Empathy and Environmental Education

Empathy and Environmental Education

The Compassionate Educator:
Empathy and Environmental Education

Tom Stonehocker

common challenge in environmental education is working with students who feel disconnected from their environment. This disconnection not only impedes a student’s ability to understand how natural systems function, it also affects how they value the natural world. This is caused not necessarily from lack of education, but the lack of focus on types of learning that build social-emotional skills in students.

Environmental work is inherently about responding to the needs of a changing planet. Environmental education must also continually focus on responding to the needs of our students so that they can grow to do the same for others. The study of nature is the study of relationships, and we would be wise to include ourselves in that definition, and perhaps even more importantly, those around us.

Author and educator Joseph Cornell shares that, “Our enjoyment and appreciation of life depends on our ability to sense feelings of other creatures, escaping our self-definitions to taste the joy of self-forgetful empathy with others” (Cornell, 1998, p.33). If young people are not well practiced in putting themselves into perspectives outside of their normal selves, how can they be expected to understand and care for the natural world?

Through my own reflections and experience as a field instructor at Islandwood, “a school in the woods”, located in Washington state, I have witnessed the value of being able to take on other perspectives. By adopting new points of view, we are better able to make informed and meaningful connections with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. As educators, the opportunites we provide our students largely do not come from the knowledge we can impart, rather our ability to engage students in experiences that speak to where they are coming from in life. To teach in this way, we must be willing to step out of our own experience from time to time and into the experiences of others in our community. Fortunately, with practice and thoughtful action, empathy can be used to increase the impact of our teaching.

Beyond Egocentrism

In Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, the authors describe a progression toward empathy that begins as students learn to recognize and express their own needs. “Over time and with your encouragement, they will go beyond asserting their needs into taking responsibility for them and being proactive about them” (Young, Haas, and McGown, 2010, p. 268). This growing sense of responsibility might be observed in simple acts, like noticing a student plan ahead by bringing warm and dry clothing. It might be a student who articulates that they are uncomfortable with a certain aspect of an activity and opens a conversation to plan an alternative.

Young, et al. go on to describe how this behavior often expands into a greater awareness of others and tending to their needs as well (2010). I have witnessed this progression in my students as I see them begin to speak up for each other. Students also feel more comfortable affirming the positive attributes that their peers bring to the group, and begin to feel a sense of comradery and pride with group identity.

“This same tending sensibility will also show itself as care for the natural world -and especially one’s own native romping grounds” (Young, et al., 2010, p. 268). In watching how self-care can grow into caring for others, it’s easy to imagine this expanding beyond just people and encompassing the environment as well. Developing a sense of place begins when a person starts to have deeper familiarity with their surroundings, and ultimately begins to feel at home where they are. Feeling a sense belonging is a true testament to the number and quality of the relationships built.

Helping Students to Cultivate Empathy

An important way to help a group of students begin to see from perspectives other than their own is by helping each individual realize the interconnectedness present within a community. One way to encourage this sense of interpersonal connection is by engaging them in team-building challenges. Of course there are millions of activities that achieve this—I’ve seen wonders happen when I challenge group of ten students to transport themselves 25 feet across an expanse of “shark-infested hot lava” using only four foam seat-pads as stepping stones. They become invested in a successful outcome for the group and along the way, they discover the role that each person plays and how they can more carefully and effectively communicate with one another.

These types of play-based collaborations have helped groups of students with intense trust and interpersonal challenges to become significantly more community-minded and thoughtful of each other’s needs. Sometimes, we must recognize that there is more work than can be achieved in our time together with students, but we must not let that stop us from trying.

One of my favorite activities to facilitate with students to dive even deeper into empathy is to engage them in storytelling from the perspective of a non-human element of the natural world. Students get to create their own narrative, which could be a short story, poem, or comic about any living or nonliving component found in our place.

One memorable story came from a student who, after having trouble coming up with ideas for his story, eventually wrote a beautiful piece about a plant he had learned about earlier in the day, the Evergreen Huckleberry:

One time there was [an] Evergreen Huckleberry. People and animals came every second to take the berry. A bird comes and make a house out of you, but the evergreen huckleberry can’t do nothing. So every time it grows [berries], people or animals take it. The tree was mad…because they were eating its berry. It [wanted] revenge and a 10-year-old kid came and said, ‘Stop, we were not hurting you, we were only [taking] berries because it taste good and we take out the seeds and grow another tree. No big deal.’”

Another student wrote from the perspective of a Salal plant that lives through the challenges of each season and ultimately feels unwanted by the other members of the forest community. She wrote,

“A small blueberry tree [looked] at me and said, ‘Salal you are great just like you are. You don’t need to be bigger and we need you. We need you, like you have very [delicious] and sweet [berries] and animals need you. Look, the [deer] needs you for your [berries].’ Salal said ‘Cool, I’m special.’”

