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Professional learning communities (PLC) build a space and time for colleagues to collectively further learning in their field. Strong professional learning communities have several significant benefits in any field. Strong PLCs:

a.) Build a culture of giving and receiving feedback

b.) Provide a safe space to improve skills in cultural competence

c.) Encourage professionals to stay up to date in their fields

The dynamism of environmental education makes it a unique professional field. Many programs are short-term teaching experiences. Whether a four-day residential outdoor school, a half-day field trip, or classroom visits, the temporary nature of environmental teaching can have unique impacts on educators. Because of the numbered days, most environmental educators work very long shifts, often up to twelve or thirteen hours at a time. Additionally, many environmental educators teach a similar curriculum repeatedly to new sets of students. Finally, it can be difficult to build strong connections with students who are only in programs for a few hours or days at a time. This intensity of working hours, repetition of content, and barriers to building long-term connections with students can lead to educators burn out or become complacent in their work.

Strong professional learning communities are thus particularly useful in the field of environmental education. In addition to the general benefits of professional learning communities listed above, some of the most impactful benefits of PLCs in environmental education are described below.

Accountability for professional growth

Establishing a professional learning community holds educators accountable for setting and working toward professional goals. One way that this can be accomplished is through peer observation. Setting up a practice of observation and feedback benefits the observed and the observer in several ways. The observer has the opportunity to see a different perspective on the curriculum that they have become used to. This allows the observer to look for different connections made between themes and lessons, and strengthen the connections they draw in their own teaching. The person being observed benefits by identifying their teaching goals frequently, and by having consistent evidence of their strengths and areas of growth. Building a habit of setting goals encourages educators to critically evaluate their own skills and dispositions in regards to teaching. With the support of a peer observer, an educator can set actionable steps to achieve goals, leading to more growth more quickly. Peer observation also provides a safe space for professionals to practice giving and receiving feedback respectfully and effectively, a skill that is important in any field they may wish to pursue in the future.

A strong PLC in environmental education also creates space to discuss and practices skills in cultural competence. This particular skill set can often be an emotionally charged journey, and the ability to safely make mistakes is an important part of moving forward. Designating a time to discuss specific scenarios, and share useful videos, stories, and teaching materials helps educators to be more aware of their cultural lens and how to make space for more culturally diverse teaching and learning.

Increased content knowledge

Staying up to date in the field of environmental education leads to more diverse content for students and decreases the probability of becoming complacent with curriculum. Educators can broaden their content knowledge by meeting regularly with a PLC to discuss established practices that they find useful, articles about innovative programs and even engage in their own scientific field projects.

Environmental education is also a unique teaching setting as content is intertwined with the ever-changing natural world. Quality environmental teaching draws on these changes to reinforce curriculum goals. Participating in a PLC allows educators to share experiences with phenology, specific scientific knowledge, and to gather a higher quantity of data for field investigations. Committing a PLC meeting to discussion of seed-dispersal lessons for example, can encourage educators with little experience teaching about plants to try something new, and simultaneously allow those with more experience to share resources and perspectives on one topic. By bringing in multiple voices, educators can expand their teaching into new reaches, decreasing their risk for burnout and enriching the student experience.

Self-care

Finally, professional learning communities are one way for educators to take care of themselves emotionally and physically. Strong PLCs take the time to get to know each other on a personal level, adding an element of fun to the workweek, and fostering stronger working relationships. In a residential graduate setting for example, personal connections build empathy between peers sharing an intensive common experience. PLCs can support individuals in times of stress, and celebrate together in times of success. This camaraderie plays a major role in avoiding teacher burnout.

Working in the world of environmental education, we don’t often have the opportunity to spend extended amounts of our time with our students. Many of us teach in single or multi-day programs, within which time we do our best to quickly get to know our students. We work to help them connect with the world around them, each other, and themselves through the exploration of natural spaces. Given this limited time frame, we might logically look for ways to help students make connections to new ideas with ones they already hold. By showing curiosity about who they are and their interests, we build relationships and gain insight into how we can engage and encourage them. As it turns out, this is not only a great way to build rapport with our students, but it is also a way to help them create neurological ties that act as bridges between prior knowledge and new knowledge, creating learning (Zadina, 2014).

So what are some of the ways you might intentionally build time into your instruction to dig into students prior understandings? Here are a few strategies that have become favorites in my teaching practice:

