What is Good Environmental Education?

Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global.

by Peter Hayes

The choice to become an educator brings with it a career-long sentence to the blessing and curse of endlessly deciding what our students need to learn and how we will best help them learn it. At a recent conference, I was confronted with the honorable misfortune of joining a panel of speakers charged with provocatively stirring thoughts and feelings on the question of “what is good environmental education?”. I found the adventure to be both difficult and easy. It was difficult because the terms environment, environmental education, or environmentalist make no sense to me. They are words and concepts that have meaning only in a culture which clings to the illusion that human well-being does not depend on the health of the nature we are part of.
Because I believe that deep-seated confusion over these words and ideas is a major barrier to building a positive future, I choose to be an educator, community member, and citizen instead of accepting the destructive labels of environmental educator and environmentalist.

It was easier for me to form and share the answers that follow to the question of what makes for good education about how nature works and how humans fit into it. A simple, clear, and accessible yardstick for assessing the success of student learning is always available to us: how well do we help students become ready to do what they need to be ready? Ability – a fabric woven from the strands of knowledge, skill, and attitude – is important but not adequate; ability must be combined with motivation to create readiness.
To illustrate my belief that clues to our educational responsibilities are everpresent, and to ground these comments in the realities of my daily responsibilities, two simple, true stories – shared on the installment plan – seem helpful.

Story 1 – Part A:
It’s mid-February and Seattle’s rains are pouring down on a confused-looking ninth-grade student standing knee deep in the muddy waters of Thornton Creek. In the final hours of a weeklong study of this urban creek and its watershed, she stands in a forested wetland slated to be developed as a driving range for the adjacent golf course.

She describes her confusion over whether the best use for the land is for it to continue as a wild wetland or to be developed as a driving range: “I’m so confused – I don’t know what the right thing to do is; I began this week believing that the world was much simpler than I now see it is – that there were good guys and bad guys – and that I was a good guy – now I see that choices are more complicated, that in many ways my choices make me part of the problem. I’m no longer sure what is the right thing to do.”

Story Two – Part A:

The early morning calm at our house is punctuated by the scuffing sound of a small person’s feet on the stairs. A three foot, sleepy eyed apparition settles in at the breakfast table – tousled brown hair, fuzzy, pink, one piece pajamas “with feet” – the kind that sweat. Slurping the last of her cereal – the kind where eating the box provides more nutriment than eating the cereal – she looks across the table. Her presence asks a single, clear, unspoken question to me: “you aren’t going to let us down are you? You are responsible for helping us grow up to be ready to successfully meet the challenges ahead; will you do it?”..

If we accept that readiness is the goal, then the next question is: Ready for what? What needs doing?. Given our understandable human self absorption, we know that our students need to be ready to provide for their own needs, that is their own “self-wealth”. Because self-wealth depends on a web of relationships with fellow humans and other species, our students also must be ready to understand, maintain, and build “common wealth”. The wealth that we share in common is the blend of such diverse treasures as the love of a neighbor who brings dinner over on the eve of our first child’s birth and the lifegiving qualities of the swirling atmosphere and oceans. Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global. They need to be ready to do what no preceding generation has done before: satisfy their needs and wants in ways that don’t compromise Earth’s ability to support life.

The best way to narrow this challenge from the immense and vague toward something that we can get to work on in class tomorrow, we can ask and answer the questions of where and why are we failing, or have we failed, to maintain our common wealth? Though there are remarkable cases of success in maintaining our common wealth, I will focus here on examples from each of five concentric rings of community where we have lost, or are currently losing, common wealth – situations where humans were challenged to do the right thing in relationship to the rest of nature, and failed. What would need to be different for these to be on the list of successes instead?

The cases are:

– Global: Current efforts to reach cooperative agreements about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases which are causing warming of the atmosphere.

– Continental: The failure of cooperation in water use leading to the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the race to pump from the rapidly dropping waters of the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains in the central United States.

– Regional: The current struggle to reverse the trend of Pacific Salmon’s descent toward extinction, with hopes of not replicating the crash of North Atlantic fisheries.

