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SB 21.12.2001

3. Draft

Discussion paper for Central Concept Workshop of the SEET Programme in January 2001:

Starting in nature or in the community with environmental education?

By Soren Breiting

Save the young students from community issues?

To take your class out in nature on a field trip for one or several days is normally always rewarding. But is it so that EE for younger children is best done in nature, and the "dirty matters" with EE related to the community is better done with older students, only? That was my own opinion years ago, but our later experience from several countries is not supporting this distinction related to the age of students.

Younger students do have strong opinions about many aspects of their immediate environment, and they can be surprisingly concerned about environmental issues. The argument, that we should save them from the conflicting issues in the community until they grow up is not justified. The question is, how the young learners are expected to benefit from such teaching, and how the teacher can help them to understand some meaningful issues related to the use of natural resources in such a way that they become more optimistic concerning their future life conditions.

The benefit of nature experience

In all good science and biology teaching investigations in nature play an important part to fulfil the curriculum. Besides such formal requirements the general experience of teachers and researchers is, that investigation, exploration and experience in nature are strong motivators for students from a number of perspectives.
- Through the fieldwork they appreciate to work with the real world and not with an "as if school world".
? The fieldwork will give opportunities for the students to exemplify the theoretical knowledge they have achieved in class work, and - opposite - bring experience and data with them home to the class to elaborate on for future knowledge development.
- The outdoor experience generates many unforeseen experiences to support the students' future work and engagement in class with the scientific topics.
- In general students rate nature experiences as very positive.
- Experiences from fieldwork often form strong hooks for the students' memory, with an outstanding ability to stand the test of time.
- The social patterns and relationships of the class during field studies are often quite different from normal life in class and this steering up of fixed patterns often generate positive social effects of great importance for the later work in class, including the student-teacher relationship.

So, in conclusion there is no need in general to question the value of work in nature and with nature.

What to be cautious about?

The first hand experience through nature experience is valuable, but at the same time "learning from nature" is a questionable notion. The learning process is always a kind of interpretation of what you experience, and your prior knowledge is your tool for this interpretation.

If a school class is lucky to come across an eagle during their fieldwork in a forest, the interpretation of each student will depend very much on the individual student's prior knowledge of "eagle". Of course the teacher can facilitate the interpretation in the situation, but anyway the value of this interpretation for the student will strongly depend on the prior knowledge about eagles, in fact depend on the student's concept of "eagle".

Many of the learning outcomes of fieldwork in nature will have the nature of helping students develop categories as a part of their concept formation. Some of these concepts are concrete, like "eagle" where it is possible to actually see (sense) an example from the category or concept. But in many cases the real perspective of understanding is connected to the ability to develop less concrete, i.e. abstract concepts. A well know abstract concept in biology is "food chain". Nobody has ever seen a real food chain, because it is an abstraction. But it is possible to experience events in nature to be interpreted as belonging to parts of real food chains, even if the concept is not explaining relationships between individual animals, and that the food chain is more than the individual links.

In general we are often too optimistic related to the genuine scientific leaning outcome of nature experience. The quality of this will typically depend on a combination of how the nature experience has been prepared, how it was interpreted during the fieldwork, and how it is further elaborated on after the fieldwork.. If we put too much emphasis on the idea of "learning from nature" we might also oversee preconditions for our interpretation of natural phenomena, which will conceal important mistakes. Such a mistake is to go from the description of "how things are in nature" to a prescription of how things should be in the community.

The "start in nature" approach deserves some comments, if it is seenas an EE aiming at developing active participation to prevent future environmental disasters. Please remark, that these comments are not relevant for the "pure science content" of the nature experience.

Experience of nature during field work etc. has many positive effects on the teaching/learning situation as listed earlier. Especially the positive feelings towards nature and organisms are a strong outcome of nature experience. So this approach can be said to give a strong motivation for conserving nature, especially of the kind which has been experienced. In Thailand a number of engaged birdwatchers are good examples of this. What this approach is not so good at is to develop understanding of environmental issues as complex controversial issues in the communities, and how to be able to find resolutions.

The 'start in nature' approach is typically directing the attention of the students to nature - man relationships. Not unusually the whole approach is wrapped into some kind of nature romanticism. It is unclear to me, if examples of that exist for the moment in Thailand. Notions like 'back to nature', 'nature is never wrong' and 'the harmonious nature' are examples of this from other countries. Hugging trees, listening to growing grass and 'imagine you are a tree', are in my opinion all examples of that kind of activites based on nature romanticism, which do not help the students to understand what is the real issues related to our use of natural resources. Such activities can on the other side have positive functions outside EE.

To develop an understanding of biodiversity, the evolutionary mechanisms behind, and the irriversibility of extinction, and to combine this with work on what is regarded as the beauty of nature, and how nature during the millenia has inspired artists could on the other hand have a central role to play in EE.

