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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Environmental education encourages students to examine the world at close range. © Robert Queen

October 1997

Steadfast to the ABC's of EE

Critics question biases in teaching environmental education, but in Wisconsin there's commitment to stay the course.

Dan Sivek


Environmental education encourages students to examine the world at close range.

© Robert Queen

The issue: a proposed mine. The setting: Mark Goings' fourth grade classroom at Robbins Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Pupils have been studying the matter in and out of class for over two weeks. Three teams of students now face the center of the room.

The first speaker stands up and convincingly describes the benefits a mine will bring to the area. When she's finished, a second student stands up and counters with the environmental drawbacks of mining. The third team observes and takes notes as the other two teams exchange views. When both pro and con teams have exhausted their arguments, Goings questions all students on the debate, asks if their views toward the mine have changed, and asks students to discuss possible compromises that may need to be made.

This real example shows just one way that Wisconsin teachers deal with controversial environmental issues. The educators strive to ensure balanced presentations. They encourage students to think critically. It's the kind of teaching you'd want your children to experience. It's typical of what I've heard from teachers since I started a career in environmental education 20 years ago.

The 1990s have seen rising criticism of how environmental education (EE) is taught. Critics suggest EE programs are incomplete at best, pessimistic at worst. A study of Wisconsin textbooks by the Center for Environmental Education Research in Tucson, Arizona, concluded that "environmental issues are often presented in an emotional rather than scientific manner," that texts avoid economic considerations, and that "Wisconsin students are given frightening scenarios of future environmental catastrophes."

An example from Arizona, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal seems to support these assertions:

Take for example the 13 essays by second-graders at Canyon View Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona... From the windows of their school, the children watched a housing development under construction. They didn't like it. "The desert used to look beautiful, but now they are wrecking it," wrote one child.

"I love the smell of plants, but all of them are being bulldozed to make apartments," wrote another. "Our class used to sit in the desert to write and do their school activities," said a third. "But now they're using that land just for people to live in homes they don't really need."

Homes they "don't really need"? What, pray, do these young writers live in?

Examples like this were used in 1994-95 to overturn Arizona's environmental education legislation. The National Environmental Education Act was also targeted for nonrenewal, but those efforts failed.

Wisconsin's environmental education legislation has remained largely intact. In fact, we've even seen small increases in funding for EE programs fostered by strong backing from a diverse mix of education, environmental, and other citizen organizations. Still, given a small but vocal group of critics here, the future of EE will also depend on how citizens respond to what they read about schools and make time to see for themselves.

To better understand the objections that EE critics raise, it helps to have a bit of background on Wisconsin's EE laws, a sense of who is funding the anti-EE cause, and an awareness of what is really happening in our public schools. What to do with this information is up to you.

EE in Wisconsin: 1935 to the present

Wisconsin's environmental education law goes back to 1935 when the Legislature first required the teaching of conservation education in the schools. A committee was established to define conservation and begin creating materials. Among the committee's members was Aldo Leopold, now regarded by many as the "father" of modern environmental education. It's a tribute to Leopold, this committee, and the Legislature that the conservation education requirement remained on the books for nearly 50 years.

In the 1980s, the Legislature began to reexamine the old conservation education law. Lawmakers proposed deleting the conservation education requirements as outdated. They questioned how environmental attitudes were formed and how environmental education was taught.

Established educators, environmentalists and naturalists were concerned that state EE requirements might be weakened or lost. They also recognized that the state EE law needed updating, so they took action. Through extensive grassroots lobbying and testifying at hearings, a Wisconsin Teacher Certification Rule was created. To the credit of the full political spectrum in Wisconsin, this rule mandated that college students planning to become agriculture, elementary, elementary/middle, early childhood teachers, and middle/secondary and secondary science and social studies teachers needed EE training as part of their coursework. The task fell to universities to ensure that teacher candidates are proficient in four content areas and three teaching methods areas.

A young student of nature. © Robert Queen
A young student of nature.

© Robert Queen

Shortly after the teacher certification rule passed, it became clear that more uniform EE standards were needed in schools. Again, through grassroots activism across Wisconsin, constituents convinced state government to incorporate an EE curriculum in state educational standards. Now, each school must craft a written, sequential, kindergarten through 12th grade EE program that is infused into existing subject areas. Environmental education is especially emphasized in science, social studies, art and health classes.

Five major concepts guide the Wisconsin EE curriculum. Students are expected to acquire:

  • awareness of the environment and of environmental issues; and a sensitivity toward the environment
  • knowledge of ecology and environmental problems
  • an environmental ethic on which students may act to defend, improve, or sustain the quality of life
  • citizen action skills to have the expertise to identify, investigate, and evaluate environmental issues
  • citizen participation skills to act on issues if one's beliefs and values support it

If educators follow these guidelines, their classes can enjoy high-quality experiences that maintain a balance of cultural and political biases. Moreover, their graduating seniors should be more knowledgeable and skillful environmental problem solvers.