– Local: The choice at the school where I teach not to match our actions as world-class consumers to our stated commitment to conservation contributes to the invisible but real erosion of common wealth around the planet.

– Next Door: Our neighbor seeks to tranform two acres of forested wetlands at the headwaters of a salmon supporting creek into five lawn- and driveway-surrounded homes, while arguing that there is no connection between his choices and the future of salmon struggling to retain their home in the creek downstream.

What do these five cases of loss of common wealth share? Why do they happen?
Decision makers failed to understand, value, and tell the story of the common wealth. Decisions were based on oversimplifications of the complex and interdependent systems of nature. Too much emphasis was placed on guaranteeing self wealth and too little on preserving common wealth. Diverse individuals and cultures failed to achieve cooperation necessary to understand and solve problems – often despite honest and major effort. Decision makers lacked integrity as defined as the agreement between actions and stated values. Participants had insufficient determined, enduring hope to solve the problem. And finally, participants believed our culturally ingrained myths of the separateness of humans from nature, of super abundance, of control, and of wilderness.

Mainstream analysis commonly describes such cases as economic, political, or environmental problems, but looked at in total, the root causes of each of these cases is our failure to understand and value community and citizenship and, taken one step further, the failure of our educational systems to help graduates be ready to do what they need to be ready to do. They are the consequence of educational systems which are more effective at equipping youth to be self-wealth pursuing predators through domination of nature than investing in education which maintains and builds our common wealth. These and other failures of community highlight where we as educators most need to concentrate our efforts. Transposing the seven common “failures” from above into positives, our students need to be ready to know and love our common wealth, recognize and be humbled by complexity; learn to balance their investment in self wealth with necessary investment in common wealth (and to see them not as a zero sum), use diversity as an asset not an impediment; have, demand, and value integrity; have an enduring sense of hope, and replace the four myths with reality. Education is now a major contributor to unworkable relationships between humans and the rest of nature; it is our challenge and opportunity to make it become a major component of the solution.

If our reasoning leads us to conclude that these outcomes are what the SATs, APs, and GREs of the future should test for, then the final step is to move from describing the desired outcomes to learning what educational experiences most effectively and consistently lead to successful student learning in these areas. The combination of personal experience and study of past and current educational practice make this task more straightforward than it would appear. While specific approaches must be adapted to match the unique needs of students and settings, education with the following characteristics appears to take us in the right direction:

1) Involving students in the real work of being active, informed citizens of the concentric, geocentric rings of community to which they belong. The smaller the unit, the sooner students learn through experience that the choice to care can lead to real change.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

“There is an uncanny resemblance between our behaviour toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. …It is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.”
– Wendell Berry

“The watershed is the first and last nation, whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable and the life that flourishes within it constitutes the first kind of community.” – Gary Snyder

2) The thread of understanding of the balance between self-wealth and common wealth runs throughout the curriculum and life of the school.
Daily school life provides an excellent learning lab for this topic, and the study of history and current events provides endless cases of the tension between self wealth and common wealth.

3) The curriculum is driven by asking, understanding, answering, and acting on real questions. Constructing knowledge and meaning from the rising sea of information and building wisdom from studying the relationship between intent, action, and consequences are central.

4) Teachers aspire to the impossible goal of non-advocacy through teaching the important skills of asking and answering questions instead of preaching personal answers.

5) Schools with clear missions are solidly connected to their surrounding community, and student generated new knowledge travels across well worn bridges of cooperation to be used by receptive members of the governmental, businesses, and general communities.

6) Educational goals are reached through the real work of building “way things work” understandings of community health.

7) Integrity – the matching of actions and beliefs – is modeled and highly valued.

“Many people want to change the world, but few want to change themselves.” – Tolstoy

8) Students develop an enduring sense of hope through experience in turning positive ideas into tangible success.

“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the source of real hope” – Lennox

9) All ways of knowing – mathematical, artistic, scientific, historical – are blended, and real experience stirs student’s hearts as much or more than their minds.

