Wednesday, 25 July 2012

How to improve environmental education efforts

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, environmental education (EE) "increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues or problems. In doing so, it provides the public with the necessary skills to make informed decisions and take responsible action." In a recent essay in the Natural Areas Journal, however, biologist and educator Courtney Hughes argues that EE is not always as perfect as it is often portrayed. After all, many of today's biggest conservation challenges were also issues decades ago, when many environmental education programs were first initiated.

The major problem, Hughes argues, is not the concept of EE in general, but the way in which education efforts are developed and implemented. She worries that many shortcomings result from the fact that EE programs tend to be initiated and run by environmentalists rather than educators--and, while she admits that anyone can help other people learn, she also points out that educational experts have many useful insights into the learning process. This expertise can be helpful when tailoring programs to achieve a particular goal or reach a particular target audience. Thus, Hughes believes that environmental education should be viewed as a field unto itself, comprising "a body of comprehensive knowledge, skills, and abilities that could be put to good use in the conservation world." Conservationists should recognize that specialists in this field can make valuable contributions to EE initiatives.

(Classroom visits with wild animals are one technique that can be used for environmental education. Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.)

Hughes also worries that people tend to think of EE only as something that is useful and appropriate for schoolchildren. She emphasizes that environmental education is much more than just nature walks and environmentally-themed coloring books. Rather, it is a suite of strategies that can be used not only to spread information, but to actively encourage participants to internalize that information and use it to change their lifestyles--for instance in developing herding or farming techniques that minimize human-wildlife conflict, or turning aside from poaching in favor of ecotourism. Such goals are weightier--and will have longer-lasting conservation impacts--than the types of targets that EE usually focuses on.

In order to facilitate improvements in the way that EE is employed, Hughes offers four major suggestions. First, she encourages conservationists to define "environmental education" in the context of individual projects, and explicitly determine how EE will help achieve particular outcomes. These details should be helpful in selecting which materials and activities will be included in education programs--thereby tailoring them to specific circumstances, target audiences, and goals. Second, Hughes warns environmental educators not to think of their programs as quick solutions: "Success will not happen simply by disseminating an information pamphlet or by hosting an outreach session." Rather, she says, people will need time to ingest the things they are learning and rebuild their understanding of these topics. Once they begin to "construct new understandings based on new knowledge and experience," target audiences will be more likely to develop new outlooks and ways of doing things. Third, she strongly recommends the inclusion of educators in the program development and implementation process. These individuals, she says, have "disciplinary knowledge related to pedagogy, learning styles, learner behaviors, and resource development." In other words, they have the expertise needed to predict whether a certain program will be effective and, if not, to modify it accordingly. Finally, Hughes advocates the inclusion of planning and evaluation periods for every program. An extended planning period can ensure that programs include all the integral information and are designed to provide it in the most accessible and meaningful way possible. An evaluation period, meanwhile, is essential for reviewing the outreach efforts and deciding whether they have actually been successful. If not, educators can go back to the drawing board and develop new tactics.

(Education initiatives may also involve trips to the field. Although many education efforts involve young students, Hughes emphasizes that adult education is also important. Image courtesy of Essex Region Conservation Authority.)

Overall, Hughes feels that "inclusion of EE as a discrete process in conservation projects is a valuable and worthy pursuit." She hopes that by shedding light on some of its potential pitfalls--and recommending ways to avoid these--she can inspire environmental educators and conservationists to work more closely and effectively.

Hughes, Courtney. 2012. Environmental education for conservation: consideration to achieve success. Natural Areas Journal: 32(2):218-219.

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