An Environmental Educator’s Check List

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This essay offers environmental educators and other stewards of Nature nine items that I consider vitally important when I am working with my young students. I urge you to offer your comments in the space provided at the end of this essay. 

Prepare Our Youth For  A Changing World

Many things in our world will be changing soon. Our world will become an uncertain and very different place for all life on Earth including our young people, their children, and their grandchildren. Here are four examples of what is predicted by many scientists and sociologists :

  • By the year 2050, the effects of climate change will start redefining how we live. Locally, climate change will cause rising sea levels that will flood many coastal regions worldwide.
  • We humans are over-consuming the resources of the Earth at a rate that will not sustain human life after the year 2100. As a result of these and other human-caused changes in our planet, the ethics of a civilized society will be gradually displaced by the ethics of a hostile society that is competing for limited resources.
  • The human population could increase from the present 7.6 billion people to an environmentally unsustainable population of 10 billion people by 2100 but perhaps as soon as 2050. With a population of 10 billion people, there will be no more land available to grow food.
  • Economic inequality among humans will continue to increase. Only a small percentage of the human population will own a huge percentage of the economic wealth. This trend will promote the uncontrolled expansion of multi-national corporations which will result in a negative impact on our environment.

These and other environmental and social crises are caused by human adults, mostly older than age 25, who have a very inaccurate worldview of how Nature operates.  Most of our adult population does not believe that we humans are totally dependent on Nature for our life’s energy. They erroneously believe that we humans have dominion over Nature and are able to control and predict Nature and its environment. Our disconnected elders erroneously believe that our technology will save us if anything bad, like climate change, takes place. The result is the growing crisis that we humans are now facing.  Indeed, the destructive worldviews of our elders are leaving a horrible mess for our young people. No matter what career students choose, these young people will be forced to plan their lives based on political instability, economic instability, and environmental instability in the years to come.

In the face of this crisis, what can educators do to offer our youth a chance for a productive, sustainable, and happy life? The answer lies with educators because educators have the capability to empower our youth with a worldview that is compatible with the way Nature and society do operate.

The fact is that all of Nature, including we humans and human society, is interconnected and interdependent. Life on Earth depends upon the flow of life’s energy from our sun to our Earth. This energy is then transported and transformed from one organism to another organism. These processes are both ecological and social. They form networks of interconnection and interdependence. The greatest gift that we can offer our youth is the power of a worldview that sees everything on Earth, including Nature and our human society, as interconnected and interdependent. With this way of thinking, called “systems thinking”, our young people and future generations will be empowered to understand and resolve current environmental and social crises.

About 50% of all humans on earth are 25 years old or younger. For the most part, these young people have fresh minds that have not been corrupted by the disconnected worldviews of their elders. The relationship between our educators and our youth is a critical connection if our teachers are able to offer their students an education that stresses systems thinking in every subject including biology/ecology, history, social studies, and mathematics. In doing so, our youth can acquire the wisdom of interdependence and systems thinking. This form of education stresses that human society, like Nature’s ecosystems in which we humans live, are intimately interconnected where the connections between each part in a system are more important than the parts. In other words, we must first understand how the connections are made between things before we can understand the whole system.  Education of our youth must be based on the premise that each person find identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace.

However, there is one characteristic of modern education that may stand in the way of achieving a meaningful holistic education. In order to understand our world, young people and adults must be able to see life as a collection of systems and elements that interact and are dependent upon one another. But in school, many of us are taught subjects in a compartmentalized way, with history in one class, natural science in another, social studies in yet another, and so on. In other words, we are taught to understand Nature and society in parts. We are not taught how these parts are connected. We are not taught how and why things in life are interdependent. Yet most real-world issues, like climate change, terrorism, and water use, are understood by connecting disciplines such as politics, geography, history, and biology. The current compartmentalized approach in most schools reinforces the incorrect idea in the minds of our students that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts that are not connected. This lack of systems thinking provides little opportunity for students to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines in their real world.  Our students need to find identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Indeed, with an understanding of living systems like ecosystems, climate change, and other ecological challenges, we humans will be able to assess what we are doing wrong that causes bad things to happen.

In summary, a system of education that teaches how all of life interrelates and is interdependent should be a fundamental part of 21st-century education and anyone’s lifelong learning plan. It will be this revised system of education that will give our youth a worldview of connection and interdependence in our moral philosophy, our society, and in Nature. It will be this revised worldview that replaces the destructive worldview of our elders. It will be this worldview of interdependence that equips our youth to solve our problems of over-population, unsustainable consumption, climate change, and other issues.

Educators are a critically important influence in making this change. What follows is a preliminary list of important things that our educators must do to begin the process.

