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Beliefs and education for sustainability in rural and regional Australia.


Higher education is expected to play a critical role in fulfilling the goals of the United Nations' Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is gathering momentum in the university education sector nationally and internationally (Dawe, Jucker & Martin, 2005; Shephard, 2010). This movement has been facilitated by the development of several initiatives aimed specifically at the tertiary sector including the well-recognised "Talloires Declaration of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future" (Thomas & Nicita, 2002). Universities are subject to particular scrutiny in relation to how they fulfil their role outlined by the United Nations Education Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (2005) in relation to the training of pre-service teachers.

This matter is especially important for preparing teachers to teach in Australian rural schools, which urgently need teachers who reshape and re-construct rural identity to support its sustainability for the future (Reid, Green, Cooper, Hastings, Lock & White, 2010). The future sustainability of rural communities underpins the social, economic and environmental sustainability of Australia as a whole (Halsey, 2009). The objectives that UNESCO sets for Education for Sustainable Development are focused on (a) incorporating Sustainable Development into pedagogy and curricula from pre-school to university, (b) steering lifelong education on the acquisition of knowledge, skills and values needed by future citizens to improve and sustain the quality of life in a sustainable world, (c) raising awareness of the concept of Sustainable Development, to develop responsible citizenship locally, nationally and internationally and (d) providing continuing education to teacher trainers, pre-service and in-service teachers to enable Sustainable Development to become reality (UNESCO, 2005).

Pre-service Teacher Training

Pre-service teacher training for sustainability education appears to be slightly ad hoc internationally and nationally (Elshof, 2005; Holden & Hicks, 2006; Spiropoulou, Antonakaki, Kontaxaki & Bouras, 2007). This might be due to the newness and/or ambiguity of the conceptualisation of Education for Sustainability (EfS) and its emergence from the disciplinary area of Environmental Education. In Australia, Environmental Education has not traditionally been a pre-requisite study area for primary teachers and a matter of choice for secondary specialists. Concepts related to sustainability are often subsumed under larger disciplinary areas and might include environmental science topics within a particular science discipline or matters of justice and equity in relation to studies of society and environment. Thus it is likely that primary and early childhood teachers graduate with minimal exposure to sustainability education, while secondary teachers might graduate with nil exposure to sustainability education. Recent research has demonstrated this.

Cutter-McKenzie and Smith (2003) reported that Queensland primary teachers appear to be operating at a level of ecological illiteracy, a finding supported by Taylor, Kennelly, Jenkins and Callingham, (2006) who stated concern with the level of understanding of sustainability concepts in the teacher population overall. This is not surprising given that EfS has not historically played a prominent role in curriculum and planning documents that serve as tools to guide teachers. It is only recently that EfS reached prominence through its inclusion as a cross-curricular theme in the new draft National Curriculum (following a similar move in the UK) and in national and state initiatives related to Sustainable Schools (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2010; Department of Education and Training, Queensland, 2010).

Pre-service teacher programs may have scope to address some of the broader structural constraints that impede the effective delivery of sustainability education, as they are well-situated to address issues related to awareness and improvement in levels of content knowledge. For example, studies have highlighted constraints faced by practising teachers in implementing sustainability programs in schools. These have variously identified the pressures of an over-crowded curriculum, prioritisation of literacy and numeracy over other subject areas in the primary context, tight disciplinary boundaries in the secondary context and a lack of knowledge as it relates to sustainability education (Cutter-Mackenzie & Smith, 2003; Robinson & Crowther, 2001; Taylor, Nathan & Coll, 2003).

Another problem, noted by Cutter-McKenzie and Smith (2003), is teachers' tendency to skim over subject areas they are less confident with. For example, a recognised lack of content knowledge in primary science has resulted in teachers spending only 5% of classroom time on science instruction (Masters, 2009). In Queensland educators have had considerable freedom to select what they teach. CutterMcKenzie and Smith (2003) showed that 'personal choice' dictates what is taught. This highlights the importance of ensuring that pre-service teachers develop a strong knowledge and pedagogical base in relation to EfS to encourage pedagogical practice with an appropriate sustainability orientation. If the endpoint of EfS is citizens capable of 'informed decision-making', teacher education programs have a critical role to play in ensuring that graduate teachers are indeed informed.