  1. Think-Pair-Share: Give students a chance to collaborate with others to spark ideas and memories! Many educators use a variation of this technique simply as “pair-share” or “turn-and-talk” and they may be missing a key opportunity for students to synthesize their thoughts in omitting the “think” step. By allowing students some time to think quietly to themselves, we give space for slower processors to generate ideas and faster processors to improve upon their initial thoughts. You might even build momentum for ideas by having a pair share with another pair and then another before coming together as a whole group!
  2. Listening Mind MapMind-Maps: a brainstorming activity where you begin with a central idea and build upon it with associations. This is a great assessment tool to find out what kind of links your students are already making and give you a sense of where to begin building the bridges. To create a mind map, begin with the central idea in the middle of your page, and draw out a line for each big connection, with lines from those tying bigger categories to smaller ideas or examples of those ideas. You will eventually have a visual web of knowledge, giving you a sense of students’ thought processes and understandings.
  3. The tried and true “What do you think?” method: here you are simply drawing more out of students by asking for their opinions, why they might think something, and to share more about an idea. This method is so simple that its value might be overlooked as a teaching technique; yet by being intentional with our responses, we give the students the opportunity to do the “cognitive lifting” in the learning process. Once you are ready to continue expanding your questioning strategies, you might begin reflecting on the types of questions you’re asking and what you’re hoping to draw out of your students. Are you asking “closed” questions that could stifle the exploration or “open-ended” questions that allow for many possible answers, or even a strategic combination of both to encourage curiosity, claim & evidence, and synthesis of ideas.
  4. KWL chartKWL charts: “Know”, “Want to know”, and “Learned” is a great way to gauge student prior knowledge, interests, and then assess where they might be in relation to that knowledge and interest after a lesson or experience. Additionally, this is also a great way to empower the students with a metacognitive awareness of their own learning process. They can take stock of their understandings individually or as a group, articulate their desire for learning by expressing their interests, and then track their own progress.
  5. Journal Questions: having students answer questions or free-write based on a topic can give you a way to see how they’re able to synthesize their current understanding. In having all students writing, you are allowing for everyone to share instead of only those students who are comfortable speaking up. Students may also be more inclined to participate in discussion after discussion, have new ideas emerge and remember their ideas after having a chance to think and write (Lemov, 2015).

These are just a few of the many ways that you might be able to help your students to learn and build understanding. As you activate students’ funds of knowledge and assess where they are, you may come across interesting or surprising interpretations. Misunderstandings and misconceptions are not only common and totally okay; they provide us an opportunity to learn and improve our understanding! Thinking about how to facilitate student growth, it is important to be mindful of the ways that you are leaving space for mistakes, creating a culture of error. In order for students to have the courage and confidence to share, we must make sure that we are honoring them by making our belief in their capacities explicit. This practice of activating prior knowledge may not only be a great educational strategy, but also a potential way to engage in a positive and supportive learning culture.

Zadina, J. N. (2014). Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain: Energizing and Enhancing Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.19.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 281-289.

moffit1aTwo students work together to build a
mini fort with many types of materials.
Students come with their own set of responses and lenses.  They may be fluidly capable of adapting those lenses depending on the demands of the lesson, and from that perspective, most lessons will suit these types of students.  However, a lot of students haven’t built these skills yet which means that they will have to stretch their understanding to make sense of a lesson that uses a different way of learning than one of several they have become accustomed to. 

As a teacher I choose to respond to those students to best deliver instruction.  This might mean targeting certain lessons’ formats so that they either suit or stretch students’ understanding.  To implement best-practices I need to be consciously and continuously adaptable to student needs. 

What are these lenses?

Lenses are perspectives that can apply to any implicit or conscious understanding that has previously been formatted by students to guide their thinking.  I like to think of lenses as being sorted based on principles of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a really big word for a really interesting way of understanding the way that people’s brains process and store information.  One aspect of NLP called ‘meta-programs’ sorts people into dichotomous categories including introvert/extrovert, global/detailed thinkers, feeling/thinking, and self/others to name a few.   People who are more rigid thinkers have trouble processing any ideas that are presented in the format of the opposite side of their word-pair.  For example, a global thinker with a fixed mindset has a very hard time understanding a detail-oriented argument.  However, with a fluid, or growth-oriented mindset, learners can appreciate the ideas presented by the opposite side even if it’s not their primary meta-program. Evaluate students by having them build mini-forts on the first day and see which things they prioritize and how close together they build their forts.  Do they help each other during ‘natural disasters’?  Do they share materials? Do they prioritize procedures over choices? Do they respond to a deadline?

What does this mean in application?

moffit2aOne student watches as her partner builds a fort with sticks.When I am adaptable to students’ perspectives, I am practicing student-directed learning.  A lot of the skill of understanding perspectives comes from planning my first day of the four-day-long Student Overnight Program as a giant formative assessment.  I keep a theme in mind, but try lots of activities to see which meta-programs students have been trained to use or are naturally inclined to use. I get a gestalt for the group, and also for outliers, individual students who don’t mix for some reason, say a ‘feeling’ student in a team of thinkers.

From there I direct my instruction- usually in terms of type and intensity of team building.  The socially constructive element of teaching can vary from week to week, and can be directly added in to science- and arts-heavy content.  Depending on how I roll out my activities, students have different levels of responsibility in deciding what roles members of the group will fulfill.  In a detail oriented group, I might plan the details for them but direct the summative questions to big-picture, real-world applications of student ideas.  If I have a lot of feeling students, but only a few thinkers, I might ask students to look at how their roles changed in a challenge course activity when people used different language, or were told to incorporate additional planning sessions.

Depending on how divisive the thinking is, I may scaffold social community building with unusually easy team building such as raising the hula hoop off of the ground with everyone touching it.  Some groups work well together already and can do multi-faceted planning. It is easy to get caught up in meta-analytically working your group, so it is important to pick one or two of the biggest opposite-pairs and focus on them.  Step back frequently and check on your goal.  The purpose of this exercise is to respond best to your students.  Are you?