S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Coastal Heritage Magazine

Nature’s Lessons: A Closer Look

Too many teachers, critics argue, are using the classroom as a bully pulpit for environmentalism, promoting a narrow ideology of doom and gloom about the planet’s future. Nonsense, teachers respond. A growing number of schoolchildren are learning important lessons about complex controversies such as global warming and acid rain, educators say, and the real problem is that children are being used as pawns in political conflicts.

Young students in hardhats take measurements in the forest.

Where Am I? Educators are increasingly using nature to excite children to learn. With compasses, fourth graders from Millbrook Elementary School in Aiken discover how to orient themselves in the woods. Photo by Wade Spees.

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Coastal Heritage Magazine

Volume 13 – Number 4
Spring 1999

John H. Tibbetts

Nature’s Lessons: A Closer Look

Environmental educators are trying to brainwash schoolchildren into becoming activists who sign petitions and write impassioned letters to Congress on behalf of wildlife and other green causes. That’s the view, anyway, of a vocal band of critics seeking to change how environmental issues are taught in schools around the country. Teachers encourage too much “social action”—in other words, political lobbying—from the classroom while providing too few opportunities for hands-on instruction, critics say.

“The emphasis on social action in environmental education is incredibly prevalent,” says Jonathan Adler, senior director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. On complex environmental issues, regulatory agencies and congressional representatives receive bunches of mail from schoolchildren, sometimes written in crayon. Adler believes that the mail has been orchestrated by well-meaning teachers. “We’re seeing advocacy get ahead of education.”

Children are given a steady diet of apocalyptic visions of the future, including inaccurate or biased information about acid rain, global warming, population growth, endangered species, and other volatile issues of the day, according to political scientist Michael Sanera, director of the Center for Environmental Education Research Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Educators are “teaching political skills and half-baked science.”

Learn to Doing. Margaret Wall, a third-grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary in Aiken, leads her students through a science experiment. Photo by Wade Spees.

That’s exaggeration, many educators respond. In several states, a small number of activists have orchestrated letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and state legislatures, creating the illusion that there is widespread grassroots anger over how children are taught about ecology, says Richard Wilke, professor of environmental education and associate dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

“Certain groups are activated, and they get on radio talk shows and send out press releases, all carefully timed to make it look as if there’s a groundswell of support” for attacks on environmental education. The harshest critics are politically motivated, their efforts underwritten by large corporations that would benefit from rollbacks in regulations, he says. In reality, most children are being taught important lessons on how nature functions, and how people and nature interact. “The vast majority of teachers want students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They want students to debate various sides of issues.”

If environmental education is done properly, then students are allowed to study a problem and come to their own conclusions, says Bora Simmons of Northern Illinois University and former president of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), whose members work in universities, public and private schools from kindergarten through grade 12, government agencies and industry. “The teacher should help you through the learning process, but not lead you to the answer.”

It is difficult to find specific complaints about South Carolina teachers who have aggressively pushed a pro-environmental agenda at the expense of other points of view. “There might be a few who tend to take sides (in the classroom), but they’re a very small minority,” says Ned Shuler, education associate at the University of South Carolina-Aiken and former president of the S.C. Environmental Educators Association.

Still, green education has an unusual niche. One of its traditional goals has been to promote “responsible environmental behavior.” To critics, that students are taught citizenship skills in environmental studies smacks of advocacy. But supporters say this is an extension of civics training, a fundamental part of a student’s preparation for adulthood.

Progressive Education

Environmental education has roots in a movement that gained popularity in Europe and North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the United States, so-called “progressive education” was sponsored by the psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, who taught and lectured widely that common—or public—schools should reflect societies they belonged to. That is, students should not be taught just facts from books, but should be engaged in the ideas and conflicts of their community life.

Dewey and other reformers argued that traditional schools were rigid and lifeless. Students were being treated as empty vessels into which knowledge was poured, and school was considered distinctly separate from the rest of life. Science instruction was especially abstract. “One of the greatest difficulties in the present teaching of science is that the material is presented in purely objective form” without any social context, Dewey wrote. Instead, reformers said, young people must be better prepared for an era of abrupt, bewildering change. At a time when cities were exploding in population and industrialization was altering the landscape, reformers argued that schools should be used to Americanize immigrants and provide more real-world training for students.

