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Teaching the Environment

How educators can help students understand the complexity of environmental change
Teaching the Environment

Note: Story has been updated, September 2019  

Educators can help students make wise choices about responding to climate change and safeguarding the planet's future — not only by teaching environmental science, but also by fostering an awareness of how students’ own actions can help or harm our world. Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, does work that explores the notion of complex causality — and how our understanding of causality in nature affects our decision making. Grotzer shares insight into how teachers can help students appreciate the intricacies of environmental change.

Environmental Cause and Effect: Three Key Ideas

Teaching and learning about the environment means grappling with three key concepts, which shape the way we understand our impact on the world:  

Action at an attentional distance: the idea that the connection between causes and outcomes in environmental systems can be difficult to recognize because they exist on large spatial scales and in different “attentional frames.” Middle schoolers may say, for example, that they want to “save the polar bears,” but they don’t see polar bears in their daily lives. As a result, many have a difficult time remembering consistently that their actions, such as recycling and turning off the lights, can actually affect polar bears.

Distributed causality: the idea that many disparate causes can collectively lead to powerful, unexpected, and possibly unnoticed outcomes. One quick drive to the grocery store may use barely any gas, but billions of people make that trip thousands of times a year, and the amount of gas those trips use adds up. 

Probabilistic causality: the idea that a cause doesn’t have to lead to an effect every single time for them to be related. (For instance, not every person who smokes will get lung cancer, but statistically, it increases the likelihood he will.) Students have to learn to look beyond their personal observations, valuing and interpreting scientific data to comprehend the relationships between actions.

Five Approaches for Teachers

It can be difficult to understand the interconnectedness of the environment — but Grotzer emphasizes that with the right support, young people have the capacity to do it. “This generation probably has the best opportunity to understand causality given their experiences with things like the Internet and grass-roots global phenomena,” she says.

Here are five approaches to environmental education:

Don’t shy away from complexity.
While it may be tempting to simplify tough concepts when talking to kids about climate change, it does them a disservice in the long run. Not letting kids grapple with the complexity can diminish the scale of these problems, and it denies kids the chance to learn how to reason about them and come up with their own complex solutions.

Make up words to help you — or ask kids to make up words.
“We don’t have good vocabulary” to explain all of these relationships, says Grotzer. “Encourage students to make up words and phrases that capture the nature of the concepts.” Children in Grotzer’s studies, for instance, explained extended patterns as “domino effects” and dynamic balance as “seesawing.”

Offer kids the opportunities to “just be” in nature.
To want to save the environment, young people have to appreciate what they’re trying to protect. But the negative talk surrounding climate change can make kids feel bad about their interactions with the outdoors. Parents and teachers can encourage kids to spend time outside noticing the patterns, biodiversity, and beauty surrounding them, which can, explains Grotzer, provide motivation “to tackle hard environmental problems or stick with daily choices that pay off in the long run.”

Make it all ages.
The ability, and responsibility, to have these discussions does not rest solely with upper-level science teachers. Preschool classes can meet outside, and teachers can encourage connections between what students see, hear, smell, and touch. Middle school, with flexible curriculums and idealistic, determined students, can be an ideal time to delve into environmental causality.

Make it interdisciplinary.
Every classroom and discipline, says Grotzer, can incorporate concepts related to environmental education. Both the ethical considerations — the notion that we have a collective responsibility for the common good — and the ideas of complex causality percolate throughout the school day, from history lessons to literature analyses to disputes on the playground. Learning to dissect these complexities and create sensible solutions can help develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to understanding the challenges of environmental stewardship.  

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