Bias and the Educator in the Mirror

Our inherent perspectives color the world we share with our students.

by Victor Elderton

Many of us in environmental education strive to create lessons and activities which we hope will facilitate greater understanding and stimulate higher levels of environmental inquiry among our students. The number of positive programs and initiatives which have been started is not vast compared to Language, Social Studies or Mathematics curriculum materials, but at the same time there are enough representative samples around to say there is significant interest in the field.

The very fact that CLEARING  can publish articles about different points of view as to the most effective ways of teaching and learning about the environment is testament to how interested a number of us are in how we teach and how students should be instructed about the environment. I have found this a very healthy debate, which has led me to question my own teaching and methodology. How often in our teaching zeal do we question what we are actually teaching, though? We often discuss at length and with passion how we teach, but do we really ask the question: what are we teaching? What are the biases we inherently teach as environmental educators?

If we look at locally developed materials or materials that are produced for a wider educational milieu, what are the perspectives and examples which are used to help students understand the world better? It is my experience that the topics and examples reflect who is writing them – namely homo sapiens sapiens. As a result, our best attempts at writing and developing programs about our investigation of the environment, with few exceptions, come from our own narrow biological bias. In many ways this makes perfect sense because we have to write this way because we are writing for our species. We have a natural interest in those things that are like us.

It seems to me there are some basic biases that we need to recognize when it comes to better understanding of the environment.

The deepest of these is that we are sepraphilic. We like to see ourselves as  separate from everything else. I’d argue that if we  saw ourselves as intraphilic – part of something else, we would have no environmental dilemmas because the separation of ourselves from the Earth would not be recognized. My experience tells me that there are other world views which recognize a closer integration with the earth but I would also argue that this is not a basic human characteristic. Being separate is very much about who we are.

We are also tremendously macrophilic. What triggers our imaginations are the big things that we see around us. Most of this is due to the fact that our eyes are limited in their perception so thinking about small microscopic things is not common. Yet we know that it is really the microbes which run the planet biologically. How many inverted food pyramids have you seen lately? Imagine what a different teaching straegy we would use if we drew those pyramids so that everything worked from the microbes down to us. Imagine if mammals and birds were at the bottom and we were under everything else. Perhaps it would have a humbling effect on our view of the world.

Since sight is our dominant sense, how we design programs and what we do in environmental education is often built around daylight observations and conclusions based upon those findings. While at any time we may be in daylight, half the Earth or more is in darkness or the half-light of dusk or dawn. For the Earth, no light is more the reality than daylight. How often do our programs look at the systems in darkness as opposed to light? Even at an environmental field study centre, like the North Vancouver Outdoor School, breaking from species and cultural tradition and doing things which are designed to investigate the planet at night are rare.

If being macrophilic and photophilic are part of being, so is being terraphilic. Seldom do we consider that Earth is 75% seawater. Even though our blood has the salinity of salt water, we have lost our connection with it. When we consider world depletion of forests, do we also put equal or greater importance on the real phytoplankton producers of the oceans? Think of the examples that we use to get students thinking about human concern about the Earth. They all stem from issues like forest depletion.

I feel that there are many more of these basic perceptions of the Earth that we as environmental educators perpetrate and continue to embellish. Think about it – we’re kinetaphilic (things that move), and zoophilic (animals as opposed to plants), just to mention a few. These examples don’t even cover perceptions which may be cultural.

In fact, because we have created these limits to our interpretation that are often better covered when we develop programs/curriculum. What I am more concerned about is the fact that they permeate so much of what we teach and we never engage in discussing them. We don’t talk about how we can work to introduce these basic perspectives. I also do not believe that perspectives will be discovered by students by themselves because some of them go against our very make-up as a species. They are not natural perspectives for our kind.

I am hoping that in some small way this article generates some discussion and starts the process of looking at what we teach and how we can better teach based on what we have come to understand as the way Earth systems work. How do we open the doors of understanding and interpretation for ourselves and our students instead of continually limiting them? I believe that artists and poets are attempting to do this, but I also believe our ecological investigations could do a better job as well.

We have never lived at a time when our physical perceptions could be more acute with the prospect of becoming even more refined and immediate. Isn’t it time that we made our mirror two-way and put it on a pivot and gave it a mighty spin?

Victor Elderton is the former principal at the North Vancouver Outdoor School, in addition to being a member of the Board of the Environmental Educators of BC and director of the Pacific Foundation for Understanding Nature Society.