Confronting a World of Wounds:

Confronting a World of Wounds:

Aldo Leopold famously wrote,”One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” As environmental educators, we must ask ourselves what we are giving our students that equips them to deal with this harsh reality.

by Nick Engelfried (2017)

It hurts to love nature in the twenty-first century. Climate change, species extinctions, toxic forms of resource extraction like fracking, all will inevitably be encountered by our students in headlines and the evening news. Again and again, they will be confronted with news of harm being done to the world they have grown to love. What tools can we give students to defend themselves against despair and cynicism?

The solution, I believe, is for students to see environmental issues not as a serious of hopeless problems, but as a set of challenges with solutions they can take action to implement. By “taking action,” I don’t mean changing light bulbs, turning off the faucet, or reducing one’s meat consumption.

Making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices may provide a temporary sense of relief for some students. However, those who think critically about it will quickly realize that much larger forces than their individual footprints are at play in creating the climate crisis.

If we want to help students thrive in Leopold’s “world of wounds,” we must guide them far beyond the realm of personal consumption choices. We must help them see opportunities for collective, not just individual action. This is especially important for students of high school age and up, who are both developmentally ready to think about social change and increasingly likely to be exposed to environmental news as their awareness of the world around them expands.

I recently had the opportunity to experiment with teaching students about collective action and climate change, while co-leading a group of high school juniors and seniors on a 12-day backpacking trip for the North Cascades Institute (NCI) Youth Leadership Adventures program. NCI is a nonprofit that has been helping people connect with nature in and around the majestic mountains of North Cascades National Park for over three decades. NCI’s Youth Leadership Adventures program gets high school students out into the backcountry to learn about natural history, sustainability, and leadership.

In the lessons my two co-instructors and I taught while leading our students through North Cascades National Park, we made a point of emphasizing climate change solutions that involve collective organizing. The successes and challenges we encountered may, I hope, be useful to educators in similar positions who wish to help their students become effective agents of environmental change.

On the third day of the trip, one of my co-instructor colleagues led a lesson which introduced concepts like how the greenhouse effect works. We felt it was important to give students this grounding in basic climate science as a way to set the stage for future lessons.

Two days later, we introduced students to some specific impacts of climate change on people around the world. Another of my fellow instructors led a “Climate Change Mixer” activity taken from Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart’s excellent book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Students participated in a role play in which they took on the roles of real people whose lives are affected by climate change or energy extraction. Afterwards, several students expressed surprise at the severity of climate change impacts on people like members of the Gwich’in nation in the Arctic, whose way of life is threatened by melting ice and the die-off of caribou.

Having acquainted students with the science of climate change and some of its effects, we were ready to talk about action. The day after the mixer activity, I led a lesson on social change designed to get students thinking about how they could have a positive influence on climate issues. I opened the lesson by introducing a concept none of the students had heard of before: theory of change.

A person’s theory of change is their mental conceptualization of how change occurs in society. If you believe the solution to environmental problems is for each of us, one by one, to decide to change our lightbulbs and reduce our meat intake, that’s your theory of change. This is also the theory promoted by many mainstream environmental education materials, which emphasize individual lifestyle changes above all else.

Another, equally problematic theory of change most high schoolers have encountered is that major societal changes are mostly triggered by charismatic individuals and “super-people,” who inspire the masses with exceptional acts of daring or wisdom. The way history is taught at the elementary and high school levels tends to reinforce this theory. Traditional historical narratives focus on charismatic leaders—the George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns, and Martin Luther Kings—to the virtual exclusion of thousands of other ordinary people who contributed to making change happen.

To get students thinking critically about developing their own theory of change, I had us analyze one of the most famous accounts of personal bravery from US history: the Rosa Parks story. I asked a student volunteer to recount the story the way they’d learned it in school. The traditional narrative goes something like this: Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, decided one day that she would not put up with racist segregation laws any longer. She refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and this act of personal bravery inspired the city-wide Montgomery Bus Boycott. This in turn gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement.

I next introduced some additional facts usually left out of the Rosa Parks story (these particular bits of background information were drawn from Paul Schmitz’s article for Huffington Post, “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott”). They include:
• Rosa Parks had a long history of challenging segregation. In 1943, she was elected Secretary of the local NAACP chapter.
• Prior to her arrest, Parks had received training in nonviolent civil disobedience practices at the Highlander Folk School.
• When Parks was arrested in 1955, Alabama NAACP President E. D. Nixon was already searching for a good plaintiff to challenge segregation laws.
• Organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a major undertaking involving many people. Jo Ann Robinson, a local leader in the Women’s Political Council, spearheaded an effort to print and post 15,000 fliers supporting the boycott.

None of these details diminishes the significance of Rosa Parks or the heroic nature of her actions. However, the picture they paint is quite different from the traditional Rosa Parks story. Rather than an act of individual bravery spontaneously triggering change, this more accurate narrative becomes one about a community of people coming together to challenge an unjust system.
It was now time to get students thinking about social change in an age of climate crisis. To do this, I introduced a role play centered around a current issue in Washington State: the controversy over a proposed new oil export terminal on the Columbia River in Vancouver, WA.

