Fitting the Environment in Education: A Bipartisan Approach?
Once rare, it has now become commonplace to hear news reports and conversations about global climate change, loss of habitat and endangered species, dwindling regional supplies of clean fresh water, and local sewage or hazardous waste spills. This growing concern and awareness about the state of our environment has led to a multitude of complex government regulations and tax policies like those that encourage businesses and homeowners to add solar panels to their homes, require utility companies to undertake habitat restoration projects, and compel cities to implement recycling programs. Environmental issues that—until recently—were viewed as nonpartisan are now often catalysts for partisan wrangling, adding another layer of complexity to any measure directed at ameliorating the impacts of human activity on the environment.
Unfortunately over the past two decades, rather than increasing the preparation that our students need to be able to meet these challenges, teaching about the environment has dramatically decreased in K–12 schools. In large part, this has occurred because states, districts, schools, and teachers have increasingly focused the majority of their attention on having students master the skills and content represented in state standards and show their mastery each year on high-stakes tests that cover only two subjects: math and English language arts. In large part, the decrease in learning about the environment has resulted from the fact that states—with the exception of Pennsylvania and California—did not develop standards related to instruction about the environment or environmental issues. As a result of this shift in focus and associated budgetary changes, teaching and learning about the environment and environmental issues and how they affect humans and the natural world have decreased dramatically.
Both supporters and critics of environmentalism should be alarmed that today there is little time in school for examining how the survival of the human species and our individual lives depends on the health and functioning of Earth's natural systems. In fact, nowhere in the current definition of a comprehensive education is there value placed on understanding human dependence on natural systems and how human decisions and activities influence everything from the survival of plant and animal species to the Earth's atmosphere and climate.
Diminished school-based opportunities for students to learn about the environment are leaving future generations unprepared to face the critical challenges of our rapidly changing world. Ultimately, students' success—job prospects and ability to participate in a civil society and contribute solutions necessary for maintaining a healthy environment—depends on their ability to identify, analyze, and balance the multitude of factors that can affect the environment.
For students to succeed in life and be able to resolve the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century requires that they be able to function effectively in society's decision-making processes, and not just "know" about the environment per se. They need to learn how human social systems (economics, laws, culture, politics, etc.) function and how these systems interact with natural systems in the environment.
Standards-based instruction and learning about the environment need not be mutually exclusive, however. In 1995, working with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a group of twelve states' departments of education known as SEER (State Education and Environment Roundtable) joined together to develop a comprehensive instructional strategy that uses the environment as a context for standards-based instruction at the same time as students are learning about their environment. This approach, called environment-based education, or "EBE," uses students' innate interest in the world around them to engage them in learning English language arts, math, science, history-social studies, technology, and the arts. It also helps them discover both the natural and human social systems that surround them and the multitude of interactions among those systems upon which human survival depends.
EBE enables teachers to connect instruction to a school's local environment, and engage students with authentic lessons that directly support students to become proficient in academic content standards. By interweaving academic content through interdisciplinary instruction and connecting it to environmental themes, or "contexts," environmental study becomes not simply another add-on to academic studies, but an engaging, integrating medium for teaching multiple subjects.
Since its inception, more than 5,000 schools in probably more than 1,000 districts have adopted an EBE model, including the state of California's Education and the Environment Initiative program already in use in more than 500 schools and districts, SEER's hundreds of EIC Model schools, the National Wildlife Federation's Eco-Schools network, and many others.
One of the key reasons that SEER has had success working with school leaders across the United States is that EBE programs are focused on motivating student learning rather than proselytizing about the environment. Students learn about how civil societies and democracy work, and about the variety of perspectives that are represented in their communities, but EBE is not intended to turn students into political activists.
The work of the teachers and students at Seven Generations Charter School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, provides a good example. In 2011, 5th grade teachers Alison Panik and Abby Mahone decided to connect their students' concerns about declining bee populations in the local area to several science standards through a study of pollinators in their community. Given the opportunity to learn about pollinators in the school's gardens and surroundings, the students realized that they were not seeing many bees in their own neighborhood. They asked their teachers for help in figuring out if this was normal, and began to study how the school gardens were affecting the local bee population. The students built and maintained two beehives on their campus, designed experiments, and explored school and neighborhood gardens to learn more about their local bee population.
"Because my students engaged in real-life problem solving based on their own scientific observations and data, their scientific investigation skills improved. I was especially pleased to see them asking questions, designing their own investigations and solutions, and using their data about the alarmingly low pollinator population to develop reasonable conclusions and possible solutions." —Teacher Alison Panik
That year, the 5th graders' work culminated in a "Bee Information Night" for the school and community, an informational presentation and fund-raiser to help them kick off their plans for future service-learning activities including building beehives on campus to create "homes" for native bees, creating a "pollinator garden" on the campus, and creating a public display about the roles of pollinators in agriculture.
This bee project in Pennsylvania is just one small example of how the environment can engage the interests of students and be used as a context for instruction in science, communications skills, and mathematical analysis.
The instructional changes that are coming as a result of the development and widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards oblige states and school districts to undertake a major reworking of everything from textbooks to professional development for teachers—in-service as well as for those just entering the field. This massive shift in K–12 education, when considered in light of the public's rapidly growing awareness of and concerns about the environment, makes it the ideal time to consider using the environment as a context for standards-based learning and for developing critical thinking and other 21st century skills. While EBE is not a magic bullet that will solve all of the world's problems, the benefits that it offers are worth considering at this important time.
Gerald A. Lieberman is the founding director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, a cooperative endeavor of sixteen state departments of education, which developed the EIC (Environment as an Integrating Context) Model for environmental study. He also served as the principal consultant for the development of California's Education and the Environment Initiative, a curriculum now in use by K–12 classrooms throughout the state. Lieberman is the author of the 2013 book Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts from Harvard Education Press.