Beliefs and Attitudes about Education for Sustainability

Debate exists about the particular set of cognitive skills and beliefs that combine to create an effective teacher of (EfS). Defining appropriate graduate attributes will be one of the key challenges of implementing pre-service teacher programs with a new emphasis on EfS. While there is some literature examining the affective elements of EfS, particularly in relation to values and motivation (Bussey, 2008; Dillon & Gayford, 1997; Fien, 2003; Jurin & Fortner, 2002), there is more limited research upon the beliefs and attitudes of pre-service teachers about EfS. This represents a gap in our knowledge because as Yencken, Fien and Sykes (2000) argue, environmental cognition involves belief systems and values as well as knowledge. Skamp (2000) also notes that attitudes about, and actions taken, for the environment, are dependent upon beliefs and knowledge we hold about environmental problems and issues. As such, they become part of the perceived pedagogy that students are subject to and can play a significant role in the formation of their environmental attitudes (Strong, 1998). Influences of this kind can potentially impact upon the ecological sustainability of rural (and urban) locales through the actions of future generations.

Few studies have investigated pre-service teachers' beliefs and their knowledge of EfS. Where they have, (for example, Spiropoulou, Antonakaki, Kontaxaki & Bouras, 2007), their perceptions of the future and their beliefs about the instrumentality of their actions have not been linked to their knowledge of EfS. This paper therefore focuses on the links between beliefs and knowledge of pre-service teachers about EfS, since it is considered that awareness and acquisition of knowledge about EfS will be motivated by beliefs held by pre-service teachers: beliefs and attitudes about the instrumentality of one's actions, the value for and intention to teach EfS, and their evaluation of context, in this case, the future environmental health of local and more distant places on the planet. This proposition stems from Ajzen's Theory of Planned Behaviour (TOPB) which incorporates the variety of influences that are likely to impact upon intentions to behave in a particular way and has been validated over the last 30 years in a range of studies.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour (TOPB) (Fig. 1) posits that one's behavioural intention predicts an actual behaviour. Intention is the decision to perform or not perform the behaviour, and it is in turn predicted by attitude to the behaviour (whether the behaviour is seen as good or bad, beneficial, and so on ), and subjective norms (cultural factors, i.e., perceptions of others' level of endorsement of the behaviour). Attitude is in turn predicted by beliefs about the potential consequences of performing the behaviour (e.g. 'it will save time', 'it will hurt others'), weighted by evaluations of the desirability or undesirability of those consequences (e.g. 'saving time would be a good/bad thing').


Similarly, subjective norms, culture-driven beliefs that inform our views about what is a good or desirable action, are in turn predicted by normative beliefs about whether particular people would approve of one performing the behaviour in question, weighted by motivation to comply with their views.

The theory also incorporates the concept of perceived behavioural control as an additional predictor of behaviour. Perceived behavioural control refers to a person's perceptions of their ability to perform a given behaviour. Perceived behavioural control comprises two main facets. First, perceived behavioural control depends on the degree to which individuals conceptualise themselves as sufficiently knowledgeable, skilful, disciplined, and able to perform some act, called internal control (Kraft, Rise, Sutton, & Roysamb, 2005), which overlaps with the concept of self efficacy. Second, perceived behavioural control depends on the extent to which individuals feel that other factors, such as the cooperation of colleagues, resources, or time constraints, could inhibit or facilitate the behaviour, called external control (Kraft, Rise, Sutton, & Roysamb, 2005). As a general rule, the more favourable the attitude and the subjective norm, and the greater the perceived control, the stronger should be the person's intention to perform the behaviour in question. However, intentions to perform do not always predict behaviour. Perceived behavioural control is partly, but not absolutely, related to actual behavioural control (Armitage & Conner, 2001), which in turn affects the extent to which intentions are associated with the corresponding behaviours. Perceived and actual behavioural control can sometimes diverge, if, for example, individuals do not account for factors that obstruct their intended behaviour. For example, a desire to introduce environmental education modules into a primary work program might be inhibited by time constraints imposed in preparing for national testing.