In both of these stories, students are demonstrating their understanding of ecological relationships but also have some compelling themes of personal struggle. Both stories have moments when the main character is feeling underappreciated until another member of the community shows them they are valued. People of all ages struggle with self-confidence or feeling like an outsider. These stories illustrate how students can identify threads of connection across boundaries. This helps them develop new interpretations of environmental relationships andf also interpersonal relationships.

Another strength of perspective storytelling is that it helps students to view the natural world through a creative lens, and allows them to do so on their own terms and in their preferred medium. The perspective storytelling activity I shared with my students involved writing, but perspective storytelling can be done with singing, rapping, dancing, acting, or any other interpretation. By giving them flexibility in how they complete the activity, students will be more successful in reaching the goals of connecting with place and practicing empathy.

Showing Students We Care

Environmental and outdoor education inherently provides experiences that are new and often uncomfortable for students. Some students have spent very little time outdoors, some are away from their families for the first time, and some are working with people they don’t know very well. It is a vulnerable time for many, and often students’ interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges are placed secondary to content. The best way we can teach empathy is by practicing it ourselves.

I frequently encounter students with anxiety from being away from home. It is incredibly difficult for a student to experience the wonders of nature when they are in tears and sick to their stomach from being anxious. I approach these students by thinking about where I was at 10 years old. I remember being at outdoor school being unable to sleep, staying up at night crying, and feeling so alone in my discomfort. By stepping into the shoes of my 10-year-old self, I am better able to help students feel like they are being heard and help them persist through their challenges. I acknowledge the difficulty and pain, but remind them of the ways in which I’ve watched them succeed during our time together.

Being empathetic toward students also helps us as educators be more responsive to diverse groups of students. Something as seemingly straightforward as writing in a nature journal may cause great stress for an English Language Learner or a student with different learning abilities. It’s important for us to assess how we are connecting with our students, because it ultimately affects how they will be able to connect with the natural world

Many educators feel constrained when their curricula is focused on meeting state and national achievement standards. Some may not realize that NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) was designed to improve the equity of science education and serve diverse populations and learners (Quinn, 2015). At its core, NGSS help students explore concepts that are applicable across many different scales and subjects.

It is precisely this adaptability to a broad range of learners that demonstrates how integral empathy is in science teaching. An important tenet of NGSS is to create an environment where students feel at home and are “welcomed as full members, and invited to share their ideas and participate fully” (Quinn, 2015, p. 16). Reaching this place of comfort will happen after learning to be appropriately responsive to the needs of the students. Getting there could be as simple as providing opportunities for movement within lessons, inviting them to incorporate personal or family stories as part of the activity, or by keeping the focus on experience rather than outcome.

Making content more relevant to student lives can help concepts feel less abstract and more tangible. Kathy Liu Sun (2017) suggests incorporating guests to share their perspective and speak from experience. Hearing from voices that students can identify with helps add personal meaning and relevance. When learning is rooted in the experiences of real people and real places, students will recognize the authenticity and be more able to make connections back to themselves, their families, and their communities.

Being There

In her 2012 novel, Wonder, R.J. Palacio writes, “It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend” (p. 312). I interpret this to mean that we can treat others with kindness, but it means little if we are not working towards creating a meaningful relationship. In environmental education, we must prioritize relationship-building if we are to truly show that we care for future generations and the planet. By being present and attentive to student needs, we can help them cultivate a rich and meaningful connection to nature. By helping create these relationships, we are helping to create a future where people are fully invested in and advocate for the wellbeing of their natural and human communities.

Tom Stonehocker is a naturalist, graduate student, and field instructor who works with 4th & 5th-grade students at Islandwood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, Washington.


Cornell, Joseph. (1998) Sharing Nature With Children. Nevada City, CA: DAWN Publications

Palacio, R. J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Knopf

Quinn, Helen. (2015) Science and Engineering Practices for Equity. In NGSS for All (pp.7-18). Arlington, VA: NSTA

Sun, Kathy Liu. (2017) The Importance of Cultivating Empathy in STEM Education. In Science Scope. April/May. Pp. 6-8.

Young, J., Haas, E., and McGown, E. (2010) Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Shelton, WA: OWLink Media.

Integrated Teaching

Integrated Teaching

Photo by Jim Martin

Integrated Teaching: The Student-Directed Investigation

by Jillian Whitehill

s educators, our goal is to increase the growth of each of our students, foster their passion for learning, and best prepare our students for the real world. While there are many different pedagogies aimed at achieving these goals, I would argue that one of the most important factors is integration. In the context of this paper, integration describes four main elements. The first of which is integrated curriculum, which is a more applicable style of learning that shows students how to connect and apply concepts across various subjects to solve everyday problems (Beane, 1997). In this sense, skills and facts are only taught when they are needed to solve the problem.

