Environmental Education Barriers
to Transformative Sustainability
Learning and Action
During my research, I uncovered several attributes of environmental education — for both adults and children — that act as barriers to transformative sustainability learning and action.
In other words, sometimes we environmental educators do things we simply shouldn't do — or don't do things that we should!
I divide the barriers I uncovered into five categories.
(Numbers in square brackets refer to the
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1. We Receive Minimal Support for Environmental Education
Referring to the public school system, David Orr complains that "what passes for environmental education is still mostly regarded as a frill to be cut when budgets get tight" . What's been happening in many jurisdictions proves him right.
Environmental adult educators particularly note minimal support for the development and publication of environmental adult education resource texts. Mark Burch (1994) points to the lack of "pedagogically sound environmental education materials suitable for the general education of adults" . Most texts and learning support materials either have been developed with children in mind or are too specialized or technical for average adults.
Claudie Solar, looking at trends in adult education in the 1990s, found only one article within the literacy theme on scientific literacy, out of 623 articles. She calls the environment "another weak point in the corpus on adult education" .
2. Participatory Processes are Poorly Planned
A frequent motif in the literature is a call to make environmental adult education more participatory, more democratic, and more oriented toward social issues.
Darlene Clover and her colleagues point out that environmental adult education workshops are "an effective and popular educational space for social transformation, yet their value and advantages are not always realized"  when experts take the podium and orchestrate a brief question and discussion period that postures as active participation.
According to Roger Hart, "environmental education must be radically reconceived in order to be seen as fundamental to the residents of communities from all social classes in all countries" . Residents want to identify and investigate their own problems through action research, and the teaching of environmental science or ecology must at first be related to the local environment.
We see the same problem in environmental education for children and youth. They sit quietly learning about destruction of the Amazon rainforest but never go outside to actively get to know the ecology of their school yard or the environmental issues their community faces.
3. We Hide the Truth Behind Deceptions and Disguises
Henry David Thoreau once spoke of consenting to be deceived. Earth Education guru, Steve Van Matre, believes that environmental educators have not managed to "peel away the disguises" used to mask the ecological processes that support us.
"Most people in our societies ... have been so isolated for so long from the realities of life ... that they simply do not grasp how their own lives are a part of the overall process of life on earth," he says . Van Matre offers as an example that many people do not know where their food comes from.
According to Donella Meadows, environmental education is meant to expose misconceptions about the laws of the planet, but she finds that Westerners still live "as if there were an endless treasury of resources to draw from, and an infinite and far-removed sink into which to throw our wastes" , suggesting that educators have been unwilling or unable to move people past society's ecological deceptions.
4. Breadth of Study Detracts from Depth of Understanding
Ironically, studying too many environmental issues might be detrimental. Robert Stevenson fears that environmental problems are superficially treated due to "an addiction to coverage," and hence students develop "little understanding of the complexities involved and little capacity for thoughtful decision-making on environmental issues they may encounter" .
Steve Van Matre suggests that environmental educators be careful not to cover "too much, too soon," thereby "siphon[ing] off the [learners'] concern and energy, concern and energy that might better be applied to their own lifestyle changes" .
5. Many Teachers and Learners Tend to Avoid Experiential Learning
According to David Orr, experiential education is vital. Pure book learning, he says, "produces half-formed or deformed persons: thinkers who cannot do, and doers who cannot think" .
Unfortunately, most teachers aren't trained in experiential teaching methods, most don't know how to assess experiential learning, and many would admit to discomfort at the thought of taking students outdoors or getting them involved in community-based environmental projects. And a lot of learners are uncomfortable getting deeply involved in experiential learning.
Darlene Clover and her colleagues suggest several reasons for adult learners' fear or discomfort: unsuitable clothing or shoes; connecting the outdoors with getting dirty; an attitude that this type of learning is childish and a waste of time; fear of being laughed at or found inadequate to the challenge; an inability or unwillingness to participate in a spontaneous way; and, an innate fear (especially in urbanites and older adults) of animals, insects, or the dark .
Nowadays, these fears are becoming more common among children, as well. I recently met two youngsters who refused to participate in a hands-on exploration of what's in soil.
Environmental education should not simply seek to mitigate these fears, discomforts, and other barriers; in order to help learners experience and understand the natural world, we educators should also seek to include enticements in our teaching.
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