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.
I believe that there is no greater gift you can give a child than to show them you are invested in who they are becoming and how they experience the world.
I recently visited an elementary school in northeast Seattle that would be attending Islandwood, a school in the woods, the following week. Met with many raised hands and lots of energy, I shared with the students a few things to expect, guided them through a model investigation, and (most importantly!) asked each of them to complete a short fill in the blank letter. I take these letters back with me to deliver to their instructors. As I poked through the letters from the students in my group I took note of their ideas about what they want to be when they "grow up.” It seemed this coming week we had several doctors, a landscaper, two veterinarians, and a few kids who were still pondering their paths.
Transformational teaching prioritizes a foundation in relationships. It is connected to student’s lives, invested in their motivations, trustworthy in nature, and respectful of their emergent identities. The following week the elementary school students arrived at Islandwood and I picked up the group I would be working with. As we got started we took pause for one of the most important moments of our week, learning each other’s names. I circled my group up at the first possible moment and invited them to each share the story of their name (or a fun fact should they prefer). This moment of connection is often so special, students share about how they got their nicknames, how their name is pronounced, changes to their names over the years, and many connections to community or family. This is an applicable way of showing students that throughout this week we will be invested in one another as a group and even be learning new things about our peers from school. In just a few minutes we started the transformation from operating as individuals to starting to function as a micro-community.
Throughout the week, as we started activities I would frame up what we had learned about each other - for our aspiring doctors here were medicinal plants, for our future landscapers we free explored in the garden, for our passionate veterinarians we stopped at every caterpillar or slug and made room for its safe passage on the trail. As we grew in our knowledge of one another so did our opportunities for learning and connection. Students are navigating their transforming identities and we as educators are there to facilitate enriching opportunities for them to do so. Students deserve to feel connected to and seen by their peers and instructors. There isn’t a cookie cutter way to connect with every kid. As we come to know our students, we can listen for feedback about their motivations and relevant interests and use this to design motivational learning. Slowing down to honor the relationship you are building over the content we are all so passionate to convey will only create stronger outcomes for all students in the long run.
This particular student group spent one evening together wandering into the forest and making identity sculptures out of natural objects. Our challenge was to have one aspect of our identity represented through the design that we could share with the group. We navigated (careful not to step on any sculptures!) to each student's exhibit and listened patiently to what inspired them before asking questions. The unique characteristics of each kid were so evident in their designs. Bearing witness to the development of young children’s identity development is a privilege and great responsibility. Relationships encourage us to be respectful, they help us remember that our curiosities are reflections of our identities. As an outdoor educator in a residential school program, respect is learning about students needs before they arrive and listening to my student’s perspective in whatever format it may be delivered. Strong student-instructor relationships allow us to more intentionally model stewardship, care, and respect for our community and environment.
In what always feels like the longest week ever and no time at all in a 4-day outdoor education program, the students packed up two days later and got ready to go. As they settled into the bus I snuck in for a last goodbye, waving to all the kids I had worked with that week. As I handed each student a little note of encouragement for their continued learning, I felt emotional. Transformative teaching is mutual. It impacts us as educators as much as it does the students. With every relationship we build we learn, grow, stretch, fail, succeed, or reflect in some way or another - a small but mighty transformation all around.
As a graduate student at IslandWood, I am often tromping down literal and figurative trails. It seems like a constant process of making new discoveries, whether it’s learning how to reach a challenging student, witnessing different stages of plant life cycles through the seasons, or falling down rabbit holes of research material about exciting passions. A “path” that started as a bushwhack and now has become a widened, well-traveled trail for me is what it means and looks like to “Indigenize” our education field. My interest springs from my own personal journey in exploring my Native American roots, as well as learning about and from an ancient system of knowledge that has survived the colonization and genocide of settlers, but has yet to be acknowledged by mainstream education as a viable model. I strongly believe that not only will Indigenizing our education spaces benefit our Native youth, but will have what is known as the “curb-side effect”, meaning that it will inherently benefit all who are involved, as it is a holistic and balanced approach to teaching and learning.
Based on readings and personal experiences, I’ve outlined four characteristics below of Indigenizing education (identified by “From Where the Sun Rises: Addressing the educational achievement of Native Americans in Washington State”); ways that I already see it in Environmental Education; and ways that we can further Indigenize education spaces (taking it a step further).
Belonging: Children are cared for by caring adults and treat each other as related.
- Environmental Education: acknowledging and teaching students that they are a part of an ecosystem to which they belong and depend on for survival. In turn, these systems rely on the reciprocal relationships of humans in order to thrive in harmony.