In 1990 the State Legislature created a Wisconsin Environmental Education Board to promote EE in all segments of society and to represent a range of interests in forming educational policies and funding educational projects.

Critics and criticisms of EE

Nationwide, the most vocal critics of the ways environmental education is currently taught include Michael Sanera, a political science professor at Arizona State; Jo Kwong, an environmental researcher and Public Affairs Director for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va.; and Jonathan Adler, an environmental policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their supporters include a number of think tanks – the George C. Marshall Institute, Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the Heritage Foundation, among others. In turn, these politically conservative think-tanks are funded by various foundations, several with Wisconsin connections.

A June 1996 study in which Sanera examined the content of environmental textbooks used by 12 Wisconsin school districts concluded these texts "present human beings as evil and blame the United States in particular and Western industrial societies in general for every environmental ill."

Sanera criticizes texts for understating a range of social and economic values, for having a "pervasive" bias against economic growth and technology, for making children feel guilty about the material advantages Americans enjoy and for presenting people as being "against" nature rather than a part of it.

Evaluating whether teaching materials contain biases can be an important part of lessons that teach critical thinking in the classroom.

Rick Wilke, UW-Stevens Point professor of Environmental Education and Director of the National Environmental Education Advancement Project, says the most organized attacks on EE "emerged in 1995 with formation of The Environmental Education Working Group. Some of the anti-EE critics may actually desire to improve the scientific and economic base for decision making. However, some are more interested in promoting their own anti-environment agendas."

What's happening in Wisconsin schools?

Wisconsin teachers, students, and administrators were surveyed beginning in 1990, prior to most of the national EE criticism. More than 3,500 students, 900 teachers, and 1,100 administrators were surveyed. The final report, called "Are We Walking the Talk?" was completed and announced early this summer. In a nutshell, its findings show strong support for requiring environmental education from all three groups.

On the other hand, there is also room for improvement. Students' knowledge of the environment was rated as "low" as were their skills to take actions to improve environmental quality.

However, attitudes toward the environment were very positive and there are many fine programs that set positive models across all grades and subject areas. Here are a few:

Kristen Gonia Larkin teaches sixth grade in Bangor, Wis. In a teaching unit on business, students created a business called "Hands On Nature." The vice president of a local bank spoke to students about challenges in operating a small business, a representative from a nearby lumber company spoke specifically about the lumber business. Students decided to start their own business after completing a market survey. They identified products, their roles, production time, and even took out a loan from a parent committee. About 70 percent of their work took place outside of class. They took orders and sold out of their first product line. For their second project, students proposed a "tree walk." The lumber company donated proceeds from the first product to fund the second. Students solicited and received donations for 13 memorial trees. From start to finish, Kristen's students learned math, science, marketing, word processing, and computer technology skills to complement the lessons learned about forestry and renewable resources.

Harv Hayden teaches high school biology at Wisconsin Rapids' Lincoln High School. Sue Wisen teaches English. Together they teach a course called Environmental Enterprise. "It was the first fully integrated course at LHS," says Harv. "We combine math, history/social studies, and philosophy." Students begin the course studying the writings of environmentalists, which emphasizes English and philosophy. Later, they study environmental issues. An ongoing project combines data from other schools that also monitor the Wisconsin River (WREN, the Wisconsin River Environmental Network). The culminating course experience is an investigative project requiring thorough research and actions. Past classes have written letters to government, spoken to community groups and posted flyers around school describing the issues they've studied. "It's definitely a lot of work," many students tell Harv and Sue, "but it's also the best class I've ever had."

Neil Dullinger teaches biology and advanced biology at Mukwanago High School. His Master's research at UW-Stevens Point led him to rethink how societal "issues" can be "taught." It's become clear to him that trying to persuade students to take a particular view on an issue is counterproductive. "High school students are too smart," he says, "and those opposed to the view only strengthen their resolve." Neil found that students respond better to open -ended discussions of issues, and learn important skills in the process.

What about tomorrow? For at least 62 years, Wisconsin teachers have proudly carried a conservation/ environmental education torch. They've been aided by nature centers, higher education, zoos, museums, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education, and countless others. Wisconsin environmental educators believe we have come out of the current fray, and just as we teach students, we are stronger for having engaged in healthy debate about presenting classroom materials in a balanced manner.

We're dismayed, however, that opponents force us to waste valuable time balancing inaccurate portrayals of the field.

Dan Sivek is an Associate Professor of Environmental Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also secondary specialist for the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education. Previously he served as an Environmental Education Specialist for DNR's West Central Region. He has served on the board of directors of the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education, and was president for two years.