Exploring Student Expectations for Learning about the Environment

When we seek to have meaningful conversations about education, we often find ourselves speaking with teachers, school administrators, parents, and other community members. The point often is to find some reasonable portfolio of solutions that might help us to solve some of the lingering issues we notice in today’s education system. When these endeavors are made at the societal level, infusing the experiences of teachers and administrators with the observations of parents and other members of the community may indeed promote agreement.

But there is another population we often neglect to include in any substantial way: the students.

While the issues facing education typically are more complex, requiring insight students may be unable to provide, there are a few topics of that they have important thoughts. Two of these are about the learning process itself and student expectations for learning. Students, while learning in very similar ways to one other, may help to provide teachers, administrators, and parents with certain keenness into the constantly evolving learning culture. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, is the exploration of understanding and appreciating student expectations for learning.

Disclaimer: Everyone is a critic, including students. I do not argue that student experiences should completely guide a teacher’s craft no more than a particularly sensitive parent should have ultimate sway over a teacher’s classroom management.

To better understand student expectations of learning, I turn to environmental education as an example. This case study is based on the results of interviews completed during the spring and early summer of 2016 with students who participated in formal and non-formal environmental education during the 2015-2016 academic year. These interviews comprise of 16 fifth-grade students from three different school districts with varying indicators of socioeconomic depth across the Twin Cities metro area. And, for full disclosure, parents or guardians of these students did not listen to their child’s responses but they were in the same general vicinity.

When asked about their experiences learning environmental education, 11 of the students interviewed cited hands-on activities as important ways to learn about the environment. Of these 11, nine students remarked that field work (“field trips,” “nature walking,” “outside school”) are essential to learning about how the environment works (“air pollution,” “recycling,” “drinking water,” “protecting energy”). The other two students referenced “recess” and “playing outside” as the best way to learn about the environment. Apparently, being in the environment is more important than “just touching something about nature.”

Fourteen of the students interviewed want to learn more about the environment in their district, as well as around the state, with nine of these students also wanting to experience more about how these issue fit within the world as a whole. One student asked a question as an example: “what is recycling to Egypt?” Another student wanted to know about “water pollution in the river” affecting people in New Orleans, referencing the southward flow of the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to the Gulf of Mexico. It is inspiring to hear students talk about local, regional, national, and global environmental issues with such a critical tone. That said it is impractical to take students across the ocean to the Pyramids of Giza, exploring the environmental consequences of decisions made both locally and globally. Still, it is the spirit with which these students talk about the issues that is important.

What do I hope to achieve by sharing a brief and limited account of these interviews? First, I hope these results illustrate what it is students want out of their education. While teachers have other expectations to meet, adhering to academic standards to name only one, it may still be possible to construct learning experiences that attempt to address some of the ideas outlined above. Second, I want to highlight the genuine interest of the students interviewed to learn about the natural environment through a variety of methods and venues. Whether it is formal (more classroom oriented) or non-formal education (more field-based), there appears to be a legitimate interest of students to participate in environmental education. Lastly, third, I suggest it is these ideas that may help teachers to enhance their teaching practice in the classroom, whether that classroom is within four-walls or open-air.

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