A Curriculum Must Be An Interrelated Collection Of Subjects

If educators are going to emphasize relationships and interdependence in the hearts and minds of our students, these concepts must be reflected in the curriculum. We must stop teaching such subjects as mathematics, history, or literature as separate subjects. In addition to teaching facts in each class, we must now emphasize how the material relates to the other subjects we are teaching. For example, a history class must now explore the interrelationships between human actions and historical events including what might have happened if the human actions were different. A math class should now emphasize applied mathematics where the student uses new math/statistical skills and network diagrams to calculate events and relationships in Nature. A religion or ethics class should conduct seminars with case studies about how religion and ethics can be applied to social systems. All of these classes should now employ an inquiry-based (Socratic) seminar approach (described in the next section) where students participate in seminar discussions rather than listen to lectures.

Use Inquiry-Based Learning (Socratic Learning)

Imagine, for a moment, teaching and learning that looks like this:

  • Picture a seminar-style setting where the teacher is a facilitator and the students consider assigned questions and do their own research to provide answers in front of their peers and their teachers.
  • Young people who continually question why things look and function the way that they do.
  • Their natural sense of wonder is at the center of their learning and drives the direction that learning will take.
  • Knowledge is dynamic, collectively constructed, and provided by many sources instead of being contained in a single textbook or classroom lectures.
  • Information is investigated, analyzed, and negotiated between students and their teachers.

This is process is called “Inquiry-Based Learning”.

Education is much more than force-feeding information to students and measuring how well they regurgitate that information back to the teacher on command or through testing. With the facilitator asking questions instead of lecturing, the student is required to think and probe. This process of critical thinking embeds knowledge and creates curiosity and a yearning to learn more. Critical thinking encourages the exploration, adventure, and discovery that we see in outdoor education.

When I was a student, one of my truly great life experiences was two years working on a Master’s degree at Harvard University.  In this program, we used no text books. There were no lectures. Classes were totally inquiry-based where the professor played the role of facilitator by continually posing difficult questions. We students would prepare for a class by doing research and gathering facts to support conclusions. That preparation was vital to building a knowledge base for a given class session. We learned the value of good research. We gained the ability to think about and defend our ideas. Most importantly, we built critical thinking skills as we defended our ideas in front of our peers and our professor. This Harvard experience became the model for my role as an educator. I was amazed to find that the inquiry-based approach to learning worked well with my university graduate students as well as my primary (5th grade and up), secondary, and high school students.

Benefits of Inquiry-Based learning include:

  • Honoring students’ questions increases their motivation, leading to higher levels of engagement, improved understanding, and a love of learning.
  • Inquiry stimulates students’ curiosity, leading to progressively deeper questions and habitual critical thinking.
  • Inquiry builds lifelong learning skills that become greater than simply learning facts, listening to lectures, and taking tests.

Eliminate Exams. Use project-based learning.  Grade each student based on preparation and participation

What is needed are tools to help the student explore relationships in our world. Exams do not accomplish this. However, a student project provides the opportunity for the student to learn about relationships, exercise that knowledge in a practical way, and to be evaluated.

While both projects and exams will get a student to memorize new information, the skill that is needed is applying the information.  Project-based learning will teach the material, and then guide the student to seek out information, then apply the new knowledge to explore real world examples, and encourage working in groups to reinforce the new knowledge.

When we eliminate the compartmentalized idea of exams in the curriculum, how are we able to evaluate student progress? Inquiry-Based learning provides an automatic tool for evaluating progress. That tool is to grade students at each class or seminar session according to their participation and preparation. When the facilitator calls upon a student to explore a certain issue in class, it will become quickly apparent whether the student has prepared for the class. In addition, active and voluntary, meaningful participation should be rewarded with a higher grade.

I start each school year by giving each student a grade of 10.0. This grade can be reduced if a student fails to prepare or participate. In addition, a student can receive a restored good grade if the student demonstrates improvement in participation and preparation.

Hospitality – People Learn From People/Things That They Love

The metaphor of hospitality is an extremely important part of education that is often forgotten by educators. Henri J.M. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, author, professor, and pastor who wrote over 40 books about the spiritual life. One of his books, “Reaching Out” uses the metaphor of hospitality – a gracious host serving the needs of a guest – to describe many different human relationships. One of the relationships that Fr. Nouwen examines is the relationship between a teacher and a student. He does so in a very profound and effective way that becomes a guide for any teacher who cares to challenge his/her students to reach new horizons.

In his book, Fr Nouwen said:

“One of the greatest tragedies of modern education is that millions of young people spend many hours, days, weeks, and years listening to lectures, reading books and writing papers with a constantly increasing resistance. Students perceive their education as a long endless row of obligations to be fulfilled. They are considered as poor needy, ignorant beggars who come to a man or woman of knowledge. Teachers are perceived more as demanding bosses than as guides in the search for knowledge and understanding.

While the ability to think critically and the opportunity to develop one’s talents are far more career-defining than any subject matter that is taught, educators continue to define themselves by offering memorized and regurgitated knowledge. The teacher is trained to offer solutions without the existence of a question. Consequently, critical thinking skills are never developed and talents are never encouraged because the student rarely gets the opportunity to argue a question.

