Critical Thinking In Environmental Education: A Quick Lesson In Application

Many educators agree that teaching critical thinking skills is necessary because it better prepares students to be more productive members of society. Critical thinking may be taught in many disciplines, but especially is important when teaching from a multi- or interdisciplinary perspective. In some ways, it is easier to teach these skills when we involve multiple disciplines because various fields converge to form the basis of a set of solutions to a problem. Said another way, many issues require a diverse portfolio of solutions that stem from different disciplines should we desire to find meaningful solutions to problems. Critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning are fundamental to human existence; therefore, teaching in a way that infuses a more critical approach is beneficial to how and why we learn.

To better illustrate how to infuse critical thinking into your classroom lessons, consider the following three examples. As a disclaimer, critical thinking can happen in a variety of ways and are not limited to only these methods and ideas. The really great part about teaching critical thinking is that it lets you, the educator, develop a way of expanding the minds of your students in ways that will be memorable to them. Also, full disclosure, these three examples are from my teaching in higher education. Teachers teaching students in grades K-12 may adapt these to their specific classrooms pretty easily. If you have any questions, then I would love to hear from you.

Example #1: Climate Change
Understanding climate change means learning about the interrelationships between natural/physical science and social science. Natural/physical science includes ecosystem processes, biochemistry, and others; social science includes human contributions and behaviors, and understanding challenges. Teachers may select a topic related to climate change that also is relevant to their local area and explore its issues, causes, consequences, and possible solutions. Because climate change affects several aspects of life on earth, a multidisciplinary method is vital to better informing students.

Example #2: Relationships to Land
To more fully comprehend today, we need to have an accurate understanding of the past. In one course, I asked students about their experiences with land: what does your family do together, are there cultural reasons for your activities, and other questions as the conversation evolves. As these progresses, we began to talk about the history of the local land and its changes over time. This helped students to see where their personal, family, and cultural histories fit within the larger picture surrounding local land and history. A major theme of the conversation had to do with the use of natural resources, which students also found enlightening to realize their own personal dependence on the ecosystem.

Example #3: Connecting to the Environment

Since time immemorial, peoples indigenous to this continent have used stories to explain their relationship to the natural environment. In an exercise to show connection to the local environment, students worked in small groups to create stories based on a photograph of a local natural treasure. The purpose of this assignment was to highlight the importance of conserving the environment, but also contextualizing the students' lives within it. When we place ourselves within the environment, we begin to think differently about it. We relate to it in ways we may often take for granted. This exercise provided students with the opportunity to be creative, but also helped them to recall their own experiences living, dwelling, and recreating with the environment. The stories the groups shared to the class at the end of the period were rich with diverse nuances and a deeper appreciation for the environment in which we live.

While these examples are quickly described, the experience of using these ideas in the classroom was not only meaningful to the students but also to me. Higher education is more flexible in teaching pedagogy and methodology than K-12 education, but teachers do have a lot of influence over how their classrooms are managed. As you prepare for the next academic year, consider ways in which to enhance your craft. Including more critical thinking, perhaps even more than you do already, is a good place to start.