Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Practical Wisdom in Environmental Education

David Havlick ; Marion Hourdequin
Affiliations:Department of Geography, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Department of Philosophy, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

To create an ecologically literate, motivated, and engaged citizenry, environmental education must help students develop practical wisdom. We discuss three elements of teaching central to this task: first, greater emphasis on contextualized knowledge, grounded in particular places and cases; second, multi-modal learning that engages students as whole persons both cognitively and affectively; and third, stronger connections between knowing and doing, or between knowledge and responsibility. We illustrate these elements through our experience teaching field-based environmental studies courses, but also emphasize ways in which practical environmental education can be effectively incorporated into campus-based classes.

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the question of what constitutes a good life for human beings. Aristotle's answer was that a good life is a virtuous life. He offered a detailed account of the virtues of character, which are social virtues that allow individuals to live well in relation to other members of the community. Aristotle 's thorough discussion of these virtues, along with his account of friendship, suggests that the knowledge human beings require to flourish is deeply practical. Only in the closing sections does Aristotle call this view into question, elevating a life of philosophical contemplation and theoretical wisdom above all else, noting that contemplation comes closest to mirroring the activity of the gods.

The tension between practical and theoretical wisdom in the Nicomachean Ethics has been the source of endless academic controversy. Yet, regardless of what Aristotle intended, he at least acknowledged that insofar as we are human, we need practical wisdom: 'for our nature is not self-sufficient for the purpose of contemplation, but our body also must be healthy and have food and other attention'.(1) We first need to know how to sustain ourselves as individuals and in communities before we can be free to pursue lives of pure theoretical contemplation.

The division between the theoretical and the practical may not be as sharp as Aristotle suggested, but regardless of how one draws the distinction, practical wisdom has never been more important than it is today. We need to learn how to live well in a world plagued by environmental problems at scales ranging from local to global. We need to learn how it is possible for human beings and the ecosystems upon which we depend to flourish in an increasingly crowded world. This will require practical wisdom of the most thoughtful and sophisticated kind; not necessarily the kind of wisdom that today's higher education effectively provides.

In 1976 the United Nations identified as the goal of environmental education in its Belgrade Charter:

to develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills and commitment to work toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.(2)

Nearly three decades later, only limited progress has been made towards achieving this goal world wide.

Even if applied more modestly to the college curriculum and its graduates in the USA, the UN's goal remains distant. Despite efforts to integrate environmental education into K-12 programs and college curricula, the overarching objective of creating an ecologically literate, motivated and engaged corps of graduates remains elusive.

Effective environmental education at the college level requires a move towards the practical. In order to facilitate this shift, we discuss three elements that can contribute to integrated learning: first, greater emphasis on contextualized knowledge, grounded in particular places and cases; second, multi-modal learning that engages students as whole persons both cognitively and affectively; third, stronger connections between knowing and doing or between knowledge and responsibility. We illustrate these elements primarily through our experience teaching field-based environmental studies courses, however, we also emphasize that these features can be incorporated into traditional classes on campus.

Practical wisdom requires contextualized knowledge. By contextualized knowledge we mean that concepts and skills learned in the classroom should not remain at such a high level of abstraction that they cannot be utilized in everyday thinking about what to believe and what to do; rather, they should link up with life outside the university walls. Students need to develop analytic and critical thinking skills not just to solve logic problems, but to grapple with the complexities of real world issues, for which deductive reasoning may not suffice. For philosophers this means coming down to earth, spending more time discussing cases that involve real world possibilities and less time relying on fanciful 'possible world' examples. For geographers this means helping students understand how the physical and cultural features of places influence social and environmental processes right here and now, not just on the other side of the world or in the future and the past.

Knowledge can be made practical through a variety of means. In our experience, one effective way to contextualize knowledge is to get students out of the classroom. Rather than read about the interconnections between elevation and temperature, logging and stream siltation or suburban sprawl and habitat fragmentation, students can experience these relationships for themselves in the field. Theoretical knowledge can be reinforced and made practical by experiences that allow students to explore and confirm what they read or hear in lectures. After covering the basics of the hydrologic cycle and energy flow, for example, in a recent course we brought students to the local sanitary landfill for a tour. As we stood around a settling pond filled with leachate, or 'landfill tea', our guide described the water's destiny. Once the settling pond fills, the water is pumped to the county water treatment facility, then on to nearby Jordan Lake, which supplies drinking water for several nearby communities. Several of the students who lived in these towns were astonished to learn that the waters oozing from this garbage heap flow after three short steps from their own household taps. Such experiences increase awareness and promote critical thinking, encouraging students to examine and assess for themselves the ways in which the environment and human activities are intertwined and to discuss with their peers the implications of these connections.