Hospitality is the creation of a friendly empty space by a host where a guest can fearlessly reach out to fellow human beings and invite them to explore new relationships. Hospitality is much like gardening. We cannot force a plant to grow but we can take away the weeds and stones which prevent its development.

Hospitality can take place on many levels and in many kinds of relationships. One such relationship is that between a teacher and a student where the student is treated like a guest who honors the host’s house with his/her presence and will not leave it without having made a unique contribution.

The good host (the teacher) is the one who not only helps guests (the students) see that they have hidden talents, but who also is able to help them develop and deepen those talents so they can continue their way on their own with new self-confidence. “

This journey of discovery can be accomplished through inquiry-based  (Socratic) learning that is described earlier in this document.

Add seminars in systems thinking to the curriculum

All of life in our world, from a molecule to the entire earth can be defined as systems of relationships that permit energy or social interaction to flow from one organism to another organism. The study of these relationships has matured over the years into a discipline known as “systems science” or “systems thinking”.

Systems thinking is the study of the causes and effects of relationships. Systems thinking allows us to visually portray what is happening as we study a particular system. It allows us to see and analyze our world in simpler terms. Systems thinking focuses on the characteristics of the connections in a system. Systems thinking helps us define what is going on in our world.

On the Internet, there is a huge wealth of information about systems thinking and the teaching of systems thinking. Many lesson plans are offered. Here, I provide an essay that I wrote  about systems thinking so that you can get more detail.

In my view, an excellent way to introduce systems thinking to students is through biology or ecology classes because these subjects introduce interconnected and interdependent energy flow in Nature. In my program, systems thinking is introduced to primary (4th grade and older)  secondary, and high school students. Both in-class inquiry-based learning and field trip experiences are offered with the primary goal being to develop a love relationship between a student and the student’s world.

Integrate Ethics Development In All Classes

One must love something in order to protect it. If we are to succeed in helping our students live in the world that they face, the faculty must cause a love relationship between each student and the world as it is today. This love must include a growing passion to protect what we love.

Ethics is a set of guidelines that we must exercise regularly if we are to protect our world. Ethical guidelines lead us as we apply what we have learned in biology, mathematics, history and all of the other subjects that are taught in school. A suggested list of ethical principles might be:

  • Everything in Nature, including we humans, is interdependent.
  • The actions of one can affect the whole.
  • Nature is always changing.
  • Conservation is a necessary part of human morality.
  • Compassion means that we humans cannot assign a greater value to one person or species over another.

Ethics development should take place in every class. Ethics development should not be compartmentalized into a single subject or class. Through inquiry-based learning, teachers should regularly ask their students to discuss “what if” scenarios that relate to the ethics of the subject matter being taught.

Empower Our Students To Change The World

An important part of the education that schools and teachers offer students is in guiding them to act upon that which they have learned. In particular, with the climate crisis, educators need to help students act in a way that might help them cope with what they might be facing after they graduate.

Here is my suggestion:

Students should be working with student groups in their local community, their state, their nation and around the world to bring awareness and to protest to the adults who have allowed the climate crisis to happen. One possibility might be to join with students from other schools to work with their government to lower our carbon footprint. As successes become a reality, our students will then have the opportunity to set an example for the world.

There are a number of youth groups forming worldwide. Students would have the opportunity to communicate with these groups by way of the Internet, seek their advice and learn from their experience, and join forces with these groups.

Below are three Internet references that talk about the power of youth to act and to resolve current environmental issues:

The Climate Kids Are All Right

Youth around the world are rising to the climate challenge — and they don’t care what the trolls have to say about it.

Youth Activists Are Building A Climate Justice Movement

Youth are building new models for social movements. Young people are no longer sitting back and waiting for older generations to make the change we know needs to happen.

Greta Thunberg gives a speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, has become very famous and has developed a strong following all over the world. You can Google her name to see many of her activities concerning climate change and the power of young people. Your students can communicate with her.

For Your Further Consideration

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms the energy necessary for all life to exist. The key to an active group of ecoliterate humans that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity – particularly our youth. This worldview (the “Living Earth Story”) is supported by the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental educators,  their students, scientists, and all stewards of Nature  are a powerful progressive force that, through their knowledge about Nature, through the legacies that they create for the future, and through their informed actions are capable of overseeing the well-being of our home —  Mother Earth
  • Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must include the acts of passing a worldview of a Mother Earth on to Environmental education must be hands-on, and action-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of all of our youth.
  • This website offers a free PDF book entitled “Empowering Stewards of Nature – Lessons From The Web of Life”. The book offers education methodology and content for creating Nature’s “Living Earth Story” within our youth and all stewards of Nature.. To download this book, follow the instructions on the right side of the web-site when you click the photograph of the book. 
  • If you are interested in working with me, other environmental educators, and other stewards of Nature to build a legacy of young people who will embrace and evangelize the worldview that “Everything on Earth is Connected and Interdependent”, please provide your questions and comments in the space provided below or by contacting me at my Twitter account @ballenamar.


Please Comment  Below


My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

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