The second component of integration is in relation to student ideas. It is important that the central topic or problem addressed in each lesson, is rooted in the students’ interests or issues that are relevant to their lives because it makes the lesson more engaging. It is also important that students are able to arrive at their own ideas or conclusions independently of the teacher. Thirdly, integration emphasizes experiential learning. Theorists such as Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget, have all argued that experiences are a central role of the learning process because they help students to: apply their knowledge and understandings to authentic experiences, reflect upon how their mind processes information, and engage socially, mentally, and physically in an activity.

Finally, to achieve these factors of integration teachers are best to design their lessons backwards, with the desired result at the forefront. This creates much more intentional lessons that often give students accountability for their learning. A student-directed investigation is a clear example of the elements of integration at work. Thus, I will outline three case studies to show how to facilitate a student-directed investigation and as well as how each incorporated the factors of integration.

Within a student-directed investigation, the students create the investigation question as well as the procedure. Putting this much responsibility into students’ hands can be intimidating, but by preparing scaffolding questions and allotting sufficient time, any group of students can take on the challenge. From the three examples that I will present, one can see that there are different ways to facilitate a student-directed investigation. That said, the teachers in my case studies all noted that they focused upon their end goals before planning their assessments and activities. I believe that this commonality of planning backwards helped each teacher achieve their desired results. It is also important to note that these groups of students had conducted at least one student-centered investigation prior to this, so they were all familiar with the investigation process.

To start the investigation, teacher number one outlined what makes a question investigable; in other words, something that requires students to collect data and can be tested within a specified timeframe given the tools provided. She then let her students free explore and asked them to write down every investigable question they could think of. Teacher number two followed a slightly different process by picking a central theme for the students to focus on while free exploring, in this case it was water. She gave her students 10 minutes outside to write down everything they observed about water. Teacher number three also prompted her students to hone in on their observation skills while they free explored, but differed by providing the sentence stems, “I notice…” and “I wonder…” As one can see, all three of these teachers provided some sort of structure for their students to follow while exploring outside, whether it was with a theme or sentence stems, but also allowed their students to follow their interests.

At this point all three of the instructors brought their students together to share what they had observed outside and started to form their investigation questions. Teacher number one put the students into groups of three and asked them to share amongst each other the investigable questions they wrote down while free exploring. They would them decide upon one question that they would investigate as a small group. Teacher number two brought her whole class together, outlined what made a question investigable, then gave them 10 minutes as a class to come up with as many investigable questions as possible, guided by what they had observed about water. She then asked them to decide upon one question to investigate as a class. Teacher number three brought her students together and asked them three consecutive questions in relation to their observations. “What do scientists do? What types of tools do scientists use? What can these those tools measure?” By the third question the students began to produce many investigable questions, of which the students were asked to narrow down the list to their top three choices and divide into groups of three or four to explore each question.

Each teacher elicited student ideas through scaffolding questions and prompts but allowed the students to guide the direction of the investigation questions. While all strategies required the students to work together, the students of teacher number one and even more so teacher number two, had more practice compromising given that they had to agree upon an investigation question once they were in a predetermined group, rather than being placed in group dependent upon their interests. Both cases are valuable, depending upon the objectives and goals of the lesson

Once the investigation questions were set, the teachers moved to the next step of creating the procedure. Teacher number one and three asked their students to consider the order of steps, how much time each step would take, what tools they might use and how, and what role each person would take on the team. Beyond this, they did not alter any part of the students’ procedures but instead asked their students to consider how they could improve their procedure once they had finished their investigation. This analysis component is valuable as it ties into experiential learning, asking the students to reflect and improve upon what they learned.

For the sake of time, teacher number two provided the students with a procedure to follow then divided the class into smaller groups to conduct the single investigation. Once the procedure was set, all the teachers gave their students an investigation chart to record their data and sent them off to host their investigations. During this time, all three of the teachers floated between groups to observe their progress. Each noted that they were careful to remain as bystanders throughout this process, merely acting as a safety monitor. This relates to the second element of integration in that it allows the students to arrive at their own ideas independently of the teacher.

At the end of the investigation all three teachers brought their students together to finish filling out their investigation charts and asked their students to find the average of their variables. While teacher number two had her students do this as an entire class, teacher number one and three gave an example and then asked the students to do this within their individual groups. Once this was complete, the teachers asked their students to create a conclusion statement based off their averages. They all emphasized the importance of having evidence to support claims and provided their students with the sentence stem “I believe ___ because ___.” At this point each teacher hosted a debrief, asking questions such as:

  • Based on your data, what conclusion did you come to?
  • Was this how you thought the investigation would turn out? What surprised you?
  • What could have influenced the data?
  • What new questions do you want to investigate?
  • What skills did you practice during this process? How can you use these skills in other areas of your life?