- Take it a step further: to provide opportunities embedded in the learning experience in which youth are interacting and learning from their elders/older generations and vice versa (intergenerational learning).
Mastery: Fostering balance for spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical competence.
- Environmental Education: learning is experiential and takes its own course in time for each learner. Learners will learn what they need to know when they need to know it. Storytelling and learning by doing are primary modes of learning about the world and how to foster a relationship within one’s ecosystem and community.
- Take it a step further: acknowledging students as whole people that have spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical needs met by their relationships with their family and community. Connecting students with those community members and inviting those members into the learning experience to provide more opportunities for these needs to be met.
Independence: Individual freedom and self-management. Never rewarding for doing well, the reward is appropriate self-management.
*I relate this to “self-regulation”, which is understood by Western science on a more neurological developmental level (controlling emotions and impulses, thinking ahead and planning, calculated decision-making, etc). The idea of “never rewarding” can be compared to Western concepts of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards/punishments.
- Environmental Education: promotes self-regulation/management by providing opportunities such as team building and sharing vulnerability with peers and adults, facilitated by educators trained in creating positive and supportive spaces. Outdoor educators have observed a trend of longer attention span and less impulsive behavior with students labeled as “ADHD” or with low impulse control issues after being immersed in nature for a few days during school overnight programs.
- Take it a step further: Be diligent about usage of praising language or indications that some students are “better” or “more advanced” than others. Emphasizing all students gifts within the learning community as equal in importance and significance, while expecting and believing in each student’s’ ability to be responsible beings.
Generosity: Giving to others and community. Unselfishness.
- Environmental Education: learning and committing actions of stewardship in own ecosystem and community. Expressing gratitude through language or actions to others and/or reflecting on personal gratitudes.
- Take it a step further: practicing giving to others with no expectation in return, doing it for the sole purpose of upholding one’s own end of the relationship (true reciprocity). Serving those that have not given to you before for the sake of serving and being generous.
I’d like to note that the characteristics of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity are not the entire or only ways of Indigenizing the education space, but merely starting points. As we all continue to tread forth in our education endeavours, I’d encourage all educators to reflect on how they embed these elements into their teaching practice, as well as how they can further Indigenize their teaching space (being careful not to be appropriating or misrepresenting). Check out some readings and resources in the sidebar if you’re interested in learning more about what it means to Indigenize education spaces and examples of those doing the work right now.
For further reading, see:
The Conflicting Educations Of Sam Schimmel (NPR segment): https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/05/30/610384132/the-conflicting- educations-of-sam-schimmel
Education for the Eighth Fire: Indigeneity and Native Ways of Learning by Melissa K. Nelson
The fifth graders had been asking me about nettles since they arrived on Monday. Asking where they were, how to identify them, if the group could eat the nettles, how bad they sting. And though our days were full of reflection, formal investigations, and cued observation time, I decided to go rogue from my scheduled plan when I saw a patch of the jagged heart-shaped leaves growing erect in a thicket.
Lopez Elementary School’s fifth grade class was participating in IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, a residential science program on Bainbridge Island, focused on stewardship of self, community and the environment. IslandWood graduate students seek to facilitate interdisciplinary lessons including Next Generation Science Standards, place-based culture, history, and the arts. Scientists, I remind all of my students, are not all men with crazy white hair who wear lab coats and have chemicals in glass beakers everywhere. We are all scientists because we make observations and ask questions—and sometimes those questions involve other subjects beyond science. Lessons are most effective when they can represent a Venn diagram of interconnections. Through interdisciplinary teaching practices, students are able to synthesize new ideas and topics, incorporating them into their lives to increase relevance, which will result in more meaningful learning and more “stickiness” with the topic at hand. When new information ceases to be compartmentalized, students have more agency in their learning and the relationship they develop with the new information.
The Art of Questioning
“Have any of you ever seen this plant before?” I ask my students. Some are very familiar with Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, others less so. Using my arm, bent up with my hand jutting out perpendicularly to represent the leaf coming off the stem, I show how most of the “stinging parts” are on the stem itself and on the underside of the leaf. So, it’s possible to carefully pinch the top of the leaf, as I demonstrate pinching my hand, folding my thumb to meet my pinky and pull away from the stem.
Students watch me demonstrate on the real plant and I pass the leaf around closely in front of them and ask what they notice. They observe that the “stingers” are on the top and bottom of the leaf, and we wonder and make claims together about why we don’t get stung when we touch the stingers on top (at least most of the time), or why this plant needs to have the ability to sting, anyway.