Moving farther from the college campus, a growing number of field-based academic programs provide intensive opportunities for students to explore environmental issues experientially. These courses, such as those we have taught for the Missoula, Montana-based Wild Rockies Field Institute, offer educational opportunities unavailable in typical classroom settings and may prove crucial in achieving the goals of environmental education. Field experiences immerse students in the natural and human histories of particular places, where students can learn inductively, starting with place-based experiential data and moving toward generalizations based on this experience. The localization and particularity of field experiences reverse the typical process of classroom learning in philosophy and the sciences, where students often learn general principles first, followed by specific examples that illustrate these generalizations. Inductive knowledge building, in contrast, does not presuppose the existence of general principles that apply to all cases. Instead, students' interactions with land managers, visits with ranchers, environmental activists and Native Americans and active work on ecological restoration projects reveal the complexity of environmental issues and challenge students to deal with this complexity, building analytical and deliberative skills needed for effective participation in environmental decisions.

Another feature of field experiences is that they engage students in diverse ways: physically, intellectually and emotionally. They encourage multiple modes of learning, which, in addition to accommodating a diversity of learning styles, help develop knowledge that is multidimensional and vivid, richer than the usual words from a text. While classroom instructors must often work hard to foster learning through multiple pathways, in the field this variety is built into the course. In our campus-based classes we find it consistently challenging to cover a large amount of material in a single semester. Perhaps nowhere is this challenge felt more strongly than in teaching world regional geography, a survey course that takes students around the world in roughly half the proverbial 80 days. By combining lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations, slides, informal discussion, small group exercises, role play, 'geography bowl' activities and brief student presentations the format can be varied, but the overall trend is one of knowledge flowing from the instructor to a relatively passive assembly of students.

In the field, although we typically spend at least as much time in advance designing the syllabus and structuring the lesson plans for a course, there are inevitably encounters that spawn spontaneous 'teachable moments' during which the group of students and instructor(s) collectively are challenged to process information and critically assess these experiences. During the hiking portion of the day we commonly stop to point out particular plants or plant associations, note the shifting forest types as we ascend or descend, discuss management policies that apply as we pass through jurisdictional boundaries (or clearcuts, rangeland, etc.) or simply scout an area for a suitable camp site. Questions often arise as students explore areas close to camp: Why is this stream so cold, what made these ruts in the trail or why aren't there any trees growing here? Although in the courses we have taught there is time set aside for structured classes (discussion, lecture or field activities), learning does not end when class is over. Field experiences soften the boundaries between 'class' and 'life', distributing the flow of information over the course of the day, with frequent opportunities to reinforce and expand on ideas through direct encounters and observation.

It might be objected that field courses, especially those set in remote locations, do not provide students with 'practical' knowledge at all. Who needs to know why certain trees grow on dry sites but not near moisture or what makes mountain streams so chilly? Today's students need to know how to design web sites, manage computer networks and write an effective cover letter, not learn the natural history of some faraway place to which they may never return. While it is true that the particular details of plant taxonomy may be neither necessary nor sufficient to promote environmental literacy, learning to know a particular place well is an important first step towards reintegrating humans into the environment and showing how human activities, from computer network management to logging to the national energy policy, actually affect the world. By interacting with the animals, plants and people of particular places, students develop the skills and insight they need to understand other places and people, including those close to home. In fact, these lessons from the field often help students to think ecologically, encouraging them to make connections that extend beyond disciplinary boundaries or single actions and to consider how various parts contribute to the whole. As we illustrated with the brief excursion to the landfill, even a short field trip can add important practical knowledge to our experiences. When these students add their garbage to the campus bins they can now reflect on how such refuse circulates back to their hometown water supply.

This brings us to our last point: the importance of connecting knowledge and responsibility. Multimodal learning and contextualized knowledge both support this third educational goal. By connecting knowledge to real world issues and by engaging students more fully and deeply in the learning process, these first two elements help connect knowing and doing. Field-based learning also fosters responsibility in other ways. Especially in backcountry courses, students and instructors form not only a learning community, but a community in all aspects of life, if for a short time. Cooking and cleaning responsibilities are shared and students learn that the safety of the group depends on the intelligent behavior of each of its members.