In total, the student-directed investigation took each of these teachers three to four hours to host. Each teacher noted valuable components of the lesson that encompassed the factors of integration. For example, all three of the teachers felt that the student-directed investigation allowed their students to chase their curiosity, which produced much more engagement throughout the process than they had witnessed during student-centered investigations.

In addition, they noted the benefits of integrated curriculum. They felt that their students learned concepts and practiced skills from multiple subjects, such as scientific processes, mathematics, listening and communication skills, creative thinking, organizational planning, problem solving, and critical thinking. Teacher number two added that she only taught skills once they were needed, such as when her students were unable to decide upon a single question to investigate. This summoned a valuable lesson around communication norms, including collaboration, compromising, listening, and using the right tone and language with peers; which would have otherwise gone unstated. This is a key part of integrated curriculum.

Teacher number three agreed that her students practiced invaluable skills that she had not anticipated. She found that through the student-directed investigation, her students began to take responsibility for their learning. During the debrief, she had asked her students to present their findings to the group and was delighted when, unprompted by her, they followed-up each presentation with questions, proposed next steps, and a diagnosis of what may have influenced their findings. This reflective component is a primary element of experiential learning, as it cements the skills learned through hands-on activities.

Teacher also number one mentioned the value of experiential learning, but in relation to creating the procedure. One group of students was investigating the relationship between the amount of rainfall and location. In their original procedure, they planned to measure each location for 30 seconds. Once they started their investigation they realized that this timeframe was too short to gather an accurate reading, so they adjusted their procedure and restarted the investigation. The teacher was pleased to see her students reflect upon their process and apply their new ideas.

In conclusion, these three examples of student-direct investigations highlight the four elements of integration. In student-directed investigations, teachers give their students the ability to choose the topic they want to learn about, students must draw on skillsets from various subjects, and students are able to reflect upon their learning process through hands-on experiences. All of which are best achieved when teachers plan with the desired results and goals at the forefront. This style of instruction increases student engagement, information retention, and applicability of skills, better preparing our students for the real world.



Kolb, David A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Beane, James (2005). Curriculum Integration: Designing the Core of Democratic Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, second edition. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.



Jillian Whitehill is attending the IslandWood Graduate Residency EEC Program in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Is active learning an effective vehicle to train science inquiry mentors?

Walking along with you is far better than telling you “I’ll show you the way.”

ow should we prepare mentors of teachers who wish to learn how to engage their students in authentic science inquiry, to provide what they will need for the work they will do? Should we get them together and show them what to do? Or, engage them in active learning focused on mentoring, and respond to what emerges? I know from my various experiences in being trained that listening to a speaker, then watching from a distance as the speaker demonstrates an activity, does next to nothing for me. When I arrive to do the work I was trained for, I’m not sure where to start. There, on site, bright smiling face, but a little uncertain just what to do. When my training has me actually doing the work, I arrive on site ready to go; looking forward to doing the work. So, I think I’ll describe mentor training via, mostly, active learning.

What is mentor training via active learning like?

Since classroom teachers will probably find doing a first field trip on their own a bit daunting, we’d start the teacher/environmental educator mentors-in-training doing just that. They’ll do a training, more or less on their own. First, we’d group them in pairs, then have them move through three or four stations representing those that students would move through on their first field trip. Participants’ first job at this training will be to decide how to do the work at each of the stations, say, “Streamside Vegetation.” As they go, these mentors-in-training will share what they know about the station they are visiting, and how they would assist an inexperienced teacher to become comfortable doing that station.

At each station, there would be a poster board, Post-Its, and a felt pen. The board would have the name of the station on it, and the rest of the space for questions and comments. For this training, the questions and comments would relate to the work of mentoring inexperienced teachers as they go to a natural site to do the work at this station for the first time. As they work out the way they think the station would be best done, they will make comments on the Post-Its and place them on the board. As the concept clarifies itself, they might wish to move the Post-Its around to reflect this.

After they organize the Post-Its on the boards as they wish, they will decide on outcomes for that particular station, what the students who visit it will take away from their experiences. Then, they will decide how the station will be introduced to students. Hopefully, they will have clarified the purpose of and function of the station, and they can decide on a rationale, a mission statement of sorts, for that station. A training done this way, not a talking head, telling them about it, but an active way of discovering it for themselves. All of this will go to the board on Post-Its, or, if they are sure of what they’ve done, they would use the felt pen to mark off a heading and space for the Post-Its that go under that heading.