How to achieve EE with 'start in nature'

If we want our learners to develop their ability to handle environmental issues they need to experience the complexity of such issues. It is better, that they get the time they need to really get deep into one environmental issue and learn from that, than to be educated in all the various aspects of environmental issues in the World. If the class has started with investigating the different communities of animals in a stream at different locations it is fine to estimate the level of pollution through some standardized techniques. To use the biological knowledge for this estimation is similar to the use of a termometer for the determination of temperature in some kind of medium.

In the stream example the class will build on the biological knowledge, that animal communities are good indicators of the level of organic matter in the stream. Even in the most polluted waters the class will find organisms. In streams heavily polluted with waste water they will find millions of red small worms (Tubifex) and big numbers of red larvae of some mosquitos (Chironomus). The living conditions of these polluted sites are optimal for these organisms. In less polluted areas of the stream or at total clean sites the class will find a higher diversity of other organisms, but not very many of each kind.

As similar sites to the very polluted sites also exist naturally in nature, we cannot tell what is 'natural' and what is not. The red worms and larvae are not 'unnatural' just because they live in a polluted stream. But the class can take a look at, how they would like the stream to be. Which kind of animals would they prefer to see in the water, and which kind of human use of the stream would they like to see in practise in future? For the class it would be obvious to investigate different people's opinion about the situation of the stream, and how they would like to see the stream in the future. The opinion of different people can be analysed according to peoples belief and interests in the situation of the stream. People who have their daily outcome as fishermen in the stream might express an interest in more clean water which differ from the concern of a factory owner (and his workers) who are discharging big amounts of waste water into the stream.

In such an in-depth study the class should develop some concepts which will make them better able to understand other environmetal issues, too, and not only about pollution of streams.

1. Some central science concepts could be 'organic' and' inorganic matter' and the different function of these in ecosystems on the general level and different adaptations of organisms, in water e.g. to levels of oxygene.

2. Important concepts for bridging the scientific knowledge with the analysis and understanding of the environmental issue of the community, could be concepts like 'indicator organisms', the limited 'self-cleaning ability' of streams, 'standards' for discharge of substances in waste water.

3. Concepts related to the community issue could be
'community issue',
'conflicting interests',
'beliefs' and 'attitudes',
'values' versus factual information,
'visions' (for the future),
distinction between 'needs' and 'wishes',

Many more concepts could be added for each category. These are just examples. It is also best to focus on very few and relevant concepts for the class on each level, and be sure that the students really develop their understanding through these. A kind of proof of success will be, if students have the concepts spontaneously active in understanding other environmental issues. If the teaching is not helping the students to understand the situation of the environment at this third level it can be questioned if it is useful to label the teaching 'environmental education'.

Starting EE in the community

As mentioned before community issues are often getting our students attention much more than we usually are aware of. To plan a teaching sequence to take its point of departure in this can be a strong lead for a stimulating learner centreret EE project. The identification of the issue can be a common task for the whole class or the teacher or teacher team can frame the choice of the students from the beginning to a specific area of issue, like environmental issues related to the forest.

In any case it is important to give the students room for influence on the identification of the specific issue to secure their ownership of the work and to train their ability to be involed in decision making processes.When starting in community EE will go directly to environmental issues from the very beginning. The students will not be in doubt that environmental issues are issues in the community. It will be very obvious to include different peoples' points of view related to the issue and try to make sense out of they opinion related to their intersts and values. The study of nature will be a minor part of the teaching, because it shall be motivated by the needs of the students to understand the issue at hand.

If it is a school in a big city the students might identify traffic related pollution as their main concern. Health aspects of people will be much more obvious to work with as the contribution of science than separate nature aspects. But of cause it is possible to include how the pollution is affecting the growth of trees and other plants etc.

The emotional perspectives in EE

Emotional perspectives are often important to get included in EE projects in a planned way. Different kind of art work can be helpful for this. The goal will often be to help the students to clarify their own values and concerns, wishes and visions, and to generate a common engagement in less concrete perspectives of environmental issues. Just a few examples will be mentioned here to indicate the potential:

Example 1

Students can make an essay about how they expect their neighbourhood to look like after 20 years from now, and compare their expectation with how they would like to see it develop. This can be done with younger students too, by asking them to model two scenarios: One showing how they expect the area to look like, and one showing how they wish it would look like. Area is indeed an important natural resource.

The differences between what students expect and wish for the future will form a fruitful ground for clarifying values and interests and ideas about how to work for a better future after their own concerns.

Example 2

Let each student in the class make a drawing showing a place they like in their school surroundings (or from their way to school) and make another drawing of a place they absolutely dislike. Let them describe each to other their choices and arguments. This can form a starting point for relevant investigations of how things change around them and how they might be influential themselves.

Starting both in nature and in the community

It is justified that there are advantages with both approaches to EE: starting in nature and starting in the community. It seems to be more common to start in nature than to let EE start in the community in many countries. For the advancement of EE it should be clear that some important goals of EE are better supported by starting EE in the community than to start in nature.



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