By Tim Grant - (Reprinted with permission from Green Teacher #56, Fall 1998)
Early this summer, environmental education was given a resounding endorsement with the release of a report titled Closing the Achievement Gap, prepared by a 12-state consortium known as the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER). After studying programs in 40 schools across the United States, researchers for the group concluded that students learn more effectively within an environment-based context than within a traditional educational framework. The study found that students in programs that used the environment as a context for learning performed better in mathematics, social studies, science and language arts than did their peers in traditional programs.
The schools selected for the study were ones identified as having programs that use the environment as the integrating context (EIC) for learning. These EIC programs shared several characteristics:
• interdisciplinary integration of subject matter;
• collaborative instruction;
• emphasis on problem solving and projects;
• combinations of independent and cooperative learning; and
• learner-centered and constructivist approaches.
There were nearly equal numbers of elementary, middle and high schools in the study, and a balance of urban and rural and rich and poor schools. On average, the schools had been using environment-based programs for more than seven years.
The authors of the report, Gerald Lieberman and Linda Hoody, visited all of the schools, interviewed hundreds of teachers and students, and administered a variety of surveys to teachers and administrators. In addition, 14 of the schools undertook quantitative assessments, comparing the grade point averages and test scores of students in EIC programs with those in traditional learning programs. The higher performance of EIC students on standardized tests was particularly remarkable because the programs in which they were enrolled used authentic learning and assessment methods that did not prepare students for standardized test formats. Equally striking, the higher performance of EIC students was evident at all grade levels. Besides scoring high on tests, students in these programs had fewer discipline problems, and at-risk students worked better and learned more effectively.
A concern of some educators is that integrated learning programs may not adequately cover subject content. Yet the study found that students in these programs actually had a more thorough understanding of the content than their peers in traditional programs. The EIC students tended to read more, often beyond the requirements of their assignments. They retained more of what they learned and produced greater volumes of higher quality writing. They had more opportunities to apply mathematics and science in real-world contexts and better understood the concepts of these subjects. Finally, the EIC students developed a greater understanding of social, economic and political systems.
A large majority of teachers reported that, in addition to mastering subject content, EIC program students developed better interpersonal and citizenship skills. Students found themselves in more situations requiring decision-making, which in turn helped them develop self-discipline, mutual respect and a sense of community. A sense of camaraderie and collaboration led students to act with more civility towards each other. Finally, students in these environment-based programs had few doubts that their studies were meaningful.
The study’s findings are also encouraging for teachers. Most teachers in EIC programs felt rejuvenated and reported greater enthusiasm for teaching in general and their own subjects specifically. They enjoyed better interaction with students, learned new teaching methods and discovered new opportunities for professional growth.
Unlike most environmental education research to date, which typically assesses the effectiveness of EE in developing skills, knowledge and behavior related to the environment, this is the first study to confirm that using the environment as a context for learning enhances the efficacy of education in many subject areas.
The authors acknowledge that evidence from 40 schools cannot be considered conclusive and say they are planning a more comprehensive and quantitative follow-up. But as the first study of its kind, Closing the Achievement Gap documents what many environmental educators already know from experience: that using the environment as the context for integrated learning offers the possibility of closing the nagging gap between education’s potential and its less promising reality. This is a document that could persuade even the most reluctant administrators that environmental education is indispensable.
Environmental Education Links
• World Wildlife Fund, Windows on the Wild
• National Audubon Society (Educational Topics)
• Wilderness Education - From Wilderness Information Network
• Global Issues - Learn about the issue of biodiversity
• Conservation International - Learn about 25 of the richest and most threatened ecosystems
• What is your state doing about EE and who to contact check out: Environmental Education.
• Envirolink - non-profit organization providing access to thousands of online environmental resources
• Clearinghouse for Science, Math, and Environmental Education
• Environmental News Network
• Ecology Websites - from New Carolina State University Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education
• Alberta Council for Environmental Education
• Green Schools - helps schools use energy efficiently with retrofits, renewable technology, and bringing the energy efficiency message to students and the community
• Solar Quest- Solar resources for schools and others
• Climate Solutions - Practical solutions to global warming
• Climate Calculators
• Calculating your Ecological footprint
EE Sites and Projects
• Natural Resources Management for Kids
• Every Student Learns Outside
• Arkansas Project WET
• Arkansas Project WILD
• Project WET
• Project WILD
• Earth and Sky
• Kids Do Ecology
• University of Illinois Extension - Just for Kids
• The Forest Shop
• Arkansas Environmental Education Association
• Arkansas Master Naturalist
• Temperate Forest Foundation
• National Geographic Wild World
• Ranger Rick
• International Project Learning Tree
• The Globe Program
• National Council for Science and the Environment
• World Resources Institute
• Tree Conservation Resources and Links
Environmental Education Organizations
• Environmental Literacy Council - The Environmental Literacy Council is an independent, non-profit organization, the Council gives teachers the tools to help students develop environmental literacy: a fundamental understanding of the systems of the world, both living and non-living, along with the analytical skills needed to weigh scientific evidence and policy choices.
• North American Association for Environmental Education - (NAAEE) - the major organization for environmental education professionals
• EE-Link - a major resource for environmental education on the Internet
• EdGateway - for educators
• The Environmental Education and Training Partnership - (EETAP) - federally funded environmental education training organization - includes an environmental literacy quiz and an university-level online course in EE.
• National Environmental Education Advancement Project (University of Wisconsin)
• National Environmental Education and Training Foundation
• Institute for Earth Education - teacher resources
• GreenCOM Envirospaces
• Rainforest Action Network, Teacher and Student Resources
• SeaWeb - a multi-media project designed to raise awareness of the world ocean and the life within it.
• Global Response - Global partnerships for citizen action.