Then, they will organize themselves to do the work of the station, and do it. While working, they would engage in an interactive dialog as they move along; clarifying, suggesting, and making recommendations which emerge from their experiences at that station. When they’re finished, they may wish to modify or add to the Post-Its on the board. After completing this station, they will rotate to the next one, where they will repeat the process. As they go, they will add Post-Its of their own, rearrange them, and add a heading if they think it should be a permanent part of the board. They continue until they’ve completed the work at all stations. (This exercise was first introduced to me by Rebecca Martin, when she used it in a Salmon Watch teacher training. I call it a concept-induction exercise. Some call it an ideation exercise. It’s very effective. I’ve even used it to focus a meeting to plan a performance center in Vancouver, WA, where I live.)

What might mentors-in-training take away from this active learning exercise?

At the end, after all groups have visited all stations, the entire group will do a walk through the stations, pointing out curricular elements embedded in the environment, listing equipment that would be needed or helpful in doing the work, noting safety measures for particular parts of each station, sharing what they’ve learned, discussing the work to understand it better and suggest modifications. As part of this, they will review each updated poster board (which remained on station), and nail down their recommendations, etc. At the end, they will suggest next steps, which might be no change needed, or some further changes.

When this has been done, the mentors should be able to have moved inexperienced teachers to a place where they can, with time, become teachers who confidently move their students, via active learning in a natural environment, toward the knowledge, skills, and understandings they will need to respond to the effects of climate change effectively. The purpose of all these words.

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.”

Jim Martin on Teacher Mentors

Jim Martin on Teacher Mentors

Why would a practicing teacher need a Mentor?

Is the idea of mentoring teachers an unnecessary element in our Schools?

by Jim Martin

If you were to trace your ancestry 25,000 years or further, you’d find that your forebears read no books about the natural environment. Nor did they answer multiple choice test questions about it. They lived in it, and learned in it. The environment is where they developed the capacity for critical thinking that we carry with us today.

We try very hard to continue to teach critical thinking in our classrooms, but all you have to do is look around, and you have to conclude that classrooms don’t teach critical thinking very well, if at all. However, walk into a classroom in which the curriculum is built upon experiences in the real world, and you will see critical thinking, critical writing, involvement and investment in learning, commitment to growth, and active environmental stewardship. You’ll also encounter enthusiastic, empowered people. Environmental education is demonstrably an effective vehicle for learning for understanding in all subjects, and is the crucible for the evolutionary development of our central nervous system, “the brain,” which we use every day to learn. We learn best in the real world; the learnings we acquire express themselves in personal growth, improved education, and a commitment to stewardship.

Studies on teachers who decide to take their students into the real world reflect what I’ve heard from other people who train teachers or are teachers who have taken their students outside the classroom. Even my own experiences teaching classes in fifth-grade through college, and helping teachers learn to do that too, all say, in one way or another, that it takes three to five years for a teacher to move from not having taken students outside the classroom, to being comfortable using the world outside to deliver curricular content. (That’s a long sentence; I’ll follow with a short one.) It works. Takes time and patience, but it does work.

Might mentors assist teachers to develop their capacity to use the environment for teaching and learning?

Hopefully, many of us know that our students, and their children, will have to understand ecosystems and climate change if they are to cope with the brunt of the effects of climate change. That means we have to teach these subjects in our schools. The studies I can find of how well-equipped we are to meet this real need say that fewer than half of us have the college-level background and understandings we should possess to teach the environmental science to meet this need effectively. We really must take some first steps in filling this vacuum as a professional responsibility.

In previous blogs we’ve looked at an outline of how to approach the training that teachers need to enable their students to approach global warming effectively. Another component of an effective response to the problem is a mentoring program to help more teachers through these three to five years it takes to become proficient in using active learning outside the classroom to teach ecosystem science. Mentoring is a model that business and industry use routinely, but which is relatively rare in schools. Just now, we are the only ones who can begin to build capacity for this developmental model in our schools.

Over the years, I’ve worked with teachers making their first forays with students into the world outside the classroom. For a large fraction of them, their main concern on this first trip is the head count going onto the bus, and the head count getting on the bus for the return trip. This concern of theirs about not losing a student highlights a pertinent piece of the act of moving outside the classroom to generate curriculum – how we, the teachers, feel when we step outside the familiar safety of our classroom.

What can mentors actually do for teachers?