I first gave students some context. Tesoro-Savage, an oil infrastructure company, is seeking permits from the State of Washington to build the country’s largest oil export facility at the Port of Vancouver. If built, the terminal would further the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, and would be serviced by four oil trains per day passing through many towns and cities in the Columbia River Gorge. A train derailment in any of these communities could cause a disaster involving a massive explosion and thousands of gallons of spilled oil.

Given that most students in our group came from Washington or northern Oregon, the Vancouver oil export debate is unfolding in their backyards. Despite this, not one student had heard about the issue before I introduced it to them. This says something about the state of environmental education in our schools.

Having given students basic facts about the oil export proposal, I next introduced a fictional scenario set in a hypothetical community called Columbia Village. I asked students to imagine that Washington Governor Jay Inslee had given the oil project its final permit (in fact, Governor Inslee is expected to make a decision later this year). Oil trains would soon begin rolling through Columbia Village, which is situated in the Gorge along the rail line. For the role play, students would take on the personas of people from a variety of backgrounds meeting at the Columbia Village Community Hall to discuss a response to this environmental and public safety threat.

Unlike the roles assigned to students in the Climate Change Mixer, those I created for this activity were not based on real people. However, as someone who has attended dozens of meetings where members of a community came together to challenge fossil fuel projects, I carefully modeled each role around a different point of view that one frequently encounters at such gatherings. Specific characters included a mother concerned about dangers to her children, an activist advocating mass civil disobedience, and a member of the Yakama Tribe concerned about the oil project’s impact on fishing rights.

At this point in the lesson we took a break for dinner, and to let students familiarize themselves with their roles. I explained that students’ job at the community meeting would be to advocate for their character’s point of view about an acceptable course of action. Students would be allowed to “change their minds,” but only if they felt this was realistic and that the concerns of their character had been adequately addressed.

My hope for this activity was students would realize that many characters in the role play represented very different theories of change—and that their job at the meeting must be to reconcile these diverse points of view into a plan that could realistically achieve the desired result. I myself participated in the role play when we reconvened, acting as the meeting facilitator whose only goal was to ensure a consensus was reached without advocating any particular point of view.

The role play that unfolded over the next forty minutes or so at least partly satisfied my hopes for the activity. Unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious issues was that of using civil disobedience to confront the oil trains. One character in the role play advocated people blockading the oil trains with their bodies—and several others responded negatively to this idea, arguing that it was too dangerous. It was not unlike actual debates over civil disobedience, which I have listened to at many real-life meetings.

As an alternative to civil disobedience, another student suggested organizing a massive but legal protest near the rail line. I was surprised that the students seemed to think getting a permit for such an event would be a much longer and more arduous process than would probably really be the case. More predictably, many students were a bit naïve about how many people they could get to show up at a protest, envisioning a crowd of 100,000. The Dalles, one of the larger towns in the Columbia Gorge, has a population of only some 14,000, and most Gorge communities are much smaller.

Another character in the role play suggested everyone work on reducing their individual carbon footprints so as to make oil infrastructure irrelevant. I had added this point of view hoping it would force students to grapple with whether individual lifestyle changes are really enough. As it turned out, many students seemed genuinely torn about this. Some were understandably drawn to the idea that individual changes might inspire larger community-wide actions. Others pointed out that even if an entire town’s population switched to energy efficient light bulbs, this wouldn’t have much impact on global economic forces that made the oil export project viable. While students never addressed the lifestyle issue in quite the direct way I hoped they might, I felt satisfied they were coming to realize that individual changes are necessary but not sufficient.

In the end the students, through their role play characters, arrived at a consensus for a compromise course of action: to move forward with a march and a petition-gathering effort, while also embarking on a public education campaign to encourage sustainable lifestyles, and preserving the option of civil disobedience for those who wished to engage in it. In real life, such a wide-ranging, ambitious plan of action would probably seem unrealistic for a new community group’s first meeting. However, I feel this is far less important than the fact that students were able to recognize the value of different theories of change as well as some of their defects, and to come up with a plan not unlike the strategies some real climate activist organizations have developed.

After the social change lesson, I realized in my eagerness to get students thinking about collective action, I had neglected to fully bring the lesson back to students’ own experience and concrete actions they themselves could take. Fortunately there was time to rectify this. Later in the trip, one of my colleagues led an activity in which students made a pledge to themselves to take a climate-related action of their own choosing within the next year. Some students’ pledges centered around lifestyle changes like using less plastic or water. But I was pleased to note others chose collective actions like getting involved in activist groups or starting a climate-focused club at their schools.

The climate change lessons my colleagues and I taught during this 12-day trip represented an experiment in getting students to think about how environmental change actually happens. There are things I plan to do differently next time I teach a similar curriculum. At the beginning of the social change lesson, I wish I had spent more time illustrating the theory of change concept with specific examples. In designing the oil trains role play, I also could have done more to flesh out the characters assigned to each student, which perhaps would have led to deeper conversations about diverse perspectives.