Dewey encouraged schools to change curricula to provide an “emphasis upon activity as distinct from passivity.” Over the next several decades, many public schools built science laboratories and introduced hands-on learning to students. Other schools added “nature study” to their curriculum, so children could learn about plants and animals and ecological systems. But most schools continued to lag behind, using traditional methods of instruction.


Critter Search. When studying environmental issues, students need more opportunities for hands-on experiments in natural places. These eighth graders from North Augusta (S.C.) Middle School are searching for macroinvertebrates—dragonfly nymphs, beetles, amphibians—sampled from a beaver pond at the Savannah River Site. Photo by Wade Spees.

A turning point arrived in 1970 with Earth Day. That year, the National Environmental Education Act was passed by Congress, ensuring that tens of thousands of teachers a year received supplemental training in environmental education. Many states subsequently passed their own laws to encourage or mandate environmental instruction in public schools.

Meantime, an influential network of green educators was established in aquariums, nature centers, natural resource agencies, zoos, wildlife refuges, and parks. And national environmental organizations beefed up their public education campaigns.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, President Bush signed the reauthorization of the environmental education law, which established a special office for this discipline at the EPA. The law also created grant programs for curriculum development at the state level for teacher training in green education, now reaching 100,000 instructors a year.

What is Environmental Education?

Some teachers view environmental education as a way to inspire students to learn how to study and engage the natural world; some believe it should be a tool to address social and civic issues; and others see it as both.

International organizations, such as the United Nations, have produced influential statements on green education. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes that one objective is “to create new patterns of behavior of individuals, groups and society as a whole toward the environment.”

According to the EPA, environmental education “does not advocate a particular viewpoint or course of action.” Yet the EPA, quoting a 1978 UNESCO document, notes that the components of green education include “motivation to improve or maintain environmental quality; skills to identify and help resolve environmental challenges; (and) participation in activities that lead to the resolution of environmental challenges.”

Sanera calls this approach “behavior modification” and blames teachers for developing “political skills” in students at the expense of learning about science.

Critics took their complaints to Congress, which has been due to reauthorize the environmental education law. Some conservatives have sought to stop or drastically scale back nationwide funding for environmental education, because “the government is using federal money to train people how to lobby,” says Sanera. In 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have required EPA to support “balanced and scientifically sound” education programs and prohibit “lobbying activity,” but a similar bill failed to pass the Senate. These bills were not supported by Sanera and his allies. The legislation had “no teeth,” he says.

Nevertheless, more important battles are fought on the state and local levels, where most curricula are decided. Today 31 states require schools to incorporate environmental concepts into virtually every subject in all grade levels, though some states do not implement the requirement, while others specify that all teachers receive special training in green education.


Answer Man. Even young students can make connections between what they learn from science experiments and environmental debates within their communities, some teachers say. Third-graders John Baldwin (foreground) and Matthew McDaniel (background) participate in a discussion at Millbrook Elementary School in Aiken. Photo by Wade Spees.

Sanera and Jane S. Shaw of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, published a book encouraging parents to challenge teachers, school boards, and state legislators to examine environmental education projects for bias and inaccuracies. And conservative activists have pressed lawmakers in Wisconsin, California, Colorado, Texas, and Arizona to alter requirements on environmental education, though only in Arizona has this movement found success. In 1995, the state’s mandate to teach environmental education was repealed, and school districts that opted to teach it were required to base their program on “current scientific information” and to “include a discussion of economic and social implications” of environmental issues. Although similar laws were proposed elsewhere, they did not pass.

But the crux of the issue, some say, is that teachers are caught in political battles that have little to do with education. Instructors are targeted by angry parents and activists who wish to impose their views dogmatically on children, says E.N. Anderson, cultural anthropologist at the University of California at Riverside. Around the country, there is an epidemic of “badgering and bullying of science teachers.”

Effective Teaching

In the tradition of John Dewey, some South Carolina teachers are trying to broaden students’ views beyond the confines of the classroom.