It is not assumed that the matter of intending to enact a particular behaviour (to teach EfS) is a simple one for as Folke (2003, p. 227) states:
   ... directing human behaviour towards improved environmental
   performance and sustainability is not just a simple matter of
   providing information and policy prescriptions but a complex
   socio-cultural process. It will require understanding of the
   contexts that form, shape and reshape habits of thought and action.

Yet, if pre-service teachers already possess the willingness to engage with EfS and the belief that this is worthwhile, and endorsed by a culture that sees education as instrumental to the process, the process of further engagement seems likely to be facilitated.

Aside from beliefs and intentions driving pre-teacher motivation to learn and teach EfS, it is important not to neglect existing problems associated with issues of awareness and knowledge of EfS, both linked to science education. One problem is that of misconceptions about key conceptual understandings of disciplinary knowledge. These often remain unchecked at the professional level and are in fact promulgated through the process of teaching and learning. Spiropoulou et al (2007) refer to a large number of studies demonstrating teacher (and student) misconceptions on science topics and environmental issues highlighting problems in discrimination between weather and climate, global warming and ozone depletion and air and water pollution. Recent work by Boon (2010) with both secondary students and pre-service teachers has demonstrated similar confusion around the concepts of global warming and ozone depletion. It is then of no surprise that surveys of the general population also demonstrate a similar lack of understanding, causing authors such as Robinson and Crowther to bemoan that 'knowledge of the environment seems rather dismal even among educated people' (2001, p. 14).

Aims and Methods

The aim of the study was to explore the knowledge and beliefs of primary and early education pre-service teachers beginning a Bachelor of Education degree to inform the development of an EfS tertiary curriculum for trainee teachers.

An anonymous survey instrument was employed to gauge the level of first year, pre-service teachers' environmental science and sustainability knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. In accordance with ethics conditions, the survey was administered by a research assistant during the latter half of a lecture. The research assistant collected completed surveys at the end of the lecture. The survey instrument included demographic questions, attitudinal questions, items assessing participants' confidence about their knowledge and their actual knowledge of environmental sustainability issues (Appendix A). The survey examined subject matter classified under three domains of sustainability education as described by the OECD (2009) (p. 20), namely: living systems, earth and space systems and physical systems. Items assessing "Intention" according to the TOPB were Questions 2 and 4; items assessing "Attitudes towards the behaviour" were Questions 5, 6 and 7, items assessing "Perceived behavioural control" were Questions 1 and 3. All survey analyses were performed using the PASW statistical package (IBM SPSS Inc, 2010).


The response rate of completed surveys was 52.7%. Table 1 shows the demographic characteristics of participants (N= 97) and Table 2 shows the results of the attitudinal factors for the group. The maximum possible score for these constructs was 4, the minimum 0. As can be seen, both primary and early childhood pre-service teachers hold very similar attitudes to EfS.

Following the rationale of the OECD (2009) study which assessed student knowledge of environmental science and geo-science, pre-service teachers were asked to rate their knowledge about: Greenhouse gases, Nuclear waste, Forest clearing and Water shortages on a four point scale:

(1) "I have never heard of this"

(2) "I have heard about this but I would not be able to explain what it is really about"

(3) "I know something about this and could explain the general issue"

(4) "I am familiar with this and I would be able to explain this well".

Results of these questions are summarised in Table 3.

Tests of analysis of variance (ANOVA) showed there were no significant differences between the different specialist groups or by age in relation to their perceived knowledge about environmental issues. There was one significant difference between males and females which was in relation to their declared awareness to nuclear waste issues with females having a lower mean than males (F (1,94) = 6.4, p <.05).

A comparison of these results with the results obtained by OECD (2009) for the same questions answered by Australian fifteen year olds shows that this group of pre-service teachers' beliefs about their awareness of, and confidence about explaining these issues, reflects similar trends as those stated by fifteen year old Australian students. On average, the pre-service teachers report a greater confidence in their knowledge of these issues, except in relation to water shortage knowledge where their reported knowledge is significantly lower than that of secondary students.

