By Judy Braus
You’re a new teacher with a head full of ideas. You want to be innovative and effective — on the cutting edge of reform. You want your kids to be excited about learning. And you think the environment is an important, cross-cutting theme that will engage your students. But you’re a little overwhelmed. You’ve spent more than four years studying constructivism, cooperative learning, thematic teaching, learning styles, authentic assessment, interdisciplinary techniques, service learning, and what seems like a thousand other educational strategies, theories, and techniques.
So now what do you do? How do you put it all together? And how can you use environmental education as a vehicle to enhance and even transform your teaching?
My colleagues and I asked more than a dozen seasoned educators to list the five most important instructional strategies that they would use to enhance learning. The group we surveyed included teachers, environmental educators, zoo and aquarium educators, professors, and curriculum developers — each with more than 15 years of teaching experience. Then we asked them to pick some of their favorite environmental education activities that use one or more of these strategies effectively.
It’s not surprising that there were a lot of similarities in the instructional strategies that this select group of educators felt were most important. Many school systems across the country have identified similar strategies to enhance learning, motivate students, and build better citizens. The twist that many teachers don’t learn during pre-service training is that you can use environmental education to integrate these strategies and make them come alive — and at the same time, help students develop an environmental ethic and set of citizenship skills that will carry them into the future.
At the Top of the List
Here are the top picks from our ad hoc survey group. The resources at the end of this article elaborate on these strategies
Constructivism: Building on what students know. Constructivism involves helping students learn new information in a way that makes sense for them and fits with their world view. As Cynthia Ellwood, a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says, “At the very core of teaching is the task of helping students make connections between what they already understand and the new concepts, information, or skills we want them to learn.”
Cooperative Learning: Working in groups to solve problems, promote cooperation, build relationships among students, and get a taste of how the real world works. The world’s problems are rarely solved by individuals working alone. Learning to build on each other’s strengths is what pushes creativity, insight, and achievement. David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, two experts in cooperative learning, point out that “More than five hundred research studies now report that students learn better when they work cooperatively” (See the resources on page __ to find out more about cooperative learning and how some educators differentiate between cooperative learning and collaborative learning.)
Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Teaching: Helping students to understand the interconnectedness of knowledge, and to use knowledge from several disciplines to examine individual and societal problems. Environmental issues are interdisciplinary by nature and offer the perfect platform for drawing connections among disciplines and areas of study (such as science, social science, technology, politics, and philosophy) and within disciplines (such as genetics, conservation biology, geology, and physiology). (For more about the relationships among fields of knowledge, see Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs (ASCD, 1989), which also addreses cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary definitions and approaches.)
Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking: Exploring issues to give students experience investigating and defining problems, identifying solutions, implementing action plans, and designing ways to measure success. Solving complex environmental problems requires non-linear thinking and improves the ability to think “outside of the box.” Martha Monroe, a professor at the University of Florida, emphasizes that “problem-solving takes experimentation, creativity, flexibility, risk taking, and independent thinking.”
Community Learning: Using the community to explore real issues that promote learning and, at the same time, benefit the community. In some school systems, community learning is practiced as “service learning” — programs that offer students credit for volunteering in the community. Many teachers also promote community learning by facilitating environmental action projects in the community that promote problem solving, action research (reflecting on action and practice), cooperative learning, and other educational strategies.
Values and Ethics: Examining and reflecting on the underlying values that influence individual and societal actions with regard to issues, and building a personal ethical framework that helps distinguish right from wrong. Many school systems are now emphasizing character education, which focuses on moral and ethical development and activities that help students clarify their values. As Bill Andrews, Education Programs Consultant in the California Department of Education/Office of Environmental Education says, “Values are important to social change and to citizenship education. If we want to build a citizenry that cares about the environment and takes responsible action, we can’t ignore values.”
Other strategies and approaches listed by educators included catering to a variety of learning styles, ensuring that all teaching is relevant to student interests and using theme-based learning that includes authentic assessment and emphasizes depth over breadth. Of course, some teachers mentioned that you can’t design effective teaching programs without paying attention to age appropriateness, learning environment, and state and national standards, including goals 2000.
To show how you can turn these instructional strategies into lessons and activities, we’ve included a synopsis of four sample activities. These are just samples of the thousands of resources that can help you create your own lessons and units. The challenge is to use these resources as tools to shape a learning program that works for your situation, making use of your talents and interests, as well as those of your students.
Visit a hundred classrooms in America, and you’ll see dozens of different strategies, approaches, activities, and techniques — many of them using the instructional strategies we highlighted earlier. You’d see some teachers using detailed daily lesson plans and others going more with the flow. Some would be using textbooks, others would be teaching from lessons they designed using newspaper, the Internet, supplementary activity guides, textbooks and anything else they can get their hands on.
There are hundreds of quality resources available. We encourage you to explore the compendiums developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education, World Wildlife Fund, and the California Department of Education, which are listed at the end of this article. All the compendiums rate supplementary curriculum materials against state or national guidelines and highlight the materials’ strengths. They can help you select the most appropriate resources. To help you use the environment as the integrating force in your teaching, many of the educational resources cited include conceptual and skills frameworks, unit planning idea, and other support to help build effective lessons.