These lessons learned aside, I feel the curriculum my colleagues and I devised for this backpacking trip successfully helped students take the first tentative steps toward envisioning how they might play a role in confronting climate chaos—and not just by participating in Meatless Mondays. I hope they came away with at least a few tools for fighting back against the sense of hopelessness despair that can come from living in a “world of wounds.” ❏

Bigelow, Bill and Tim Swineheart. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2014. 410 pages. ISBN number: 978-0-942961-57-7. The “Climate Change Mixer” activity described on pages 92-101 is referenced for this article.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, With Essays on Conservation From Round River. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1970. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1949 and 1953. 295 pages. ISBN number: 0-345-34505-3. The quote used in this article, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” appears on page 197.
Schmitz, Paul (December 1, 2014). “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Huffington Post. Retrieve August 7, 2017, from This piece was used as the main source for background information about the Rosa Story.

Nick Engelfried is an environmental educator and activist, currently working on his M.Ed. in Environmental Education through Western Washington University. As part of his work for the degree program, he is participating in a year-long residency working with the North Cascades Institute.

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community – 3

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community – 3

Photo by Jim Martin

“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.


Part 3: Emergent phenomena

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

If you go to a place in the world outside your classroom – your school yard, a trail nearby, a stream bank – and think about it, you’ll find it is a prism which, oriented effectively, holds the power to involve and invest your students in their educations, and empower them as persons. Simple miracle; takes work to discover.

You’ve found a place for your project, large or small, and thought of a partner or partners. Quite possibly, you might have noticed a piece of embedded curriculum. And maybe even thought of what students would do. These are the sort of things that emerge from the places in the real world when you go to them with your teacherly knowledge, skills, and understandings. The part of you that is Teacher is the prism from which the potential that resides in your community and environment emerge in observable form, paint their elements, disclose the human mind.

We named two projects last week. Let’s take a closer look at them and see what emerges.

A Small Project

Your class visits a nursing home every spring, and your students would like to grow flowering plants, pot them, and take them when they make their visit. You discuss this, and decide to plant seeds in the soil just under your classroom’s windows. When they’re growing well, students will transplant them to pots, which you have in your room.

What are the partnerships that will help you do this work? To do the project, you must get students out of the room and back, procure seeds and tools, touch bases with the custodian and principal, do the potting and manage kids on station. Plus, you have to deliver the fractions and biology lessons that you discovered in the schoolyard near your window. You have some resources, like the manager of a small local pharmacy, who has a limited budget for public services expenditures. Also, the nursing home and the school, which has gardening tools.

You need seeds, so ask the manager of the pharmacy outlet for a donation of one packet each of eight kinds of annual flowers. She agrees, and you get your seeds. So, children plant, seeds grow, students pot and then take their flowers to the nursing home. During the work, they learned about fractions and studied a biology unit on seeds. A resource you used is doing fractions and studying biology on site, so that you don’t do the project in addition to your already heavy teaching load.

Let’s call the people, institutions and organizations you worked with your “Partners,” and think of the project as one done with partnerships. Your Partnerships assist you with the logistical load involved in doing projects.

So, one tool you use is Partnerships, however small, to share the load. Sharing the load is an important part of doing projects. We live in communities, and ought to use them. It’s important to understand partnerships. Even though your partners are sponsoring part of the project, you are doing something for them and they are doing something for you. That’s why people engage in partnerships, because all parties bring something useful to the table.

A Larger Project

This project is a streambank restoration sponsored by a regional bird sanctuary and the local Friends of Trees organization. They provide tools, supplies, plants, and training for you and your students,. They also schedule three Americorps Volunteers for field trips and one classroom visit. You provide workers (your students), student-made site maps, site habitat assessments, and a summative Power Pointtm presentation.

The project entails a site visit to orient yourselves and begin site mapping, one to clear vegetation and continue mapping, another to survey, one to plant, and another to monitor the planting. In this sort of project, your partnerships are crucial to beginning and finishing the project. The bird sanctuary has some equipment and materials available to you for making the observations you’ll need to make the site map, and guidelines for performing the habitat assessments.  They also have a person who will mentor you as you go through the stages of a streambank restoration project. This will give you the large picture within which your students’ work will fit. It also has, embedded within it, lots of useable curricula. Friends of Trees will help to plan and do vegetation clearing and using GIS techniques to map plants your students will put into the ground.

This means that you now must manage transportation, substitutes, and curriculum on your own. These present their own learning curves. The prism which organizes this confusing chatter of pieces, parts, jobs, and so forth, into recognizable and useful bands, bands which clarify community and environment based education into an inspiring and inviting rainbow is your capacity for doing self-directed science inquiry. In my experience, that seems to be the key empowering piece of the education puzzle. Most of us have never done a science inquiry from noticing something interesting, to asking a clear question about it, designing an investigation, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting it, communicating our findings, and identifying interesting follow-up questions. Somehow, engaging this from start to finish leaves teachers with a fresh perspective on what they are teaching, and how. And empowers them to thoroughly involve and invest their students in their educations and their lives. If you’ve ever seen the face and eyes of an empowered child, you’ll know what I mean.

Part of this change in perspective comes from releasing yourself from dependence upon directions in the publishers’ materials and teachers’ editions, and discovering that your students will find better, more effective ways to use them. Especially those in your bottom 25th percentile. (You can get an idea of what this might look like by going to Mike Weddle’s article here. He gives the most complete picture of what community and environment based education looks like that I’ve read. Written from the pen of a teacher. Jude Curtain, also on the website here, gives the best one-page description of science inquiry that I’ve read. They both know, and clearly express student-directed science inquiry.)

