great potential to stimulate students’ learning instinct by helping them see the relevance of what they learn in their own daily life. This statement is based on the Earth systems content and the existing ESE research, which highlights the central role of the outdoor learning environment in creating personal relevance. This personal relevance should stimulate the learning instinct mechanism and, once this instinct is active, students will cooperate and engage in the inquiry-based learning. Consequently, with the right program, students can develop high-order thinking skills, such as the ability to discern between an observation, a conclusion and an assumption, to think in a geological time dimension (deep time), and to engage in spatial thinking, three-dimensional thinking and system thinking.
Thus, a central component of the ESE research agenda should be the exploration of the interrelationships between the Earth systems education approach and stimulating the learning instincts of earth science learners. This research component should include two aspects. The first aspect should focus on how to identify learners or episodes of learning that are controlled by the learning instincts, and then to study the emotional factors that stimulate the learning instincts of various individuals. The second branch of study should focus on studying the biological aspects of the learning instinct. This could mean, first of all, working to verify its existence through a joint research project with brain scientists. If learning is an instinct, then it should be connected to the hormonal system, and its stimuli and appearance might be detectable in the emotional and cognitive sections of the brain. This branch of study is important, since if the learning instinct theory were to be supported by brain studies, it might help shift the focus of schools from the needs of the authorities to the needs of the children. Such a shift is crucial for the adoption of the earth systems approach by schools worldwide.
Objective #4: Exploring the potential impact of ESE on decision making
Earth systems education can endow citizens and future citizens with knowledge and abilities with which to draw conclusions for the effective and proper use and conservation of energy, water, and other natural resources. Citizens who understand their environment and its processes are better able to judge and behave in a more scientifically aligned way. Moreover, several countries have presented substantial evidence-based data indicating that the Earth systems educational approach can fulfill its potential and, more importantly, how to do it.
The role of ESS education in decision-making research has until now been quite limited, although work is beginning to emerge that asks tantalizing questions about how people make decisions in the face of Earth phenomena (Drost, 2013). Investigation of the mechanisms people use to make decisions about the Earth, both in terms of human impacts on the planet and planetary impacts on humans, is needed to understand how to engender effective decision-making among our citizenry. While the formal education systems focus most closely on content understanding (National Research Council, 2011), the ultimate goal of science education is the development of a scientifically literate public who can make informed decisions about the world (Hazen & Trefil, 2009; Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1991).
Effective future research in ESS education should consider all of the variables that are known to be important for decision-making about the Earth system. While some work has considered the role that educational interventions play in changing how students support decisions about complex topics (Grace, 2009), ESS education has still not fully begun to ask questions about real world impacts. For example, we know that people make decisions about the environment that are not always grounded in a rational understanding of science (Bell & Lederman, 2003). As natural disasters have played a larger role in global discourse, largely made possible by the nearly instantaneous real-time news and video feeds of the internet, ESS education has become increasingly important and clearly inadequate. The challenge of future research is to consider how to move ESS instruction into greater prominence within our educational systems. In light of these growing global needs, the community should focus on work that can build connections between real-world decision-making and what happens in the classroom or other educational settings.