When I started writing my own land conservation lessons at age 11, I had no real idea of what I was doing. I knew that people had to know more about the issues, such as why and how proper land management is important to human and non-human life. “If we use all the land or fill it with pollution,” I would think often to myself, “then what will happen to us and everything else?” The thoughts running through an 11 year old’s mind are pretty creative and sometimes intense. One of the outlets for this creativity was to write educational materials that others would want to read. Unfortunately, many of my peers living in our economically depressed town subscribed to the notion that learning was not fun. My efforts felt in vain, so I took out my need to teach about these issues on my younger siblings (I am sorry for giving you F-minuses all the time).
In the 23 years since that time, I learned a great deal more about building strong environmental education programs. I learned about environmental policy, its development and its implementation. I studied education, seeking answers to questions about teaching, learning, and success. I have worked with a wide array of diverse communities, both urban and rural, to practice what I learned and to be taught what I did not. The result is an ever-evolving outline of three characteristics that have helped me to create meaningful environmental education programs. Whether you are new to environmental education, or you have a history with it, I hope this essay serves as good fodder for discussion.
The three characteristics of a good environmental education program are holistic learning, inclusive excellence, and critical inquiry.
Inter- and multidisciplinary learning involves, as the name suggests, learning from more than one academic discipline in the same exercise or lesson. For example, if we are learning about water pollution, then we might explore the natural, physical, and social science behind its ramifications. Learning in this way describes how the various constituents within our ecosystem, including us, relate to one another (human and non-human life). Holistic learning is one of the first places from which program development in environmental education should begin.
Awareness to various racial and ethnic cultural perspectives helps learners to understand how environmental knowledge is conveyed throughout generations. Whether the culture is indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, African American, or others culture is the language with which we translate values and histories. To better reach learners within these populations, it is absolutely necessary for educators and program managers to be sensitive to cultural differences. This is not to say that the educator must know everything about every culture – that is extremely unrealistic; however, proper program development should embrace strategies for including these diverse populations in the learning process. An example of how this may be done is with the inclusion of guest speakers and cultural ambassadors within your program, at appropriate times.
Encouraging learners to explore natural phenomena around them is vital to the survival of a solid environmental education program. If student learners are permitted to learn about the environment by answering their own questions, then the likelihood of knowledge retention is greater. Additionally, opportunities for critical thinking provide the leaners to make their learning process more creative and, therefore, more memorable. This skill, which needs to be refined in many learners, may also promote better performance and higher academic achievement overall.
These three characteristics build a strong education program in general, but are natural components of a strong environmental education program. While all three may be important on their own, they work well together in creating a better environment for student learning. And, as I point out, this may make it more likely for students to perform better in other areas too. That itself may not be part of your program’s mission or goals, but it does beget a concept that is vital to your programmatic goals: that learners actually learn what you hope they learn.