So, let’s walk through an inquiry, one blog at a time. The site can be your school, a natural area, a parking lot. They all work. Here’s what to do. If you can, spend some time in a place you’d like to do an inquiry. It doesn’t have to be one you’d take your students to. Browse around; find things that either interest you or raise questions in your mind. Just immerse yourself in the place. Here’s how one started for Dryas, my wife, and Carol Lindsay, our African Drum teacher, on a summer afternoon several years ago. We were by a side channel of  a local stream, and they saw what they thought was a dragonfly with eight wings. They wondered what it really was, and set out to find out. This happens when you let something catch your eye. Go out this week and let it.

This is the third installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that will explore how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here.

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community -2

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community -2

Photo courtesy of Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School

“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 2: Developing Capacity

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

“And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.”
– William Shakespeare

Why creep, unwilling, to school? Could it be that school is, itself, unwilling? Unwilling to allow its students’ brains, wonderfully autonomous learning machines, the freedom to learn, to engage their world and discover its nature, become empowered within it?

We evolved to survive in wild environments by learning them. Our brain did this learning by finding and exploiting patterns in the world it encountered. In the end, our brain has developed into an autonomous learning machine. Students have demonstrated in many schools that engaging in inquiries in the places where we evolved causes them to become involved and invested in their educations, and empowered as persons. While significantly improving their scores on the current barometer, standards exams. Use this innate capacity we humans are born with to touch, think, learn, assimilate, to structure your curricula. Those who have are successful.

Here’s one I personally know: The faculty of the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) in Salem, OR, decided to build their curricula around experiences in the world outside the classroom. Each student’s journey is developmental, culminating in groups doing self-directed inquiry in various places: a farm in the country, a coastal estuary, the Oregon Zoo, a forest in the Coast Range. The school’s focus is not on preparing students for the state standards tests. Instead, they give their students a solid and empowering education. The last time I visited JGEMS, their students racked up an impressive record: 100% passed the science standards, and the reading and math standards in the high and middle 90s. (Check their school out yourself at Students who begin their learnings in the world in which they will live out their lives become involved and invested in their educations. The education establishment doesn’t recognize this accomplishment of classroom and environmental educators, but it is real. And doable.

There are many places you can start the journey toward effective, empowering education. One is with what I call Developing Capacity. When you have the capacity to teach science as it should be taught, you can start a science unit with words like these where you describe a spider’s web, against the morning sun, with dew glistening on its surface;

This is what life is like: The cells which make living things are composed of molecules which have been selected and put into place by little pieces of sunlight. Together, when these cells are organized into the organisms in foodwebs, they sparkle, and receive more little pieces of sunlight. As long as the sun shines, its light will add sparkle to life, and, intoxicated, life will gather more sunlight. Once entrained, this is a self-perpetuating process. Let’s study it as such an enchanting, self-directing phenomenon.

Note the difference in opening a unit on plant and animal cell physiology this way vs. saying that, in this unit, we are going to learn about the processes of photosynthesis and respiration, and the structure and functions of enzymes in cellular processes. The difference between comprehending the content you teach and knowing you can adapt your teaching to foreseeable contingencies, vs. relying on the words and suggestions in the teacher’s edition for your understanding of the content and its delivery. Altogether too many science teachers in this nation rely on publishers’ materials to prepare them to teach their curricula. This is unacceptable, and we need to do something about it now.

What follows may make you feel a little uncomfortable, like being out on a limb, sawing on the tree side. If it does, and you continue anyway, you’ll make it. In spite of the fact that you’ll never quite lose that feeling of being out there with the scratching sound of the saw in your ear. By then you’ll know there is nothing to fear, and will be on your way to taking charge of your curriculum.

Pick a project. Make it simple, but at your instructional level. Here are two to give you an example of what I mean. The first is a small flower bed your students will put into place on the school grounds. The second is planting and restoration work along a local trail. Somewhere in the continuum between these two projects, you should find something that fits your instructional level. (You don’t necessarily have to do these, but you must walk and think through the steps of the project you envision. Generating part of your curriculum in the real world wasn’t covered in most of our teacher education courses. It’s a very learnable process, you simply need to experience it and reflect on it.)

My goal here is teachers who are empowered with the capacity to build partnerships to facilitate their real world curricula. If you’ve never done a project, then you’re in the Acquisition phase of this learning curve, and simply hooking up with a local planting project done by someone else is a good place to start. Keep in mind that, while your students are there to plant, you’re there to see how the project works, who’s a good person to keep in touch with, materials you’ll need to acquire, etc. In short – develop your teacherly antennae. They’re very helpful things to have.

The first step is to check out the place where you’ll actually do the work. Look at the actual site, find where you’d have students work, envision what they would discover. Think of one piece of the curriculum you will soon teach and find it there. Get to know the place as part of your classroom.

The second, after you see a clear picture of the project, is to begin to develop helpful partnerships. These you’ll need, especially if you’ve never done a project outside your school building. For the school planting, the principal, custodian, and another teacher make great partners. For the second, you can call the parks and recreation department, a local agency, or an environmental group. You can have your students help develop a list of people to contact. This can be empowering work for them.

