Greening lesson plans

Please explain the impetus for your new book "The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)."

Blumstein: The short answer is that we wrote an identically titled article for PLoS-Biology a few years ago and a publisher asked us if we'd be interested in turning this into a book. The longer answer is that over a period of time, Charlie and I had many, many discussions about the failings of environmental education. We both read more and continued talking and our ideas emerged and developed.

Saylan: The original impetus for me came from my experiences with educational programs that Ocean Conservation Society conducted. Our original focus, perhaps a naïve one, was to raise awareness about the problems facing ocean ecosystems. In conducting these programs, I began to doubt whether awareness really stimulated action on the scale necessary to directly impact the problems we were trying to raise awareness about. When Dan and I met, years ago, I was surprised to find that his experiences had led him to similar conclusions. Given the diversity of our backgrounds, we thought it might be interesting to pursue the topic further. This book is the result of that ongoing collaboration and discourse.

Mr. Saylan, you have a strong background in activism. Describe how your experiences in the civil rights and free-speech movements, including your efforts as Executive Director of the Ocean Conservation Society, influenced this book. Also, how can the advocacy methods utilized for other causes be employed, or reinterpreted, in support of environmental education?


Saylan: I grew up at a time when the ability to change the social structure seemed possible and within the reach of individuals. The movements you mention were all examples of social tipping points fueled by a collective belief that the people hold the power to enact change; that politicians work for us, not the other way around. This, I believe, is what our country was founded upon.

At Ocean Conservation Society, we have always tried to incorporate an action component in our educational and community outreach programs. We have always believed it important, that participants in our programs learn something about problem-solving, about how, practically, to make their ideas and concerns translate into measurable impacts. I can't say that we have always been successful in these efforts, but we have learned much and we're still at it.
Whether one agrees with their message or not, I think that current movements like the Tea Party illustrate that those same activist methods and ideals still work. If environmental educators use this and work to de-politicize the issue of environmental protection, both from the bottom-up and the top-down, in whatever way works in their respective areas and districts, then perhaps we, as a people might begin collectively act to protect the commons we depend on.

Why is it so important to start incorporating lessons about climate change, conservation, biodiversity, alternative and renewable energy, sustainability, etc. at the K-12 level?


Blumstein: I think it is essential to teach students to think in interdisciplinary ways. So much knowledge and teaching is siloed; but it need not be. Indeed, by illustrating say algebra problems with examples from energy audits, and by integrating say literature with the history of environmental thought, we can come up with ways to teach students to be well-rounded citizens, prepared for a lifetime of learning. Perhaps more importantly, these students will be prepared to go from awareness of environmental issues to action to solve them.

Saylan: I think is is also important to point out that environmental education needs to expand outside the K-12 structure as well. The drastic problems that humanity faces now will require a sea change in attitude if we are to have any hope of mitigating what's coming. I think it is important that environmental educators understand this and tailor their efforts to stimulate learning and action wherever possible; with parents, within communities, with peers. We all must learn how to be responsible citizens and protect the very ecosystems and biodiversity that sustain us.

May 13, 2011, teachers, school workers, students, and parents participated in a “State of Emergency” rally to protest potential education funding cuts. How are budgetary issues impacting environmental education and what are the long-term consequences of not encouraging and providing resources for environmental education?

Saylan: We are in a state of emergency. The relentless cutting of funding for education will have drastic effects on education as a whole. Landmark legislation like the EEI here in California which mandates environmental curriculum will likely encounter delays due to a lack of money to print new textbooks. Libraries are closing university tuitions are sky-rocketing, elective courses are all but disappearing in our public schools. This willingness to sacrifice education in favor or economic stimulation, to my way of thinking, reflects an ominous shift in political priorities. If we sacrifice an educated populace to to the gods of economic growth, we may not like the society that we create as a result.