Those feelings, anxieties, tend to carry through that first day. Another common teacher concern at the site during a first field trip is about student behaviors as they work and move through the site’s stations. When we are anxious, our brain’s response is to seek safety instead of attending to the learnings on site and developing conceptual schemata that will help us do a better job of teaching. On that first day, teachers should have the support it takes to enjoy the field trip, and be sorting through it to re-think what will follow once they are back in the classroom. Mentors can fill that need, helping teachers grow as they experience active learning in the world about. This can involve and invest them in the work, and empower them as teachers. A mentor is another human to walk the road with. Then, the work, not concern about what might happen, will carry the day.

For teachers on a first trip where their students are actively involved in learning on-site, a mentor is an ideal person to point out the content the site contains, and how to fill in areas the teacher is weak in. They also would have the knowledge, skills, and experience to recommend particular things the teacher can do to help their students discover that content embedded in the environment. At the same time, a good mentor would also be able to make suggestions about supervision and management skills that the teacher may not be aware of. It takes time, years, to become comfortable and proficient at using the real world to enhance student learnings.

The payoffs of making mentors a part of classroom and environmental education are worth the investment it takes to get them there. One powerful tool in making this happen is attracting seasoned mentors to help teachers navigate this part of the education world. Both environmental educators and teachers. We need to build this capacity into teacher training now.

There are teachers in most school districts who do take their students outside the classroom, either on the school grounds, the neighborhood, or a natural area. Many of these teachers who take their students out of the classroom for part of their curricula have, in the past, been willing to help other teachers who think they would like to try it, but are understandably unwilling to risk it alone. They constitute a component of an ideal mentor pool. Adding environmental educators, a critical component in the pool, should double its effectiveness. We’ll take this up in the next blog. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in this topic, leave a comment below.

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.”


Jim Martin on Teacher Mentors

Jim Martin on Science Inquiry

Can We Learn What Science Inquiry Does For Us? What To Teach; And How?


by Jim Martin

n a previous blog, a student, Maria, noticed a salmon fry darting toward a rock covered with periphyton, a thin colony of algae which supports microbes and invertebrates living in it. Her eye lit up as she became aware of it; a wonderful learning moment, the kind which lights up our brain.

How do you learn to recognize when Maria’s eye has noticed something, and made a conceptual connection with it? What experiences ought you have to recognize that moment and use it effectively? Then to follow up? How did we get here in the first place? We’re exploring the use of inquiries outside the classroom to discover how to use active learning effectively. And, while doing that, to discover and use the curricular content embedded in the world outside the classroom. How do we help teachers become comfortable with this?

Does what we teach reside solely in our curricular materials? 

We do inquiries; do we ever ask what inquiries do for us? One thing that student-directed inquiries do is to use the way our brain learns best, which should be driving our deliveries. When we begin a new learning, it will more than likely possess latent connections to previous conceptual learnings stored in associative memory in our brain. If we can organize a student’s environment so that this might happen, then we have set up an environment where conceptual learning will occur. Our brain is an autonomous learning machine when it encounters something interesting in the world about. We set this in motion when we organize a student’s environment so that a question will more than likely emerge from it. When this becomes part of the foundation our teaching is based upon, conceptual learnings become a normal product of our classrooms.

Some students, like Maria, will rather quickly note a connection between what they observe at the moment, and what they already know. These students, engaging what Lev Vygotsky described as a zone of proximal development, will provide, by what they say and do, the pieces of the puzzle for those who have not yet attained the new concept; not yet seen the connection between what they observe, and what they already know. Yet, whose brains already hold all of the relevant pieces. This capacity to see and make connections is something I’ve observed that all students will develop as long as they are in an environment where active learning is routinely engaged. Since self-directed inquiries stimulate our brain to engage in critical thinking and conceptual learnings, that is precisely what inquiries do for us. Build autonomous, thinking brains.

Does conceptual learning only occur when students engage curricular materials in our classrooms?

How do we get there, the place where autonomous, thinking brains develop? You have to know the things students will encounter as they learn, then direct them to those pieces which have the capacity to engage human interest. In the previous blog, we discussed the idea of a teacher in-service workshop in which teachers, environmental educators, and a regional environmental education center might be used to help classroom teachers become comfortable with science inquiry in a natural environment. In this pilot workshop, we posited starting with a science inquiry training in which teachers would engage concrete entities in a natural area. Those who I have worked with in workshops like this have always experienced the way that simply engaging teachers in particulars of the place they are in stimulates questions which are easily turned into effective inquiries.

Noticing something which catches your interest has a way of stimulating you to want to know more about it. Everything could end right there, and you might continue on your way. If, as you move along, you encounter another of the thing which caught your interest, you will notice it, and may even raise a question about it. This is the way your brain works when it is engaged in conceptual learning. We need to learn to use it routinely in our teaching. It leads to long-term conceptual understandings. Not items to recall on a test, but conceptual information which seems just common sense.