This is your self-directed inquiry. So, decide on a project at your instructional level, check out the place where students will work, and identify at least one or two potential partners. Next week, the blog will pick up with these examples and use them to discuss the myriad things it takes to effectively use the real world to generate curricula.

I’ll leave you with one final charge: find a teacher who already uses the environment to build curricula. If you don’t know one, your school district probably knows of at least one. Tell the teacher your thoughts and keep in touch. It’s an easy way to reduce the isolation of the classroom.

Remember; this is all doable. You just have to start.

This is the second installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that will explore how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

How Big is Science? Can I Discover its Dimensions?

How Big is Science? Can I Discover its Dimensions?


How Big is Science? Can I Discover its Dimensions?

There is great beauty in thoughts well conceived and clearly expressed.
This is science, when it is skillfully done.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
(Photo by Jim Martin also!)

When I first taught high school science, I assumed that published curricula would provide reliable instruction for my students. Midway through my first year, it began to dawn on me that this might not be so. The curricula the school used was organized so students studying it would learn about science. This, besides being rather boring, would not do what I expected. I believe students come into my classroom to DO science, to become scientists. A much different process than learning about.

By this time in my career, I had learned that students’ brains could think; all by themselves. Sort of an ‘Oh, duh’ thought, but new to me. What first put me onto this was observing students move from serial to parallel processing as they developed conceptual understandings. That, and reflecting on student frustrations and failures in lab when I assumed that their lab manuals had been written by authorities who “knew.” Thinking about these frustrations and failures revealed to me that students, and many of their teachers, hadn’t acquired the knowledge to comprehend the content as it was laid out in our texts and manuals.

My flag, the whirring that my antennae have learned to make when I’m not being careful about where I’m headed, was the perception expressed by students that, “this is harsh.” I can’t think of a better way to describe it; texts and manuals that were filled with directions and expectations insensitive to where students were at this stage of their educations. And me, expecting them to learn from them as written. The labs, in particular, were replete with concept load, where more than one concept lies embedded in words meant to clarify. What we do to enable our students to learn should never evoke the comments I heard. If we care for our students, and expect them to discover the beauty of our discipline, we should teach effectively. So, I ask, Is empowering students in science something that we can learn to do for practically every student who enters our door?

Science is a product of human endeavor, and can be learned. Look at the good teachers whose students learn to express themselves in competent poetry and art. We can do it in science if we become competent and humane practicioners. This tells me that all of the pedagogical classifications our profession employs – Maslow’s pyramid, hierarchy of cognitive function, inductive/deductive, etc. – reflect expressions of central nervous system function, expressions emergent from our brain at work, and that these underlying neurological processes aren’t as complex as the concepts and classifications we use to describe, understand, and manipulate them.

It takes confidence for a teacher to move from the recitation of facts to the manipulation of concepts in the solution of problems. In fact, examination of this transition provides some useful successive approximations which can be used as signposts to move ourselves from one end to the other on the spectrum. Science engages concepts and processes along with the brain’s mechanisms for generating critical thinking and learning for understanding. While complex to address individually, they all come into play when you do science. Just as similarly complex combinations of concept and process come into play together in painting an image, writing a poem, swishing a three-pointer, or playing a long, slow, syncopated sax line.

How do you prepare your students to engage in self-directed inquiries in the environment, while also preparing them to take standardized tests on the content they are expected to cover? A good first step is to prepare yourself. We can start by looking at what teaching inquiry looks like along a developmental continuum from fully teacher-centered to fully student-centered; a line with particular dimensions. The names of the stages along the continuum describe its dimensions, and the time to learn to express each dimension is the length of a particular piece of the continuum. Let’s picture different ways you might execute a streambank restoration project, and develop our continuum along that process.

There is a creek about four blocks from your school, and you have learned that the city wants to restore a section of its bank for a wildlife observation park. When you inquire, you find that part of the project involves planting native riparian trees. How might you exploit this as an opportunity? Let’s say you begin this work at what I’ll call the Fully Teacher-Centered level, in which you instruct the class on the project, show them how to plant the cottonwood cuttings you will be using, and have them set up pots and plant their cuttings in them. You will show them how to measure the cuttings’ growth, and graph their data. Typical teacher tells, students do, classroom learning. During all of this work, you have been attempting work in which you have little or no experience, especially in involving students in work outside the classroom.

You can begin to move toward the next phase, the Introducing Student-Centered level, by finding ways to make the activity, while it is not student generated, become relevant to them and enables your students to feel that this new learning is important to them. You can do this by engaging them in selecting learnings they would like to attempt. Let’s say one student, when planting her cutting, asks which end goes into the ground. A tough question if you’re not a botanist, which I am not. So, you suck it in and respond, “I don’t know. How can we find out?” (The most beautiful words a teacher can utter!) What happens next is up to your students. They’ll answer their question, and you’ll have grown at least another inch and a half in stature.

In this stage, you and your students will become aware of your need to learn more about the community outside the classroom. You might have already involved them in work outside your classroom organized by a local environmental education organization. You make sure your students have practiced the work they will do before going out in the field. And you might find yourself looking for other teachers who take their classes out into the field, and helped them become active members of effective work groups. In this stage, you still rely on other knowledgeable people, especially environmental educators, to facilitate your work.