Although critiques such as Cronon's influential 1995 essay, 'The trouble with wilderness', point to a distancing effect where the idea of wilderness lulls society into ignoring the real challenges that exist where we live, in fact we find that wilderness-based education can link students profoundly to the importance of taking responsibility for their actions.(3) On a field course in southeast Alaska a student once ignored our instructions not to bring food into his tent and his half-eaten candy bar nearly got him expelled from the course. When we later saw a large bear working the shoreline for barnacles and mussels the course rules suddenly made sense. In this way, prescriptions for behavior in the field often come with clearer consequences than those in the classroom, whether these are focused on environmental topics, such as recycling, or practical ones, such as camping safely in bear country. Ideally, by experiencing themselves as agents whose actions matter - to their own safety, to the well-being of the group and to resident animals and plants - students gain a heightened sense of the import of their everyday decisions that can carry over to other settings.

Particularly when trying to convey complex or abstract concepts about environmental processes, ethics or management, the move outdoors to direct experience seems to awaken in many students an ability to find more direct meaning and to see themselves as part of the world they are learning about, rather than as just passive observers of it. By removing students and their instruction entirely from field or forest as we now have in most college coursework, environmental education itself becomes abstracted. In the climate-controlled environment of the average university classroom students understandably may find it difficult to link a particular lecture on energy consumption to the means of producing power and to connect greenhouse gas emissions to rising seas and increased flooding. In this setting it is not only conceptually difficult to make these connections, but it contradicts one's personal experience. The air-conditioned room feels soothing, not like a contributing element to global climate change.

In the field such topics may be more actively approached. On a Field Institute semester course on the Colorado Plateau of Utah and Arizona, for example, in the span of two days students were able to visit a Hopi initiative to provide photovoltaic arrays to isolated communities, camp on the banks of the (now) clear, cold waters of the Colorado River downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, be guided through the dam from top to bottom to see (and smell and hear) how it produces hydroelectricity and finish off with a tour of the Navajo Power Plant, with, in passing, a glimpse of the Black Mesa coal mining site that feeds it.

The lessons learned from these experiences ultimately remain up to each individual, but as a program such field-based education can ensure that students will at least understand how some of our major energy sources are produced, and with what consequences. The intimacy of such encounters - peering into the fiery dynamo of the coal furnace or descending through the damp corridors of the dam - also presses students to both feel and think. Learning in this way has a visceral quality that tends to pierce through collegiate apathy. Of course, there is no guarantee that students will form the 'right' outlook on the basis of such experiences. However, as teachers we aim to raise questions and motivate critical thought, rather than implant a particular point of view. The vividness of field trips that illustrate the intricacies of real world environmental issues can spur students to engage with one another in earnest conversations about how power should be produced and consumed, the generation and fate of our trash and our relationship to the environment more generally.

Such visits help provide what Aldo Leopold called 'an intense consciousness of land', which he considered essential for individuals to develop a land ethic. As he wrote in his 1949 critique of the educational and economic system that prevailed then and now:

Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a 'scenic' area, he is bored stiff.(4)

Leopold's lesson can apply to both 'natural' and human dominated landscapes: field-based explorations can transform a mass of shoreline 'seaweed' into a rich montage of algal diversity or show how a coal-fired power plant heats dorm rooms in Chapel Hill, links to mining in the southern Appalachians and affects air quality in central North Carolina.

We find that in the classroom students find it hard to imagine how environmental policy issues, ethics or specific practices translate to the world beyond the campus. In a course one of us recently taught on environmental ethics, students drew a blank when asked for examples of how global climate change might outpace the environment's ability to adapt. Finally, when pressed, one student constructed an abstract analogy: 'If the whole world was brown and suddenly it turned purple, the brown things would be poorly adapted to the new environment'. While that may be true, the students lacked the ability to vividly imagine how climate change might affect Colorado's aspens and Montana's whitebark pines, agriculture in Bangladesh, residents of the Maldives or native villages in northern Alaska. Had they read in more detail about these things, they might have gained a clearer picture, but even then it might have been hard for them to envision how changes in climate and landscape would affect the communities, human and non-human, of particular places.

As early as 1949 Aldo Leopold lodged this complaint against environmental education:
'[it] defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values'.5

Environmental education that is abstract and decontextualized, that engages students solely through books and lectures and that does little to link knowledge to responsibility will undoubtedly continue to fall prey to this critique. We have tried to show how field-based environmental education can promote practical wisdom, by engaging students more directly and actively in learning and by showing how environmental issues are matters of real consequence to all living things.

