Over the last ten months I have continued to learn what it means to be a life-long learner and passionate environmental educator. I associate this high level of personal and professional growth to my Master’s program in the field of Environmental Education (EE) and its ability to help me further develop my own critical-thinking skills. What I have learned alongside my students, peers, and teachers is that informed decision making does not happen by imposing prescribed views or courses of action onto learners, but rather effective EE provides every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to evaluate information and points of view for themselves, hence be critical thinkers. Though there are many contexts in which EE can occur, the following are a few qualities of effective EE that help nourish critical thinking skills.
- EE develops critical thinking skills by inspiring an attitude of inquiry. Children are naturally inquisitive. Many teaching practices however don’t harness the power of this natural curiosity in the classroom. EE programming on the other hand challenges this way of interacting with our own learning. EE offers tangible opportunities for students- young or old to slow down and observe the world and its many different systems the way kids do, uninhibited with zeal and wonder. Allowing time for spontaneous teachable moments such as finding a dead animal on the trail, eliciting students’ ideas in a free flow continuous conversation or having students work on mind map where they write down as many ideas they have about a topic or question are examples of how inquiry is fostered in EE.
- EE develops critical thinking through recognizing that learners build upon prior knowledge and experience to construct their own knowledge. To help students build upon prior knowledge, students can be provided with various questioning strategies. Having students build upon their observations and turn them into questions can be one way for students to expand on their knowledge base. Adding to this, students can be taught how to identify which types of questions they are asking such as open, closed, factual, philosophical and so forth. As educators, we can ask probing questions of our students to get them to think deeper about a topic or a response. By not giving students the answers and making them do the heavy lifting of the thinking their critical thinking skills develop. Many EE lessons require students to make detailed observations, question information from multiple perspectives, draw conclusions based on evidence and question when an argument or claim isn’t’ well supported. All of these skills which are components needed of strong critical thinking.
- EE develops critical thinking skills by encouraging the use of cooperative and collaborative learning. EE programs often integrate a mixture of large group, small group, and individual learning, opportunities. This high level of collaboration amongst peers and multi-aged learners enhances critical thinking skills by increasing students’ exposure to multiple perspectives and ideas. Cooperative learning challenges an individual to be flexible and open minded when considering alternatives and divergent world views. Collaborative learning also provides opportunities for an individual to honestly face one’s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes. This helps create fair-thinkers that are equipped to responsibly and rationally respond to a wide variety of challenges and situations present in our ever-changing global society.
- EE develops critical thinking through reflective practice and inspiring a lifelong love for learning. Reflective practice is, in its simplest form, thinking about or reflecting on what you do. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience, in that you think about what you did, and what happened, and decide from that what you would do differently next time. In order to reflect on ones’ own practice or an experience, you must have the skills to constructively and rationally interpret and analyze a given situation. EE provides opportunities to develop these skills through written, oral, kinesthetic activities that can happen in group or individual settings. As a practitioner of EE, my reflection process has increased my ability to think critically about which lessons I am teaching and why I am teaching them. EE provides a space to develop a growth mindset where a culture of error is normalized. Meaning, there is room to make mistakes and try again and continue to ask more questions. This is critical for the development as an effective educator, a community member and environmental steward.
- EE develops critical thinking by employing a hands-on, minds-on approach, which includes physical involvement (where applicable), problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, and creative thinking. Additionally, quality EE accommodates different learning styles, and the developmental needs of the whole person (social, emotional, physical, mental, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual). All of these attributes help an individual relate to a concept on a personal and memorable level. The more memorable an experience is, the more likely someone is to continue to think critically about that experience and compare and contrast future experiences.
The qualities of inquiry, questioning, problem solving, collaboration and reflection that EE curriculum employs to help students develop critical thinking skills can can also be applied in a wide variety of contexts by any educator. Below are a few practical tips educators can use to develop critical thinking skills with their students:
- Elicit students’ ideas
- Help students turn their observations into questions
- Create a culture where students back up their claims in with evidence and rationale.
- Don’t unwrap the present for them- meaning let them guess and figure out what will happen in a given situation.
- Encourage the students do the hard thinking.
- Avoid rounding up answers and guiding students responses to a specific outcome.
- Embrace a culture of error that encourages students to take risks and offer new ideas
- Have lessons that use a variety of teaching and learning styles
- Incorporate reflection practices into your teaching
While there is substantial research on the importance and success of learning through teaching, oftentimes this opportunity is not afforded to students. It can be nerve-racking for teachers to relinquish their role of authority and power; however, I have found this intentional role reversal to be a powerful teaching tool that optimizes student learning. This article will outline three techniques that have proven successful in flipping the student-teacher paradigm: student driven and led discussions, student ownership over what they learn, and students teaching one another.
First, create the habit and expectation of students calling on each other, rather than being called on by the teacher. While it is easy for the teacher to act as group facilitator in discussions, I have found that stepping back and letting students call on one another re-focuses everyone’s attention on the students and not on the teacher. This shift in attention encourages students to listen to each other, and creates a community of learning that promotes sharing and valuing multiple perspectives. By guiding lessons themselves, students gain skills in leading and shaping discussions as well as in making space for everyone’s voice to be heard. This technique helps students to cultivate a mindset that says, “We need not rely solely on our teacher, for we are the drivers of our own education.” This perspective is one that students will utilize as lifelong learners in and out of the classroom.