Another thing to look for, and in future expect, is students who begin to see their role in making field work eminently doable. Students who are involved and invested in the work, and empowered as persons. They will become partners with you in planning and doing the work; and, in doing the learning and research to comprehend what they have discovered.

If you continue this work, you will find yourself at the next level, the Teacher:Student-Centered Level, where you and your students collaborate on the project from its initial conception to the final product. You initiate projects, and then include your students in designing and doing the project. You are experienced now in involving students in work outside the classroom and exploiting the curricula embedded there. Student work groups know what to do and how, and practice tasks before going into the field. You know how to design, organize, and implement the work, and to integrate the field work with curriculum. The results of their field work are brought back to the classroom by the class for discussion and follow-up work.

As you continue in this work, you will find yourself working at the Fully Student-Centered Level. You have a set of partners in the community whom you work with to design, develop, and execute projects in the community, and to tie them to your classroom curricula. You work closely with your students to plan field work and classroom followup. Students are organized into effective work groups who, working together, have developed the skills to carry out their field work, are involved and invested in their work, reach out to help others in their groups, communicate effectively, and can be counted on to make sure their equipment and materials are ready to go. You facilitate this by maintaining effective contact with your partners and agencies. You have eyes out for opportunities to expand your network, while ensuring you don’t overextend yourself.

It is surprising how little it takes to move a teacher from the textual delivery of facts and information to the contextual delivery of understanding. Experience in initiating, doing, and communciating self-directed inquiry is a key piece of the puzzle. In spite of this effort, and most school science is taught from texts, standardized labs, and worksheets. In time, teachers will be the decision-makers in their schools, and schools will become dynamic centers of learning. In the meanwhile, we have to do the best we can to teach well and let others know what we’re doing.

Science has many dimensions. We’ve begun to enter a discussion of the amount of structure we impose upon our students’ efforts, and the amount of structure we build into our approach to meeting students’ needs. As with any kind of learning, we expect the learners to move from dependence on instruction to independent activity. Do we, in our classrooms, allow that? Do we allow this for ourselves?

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Helping Teachers Gain Competencies in a Technological Age

Helping Teachers Gain Competencies in a Technological Age

1491260_10204437629959081_7680906990564955211_o Helping Teachers Gain Competencies in a Technological Age

Is Active Learning, Learning?

by Jim Martin

Because active learning requires practice and feedback on thinking like an expert (a scientist), it demands considerably greater subject expertise by the teacher. . . . [A problem that] will remain until college science teaching improves to the point that all students, including future K-12 teachers, graduate with a solid understanding of science and a better model for good science teaching and learning. . . . Most people, including university faculty and administrators, believe learning happens by a person simply listening to a teach¬er. That is true if one is learning something very simple, like “Eat the red fruit, not the green one,” but complex learning, including scientific thinking, requires the practice and interaction described earlier to literally rewire the brain to take on new capabilities.
– Carl Wieman

Wieman is describing what I view as the historical residuals that impede effective teaching in today’s schools: We are leaving the educational needs of the Industrial Revolution, and embarking on the needs of our Technical age, and evolved social and cultural structures. Rote learning limits human empowerment, yet we still, in large part, rely on it.

The two issues Wieman describes both limit the education our students receive, and perpetuate the problem because under-prepared graduates make under-prepared teachers. Teachers are the only people who can correct this. Teachers can’t give effective feedback to learning students if they haven’t the requisite extensive experience and knowledge of what they are teaching to do so. A teacher who has done the science, and comprehends the concepts and processes involved in what is being learned, will have a much better perspective to process a student’s efforts, place them within a meaningful context that the student can respond to, and observe for first, critical, steps toward learning for understanding. For a teacher without the background to comprehend and do the science, a student’s efforts which seem to be going in the wrong direction might be interpreted as being altogether wrong, the appropriate material in the text or instructions pointed to, and the student moved on; perhaps even to learn what was to be learned, but not empowered as an autonomous learner. And less likely to become a competent student. Ultimately, what was to be learned will not be learned well enough to remain in memory after the test.

If teachers are to engage their students in active learning, which has the capacity to produce effective long-term conceptual memory, we all need to help build an environment where teachers are assisted to become competent in the concepts and processes they teach. Since I started tracking teacher preparation for the content they are asked to teach, about half are reported to have had the coursework and/or experience to teach it. Wieman finds a similar pattern. Even those who teach teachers aren’t immune. A chemist, who mentored science teachers for a federal education support agency, didn’t know that cold creek water which was overhung by vegetation and aerated by an upstream riffle might have what appears to be an elevated dissolved oxygen content. This is a real deficit, and we all need to do something to resolve it.

Environmental educators have generated an enlightened public which has produced a State, Oregon, that is an epicenter for streambank restoration in the world. We’re now faced with a nation which is near the bottom in science education among the highly developed nations. Environmental educators can help inexperienced science teachers gain the confidence and expertise they need to improve science education in our classrooms. Everything we need to do that is on our sites and in our heads. We only need the bootstrapping will to take the first step – sit down with someone of a like mind, talk about what needs to be done, then, together, sit with someone else and do the same.