The next analysis involved computing composite variables from the items designated to measure "Intention to teach EfS", "Attitudes towards EfS" and "Perceived behavioural control of EfS" to find out whether the part of the TOPB tested by this group of questions was upheld by results. In other words, whether "Intention" was predicted by "Attitudes towards the behaviour" and "Perceived behavioural control". As normality assumptions were met, Pearson's correlations were conducted (Table 4).

As is shown in Table 4, there is a significant relationship between the intention to teach EfS and attitudes about the desirability of the behaviour r = .51 (p <.01) and intention to teach EfS and perceived behavioural control, r = .43 (p <.01) validating the TOPB. It seems then that these pre-service teachers are both confident about being able to include EfS in their teaching and have a desire to do so, believing that this is a desirable and necessary thing to do for their students.

Table 5 shows results for the next analysis which examined pre-service teachers' actual knowledge, indicated by their responses to the multiple choice environmental knowledge items of the survey.

The top mark gained for overall knowledge was 16 out of a possible 21; the most frequently occurring mark being 7. When the marks are examined by subsection of the test it is evident that questions based on Living Systems were more likely to be correctly answered, while those based on Earth and Space systems and Physical Systems were poorly answered. Of note is that questions based on conceptual understanding (such as the water cycle, element cycling, photosynthesis, nuclear waste disposal and power generation, forest clearing, the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer) were more poorly answered than questions which could be answered by extracting memorised facts. Indeed, the question on climate change was correctly answered by 73.9% of respondents while the one on greenhouse gases was correctly answered by only 28.2%. This indicates familiarity with the current media climate change debate but not a clear grasp of the science underpinning the greenhouse effect.

Disparity in understanding was also evident in the way questions about nuclear power and waste disposal were answered. While respondents knew which initial starting material would produce nuclear waste when used for power generation (68.0% correct), they were not clear about how to effectively dispose of nuclear waste (20% correct) or about the nuances of nuclear power generation and its ramifications (36.6%).

Analyses of variance (ANOVA) were conducted to see if there were any score differences between the various sub-groups of respondents. No significant differences were found between different specialists or between gender and knowledge, but there was a difference between those who were 26 years old and over compared to the others, with the older cohort having a higher mean knowledge score (9.2 and 9.9 compared to 10.9) though this was not statistically significant at the p <.05 level of significance. These scores might reflect a greater interest in environmental issues or a different exposure to these concepts at school. Robinson and Crowther (2001) have theorised that higher knowledge scores for older students might be associated with a corresponding increase in familial responsibilities with age, and concomitant concern for future environmental quality. They also considered the role of the type and quality of media accessed by different age groups, but could not draw causal relations about such influences. Further research is necessary to tease out the influences bearing upon the above results.

Finally, a regression analysis conducted to examine whether attitudes towards EfS, intent to teach EfS or perceived control of EfS predicted the total knowledge score of pre-service teachers yielded non- significant results. This was somewhat surprising, since it might be expected that an intent to teach EfS would be a motivator to research issues associated with EfS and therefore increase one's knowledge base of environmental science and sustainability issues, since the affective part of one's cognition is engaged and this has been shown to be an important factor in predicting learning in the context of sustainability education (Dillon & Gayford, 1997).


The results of this study offer some interesting data for curriculum designers in teacher training institutions planning on embedding EfS for pre-service teachers. The relatively low response rates to the survey might be attributed to the survey length and difficulty, design issues or (lack of) compensation for doing the survey (Dillman, 2000). Judging by comments on the returned surveys, the survey length was problematic. Since the non-respondents were part of the same interest "population" it is difficult to analyse how they differed from respondents except by inferring attitudinal characteristics.

Dillman (2000) emphasises that response rates are centred on trust, cost and rewards. Lower response rates then might be due to the high time and effort "cost" of this survey or uncertainty about how the results would be used to modify the course curriculum. It is likely therefore that non-respondents were not sufficiently interested in sustainability matters, or were unsure about the purpose of the survey, or were lacking in confidence about their environmental knowledge. Cook, Heath and Thompson, (2000) stress that the representativeness of response samples is more critical than the rate of response for deciding whether results are generalisable. Given the number of respondents (97) the sample is a good representation of the cohort enrolled in the first year of the BEd degree of this institution, in terms of age group, specialisation and gender. One could infer from the results here that they reflect the better informed pre-service teachers' knowledge. Given higher response rates average knowledge levels might have been shown to be lower.