If you were a participant in the in-service workshop I mentioned above, and you encountered something interesting which raised a question in your mind, there would be teacher-mentors and environmental educators there to help you locate resources, etc., but not to tell you what to think and do to answer it. Your brain, not theirs, is the one that’s learning. (Likewise in our own classrooms; the students, not we, need to do the learning!) Then, there would be a follow-up on questions and/or insights entrained by the science inquiry process. (My own students would review and research more information than I could teach via a conventional deliveries.) The important thing is that much of what you find and process in your brain will remain as conceptual associative memory, available on demand. Even when, in your classroom in May, you ask students to recall what they learned when they did such and such an inquiry in October. It does work.

Maria went on to learn about the salmon fry and periphyton colonies she met while she was on site at the stream. Most of what she learned came from her observations in the real world, researching information about them on the web, and reading in the texts in her classroom. More learning than a teacher can deliver by teaching the whole class one piece at a time. The trick is to organize the work so that each student or group contributes a nice piece of the overall learning. Sharing brings it all together. Enough teachers, and schools, have successfully adopted active learning deliveries that we ought to be encouraging it in our schools, our districts, and our state departments of education.

Many classroom teachers don’t have a strong background in the science they teach. We, the classroom teachers, need to develop a systemic way to build a strong content background in the concepts that we teach. Formidable hurdle, but it can be done. Since I first started tracking it in the early 1970s, about half of U.S. teachers have had little or no college-level preparation for the content they teach. We’re assigned to teach it anyway because there’s no one else to do it; we’re coaches who need a full-time salary, our principal assigns us to teach it, etc. How would our tech sector do if they applied the same staffing model? For now, we are the ones who have to take up the slack. We need to work together to build our capacity to effectively engage our students in the excitement and comprehension of science in the real world. We may not solve the problem, but I know from experience that we can make a dent in it. We’ll take that up as we go along.

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.”

The Importance of Deep Experiences in Nature

The Importance of Deep Experiences in Nature

The Importance of Deep Experiences in Nature

By Joseph Cornell

rofound moments with nature foster a true and vital understanding of our place in the world. I remember an experience I had as a five-year-old boy that awakened in me a life-long fascination for marshes, birds, and for a life lived wild and free.
I was playing outside on a cold, foggy morning when I suddenly heard a startling chorus of “whouks” coming toward me through the air. I peered intently at the thick fog, hoping for at least a glimpse of the geese. Seconds passed; the tempo of their cries increased. They were going to fly directly overhead! I could hear their wings slapping just yards above me. All of a sudden, bursting through a gap in the fog, came a large flock of pearl-white snow geese. It seemed as if the sky had given birth to them. For five or six wonderful seconds their sleek and graceful forms were visible, then they merged once again into the fog. Seeing the snow geese thrilled me deeply, and ever since then I have wanted to immerse myself in nature.

Being Fully Present
When outdoors, many people are so engrossed in their own private concerns that they spend little time noticing their surroundings. I once demonstrated this to a group of 25 teachers in Canberra, Australia. I asked them to look at a beautiful tree as long as they were able to, and to raise their hands when their attention wandered from the tree and drifted to other thoughts. In only six seconds, every hand was raised. They were amazed to discover how restless their minds were.
Exposure to nature isn’t always enough. A friend of mine discovered this when he took his eight-year-old son hiking in the Canadian Rockies. They hiked for several hours until they came to a spectacular overlook where they could see two glaciated valleys and several alpine lakes.
He said, “That view alone made our long trip from Iowa worthwhile.” He suggested to his son that they sit and enjoy the mountain scenery. But the boy, who’d been running exuberantly back and forth along the trail, sat for five seconds, then scrambled to his feet and started running up the trail again. My friend said he felt like screaming, “Stop! Look at this incredible view!”

How can we help others experience nature deeply when their minds and bodies are so restless? The secret I’ve discovered is to focus their attention with captivating nature activities that engage their senses.
For example, in the Camera Game, which is played with two people, the “photographer” taps the shoulder of the “camera” twice, and the camera-person opens his eyes on the scene before him. Because the camera-person looks for only three seconds, his mind doesn’t have time to daydream, so the impact of his “picture” is quite powerful. Players of the Camera Game have told me that they’ve retained a vivid memory of their pictures for five, even eight years afterwards. This activity helps people of all ages experience what it is like to truly see.

Other examples of simple, absorbing activities are mapping natural sounds, writing an acrostic poem about something captivating, drawing one’s “best nature view,” and interviewing nature, where you look
for a special rock, plant, or animal that has an interesting story to tell. Then you ask it questions like, “What events have you seen in your life? What is it like to live here? Is there something you would like to tell me?”

