Thursday, May 22, 2008

Environmental education - the real basics?

After experiencing a spring on the mountain, as part of an intensive study of a river from source to sea, a student expresses her version of a powerful remembered experience. Such students learn, through activity and expression, to appreciate the importance of their natural environment. Such learning, and creativity, takes time and sensitive teaching.

‘..without intimacy with nature we can confuse crimes against the Earth with technological progress’ David Suzuki Naturalist.

Issues of global climate change, and other threats to the planet, are making us all more aware of environmental issues. Increasingly educators are feeling the need to take action. The ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum has responded to the challenge by introducing ‘issues of sustainability’ as a value, along with ‘ecological sustainability’, and the need to develop ‘a care for the environment’.

All too little and too late some might think?

A real appreciation of the natural world needs to be part of a child’s life from the earliest age and integral to all school learning
. Some might call it the real ‘basics’ of being human as young children learn through their senses driven by an innate evolutionary curiosity to make sense of their world. Making sense of the world means using the senses and to do this schools need to focus on sensory education.

In our classrooms today our young people are all to often diverted from being involved in environmental experiences by an exposure to technology based learning. An over emphasis on literacy and numeracy above, what educationalist Guy Claxton calls, ‘learnacy’ doesn't allow much time for environmental studies.

An environmental approach to learning links education to an engagement with the real world and has the potential to develop a love of learning about, and a responsibility for, the environment. As well such an approach provides the opportunity for students to develop language facility, an enriched vocabulary and the development of students' thinking, and problem solving skills.

Children, who have learnt to make full use of their senses through exposure to their intimate environment, are in a position to respond both poetically and scientifically to their experiences.This leads to sensitive oral and written expression (and from this reading their own and others thoughts), observational and creative art work, and for them to be in a position to want to learn more about what has captured their attention. As the New Zealand Curriculum states, ‘intellectual curiosity is at the heart of the thinking competency’ (p12).

I have aways enjoyed this quote from art educator Elliot Eisner:

'To be able to write one must have access to content, one must be open and able to see the world and experience ones encounter with it. To see the world one must learn to attend to it, how to penetrate its deep structure, how to capture what is significant.It is through the literacy of sight,and smell, and touch that literature and poetry, drama, science and dance are given the stuff with which to work.'

Such a language/environmental /related arts approach was once a feature of New Zealand classrooms and was widely admired worldwide. There are still teachers who hold true to such beliefs but recent standardized curriculums, and accountability and assessment requirements, have not made such teachers lives easy in recent years. The ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum provides a more progressive environment for teacher creativity.

Such a creative and personalized approach to teaching would contribute to the development of a positive sense of self gained through the valuing of their poetic ‘voice’ and for their scientific and artistic accomplishments. Such individual achievements develop, in students, a sense of control over their own lives.

The suggestion, in the New Zealand Curriculum, for teachers to make use of ‘the natural connections that exist between learning areas’ and the powerful idea of seeing students as ‘active seekers, users and creators of knowledge’ (p8) provides inspiration for teachers to develop integrated studies. The suggestion to ‘cover less but to cover it in depth’, is excellent advice to avoid possibilities of superficial learning.

The Curriculum suggests that schools and teachers , ‘respond to the particular needs, interests, and talents of individuals and groups of students in their classes’
(p37) This, with the welcome severe ‘pruning’ of the learning objectives of the earlier curriculums, allows considerable freedom for schools to develop ‘emergent’ programmes based on students need and concerns.

By developing a curriculum based around student needs, interests and concerns, an attitude of care and appreciation of their environment could well develop. If environmental topics chosen are studied in depth this allows students to have time to think and wonder and then to express their thoughts, making use of whatever talents and gifts they have.

If such an approach to education had been in place the past decades, valuing appreciation and sustenance of the environment, environmental issues might have been appreciated earlier. It is never to late to place a greater emphasis on developing an environmental awareness and ‘ecological sustainability’.

It was the late Rachel Carson, in her book ‘The Silent Spring’ published in the 1950s, who first introduced the vulnerability of our planet. Later she wrote in ‘A Sense of Wonder’:

Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of being reflective to what lies around you. It is learning to see with your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels and sensory impressions.’

This desire to learn through the senses is an evolutionary drive, or predisposition, that no child should lose. Children are driven by an intense curiosity enhanced by focused experiences of the natural world. Exploring this real world, as a basis for learning, is preferable to passively experience the world mediated through virtual imagery – and less expensive.

Schools ought to face up to environmental challenges that face future generations by helping all students develop a hopeful future for themselves and their planet. We need to start this imaginings early so as to develop an appreciation of the wonder and mystery of the natural world.

The ‘new’ curriculum gives us such an opportunity


Anonymous said...

Interesting observations as always. It seems that many teachers ignore the world outside their classroom and the natural curiosity and sense of wonder children have for the natural environment. This can not be replaced by technology, first hand experience can be the life blood of many powerful learning opportunities. It also frees children from many adult derived agendas and teacher driven programmes that have no real place in the heart of a child.

Bruce Hammonds said...

It is worrying that teachers, in their desire to 'educate' their students, ignore two great inspirations for learning - the inner 'voice' and felt concerns of each individual and the rich sensory immediate environment that they are being increasingly taught to ignore.

Just doesn't make sense - and they are both free for the taking. Teachers'are to 'blinded' by 'their' imposed curriculum intentions to even notice.

We are stil a long way away from what people call 'personalised' education!

Anonymous said...

Everyone must touch the earth. Conversations and connections - that is the 'educating' I believe is needed.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thaks Jody. I have just recieved a book from Amazon that has given me some more ideas about developing 'conversations and connections' with nature.

Have you been to seen the John Ford exhibition in your city gallery?

Anonymous said...

Yes Bruce... more than once actually!
We have just returned from class camp at Waiheke Island where the most popular activity was .... FISHING>>>>
The children LOVED it! It really was so exciting to see them experience the joy of catching a fish!
It is that first hand experience that must be had ... can be further enhanced with technology ... but cannot be replaced by technology!

Bruce Hammonds said...

The joy of learning is emotionaly felt and can only be enhanced with technlogy, not replaced, as you say. The trouble is there is not the time, nor the knowledge, to really make use of the children's environment. Waiheke sounds great. I have Powerpoint you may be interested in -about work done in Taranaki in the 70S!!!

Anonymous said...

Yes please Bruce, I'd be really interested. Send it on ... hayes@olol. etc or in snail mail. Thanks