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Imagine trying to understand what "education" really means and how to practice it as an educator. To do this properly, clear rules or standards become essential. Without them, we risk merely accepting widespread ideas about education without critical reflection. But why have rules or standards? Education encompasses various goals and purposes, each needing a roadmap for achievement. But why are these goals set? As an educator trying to answer this question to better understand their practice, you can approach this using a few different philosophies.

Ontology poses the question: What is real and what exists in the realm of education? It prompts us to grasp the nature of things and their interconnection within the learning landscape. Epistemology asks, “how do we know what we know?”. It invites us to discern truths and interpret the world around us. Axiology studies values and beliefs, exploring what we are about and why.

Picture yourself as a chef, serving a meal—the educator fulfilling a purpose. Epistemology is deciding what dishes you can make based on your skills and available ingredients. Axiology is choosing the flavors and tastes that match your preferences and values. And ontology is knowing what you want your meal to be like and how it fits with your overall vision.

In my experience as an educator, I've noticed that the dish wanting to be served and the ingredients and how to cook them are usually given to me by the school or program I work for. These programs usually have a clear mission or vision statement outlining their focus areas and provide curriculum and resources for educators to use. I often wonder how to add my own flavor to the dish to make it meaningful to me and make sure the program’s flavor profile complements mine. I think it's important for educators to highlight what they care about and understand why their program prioritizes certain aspects. As Biesta (2015) aptly puts it, "The reason why it is important to highlight the axiology of education is precisely because it provides us with criteria for judging what we want education to work for" (p. 18).

So, how do we navigate this process? I suggest using observation skills like practices of science to investigate your axiology and use your findings as a foundation for claims and explanations. Observation, as Bang et al. (2018) note, yields empirical knowledge influenced by culture and social practices. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) also underscore the importance of observation in both Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts. This systematic observation facilitates data gathering, pattern detection, and evidence-based explanations, enriching students’ understanding of nature's structure and function (Osborne et al. 2017)

Here's a reflective procedure I propose, though not exhaustive, tailored to what I value, with room for individual exploration:

  1. Observe and make note of the following.
    1. Who are you?
      1. Where/when/how do you feel comfortable?
      2. What are your physical, mental, and emotional capabilities?
      3. What do you like or dislike?
    2. What are your values?
      1. Why do you feel comfortable in certain contexts?
      2. How do you prioritize growing your skill sets?
      3. Why do you enjoy your passions and hobbies? Why do you have preferences?
  2. Form statements to track patterns in values.
    1. Do they change based on who you are around or what you are doing?
    2. What do you continue to come back to or think about?
  3. Use patterns and statements to add flavor to the dish!
    1. AxiologyExample: (context: school wants students to work on communication at an overnight environmental school program and the overnight program provides journals with predetermined activity sheets in it) “We are making our own nature journals. Islandwood has journals, but when I’m out here I like experiencing nature like a naturalist. A naturalist is someone who makes lots of observations and connections about the things they experience outside. So, our journals are going to be our nature journal where we write down our naturalist thoughts.”

This reflective process fosters self-awareness and acknowledges individual values and preferences, laying a strong foundation for effective teaching practices. I believe that when educators infuse their lessons with what they genuinely enjoy and openly share their reasoning, students are more likely to catch that excitement and be eager to dive in. And it doesn’t stop there! By identifying your own axiology and understanding the axiology of your program or students, then you can work towards aligning them or at least using them as prompts for constructive dialogue to bridge differences. This approach not only enriches the educational journey but also fosters a collaborative and inclusive learning environment where everyone's unique perspectives are celebrated.


Bang, M., Marin, A., Medin, D. (2018). If indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Journal of American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 147(2), 148-159. doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00498

Biesta, G. (2015). On the two cultures of educational research, and how we might move ahead: Reconsidering the ontology, axiology and praxeology of education. European Educational Research Journal, 14(1), 11-22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474904114565162

Osborne, J., & Quinn, H. (2017). Chapter 2: The framework, the NGSS, and the practices of science. In Helping Students Make Sense of the World Using Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices. National Science Teachers Association Press. 23-32.

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.


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.