Superlative Moments
Abraham Maslow described peak experiences as especially joyous with “feelings of intense happiness and well-being” and which often involve “an awareness of transcendental unity.” Mountaineers commonly report having these kinds of experiences. John Muir, in the following passage, explains why:

In climbing where the danger is great, all attention has to be given the ground step by step, leaving nothing for beauty by the way. But this care, so keenly and nar- rowly concentrated, is not without advantages. One is thoroughly aroused. Compared with the alertness of the senses … on such occasions, one may be said to sleep all the rest of the year.
—John of the Mountains

The intense focus required by wilderness pursuits such as climbing heightens one’s awareness, which is why so many people avidly enjoy them.

Leaders can encourage peak experiences on less wild walks by using experiential activities that focus people’s complete attention on nature. Concentration is concentration; people benefit from increased perception wherever they are. One educator who hikes the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail every summer practiced the Sharing Nature organization’s reflective “I Am the Mountain” exercise for just four minutes. Afterwards, he said enthusiastically, “I was able to experience a state of heightened awareness that usually takes me a month in the wilderness to feel.”

Meeting Nature Face to Face
Science can only describe a flowering cherry tree; it cannot help us experience the cherry tree in its totality. To develop love and concern for the earth, we need deep, absorbing nature experiences; otherwise, our relationship with nature will remain distant and abstract and never touch us deeply.
Rita Mendonca, Sharing Nature Brazil’s national coordinator, recently gave a training program in the Amazon for professional ecotourism guides, some of whom had worked in the area for 40 years. Their attitude at first was that she had little to teach them. But after participating in several experiential Sharing Nature® activities, a woman approached Rita and said with deep emotion, “You are helping me find the forest inside of me! We don’t know the forest in this way!”
Absorbing experiences bring us face-to-face with nature. The observer and the observed become united—and only then is true knowing and love awakened in the observer’s heart. John Muir said that the content of the human soul contains the whole world. The deeper purpose of experiential learning is to broaden our experience of life and include other realities as our own. When one is immersed in nature, Muir said, the “body vanishes and the freed soul goes abroad.” Only by expanding our sense of identity beyond our physical body and egoic self can we commune with distant horizons, brightly colored songbirds, and countless other delights.

When people are quiet and receptive, fully immersed in nature, insights on the real purpose of life reveal themselves. David Blanchette is a teacher at the Punahou School on Oahu Island, Hawaii, where every year he leads his 13-year-old students on an inspirational nature walk along a remote and wild coastline. Below are some of his students’ thoughts about life and nature after playing reflective, experiential Sharing Nature activities like “Expanding Circles,” “Trail of Beauty,” and the “John Muir Game”:

•    It made me feel like I was actually a part of the sand and ocean.
•    I was a calm ocean wave gently rolling towards the shore. I was the reef, feeling the cool water roll over me.
•    I felt euphoria. I felt like I was one with everything around me.
•    It felt powerful, yet peaceful. Every part of me is moving and flowing in harmony.
•    Watching the turtle swim carefree reminded me that I have nothing to worry about.
•    You really live when you take time to notice your surroundings.
•    If you find beauty within the world you can find it within yourself.

Jessica, one of David’s students, wanted to express her appreciation for the ocean, so she gratefully wrote “thank you” in the sand—and let the ocean waves embrace her sentiment and take it into itself.

Fostering in others beautiful human qualities of humility, respect, love, and joyful harmony with one’s environment outside and inside of oneself—as expressed by the Hawaiian students—is what nature education is really about.

Becoming Good Stewards
A teacher in the Southwest once asked the children in his class to draw a picture of themselves. He recalled, “The American children completely covered the paper with a drawing of their body, but my Navajo students drew themselves differently. They made their bodies much smaller and included the nearby mountains, canyon walls, and dry desert washes. To the Navajo, the environment is as much a part of who they are as are their own arms and legs.” The understanding that we are a part of something larger than ourselves is nature’s greatest gift. With it, our sense of identity expands and, by extension, so does our compassion for all things.

In order to create a society that truly reveres the natural world, we must offer its citizens life-changing experiences in nature. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “The soul in its ecstatic state grasps in an instant more truth than can be arrived at by months, or even years, of painstaking thought and study.” One moment of deeply entering into nature can inspire in us new attitudes and priorities in life that would take years to develop.

When people feel immersed and absorbed in the natural world, they are learning the highest that nature has to offer—because nature herself is their teacher.

Joseph Cornell is the author of the highly acclaimed Sharing Nature book series and is the founder and president of Sharing Nature Worldwide. You are welcome to reprint this article with prior permission from Sharing Nature Worldwide. You can find out more about Sharing Nature activities and resources at www.sharingnature. com or 530-478-7650. Contact Joseph Cornell at info@sharingnature.com.