by Louis A. Iozzi, Professor/Director
Center for Science and Environmental Education
Cook College, Rutgers University
As I look at the world of K-12 education, I see far too many challenges to cover in this short presentation. Some have been with us for a very long time, while some are more recent, and few relate only to environmental education. My list of challenges is extensive, but because of time and space constraints I will discuss only a few of them of them here.
During the past twenty years concern has grown across the country regarding the quality and relevance of education to the needs of society and the demands of a changing economy and world order. Reform efforts of varying types and degrees are evident in every state. Components of the reform movement include: constructivist thinking and conceptual understanding, cooperative learning strategies, interdisciplinary approaches, problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills and processes, the use of authentic assessment, and recognition of the value of multicultural education. In my judgment, these have been, for the most part, positive steps in the right direction.
But… the BIG national movements, initially imposed by state legislators and then seized upon by the education community itself, are for standards and statewide testing.
What does this mean for education in general, and specifically for EE? The activities of the past few years can be described as “frenzied” as state education agencies have been, with the help of teacher organizations, busy generating lengthy lists of what children
should know in the various disciplines and developing tests to determine how much of it they actually do know. Meanwhile, school districts have been scurrying to articulate their curricula with the new standards and statewide testing schedules. A lot of time, and
many education dollars, have gone into this movement, in the hope of demonstrating the effectiveness of the education we are providing for children.
I personally characterize this effort with the proverbial tale of the emperor’s new clothes; we keep trying to justify, via paper and pencil tests, that we really are educating our youth. I’ll have more to say about this later.
In any case, I see two challenges here. The first is that few of these statewide standards include EE, and fewer still have included EE in the tests– assuming that the tests are valid in the first place. But if EE is valuable it should, like other educational programs, be treated the same way. EE standards, and questions dealing with EE, should be– must be– included in the standards and testing programs across the nation.
Educators will also be challenged to teach children for “meaning and understanding”, and not simply coach them to pass the test. Many of the statewide tests are, in my judgment, generating a lot of needless anxiety on the part of children, their teachers, school administrators, and parents– for political, rather than sound educational, reasons. Thus, I see getting past teaching “to pass the test” as the second major challenge.
If historical patterns hold true, the pendulum will in a few years swing the other way and the push for standards will probably go away, to be replaced by some other scheme. What comes next? I believe that we will once again strive to put real meaning back into our educational processes. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking. But as my colleague and good friend Frank Gallagher likes to say, “It’s good to be able to read, it’s better to understand what you have read, but it’s best to know where the paper came from that made the page you have just read.”
ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING
We simply have to find better ways of determining if and when learning has taken place. We have made significant progress in assessing learning; authentic assessment has the potential for quite accurately measuring learning outcomes in very meaningful ways.
So the methodology for more meaningful and accurate assessment is already here, and to rely on simple paper-and-pencil tests is, in my judgment, pure folly. One challenge for K-12 educators is to supplement the older and more established methods of assessment with some of the newer techniques and strategies. The new Project Learning Tree has made significant progress in this area, but there remains a long way to go. The techniques are there, but (once again) we must strive to break our old habits.
A MATTER OF RESPECT
Another big challenge is to legitimize EE for K-12 education. Despite years of effort on the part of well-meaning environmental educators, despite all the research evidence regarding global deterioration, despite all the warnings, we have not been able to make EE a basic and important part of the curricula of our schools. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, “EE just doesn’t get any respect.” We are still too often viewed as a bunch of “tree huggers” and our field is relegated to after-school activity status, or a club activity, or an elective course in high schools. We need to find ways to make EE an integral part of the K-12 curriculum, to be infused into every subject area K-12, and to be accepted as a legitimate area of inquiry, along with science, social studies, English, math, etc. I have been in this business for more than thirty years, and unfortunately am not particularly optimistic about this becoming a reality.
WHOSE JOB IS IT?
The interdisciplinary nature of EE presents a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quandary. First of all, American education does not lend itself very well to interdisciplinary studies because everything in our schools is neatly compartmentalized.
At the high school level that’s very obvious; we have separate classes for math, English, science– no, correction: we even have separate classes for each of the sciences like biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and even more separate classes for the special classes, like ecology, ornithology, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, etc. Even at the elementary school, in self-contained classrooms, the day is compartmentalized according to academic subjects. American education seems to like to take the world apart; EE likes to put the world back together. In most schools where it is believed that EE is truly interdisciplinary, the position is taken that all teachers should teach EE, no matter what subject they are assigned to teach. That sounds good. But in reality, when something is everybody’s job it turns out to be nobody’s job.
For EE to be successful at the elementary level, not only is teacher preparation crucial, but EE concepts, activities, etc., must be built into the curriculum itself. This is not a new idea; John Dewey in 1914 proposed a core curriculum that focused on the environment. In Dewey’s curriculum, reading was taught using books with environmental themes, science looked much like what we now call EE, math was taught using environmental problems, etc.
At the secondary level, REAL team teaching needs to be practiced. By real team teaching, I mean that various subject matter specialists need to be in the classroom together, each adding his/her perspective to the exploration of the environmental topic under discussion. This does NOT mean that the science teacher presents his point today, the social studies teacher tomorrow, etc. Rather, all are in the same classroom interacting with each other and with the students at the same time.
The EE curriculum must, moreover, be carefully designed and made available to all teachers so that each will know what the others are teaching at each grade level. It should be sequential, with each succeeding year’s EE concepts and experiences building on the previous year’s work, much like the “spiral curriculum” recommended by Jerome Bruner many years ago.
While the excellent national programs such as Project Learning Tree, Project WILD, Project WET, etc., are extremely valuable and important to our schools, they do not in themselves constitute a curriculum. They are activity guides that certainly can be used as parts of a well-designed curriculum.
However, they are not in and of themselves a curriculum as I would define the term.
The concerns discussed above are by no means an exhaustive set of challenges facing EE in the K-12 sector, nor does my discussion do full justice to any of them; this is a short presentation, not a full course, and not the dialog that must be part of serious attempts at resolution. Though not presented here, additional concerns that are very much on my mind include: teacher recruitment and education, curriculum, competition from technology, overcoming the opposition, developing partnerships, and urbanization.
There are many others, but these appear to me to be among the more prominent, some of the more difficult with which to deal.
The challenges are there, and it is our task, individually and organizationally, to meet them head on, to resolve them as best we can, and to move on from there. We will achieve more if we confront them together, as professionals working cooperatively in a professional organization.