Teaching and Learning Ecologically

Education is my passion, and I am fortunate to enjoy it as a career. As Senior Manager of Curriculum with the Project Learning Tree (PLT) national office in Washington, D.C., I help create PLT’s PreK-12 activities and design professional development programs for educators. For over a decade, I have been immersed in the field of environmental education.

Lesley University

My work is personal. While I mostly sit at a computer and work traditional business hours, my mind does not stop thinking about environmental issues after I leave the office. Not only do I want to teach about the environment, I also want to learn from the environment that surrounds and sustains us.

To help deepen my knowledge of the unique features of environmental and sustainability education in the design and enrichment of curricula and school programs, I pursued an M.S. degree in Lesley University’s Ecological Teaching and Learning graduate program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This program is designed for educators who want to deepen their own understanding and practice of ecology, sustainability, living systems, and ecological education and to apply their learning to their professional contexts.  

I chose this program because, for me, the pedagogy of ecological teaching and learning (ETL) offers tangible pathways to make connections between the scientific facts and the complicated emotions that are often associated with the field of environmental education. For example, it is common to become overwhelmed and discouraged when examining data sets related to our global ecological concerns: deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and increasing atmospheric carbon, to name a few. Many educators, myself included, often struggle with these “doom and gloom” topics that are embedded within the field of environmental education. The pedagogy of ecological teaching and learning helps educators to effectively communicate these tough topics with appropriate levels of passion, concern, and hope. 

Ecological teaching and learning is not just a matter of pedagogy, but also philosophy. Ecological teaching and learning represents a new life-affirming mindset that all teachers and, to a larger extent, all citizens must adopt for a sustainable future. This philosophy embraces interconnectedness and systems thinking, which continually challenge the Western notion of separateness. This type of teaching and learning fosters a collective ecological consciousness as humans move through life and relate to themselves, others, and the world around them.

Teaching Strategies in the Workplace

As a part of our graduate studies, students complete an Action Research Project that demonstrates an understanding of ecology and culture while also investigating a central question about teaching practice. The goal of my research project was to identify potential ways in which Project Learning Tree can help support, develop, and cultivate more Ecological Teachers and Learners using the design and delivery of its most popular resource, the PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide. To support my research and offer guidance on our investigation, I created an advisory group comprised of eight PLT content experts from across the country.

Figure 1 below shows the full suite of ecological teaching and learning pedagogies. My first task, in conjunction with the PLT advisory group, was to identify the overlapping teaching strategies for PLT and ETL. It is no surprise that the number one teaching strategy employed by PLT was environmental education. Other popular pedagogies identified by the advisory group include constructivist learning, place-based education, project-based learning, systems theory, service learning, and experiential education. These additional 6 pedagogies are all defined and employed in PLT’s educational materials and professional development workshops. 

pedagogy wheel

Figure 1: Ecological teaching and learning pedagogies

Next, we developed a survey for current and past students of Lesley University’s ETL Masters Program. The questions were carefully crafted to reveal the most effective ways in which ETL experts are currently using ecologically-based strategies in their teaching. 

Major findings were organized into two sets of recommendations (see Table 1): one for PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide and another for PLT’s professional development offerings: 

TABLE 1: RECOMMENDATIONS

PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide

Professional Development Offerings

Focus on five ETL pedagogies to highlight throughout the guide:

  • Place-based education
  • Experiential education
  • Education for sustainability
  • Project-based Education
  • Systems Theory

Create PLT professional development offerings focused on the five pedagogies (listed at left).

  • Trainings should focus on new resources that support these pedagogies, as well as highlight PLT activities that employ these teaching techniques.  

Create PLT units (comprehensive learning progressions of PLT activities)

  • Create one unit for each of the five pedagogies (listed above).
  • Create units that support national academic standards (specifically the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards).

 

Create professional learning communities and peer-to-peer support systems.

  • Plan PLT professional development trainings on teacher in-service days.
  • Create and execute strategies to sustain contact with professional development participants over time (online forums, peer-to-peer check-ins, follow-up workshops, etc.).

 

A thorough analysis of the survey identified many barriers and enablers to ecological teaching and learning that will help inform the design and delivery of PLT’s next generation of instructional materials.

Modeling Teaching Techniques

Another recommendation that surfaced was the importance of modeling new teaching techniques with the students themselves. PLT workshops are currently designed for educators only. Data suggests that modeling PLT activities with students in classrooms (instead of with educators in workshops) is a good way to showcase the effectiveness of new teaching techniques. 

Putting Research into Action

I was surprised and humbled by the excitement this project generated in the expert communities involved, as well as in their belief that this research will interest and benefit others in the field of environmental education. This level of support was a gracious reminder that I am doing my part to create positive change in the field of environmental education. The collaborative nature of research and the validation that accompanies teamwork are additional justifications of my project. 

The true test of validity comes when a researcher is asked the question: Will change be brought about as a result of your work? 

So I continue to challenge myself by asking: “Will actions change, will teaching change, and will lives change as a result of my work to integrate PLT and ETL?” I do see potential for these results to help inform the PLT advisory groups working on new PLT materials and professional development. PLT workshop participants and finally (and ultimately!) students in classrooms across the United States will benefit from educational materials and teacher trainings that integrate PLT and ETL.

Will this action research project help to make the world a better place? While I can’t say for certain– I expect positive outcomes, and I plan to keep working with Project Learning Tree to combine education, action, and compassion to achieve a sustainable future we can share.

Interested in learning more? Access a full copy of Jaclyn’s action research report, Cultivating Ecological Teachers and Learners Using Project Learning Tree, online.

 

Jackie Stallard

Jackie Stallard

Jackie is Senior Manager, Curriculum & Outreach for Project Learning Tree. Jackie leads the strategic direction and creation of the next generation of PLT’s PreK-12 environmental education materials, as well as other instructional materials and resources.