EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

Using storytelling is the best way to engage very young students

from EE Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin, Editor

Research suggests that lasting attitudes toward nature and the environment form in the first few years of a child’s life; thus, instilling environmental awareness in very young children represents a key challenge and an exciting opportunity for environmental educators. Although firsthand experiences in nature in early childhood have been shown to contribute to environmental awareness, educators working in urban areas may find it difficult to arrange such experiences. In these circumstances, fictional or non-fictional narratives about nature and the environment may offer an alternate means of exposing young children to environmental subjects.

To investigate the effectiveness of storytelling as an environmental education tool, the authors of this study developed a short, fictional, preschool-level story about deforestation. The authors structured the story around the “binary opposite” concepts of security and insecurity (i.e., trees provide security, while deforestation leads to insecurity). Prior research has shown that this type of simple dichotomy, especially when paired with other narrative tools such as mystery, imagery, morals, and metaphor, can effectively capture the attention of very young children and help them construct meaning from new experiences.

In addition to the story, the authors designed a second lesson to present the same ideas in a more traditional expository format. Both the story and the expository lesson included information about important environmental regulation functions that trees perform, such as oxygen production, flood control, and air filtration.

The study took place in Southeastern Europe, a region heavily affected by deforestation. A total of 79 students from eight urban preschools with attendance from predominantly middle-class families, participated in the story-based lesson, while a control group of 80 students from the same schools received the expository lesson. Researchers assessed all students’ ideas about the importance of trees, and level of interest in tree planting as a free-time activity, prior to the lessons. A second assessment took place one week after the lessons, and a third followed about two months later.

In reviewing the assessment results, the authors found that students in the storytelling group demonstrated significantly better recall of key ideas from the lesson. One week after the lessons, when asked to explain why trees are important to humans, students in the story group focused almost exclusively on environmental regulation functions. Students in the expository group mentioned fewer regulation functions, and many students also mentioned raw material functions such as making furniture or paper. The differences between the two groups became even more pronounced eight weeks after the lesson, suggesting that the storytelling approach also improved long-term retention of the lesson material.

Both lessons increased students’ interest in tree planting as a free-time activity. Prior to the lessons, only a few students in each group chose planting trees in their hometown when asked to select two free-time activities from a list of seven options. In post-lesson assessments, over half of the students in the storytelling group and about one-third of those in the expository group selected tree planting. The authors surmise that the students gained new interest in planting trees as a result of learning about trees’ ecosystem functions and role in supporting human life. Students in the story group, who demonstrated a more significant knowledge benefit from the lesson, also exhibited a greater awareness of deforestation as a problem and a stronger motivation to act.

Despite the effectiveness of the storytelling approach, presenting very young children with vivid narratives about environmental problems does raise ethical issues.
As the authors note, stories that evoke powerful anxiety are usually inappropriate for young children. Children exposed to these narratives could develop negative feelings about the environment in general, and a desire to disengage from the natural world.

However, shielding children from environmental problems is both inappropriate and impractical. Societies will need long-term engagement from their youngest members to address these issues. And in many parts of the world, even the youngest children already have firsthand experience with the consequences of environmental degradation.
Given these observations, the authors conclude that stories designed to communicate both knowledge and hope can give young children a healthy awareness of environmental problems and help them contribute to long-term solutions.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Presenting information about an environmental problem in the form of narrative (fiction or non-fiction) may help raise environmental awareness among very young students. In this empirical study, students who participated in a story-based lesson about deforestation retained more key ideas about the problem, and demonstrated higher motivation to contribute to solutions, than did students who participated in a content-equivalent expository lesson. Stories aimed at young students should be structured around “binary opposite” concepts (such as security in a healthy environment versus insecurity in an unhealthy environment) and should include vivid imagery as well as elements of mystery and wonder. For young students in particular stories abut environmental problems should emphasize solutions and hope.

EE Research Summary: Comparing the Philosophies of Muir and Leopold

EE Research Summary: Comparing the Philosophies of Muir and Leopold


Who’s a Better Role Model:
John Muir or Aldo Leopold?

From Environmental Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin and Jason Morris, Project Leaders

THE RESEARCH: Goralnik, L., & Nelson, M. P. (2011). Framing a philosophy of environmental action: Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and the importance of community. The Journal of Environmental Education, 42(3), 181–192.


In thinking about what motivates environmental behavior, the Michigan State University researchers who authored this paper acknowledge that the knowledge-attitudes-behavior link that so commonly guides environmental education programs often doesn’t work or is an overly simplistic representation. (What is commonly referred to as the knowledge-attitudes-behavior model rests on the assumption that knowledge about the environment spurs more positive attitudes, which in turn lead to more responsible environmental behavior.)

The authors of this paper argue that, before people can learn and care about a topic or issue, they must first be ethically engaged. They state that “the ethical framework we employ . . . assumes that students will neither care about nor retain the knowledge they gain unless they are first emotionally and ethically engaged by place, community, and content.” And, they argue, by focusing on developing an environmental ethic, educators can set students up for a lifetime of better choices, even as environmental issues and appropriate actions change.