“In the old days, children were learning science concepts, but it didn’t go beyond that,” says Lindsay Cobb, science teacher at Moultrie Middle School in Mt. Pleasant. “There was no carryover from the classroom to the real world. Now we teach science and apply it to life, to what is happening in Mt. Pleasant.” Even fourth-graders, she says, can start to learn connections between what they learn about the natural world and debates within their community.

Other teachers use nature to excite kids to learn, says Rhet Wilson, director of education at the South Carolina Aquarium. “The environment is a draw for children. So we should take that curiosity and wonder and use it as an inspiration to learn about reading, math, science, and history.”

Studying nature can open up children to exploration and questioning if it’s done well, says Paula Keener-Chavis, director of the Charleston Math & Science Hub, one of South Carolina’s 13 regional centers that support school districts implementing education reform. “But we also need to teach children to think critically, to question what is being offered to them, to allow them to look at something from a lot of different angles. Too often by third grade we start telling them what to think.”

For high-school students, environmental education is one of the toughest things to teach because it draws on so many disciplines, addressing history, English and language arts, geography, social studies, and science. “If all you did was study science, you would not have environmental education,” says Simmons of Northern Illinois University.

Environmental education should include more than technical subjects, agrees Phil Astwood, associate director of the University of South Carolina’s Center for Science Education, who teaches a college course in environmental issues. “I ask students what they think is most important, what they value. If you don’t deal with values, you’re not going to get anywhere” when discussing complex topics. “Otherwise, you’re just dealing with a bunch of facts.”

To guide high-school students through a serious examination of, say, endangered species in the United States, a teacher might need familiarity with biology, regulations to protect rare species, land-use planning, economics, and property rights. “An individual teacher isn’t capable of dealing with these broad issues,” Gerald Lieberman, program manager for the State Education & Environment Roundtable (SEER) initiative, a consortium of 12 states that are using the environment as a context for learning science, math, and other subjects.


Helping Hands. To understand the complexities of environmental debates, young people must have better training in basic science. North Augusta eighth-graders test dissolved oxygen in a water sample from a beaver pond at the Savannah River Site. They also checked temperature, pH, and dissolved solids, searching for clues about water quality and biodiversity. Photo by Wade Spees.

“I’ll bet that fewer than 5% of classrooms do anything substantive” in studying environmental issues, he says. “Most of these classes are basic biology studies.” And that’s fine, especially for elementary school kids, he says. But high-school students should view ecological issues in a multi-dimensional way, which is best taught by teams of teachers. Lieberman also cautions schools to offer more than one point of view. “Teachers need to provide a broader range of perspectives” if they are to tackle tough issues.

In Lieberman’s view, environmental activism among teachers remains a relatively minor problem. More troubling is a tendency by parents and well-meaning adults who “preach that ‘We’ve got to give the kids our values.’ Instead, we need to focus on giving them thinking skills.”

Instructors must remain neutral on particular controversies, says Ned Shuler. “You can teach students how to become involved—inform them about public meetings they can attend—but they need to be ones to form their own opinions. You must be very, very careful not to influence their decisions on which side they should take.”


Stale, Dull, Biased? Textbooks Under Fire

Educators have been creating a new group of environmental textbooks and activity guides to stimulate students.

Most science books used in schools today are warping the minds of young people, turning them against capitalism and the American way of life, some conservatives say.

In a September 1998 report Textbook Trash: The Polluting of Environmental Education, Michael Sanera, director of the Environmental Education Research Institute based in Tucson, Arizona, argues that 6th through 10th grade science, geography, and health texts “fail to do the one primary thing they are supposed to do: present a fair and accurate discussion of environmental issues based on sound science and economics.” And according to the institute, this “ignorance produces distorted and dangerous perspectives that are giving rise to public policies that threaten our democracy and free economy.”

And Sanera is not alone. “There is no question that many textbooks have an activist tone, tilting in the direction of environmentalism,” says Jonathan Adler, senior director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

The George C. Marshall Institute, known for its skepticism about global warming and ozone layer depletion, established an Independent Commission on Environmental Education to study the quality of instruction in American schools. In 1997, the commission’s panel of 10 scientists issued a report arguing that the most commonly used textbooks and supplemental materials in American schools do not provide balanced scientific information about environmental issues.