Our intent here is not to diminish the importance of classroom learning or the instruction that takes place on college campuses, but rather to encourage a more integrative approach to post-secondary environmental education that includes both traditional forms of learning and the more open experiences afforded by field-based programs. These, in turn, may include a mix of experiences to give students a sense of the range of environments from which we can learn and whose workings we need to understand. The 'field' includes not just forests, deserts, prairies and mountain peaks, but the campus quad, the university power plant, local streams, landfills, factories, water treatment facilities and even the halls of Congress. The strongest learning will take place when students can recognize concepts as they appear in a variety of field-based situations, while also linking in the other direction from specific practices to concepts and methods mastered on campus. Ideally, the two kinds of instruction can be mutually supportive.

Even the most ambitious field-based academic programs should, and typically do, work to integrate, not replace, learning conducted inside the classroom. Programs such as Prescott College's 4 year undergraduate degree use a block-quarter calendar that allows students to participate in 4 week blocks of field courses followed by 10 week quarters usually more devoted to classroom instruction.6 The University of Montana's Wilderness and Civilization Program brings a group of 25 students together for a 1 year experience that begins and concludes with 10-day backpacking and canoeing expeditions, but still sends the cohort through two semesters of coursework on campus to study wilderness management, the economics of wild land preservation, environmental ethics and other subjects.7 This inside-outside combination not only gives students a chance to see the practical dimensions of environmental problems, but the change in venue can also provide opportunities to reflect on and synthesize learning, allowing students to return to campus (or careers) with renewed focus and inspiration.

As we have noted, the lessons gained by these field-based courses should be refreshed wherever possible in classroom coursework, just as the field courses emphasize many concepts and methods that need to come from classroom instruction. How can this be accomplished? Ultimately, we view this not so much as a matter of learning and retaining facts as it is the development of skills in critical thinking and deliberative discussion. Both inside and outside the classroom we ought to be training students to engage the world in which we all live, to inquire of ourselves and those we encounter and to be able to enter into constructive dialogue. This rests upon an ability, as Barry Lopez has suggested, to propose questions and conversations rather than impose ideas and rules.8 It requires that we integrate our actions with our ideas and recognize that both of these come with consequences. And, wherever possible, it should come with an educational approach that prompts students to learn in the classroom, but also learn to leave the classroom behind. For it is out there, beyond the buildings and quads of the college campus, that the vast majority of our students will need to find their way in life. We owe it to them, and ourselves, to get out there with them as part of our collective preparation. Those of us who are academics will not be hurt by the reminder that the pursuit of theoretical wisdom is deeply dependent on our having the practical wisdom to design economies and communities that can sustain us in relation to the ecosystems of which we are a part.

Environmental education that teaches practical wisdom empowers students not only to understand and appreciate the workings of the world as observers, but encourages them to learn how to live well in the world. This is not a matter of figuring out the 'right' stances to take on environmental issues, then going on with one's life. Living well is a process that requires openness, curiosity, creativity and a willingness to work with others. What contextualized, multimodal and practical education can teach is that environmental problems cannot be 'solved' and settled like equations in mathematics. Our relationship to the environment, like our relationship to other human beings, is dynamic and ongoing. Thus, in addition to a theoretical understanding of nutrient cycles, biodiversity indices and environmental engineering, we need practical skills of attention, reflection and responsiveness that are best learned through engagement with the world outside the classroom.

Published in: Ethics, Place & Environment, Volume 8, Issue 3 October 2005 , pages 385 - 392


1 Aristotle, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W. D. Ross, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson (New York, Oxford University Press, 1980), Book X, ch. 8, sec. 4.
2 'The Belgrade Charter: a global framework for environmental education', Connect: UNESCO-UNEP Environmental Education Newsletter, 1(1) (1976), pp. 1-2.
3 William Cronon, 'The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature', in William Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), pp. 69-90.
4 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 223-224 (Original work, Oxford University Press, 1949).
5 Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, pp. 207-208.
6 Prescott College website. Retrieved June 15, 2004, from http://www.prescott.edu/academics/rdp/how.html.
7 Wilderness and Civilization Program website. Retrieved June 15, 2004, from http://www.forestry.umt.edu/research/MFCES/programs/wi/wildciv.htm.
8 Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (New York, Vintage, 1992), p. 18. (Original work, University of Kentucky Press, 1990).

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