But what kind of ethic is most appropriate? The authors compare the philosophies of John Muir and Aldo Leopold and argue that one is better than the other at spurring action.

John Muir, “the iconic leader of the preservation movement,” argued that the key to environmental preservation is in getting more people to see and experience wild places. Muir supported open immigration policies and road building as ways that more people could experience the places he wanted to protect. And he said, “If every citizen could take one walk through this reserve, there would be no more trouble about its care.” The authors believe this reflects the classic knowledge-attitudes-behavior model. If people experience the natural world, they’ll become emotionally attached and, as a result, work to preserve it.

But, the authors question “whether it is true that such exposure is a sufficient condition for environmental action. We question the assumption that all people, in spending time and learning about a place, will develop similar feelings of respect for that place.” The authors cite anecdotal evidence that each individual in a group who together experience a wild place do not each develop the same feelings of respect for the place, nor does each person agree on the actions that might best honor it. And the authors also cite empirical evidence that knowledge doesn’t lead to action. They point to a recent study that indicated that the more that people know about climate change, the less they seem to care about the issue.

Leopold, on the other hand, emphasizes people’s relationships to the land in his land ethic. The authors explain that “in Muir . . . the human is often looking in upon nature, not an integral participant within the larger community. Leopold’s philosophy of action, on the contrary, . . . includes humans as equal participants in a wider web of connection.”

Leopold argues that, over time, people’s social consciousness has widened. He gives as an example Odysseus, who hanged a dozen young slaves who he suspected had misbehaved. During Odysseus’s time, moral and ethical obligations simply didn’t extend to slaves. Today, obviously, the boundaries have changed. And Leopold argues that what’s needed now is another boundary shift that will also include the natural world within our sphere of moral obligations. The authors explain, “In effect, ecology serves to expand the previously perceived limits of our community, just as centuries of evolution expanded our human community to include all humans beyond Odysseus’s limited definition.”

The authors believe that the role of environmental educators, then, is “to educate for a changed perception of community” that includes the natural world. In conducting discussions, for example, they believe “we should talk about protecting ourselves, or our home, rather than brainstorming the ways we can work to protect or maintain our special places when we get ‘back to the real world.’” While the ultimate goal might be changing actions, the authors argue that the best path, and one that will lead to better choices over the long term, is in expanding moral boundaries.

THE BOTTOM LINE: John Muir and Aldo Leopold have inspired generations of people with concern about the environment. But the authors of this paper argue that Muir’s philosophy sets humans up as outside observers of nature. And Muir’s philosophy also rests on assumptions that nature experiences alone can be sufficiently powerful to move people to action. The researchers argue that this way of thinking is outdated in light of research that indicates that knowledge does not lead to action. The authors instead believe that environmental educators should embrace Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, helping extend students’ moral boundaries from human communities to include the natural world. This feeling of moral obligation to the wider natural communities to which we belong will guide a lifetime of environmental action.

Teaching and Learning Ecologically

Teaching and Learning Ecologically

Cultivating Ecological Teachers and Learners Using Project Learning Tree



by Jaclyn Stallard
from The Branch, Project Learning Tree’s E-newsletter Summer 2014

“Ecological teaching and learning is not just a matter of pedagogy, but also philosophy. Ecological teaching and learning represents a new life-affirming mindset that all teachers—and, to a larger extent, all citizens and all Earth’s human inhabitants—must adopt for a sustainable future. This philosophy embraces interconnectedness and systems thinking, challenging the Western notion of separateness. This type of teaching and learning develops and fosters an individual and collective ecological consciousness as humans move through life and relate to themselves, others, and the world around them.”

Read the full article here

EE Research: Give students a say in what and how they learn

Dr. Peter McInerney et al. review the literature related to the theoretical foundations of place-based education (PBE). They propose that the main task of PBE in schools is “creating opportunities for young people to learn about and care for the ecological and social wellbeing of the community they inhabit and the need to connect schools with communities as part of a concerted effort to improve student engagement and participation.” Further, they argue that a critical perspective in PBE “encourages young people to connect local issues to global environmental, financial and social concerns, such as climate change, water scarcity, poverty and trade. At the end of the article the authors propose several approaches to facilitate critically engaged forms of learning:

Give students a say in what and how they learn;
Encourage young people to engage with the big question confronting the global community;
Build relational trust within schools and communities;
Develop a sense of student ownership, identity and belongingness;
Create space for dialogue, reflection and political action;
Establish an ethical commitment to justice.

McInerney, P., Smyth, J., & Down, B. (2011). Coming to a place near you? The politics and possibilities of a critical pedagogy of place-based education. Asia-Pacific journal of teacher education, 39(1), 3-16.

From NAAEE website Posted By Alex Kudryavtsev