Students today are not taught enough science and economics to “understand the environmental challenges we face,” the report notes. Most curricula do not recognize “uncertainties and trade-offs” in environmental decision making and “do not address the complexities behind environmental decisions.”

But some of this criticism is unfair, others say. Instructors are being blamed for using textbooks written by scientists and disseminated by commercial publishers. “Sanera points at privately produced books and then blames the government and teachers,” says Jonathan Beeton, coordinator of external relations with the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.

“There are good textbooks and bad ones,” says Bora Simmons of Northern Illinois University and former president of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). “But that’s true in many disciplines, not just environmental education.”

The real problem is that some instructors don’t care or notice when schoolbooks are shallow. “Some teachers seem to abhor science,” says Arla Jessen, former marine-science educator for the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium. “They use class time having students copy key terms out of a textbook glossary, and that’s the extent of their science instruction. But this is changing as more teachers get further training in hands-on instruction of science.”


Textbooks. Photo by Wade Spees.

Because commercial textbooks take such a long time to write and publish, they are obsolete by the time schools adopt them. In most cases, texts do not reflect reforms in teaching methods or current scientific understanding, experts say. Indeed, few serious environmental educators use commercially published books. “Textbooks seem to lag behind the times,” says Wendy Allen, director of continuing education program for USC’s Belle W. Baruch Institute. “Often they just provide information. Other teaching materials are often more hands-on, interactive, helping kids learn by doing.”

Publishers are catching up, though. “Until recently, the situation was pretty pitiful,” says Ned Shuler, education associate at the University of South Carolina-Aiken and former president of the S.C. Environmental Educators Association.

“But now we’re starting to have some good choices.” He sees greater depth in environmental science books, many with a stronger focus on science and extensive guidance in hands-on activities.

Meanwhile, industry has developed its own set of materials for environmental studies, leading to another controversy. Some cash-strapped school systems rely exclusively on these “sponsored educational materials.” Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, found that nearly 80 percent of 77 industry-sponsored educational materials contain commercial pitches, inaccuracies, or bias—and sometimes all three.

Yet according to the George C. Marshall report, some of the best teaching materials are underwritten by industry, including those designed by Project Learning Tree, a program administered by the American Forestry Foundation.

Indeed over the past two decades, government agencies, research institutes, nonprofit organizations, and industry groups have increasingly provided healthy competition to commercial publishers, supporting a new generation of environmental education texts.

Similarly, the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium has published marine-science instructional materials, including a textbook and activity book for grades one through five. Sea Things . . . Objectively, 2nd edition, edited by Paula Keener-Chavis, Cammie Camp, and Leslie Sautter, includes more than 45 hands-on activities. Keener-Chavis and Sautter are also collaborating on a textbook companion to Sea Things called Of Sand & Sea: Teachings from the Southeastern Shoreline.

The Sea Grant-sponsored COASTeam program, a continuing education program for elementary and middle school teachers that begins with a graduate-level course in marine science, complements the teaching materials. Led by Sea Grant researcher Leslie Sautter, College of Charleston geologist, the program instructs teachers in how to use the textbook and activity guide, promoting hands-on learning and experimentation.

“It’s important that students learn the content of science,” says Paula Keener-Chavis, director of the Charleston Math & Science Hub. “But it’s also important that we promote inquisitiveness. The process by which kids learn to do science helps them to think critically about what is offered to them, to question at a higher level. We should want children to be continuously exposed to questioning and exploring.”

Further Reading

Are We Building Environmental Literacy? A Report by the Independent Commission on Environmental Education. Wash., D.C.: The George C. Marshall Institute, April 1997.

Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School. Report by Consumers Union, 1998.

Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for Excellence. Troy, Ohio: North American Assoc. for Environmental Education, 1998.

Sanera, Michael. Textbook Trash: The Polluting of Environmental Education. Environmental Education Research Institute, A Center for the New West Program, September 1998.