for your work with Action competence
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
- 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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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.