10) Education is “story” based with students learning to be critically aware of both why we tell the stories we tell and what stories we need to tell and pay attention to in order to successfully track the health of our communities. All explanations of phenomena, even the most rule-bound science, are a form of “story”. The ability to “read”, understand, and describe the health of a landscape is given as much emphasis as the ability to read and understand written words. Cause and effect lessons from history provide necessary basis for belief that individual action can shape a positive future.

11) Materials that perpetuate the four deep seated myths of separateness of human well-being from the well-being of nature, of superabundance, of control, and of wilderness are replaced by materials that communicate the assumptions of interdependence, limits, incomplete knowledge of nature, and the reality that both human influence and wildness are found everywhere.

“To treat wilderness as a holy shrine and Kansas and East Saint Louis as a terrain of an altogether different sort is a form of schizophrenia. Either all of the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot deserves our respect or none does.” – Wes Jackson

12) Students develop a sense of awe and reverence for nature through consistant, patient practice of the skills of observation and communication (see past CLEARING articles by Saul Weisberg, Bob Pyle, and Tony Angell “Artist as Advocate for Nature”)

13) The success of students‚ learning and teachers‚ teaching is assessed through tangible results that are of real value to others. Eg. Students demonstrate mastery in research, mathematical, and writing skills through developing a report on trends in the health of the local neighborhood instead of through academic, standardized tests.

14) The language of “environment” is quietly replaced by language which more accurately communicates our beliefs and supports student learning.
The organizing concept of community, with humans as one part of larger living systems, replaces our current common use of the distinct and deceptively inaccurate concepts of “environment”, “economy”, and “culture”.

I share these approaches as ones which appear to work for me and the schools and projects with which I am involved in, not as a prescription for others. Though there are many working examples of how the approach described above is succeeding, there is much need for improvement and continued innovation. Since results, not talk, are what ultimately matter, the completion of our two opening stories will bring us back to the realities of the current students, and students yet to come, who are counting on us.

Story 1 – Part B:
The student climbed out of the creek, dried off and acted on the passion that she had discovered. Her remaining high school years were filled with mastering and adding to the knowledge of the creek and watershed, conceiving of and successfully leading a “Creek Keepers” summer camp for middle schoolers, and contributing to the recent decision to rename the golf course after the creek (instead of turning the creek into a golf course.). On graduating she reflected “It [the watershed] is a living system that I have connected with. ..[My work with it] makes me feel part of something bigger than myself”.
These comments stand out in contrast to the bluntly honest – and depressing – comments that we regularly hear from students studying the current human relationship to nature: “Like I might care if I thought I could make a difference.” (“I choose not to care about anything other than self-wealth because experience hasn’t taught me to believe that I can make a difference”). The student in the creek has gone on to apply her citizenship skills to new places and might be considered a model for American Dream 2 where success is seen in lives where investment in self wealth and common wealth merge as one.

Story 2 – Part B:
Breakfast is finished, lunch made, hair brushed, and we wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus. The unstated question is still there. What our children need to thrive and survive is a deep connection to a living system – their home community – where the questions of whether salmon will return to spawn in our river and whether any children will come to school hungry are seen accurately as one question, not two. They need to learn from experience that this place needs them and that they need it. They need to know and love where their breakfast and shoe leather comes from as much as the alpine meadow in the Glacier Peak Wilderness or the most magical rapid in the depths of the Green River Gorge.
The bus arrives. She climbs through the open doors and up the steps to settle into a seat beside a lunch box clutching friend. Waves are exchanged as the heads grow smaller in a cloud of diesel smoke. I have an enduring hope that we won’t let her down – that family and school will help our children be ready to do what they need to do – but I don’t sleep easily, knowing that there is much to be done and that we live in a world that doesn’t wait.

Peter Hayes, after 20 years of indoor and out of doors teaching and principaling in public and independent schools, as well as serving as Environmental Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle, and as Co-coordinator of the Thornton Creek Project, now runs a family woodlot in the Coast Range of Oregon.