Here’s one I experienced years ago at a constructed pond within a large industrial area. The pond was connected by a canal to a large natural lake. There was a parking lot on one side of the rectangular pond; a large drain pipe removed water from the parking lot and surrounding area and dropped it about ten feet from its open end into the pond. We visited one Spring as part of a science inquiry workshop. Teacher participants were practicing water quality observations, and asked to decide in each of their groups where to make their observations.

As we gathered to review their findings, most groups’ dissolved oxygen (DO) measurements were within the range we’d expect for pond water at the temperatures they’d recorded. Two groups, however, recorded very high DO values. One group had made their observations in the center of a large algal bloom at one end of the pond, and they decided that, since these were algae producing the high DO levels, the levels observed there represented excellent water quality. The other group had measured water quality at the place in the pond where water flowing out of the drain pipe splashed into the pond. Their DO measurements were higher than those in the algal bloom. This group decided that, since the water leaving the drain pipe must be polluted, the high DO values represented very poor water quality.

What would you have interpreted from the DO data and places where the observations were made? Those teachers were using the science they knew, and taught, but in a place outside the classroom or lab. What might they have thought and said if it were their students who made the observations, and their interpretations of the results were different? Perhaps even the opposite of those they had made themselves?

We’ve all been faced with dilemmas like this. How do we respond? How might a teacher respond who has never made a scientific observation outside the classroom? Perhaps never made one at all? (Or the chemist who didn’t understand dissolved oxygen dynamics in a natural environment?) How might an environmental educator respond to this issue? By that last, I don’t mean give the correct answer; I mean relieve the deficits in experience and understandings that brought the problem into existence.

Most issues in education become issues because we don’t lay the practical and conceptual foundation our careers require. To fix it, we need to jack up our structures, rebuild their foundations, lower the structure back on a solid foundation, then let the creaks, groans, and cracks in the structure tell us how to reorganize it. This is something our top-down educational organization is unable to do. We have to do it ourselves. I say that teachers who are comfortable teaching inquiry science, and environmental educators who are comfortable reaching out to teachers, need to get together to bring science back to young people in ways which restore its inherent interest, excitement, and empowerment.

Working together, environmental educators and teachers who routinely engage their students in inquiry, are a practical hope for building a stronger science edifice in our schools. Current efforts from the top of education’s administrative structure to embed a common core curriculum and new science standards in the schools haven’t, to date, funded the basic professional development support that a large number of teachers will need to bring these initiatives to life, and make them a basic part of all education in the nation. A good way to make this happen, in an effective, non-punitive, way is for the work to start in the classroom, supported by teacher mentors and environmental educators.

Why do I include environmental educators in words about science inquiry education in classrooms. Because inquiry education relies on active learning, which is an effective way to build conceptual learnings into long-term memory. Active learning is the teaching modality that most environmental educators use. The familiar concrete referents students and their teachers will use at an environmental site make learning to do and understand science inquiry much more effective. And because school curricula, even though it may be so disguised that it seems appropriate only to school, is actually about the world we live in. You can find it embedded in nearly every place you see, from a busy neighborhood business area to a riparian forest or a mountain stream.

It’s been my experience that teachers respond well to developing the capacity to take charge of their science curricula by beginning with inquiries in a natural environment, zoo, or school neighborhood. Inquiry workshops which introduce groups of teachers to science inquiry in places with familiar concrete referents, then use these experiences to transition participants into science inquiry with the materials they have in the classrooms, are a good first step in improving science education. If it could be arranged, environmental educators and teacher mentors would ensure that a large number of these teachers would complete the journey to become those who, along with their students, routinely learn for understanding. And are willing to help empower other teachers.

Here are two sets of five assessment statements which have been used with effect, and which would emerge from the classrooms of teachers who have been freed to teach science as it should be taught. Freed because they have overcome the obstacles their teacher preparation and current punitive emphasis on standardized test results place on them. Freed to give effective feedback to their learning students. A teacher who has done the science, and comprehends the concepts and processes involved in what is being learned, will have a much better perspective to process a student’s efforts, place them within a meaningful context that the student can respond to, and observe for first, critical, steps toward learning for understanding.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher certification program effective professional teaching propositions:

1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning;
2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students;
3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning;
4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience; and,
5. Teachers are members of learning communities.

I believe that #2 above is not effectively addressed by current reforms. The five propositions listed above lead to what comes next:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching and Cambridge Education Project teacher assessment assessors developed by students, themselves:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect,
2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to,
3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,
4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day, and
5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Becoming comfortable and experienced in teaching inquiry-based science is a fundamental step in meeting these propositions because it engages a paradigm shift which provides you with a more realistic perspective about science and students becoming scientists.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

Teaching Science:

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

ripple_in_the_water-resized-600by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Flat, circular and smooth, the rock spat at the clean surface of the water, twisted slightly on its axis, and flew again. Dark and light, concentric lines speed outwards from its landing place. The rock’s path becomes a low curving arc until it touches the water again then flies toward its next destination. Flight paths shrinking, it finally stutters, rocks ever so briefly on the surface, then, laying on its side, sinks from sight.