I mention that a lot of people are afraid of it because of the word “sting” in its name. But this has been a very important plant for thousands of years right here on Bainbridge Island among the Suquamish people. I ask students why native plants are so important, imagining what it must have been like to be an indigenous person discovering through observations and questioning the benefits of this sometimes painful plant.
Team-building and personal growth
It is now time for my students to harvest their own leaves. I remind them that it is not required, but that they have the option if they want to. Previously in the week, I drew a circle in the dirt on the ground, then a larger circle on the outside of that. The circle in the middle represents their Comfort Zone, which contains things like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, and playing with friends. The larger circle on the outside is their Challenge Zone, which incorporates the things that make your tummies do flips, but which make you feel proud after you’ve accomplished them. For example, making your own lunch, going on a hike, petting a dog, painting a picture, talking to a new person, etc. Anything that is not within these circles is in the Danger Zone. These are things that might actually cause trauma if a person if forced to do them. For example, if I put a spider next to someone who is afraid of spiders, I might harm them and lose their trust. I highlight how unique we are as individuals which is demonstrated by the fact that all of our Comfort, Challenge, and Danger Zones are different from each others. My goal for students, I share, is that they keep challenging themselves while they’re at IslandWood and beyond, and soon they will see their Comfort Zone start to grow, causing their Challenge Zone to expand as well.
A few moments into harvesting, I start to hear a few “ouches” and I see students staring at their fingers, looking for a mark or a stinger. I use these brave souls as examples, asking questions like: Did you find a stinger? What did it feel like? Did it remind you of anything? This is the perfect moment to address alternative conceptions of the sting from the nettle being comparable to a bee’s. I begin to talk about pH and balancing acids and bases using a student relevant example. “Has anyone ever eaten something spicy?” I ask, and many hands shoot up. Students share that the solution to get the spice sensation out of their mouths is not by drinking water, but by drinking milk. By drinking the milk, I explain, they are neutralizing the acid by adding a base; and water is already neutral. The sting from the nettle is not stinging because of anything sharp, but because of an acid. So what should we do? Neutralize it! For students who decide the pain is unbearable, I use the alkaline baking soda in my First Aid Kit. Several students turn to the Sword fern, Polystichum munitum, sharing that the “little brown dots,” spores, on the underside of the fronds help make the sting go away. (Using sword fern spores to cure pain is another cultural medicinal use of a plant that some students have learned previously.) Moving beyond chemistry, those inquisitive fifth graders have just opened the door to talking about plant adaptations, plant reproduction, and plant-based medicine.
Although my background is in farm/garden-based education, I never ignore the importance of pre-agrarian societies. Urtica dioica is a crucial plant in many cultures, including among the people of the Coast Salish tribes, specifically the Suquamish people on Bainbridge Island, right where I stand with my students. From making textiles and dyes, to food and medicine, this plant is rich in its varied uses, and rich in nutrients. Students’ ears perk up when they learn that people drink nettle tea to help with seasonal allergies. Since many students visiting suffer from seasonal allergies, this convinces those who have been weary of harvesting to try it out. This is a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion with students about whose land we are using, where we get our information, human impact on the land and on each other, and the rich cultural history of where their feet are currently standing. There is a tendency when incorporating indigenous people in a lesson to use the past-tense, but the tribes who lived on this land since time immemorial are still present to this day, and my students and I honor that. We use the gatherer’s creed and ask permission of the plant before we harvest, and we practice only taking what we need. We consider the living things from which we are harvesting, wondering what they’re feeling, and wondering what would happen if we harvested all of the nettle leaves we could see.
On their final day, students harvest more nettle. This time, to be more inclusive, I have gloves and scissors—though not enough for each student. They must work together with the materials present (and bare hands, if they choose) to carefully harvest and put the leaves in a paper bag, which we will bring to the garden. Students work together to harvest the nettle and encourage each other; they are also looking out for each other and comforting one another if they get stung. I hear a lot of students asking “Are you okay?” and “What does it feel like?” to the students who have gotten stung, offering support and even feeling admiration. Back at the garden, we steep our harvest in hot water, add honey, and enjoy our community tea as we wrap up the week of richly interdisciplinary experiences, with the concept of stewardship running throughout. IslandWood’s major curricular outcome is the concept of Stewardship. This concept is interleaved throughout the week--from picking up a piece of trash on the ground to join the Dirty Pocket Club, to learning about each other as part of a growing community, to challenging ourselves to embrace adventure. As stewards the entire week, students took care of themselves, of their community, and of the environment. This sense of stewardship is one of the main skills we want our students to walk away with. If the practice of stewardship can be transferred back to a student’s home community, it will become a baseline mindset when students consider their actions as they go on to make their own decisions the next day and for a lifetime.