Results of the attitudinal questions of the survey confirm prior findings which have shown that tertiary students think sustainability is "a good thing", their positive response not particularly correlating with their degree of familiarity with either of the concepts of sustainability (Kagawa, 2007).

The attitudes reflected in the survey responses appear to conform with the instrumental view of education for sustainability (Sterling, 2010) which is a position that sees learning as a process that increases awareness and knowledge about environmental issues, one that will lead to personal, behavioural and, eventually, social change. This view was also implied by the survey questions. A competing view, one espousing a position of the intrinsic value of education for sustainability (Sterling, 2010) is driven by stressing education per se, the quality of the learning experience, the importance of contextualised knowledge, the development of a critically reflective learner who is able to make informed decisions. In either case, whether teachers espouse one or other of these perspectives about EfS, teachers need to be fully prepared to address issues of sustainability education. This will be more easily achieved by teachers if, in addition to having a willingness, and confidence about their ability to teach EfS, they possess accurate background knowledge and a range of suitable, engaging pedagogies that transform the learning experience of their students so that they are both informed and motivated to reflect and act upon issues of sustainability. This is especially critical for those teachers who will be employed in rural and regional schools where the level of staffing is often low in relation to the needs of the students, a corollary of this being a narrower range of specialist knowledge available for professional exchange and development. Moreover, people in rural and regional locales who are employed in agriculture, deal with matters that need a secure knowledge of sustainable practice. Being able to implement sustainable practice in issues, for example, of fertiliser runoff and other land management matters, is important. The need to be empowered and informed about sustainability from an early age to be able to respond critically to both practical and political, ideological issues of sustainability is clear. Conversely, being given inaccurate or insufficient information and little practice to critically engage with such matters could lead to detrimental effects in rural spaces that could stifle the their sustainability.

Respondents show an apparent confidence about environmental issues, matching or surpassing that declared by fifteen-year olds Australians (OECD, 2009). However, their answers also show a gap in knowledge and conceptual understanding which echoes prior research (Cutter-McKenzie & Smith, 2003; Taylor et al., 2006).

Supporting Robinson and Crowther's (2001) findings, younger pre-service teachers were less knowledgeable about environmental sustainability than their older peers. It may be useful to explore in more depth the affective elements that motivate students to engage with EfS on a personal and professional level.

If future teachers are to guide their students to effectively ponder and debate issues that impact upon their ability to engage in effective citizenship and modify their behaviour, students need to be schooled in collaborative critical discourse (Osborne, 2010). To do that, teachers must have a secure knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. This applies to tertiary teachers as well as school teachers at all levels.

A challenge for tertiary institutions is curriculum space to address the requirements of pre-service teacher knowledge. Ferreira, Ryan, Davis, Cavanaugh and Thomas (2009) outline some of the challenges facing educators, focusing on the need for systemic change. While not an exhaustive list, competing for curriculum space are the multi-faceted areas of numeracy, literacy, scientific literacy, EfS, and cultural perspectives apart from matters of pedagogy, educational psychology and sociology.

Tertiary educators understand the parallel challenges that will face future K-12 teachers trying to balance the requirements of an already crowded curriculum with the new challenges and priorities of the 21st century. Tertiary educators must lead the way in navigating the new EfS terrain. The first step in this process is to understand and meet the needs of pre-service teachers in relation to EfS at the point of entry to their career in teaching. This is critical in the wake of the current global environmental stresses, and also to fulfil the aims declared by UNESCO (2005), wherein the teacher's role is of paramount importance to supporting sustainability education and sustainable development.