We’ve all skipped rocks on the water. It’s fun and challenging. How far can we make one skip? How many times will it touch the water? We practice, search for flat rocks, try different methods, watch others then copy them, and practice some more. This is like teaching “the book.” Getting to Chapter 37 by the end of the year can be a real challenge in skipping rocks. We become creative in our own planning and preparation, go to workshops, attend seminars and institutes, pore through publishers’ offerings, observe what others are doing, and, by the time we retire, can skip through all 37 blindfolded. Students need to do science, then marshal relevant content to understand the results of their science. Just as scientists do.

But have we taught science? Science is a way of knowing, and beginning to understand the universe we live in. Do brief encounters with science content teach students to apply critical thinking to scientific or science related issues? I think not. For one thing, each encounter is so brief that it leaves no time for reflection or comprehension of scientific method or the concepts and processes enlightened by this method. No time for the reflection and contemplation so necessary to conceptual understanding. In too many classrooms, students are not provided the time to experience science as a process that lets us know. After completing a chapter, students may utter words which we ourselves have used, and make these words follow upon one another in apparently meaningful ways, but they may not comprehend the concepts that the words describe at all. These next words are important; think about them. “Science studies the world directly; it does not learn about the world from a text or canned activity. Our students must use the observational and critical thinking skills which science and our brain provides to understand and express their world.” When we do less, we do them, and ourselves, a great disservice.

When we touch on 37 chapters (representing 37 content areas with more or less complex concepts) we are like a rock, touching the water 37 times before it loses energy and sinks. Encounters with content or water are necessarily brief, leave a series of thin ripples, but do not make meaningful connections among the 37 visits except in the linear direction they travel. Even the ripples, once they touch, have lost most of their energy, and make no lasting impression upon their world. Nevertheless, we barge along, convincing ourselves, and our students, that they understand, that they have been taught science. However, if we take the time to check to see if we’ve done it right, we may find that even our best students entertain misconceptions.

One day during a cell biology lecture, I caught my mind stopping, then asking me a question, “Do they all see the same picture in their minds?” I couldn’t answer, and that floored me. What if none of them saw the same picture I did? So, I asked them to take a couple of minutes, draw a cell and a mitochondrion, and no more than two sentences about what we (I) had been talking about. As they worked, I scoped and zoomed, walking casually, but eyes and ears working to the max. (That’s an important part of teaching, if you want to know if and when students are learning.)

Their drawings fell into two basic categories: the mitochondrion was either inside or outside the cell. If it was inside, there was a small chance it was inside the nucleus. Otherwise, it could be anywhere inside the cell. If outside, it either touched the cell, or was some distance from it. I gathered from this that 1) I needed to start the lecture by drawing a mitochondrion inside a cell, and 2) I ought to find a way to probe for the pictures in their heads when I taught about what they couldn’t see. So, they immediately started drawing what they were learning. That helped me to know where I needed to take care to avoid misconceptions. A simple scope and zoom would clarify most misconceptions.

You can learn to tell when your students are learning. It just takes practice and careful attention to how each student telegraphs learning. Can you ensure that they are learning for understanding? If they are, then most misconceptions take care of themselves as students negotiate meaning. Small, ongoing probes help you do this. They become a habit. Another way you can enhance understandings and reduce misconceptions is to use the science your students are doing now to extend these learnings into a new topic. If the new topic is closely related, the transition should be obvious. If it seems distantly related, you have to search for your own understandings to find an appropriate vehicle to manage the transition. Usually, you can find it embedded in what the class has recently been learning.

Let’s say you are completing a unit on DNA and the function of operons in producing protein. Next you plan an abrupt change to study plant taxa. Two apparently disparate topics, and generally viewed as such. This happens so often that our students think of the topics as having no connection to one another. Why not initiate the transition by referring to interactions between operon and environment? If you’re starting the unit on plant taxa with the idea of using this new knowledge to work with an environmental educator to do a stream bank restoration project, you might have students use the idea of DNA and operons to think of reasons that the plant taxa you will be working with are different from one another in appearance and habitat preference. And might account for why they will be planted at different places in the riparian. Or not planted there at all. So, instead of leaving one topic and leaping to another, they will use what they know to navigate toward a new topic along a course they’ve sailed before. The rocks no longer leap from place to place then skitter to a stop.

There are innumerable transitions you can envision. Each one contains the capacity to produce comprehensive understandings, larger and larger conceptual schemata. Learning for understanding. When you begin to search for these transitions, your own understandings become stronger, as does your confidence to teach for understanding. This reverses my methaphor: The rock represents the trajectory of transitions, and the ripples your growing connected web of understandings. (I’m much more comfortable with this version.) What if your students were finishing a unit on weather, and next, were going to prepare to study the macroinvertebrate organisms which inhabit streams? How many transitions can you imagine up? How can you use one of them to enlarge the compass of your students’ current conceptual schemata?

When we simply jump from one topic to another, the rock touching and flying, what does this say about how well we comprehend the subdisciplines we teach and their connections? Should we do something about this? A good place to start is where you are. You’ve got your class engaged in a topic, and soon you’ll move to another. Visualize the connection you’ll use to transition to this new topic. Where, in the new content, do you want the transition to lead? How will you initiate the transition? Now, when it is time, start the transition. We need to learn how to take the time to develop quality transitions from one topic to another. Once in that new topic, take the time to nail down the understandings contained in this connection; both for the old topic, and for this new one. Then, the course the rock navigates will carry it home to deep conceptual understanding.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”