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Goal setting for sustainability: a new method of environmental education

Sheehy, Lucy Ann (2005) Goal setting for sustainability: a new method of environmental education. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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If current environmental problems are to be addressed and future environmental problems are to be prevented, significant changes are needed in the way people live. Environmental education has been identified as an important tool for encouraging people to make the changes needed for sustainability. However, environmental education has been largely ineffective in doing this. Education about the environment is being achieved, but education that creates the skills and motivation for action is not.

The purpose of this research was to investigate the potential of goal setting to be used in environmental education programs to develop the skills and motivation required to change environmental behaviour and create positive environmental outcomes. Goal setting is one of the most replicable and reliable of psychology theories, with extensive evidence of its benefits for increasing performance and changing behaviour. The premise of this research was to take an already proven and well-established behaviour change theory and apply it within environmental education programs.

The first step was to develop a framework, which enabled goal setting to be incorporated into a program. To do this the environmental behaviour change literature was reviewed and the components of successful environmental education were identified and incorporated into the framework. The goal setting literature was also reviewed to determine the characteristics of an effective goal and how goal setting could be facilitated to create greater goal achievement. As there has been little research on the community's attitudes towards goal setting a questionnaire was developed to determine if the Perth community uses goals, the characteristics of those goals and how those goals may be linked to behaviour. The survey indicated that most people were already using goals in their daily lives and the majority of people would respond positively to the use of goal setting in an environmental education program. Thus, a new environmental education framework was developed which included providing action knowledge, teaching goal setting skills, setting goals and providing continued feedback and support. The proposed environmental education framework was then implemented and evaluated through two environmental education programs, Green Houses and Living Smart.

The Green Houses program assessed the effectiveness of the framework for reducing household energy consumption and the effectiveness of different communication methods for delivering the framework. Personal communication through the workshop was the most effective method for changing behaviour, with workshop participants reducing their energy consumption by 17%. The website and booklet approach also had reductions in energy consumption (7% and 8%, respectively). The schools group was the only group not to achieve a reduction, suggesting that what the students learnt about energy saving was not being transferred to the home environment or impacting on their parent's behaviour. The groups that set goals reduced their energy consumption by an additional 5% compared to the corresponding control groups and maintained those savings for a significantly longer period of time.

The Living Smart program then assessed the effectiveness of the framework for creating behaviour change across a range of sustainability topics. As a result of the program, participants significantly increased both their environmental knowledge and sustainable behaviours. A control group that received the same environmental information as the Living Smart group, but no goal setting skills, only increased their environmental knowledge. This demonstrated that environmental information alone is not sufficient for changing behaviour. The qualitative evaluation identified that goal setting facilitated behaviour change in participants because it gave them direction and strategy and increased their motivation and commitment to changing their behaviour. Importantly, the goal setting process worked equally well across all the sustainability topics, suggesting that the tool works for a variety of behaviours, not just energy conservation.

In conclusion, the goal setting process and framework created effective behaviour change that was maintained longer than when goal setting is not used. The goal setting process and framework can be delivered effectively through a range of communication strategies and can be applied effectively to a range of environmental behaviours. Therefore, goal setting is an effective and valuable behaviour change tool that has great potential across a range of environmental education programs to create positive environmental outcomes in, for and about the environment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Environmental Science
Supervisor(s): Dingle, Peter
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