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Helen J. Boon

James Cook University

Table 1 Pre-service teacher characteristics:
specialist areas, gender and age

                           Specialist Area

                  Early Childhood
                  Education (ECE)  Primary (PRI)

                  N = 32   %       N = 65   %

AGE      17-19    14       43.8    40       61.5
         20-25    4        12.5    10       15.4
         26+      14       43.8    15       23.1

GENDER   male     1        3.1     7        10.8
         female   31       96.9    58       89.2

Table 2 Attitudinal Factor Means (X) by Specialist area (N = 97)

Attitudinal Factor      Range   X      S.D    ECE           Primary
                                              specialists   specialists
                                              X             X

Attitudes towards EfS   2.50    3.27   0.46   3.25          3.28
Intent to teach EfS     3.00    2.88   0.51   2.94          2.85
Perceived behavioural   3.00    3.42   0.46   3.43          3.42
control of EfS

Table 3 Perceived confidence and familiarity
with selected environmental issues

Environmental                        Gender            Specialisation

issue                                MALE     FEMALE   ECE      PRI
                                     %        %        %        %

Greenhouse gases   (1)               .0       .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               12.5     23.0     19.4     21.9
                   (3)               56.3     55.7     64.5     51.6
                   (4)               31.3     21.3     16.1     26.6
                   Total (3 and 4)   87.6     77.0     80.6     78.2
                   (OECD * 72%)

Nuclear waste      (1)               .0       .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               25.0     46.7     48.4     43.8
                   (3)               59.4     43.4     45.2     40.6
                   (4)               15.6     9.8      6.5      15.6
                   Total (3 and 4)   74.0     53.2     51.7     56.2
                   (OECD * 53%)

Forest clearing    (1)               .0       .8       .0       1.6
                   (2)               15.6     13.1     12.9     9.4
                   (3)               53.1     57.4     51.6     57.8
                   (4)               31.3     28.7     35.5     31.3
                   Total (3 and 4)   84.4     86.1     87.1     89.1
                   (OECD * 80%)

Water shortages    (1)               .0       .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               15.6     11.5     16.1     9.4
                   (3)               56.3     53.3     41.9     54.7
                   (4)               28.1     35.2     41.9     35.9
                   Total (3 and 4)   84.4     88.5     83.8     90.6
                   (OECD * 98%)

Environmental                        Age

issue                                17-19    20-25    26+
                                     %        %        %

Greenhouse gases   (1)               .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               21.3     26.9     14.7
                   (3)               55.3     46.2     64.7
                   (4)               23.4     26.9     20.6
                   Total (3 and 4)   78.7     73.1     85.3
                   (OECD * 72%)

Nuclear waste      (1)               .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               43.6     46.2     35.3
                   (3)               45.7     46.2     50.0
                   (4)               10.6     7.7      14.7
                   Total (3 and 4)   55.3     53.9     64.7
                   (OECD * 53%)

Forest clearing    (1)               1.1      .0       .0
                   (2)               13.8     15.4     11.8
                   (3)               54.3     65.4     55.9
                   (4)               30.9     19.2     32.4
                   Total (3 and 4)   85.2     84.6     88.3
                   (OECD * 80%)

Water shortages    (1)               .0       .0       .0
                   (2)               11.7     15.4     11.8
                   (3)               56.4     50.0     50.0
                   (4)               31.9     34.6     38.2
                   Total (3 and 4)   88.3     84.6     88.2
                   (OECD * 98%)

* Percentage offifteen year old students'
responses reported in the OECD (2009) report

Table 4 Pearson's correlations of beliefs, intent and attitudes

                        Attitudes     Intent to   Perceived behavioural
                        towards EfS   teach EfS   control of EfS

Attitudes towards EfS   1             .51 **      .37 **
Intent to teach EfS     96            1           .43 **
Perceived behavioural   95            96          1
control of EfS

** p <.01

Table 5 Mean scores of knowledge results

Student scores (N = 97)           Mean    Maximum   Mode    Minimum

Overall Knowledge Score           9.82     16.00    7.00      0.00
(Max. marks possible 21)


Nuclear Energy/Physical Systems    .95      3.00    1.00      0.00
(Max. possible 3)

Earth and Space systems           1.70      4.00    2.00      0.00
(Max. possible 5)

Living Systems                    7.20     12.00    8.00      0.00
(Max. possible 13)
COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia Inc. (SPERA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Boon, Helen J.
Publication:Education in Rural Australia
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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