Second, give students the opportunity to create the schedule for a day, or even the whole week. What better way to respond to student interests than by having them decide what they learn? For example, during a peer observation, I watched an instructor outline four possible options for the final day of a four-day residential outdoor program. Before the instructor handed over the decision-making process to the group of students, she first made sure to state her main goal for the day: to think about what they had learned and how they could incorporate it into their lives at home. This goal could be accomplished in many places and take many forms. Each option included a place that they had yet to visit, as well as distinctly different ways to achieve the instructor’s overall objective for the day. Students were excited to have a say in their final day, and ultimately came to a consensus on their own by combining two of the options. Giving students choices empowers them to take ownership and authority over their own learning, which helps to build intrinsic motivation, an attribute that they will carry with them into the future.
Third, facilitate the activity known as “Each One Teach One.” Learning through re-telling invites students to put complicated concepts in their own words, to identify key points, and to organize information into a coherent structure. For example, for Ethno-botany Each One Teach One, students are spaced out along a path, and the instructor teaches each student one on one about a certain plant, and then that student teaches every subsequent student about their plant. Ultimately, if there are ten students in the group, each student presents their plant nine times, and learns about 10 different plants. This activity is an efficient way to have students practice presenting information over and over, and ensures that everyone participates. Additionally, for students who are a bit shyer when it comes to presenting, this activity gives them the opportunity to shine by interacting one on one. Instructors have the option to hand out a card with information about the plant to each student in order to have something to reference when presenting. I have found it most powerful to save the cards to hand out after the Each One Teach One activity in order to give students the opportunity to be creative in their descriptions and empowered to use their own words.
Each One Teach One is a versatile lesson in that can be applied to any subject. In addition to ethno-botany, I have had great success using this technique in the garden to introduce students to vegetables and herbs. The activity not only allows students to explain how to grow, harvest, and identify the plant, but also lets them showcase their cultural and personal backgrounds by sharing how they would cook with it and what dishes they have eaten it in. For English Language Learners, this activity is especially useful in giving students the opportunity to practice using descriptive words and to build up their vocabulary. Having to explain something to somebody else helps students to master any given subject by motivating students to be able to describe their ideas well enough in order for others to understand them, an essential life skill.
Students become empowered learners by leading their own discussions, having ownership over what they get to learn, and teaching each other. By blurring the line between student and teacher, these activities help to create communities that value a myriad of voices all learning from and teaching one another.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the things that you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain
If you want to increase a student’s confidence and improve their sense of self, provide them with opportunities to embrace adventure. Embracing adventure increases a students learning and helps them cultivate a growth mindset, which will provide them with a foundation to take on future challenges with courage and resilience.
Why Does Embracing Adventure Matter?
Embracing adventure can help a student expand their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Lev Vygotsky, famed educational theorist, developed the idea of the ZPD when studying how people learn. The ZPD is often defined as the distance between what a learner has mastered and what they can do with guidance. Research has shown that the most learning occurs when an individual is asked to accomplish a task that is beyond their level of mastery or outside their comfort zone but not so far beyond their comfort zone that is causes their reptilian brain to kick in, which can inhibit learning. Creating a space for students to safely exit their comfort zone is a key tool in helping a student shape a positive sense of self.
Additionally, challenging individuals to exit their comfort zone and enter the learning zone gives students the opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., professor of Social and Developmental Psychology at Stanford University, defines a growth mindset as a way of thinking that is “based on the beliefs that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (Dweck, 7). Giving students multiple opportunities to try things they had not before thought possible provides them with evidence that they are capable of accomplishing new challenges with hard work and determination.
Defining embracing adventure
So how do you actually help students gain confidence and buy in? First you must set the stage by defining embracing adventure. Each student’s definition of embracing adventure is different. What is within one student’s comfort zone may be very uncomfortable for another. Here are a few activities you can try to allow your students to safely identify what embracing adventure looks like for them.
- Journal Prompts: If your students have field journals, ask them to write about what embracing adventure means to them. This will give you an initial idea of what comes to mind when they hear the words embracing adventure.
- Anonymous voting: have students stand in a circle or a line with their backs facing you before an activity that involves embracing adventure. Ask students to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how they are feeling about the activity coming up by showing you with one hand behind their back. 1 meaning “I’m feeling confident” and 5 meaning “This is very outside of my comfort zone”. This is an opportunity to get a sense of where students are at before an activity and students an opportunity to share their fears in a safe space.
- Pop- up Pookaloo: Prepare a list of statements that your students may relate to. Statements can start out more lighthearted like, I like waffles or my favorite color is blue, and become deeper as you go like, my parents are divorced or heights make me nervous. Have students lay on their stomachs in a circle with their heads down. Instruct them to only lift their heads and look around if the statement you read is true for them. This is a great way for students to gain more comfort with their peers by learning about what they have in common with one another and can give you an idea about what students are or are not comfortable with.
Activities that Help Students Embrace Adventure
Working with young people outdoors provides many opportunities to facilitate embracing adventure. If you are unsure where to start, here are a few ideas for how to set up opportunities for your students to embrace adventure in the outdoors.
- Solo walks: You will need two leaders for this activity. Along an established trail, lay out a trail of cards for students to follow. The cards can have inspirational quotes on them, directions to engage students senses, or questions for students to contemplate. Have the second leader send students every 3 to 5 minutes.
- Space walks: similar to a solo walk have your second leader or a chaperone send students along an established path every 1 to 2 minutes. Students should be able to see their classmates in front of and behind them but should still have enough space that they would not be able to talk to their classmates at a normal volume. The space walk is a nice way to scaffold toward a solo walk if students are feeling particularly nervous about being outside alone.
- Blindfolded walks: This can be done at night or during the day. While blindfolded, have students walk in a straight line with their hands on the shoulders of the person in from of them for a stretch of trail.