Empowering Environmental Investigators
As a children’s book author, Dr. Chris Myers has introduced kids to the Galapagos Islands and the Clouded Leopard. As the editor of Dragonfly, a colorful bimonthly magazine of environmental education founded in 1995, he’s given them wings. The magazine, which has won many awards from educational and parents’ groups, is largely written by kid “investigators,” who are encouraged to give their imaginations full rein. Myers contends that it’s not enough to just throw environmental information at children. Unless they’re empowered to learn on their own, he says, the lessons could simply leave them discouraged. Dragonfly is soon to be adapted into a PBS television series, and Myers is determined that the show be more than passive entertainment.
Myers, who teaches interdisciplinary studies at Miami University in Ohio, recently completed a visiting professorship at Yale. His course, “Theory and Practice in Environmental Education,” offered a close-up look at why some environmental curricula succeed, and others fail. Get kids excited, he says, and they’ll retain what they learned, and even build on it as they move through life.
E: One of the things that got me interested in environmental education was talking to former Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, and getting a sense from him that some form of environmental education is now reaching most American kids. Is that your understanding?
Myers: Yes. I think environmental education in one form or another is really blossoming in the United States. There’s a difference of opinion in how you define it, however. Environmental education is a broad term, and from some people’s perspectives, claims of success would be viewed skeptically. But it’s certainly true in terms of getting kids outside more and interacting with the environment. There is a demonstrable increase in environmental awareness among young people as well, partly because of the increase in educational programs.
Yet despite that, the 1997 National Report Card on Environmental Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviors gave the American public a failing grade in the basic issues. People could barely identify where water pollution came from.
I’d have to look at the age breakdown for that. In some of the research I’ve seen, there’s a gap in awareness between adults and children. Actual knowledge of environmental issues is still pretty low across the board. A lot of times, it’s the kids who are coming home and getting their parents to recycle or getting them to be a little more active on environmental issues. But kids’ exposure to the issues isn’t very deep. Education can get kids going on a cause, but that’s a little bit different from an in-depth understanding of an environmental issue like global warming or deforestation.
Don’t they say that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing?
It can be. It’s really not the knowledge or lack of knowledge as much as the ability to think critically about it. If you have misinformation, then you have people crusading down the wrong path, based on a little information and a lot of spirit. You have to commend the spirit, but it has to be based on some real understanding.
How do kids perceive environmental lessons? If they hear about global warming or acid rain or endangered species, does that tend to turn them into activists or does it tend to increase their fear level?
That’s interesting. One of things we touched on in the course I taught last semester at Yale was that the content is important but the approach and how it’s handled is even more important. On issues like water pollution, kids are basically lectured at. Even at a young age, they realize that they’ve been trapped inside in a school for way too many hours. They’re a little bit sensitive to the more pedantic lectures about environmental problems. An approach like that can actually have a negative effect.
What’s a better way to do it?
Some schools are getting kids outside, for instance monitoring their own water systems in a collaborative relationship with some research organization. The most powerful approach, the one that often affects long-term change, is when the children are actually asking questions of their own and investigating the questions they themselves find important. Communication is the other thing. When you teach for one, you don’t always get the other. If you train for knowledge, for example, you don’t often get changes in behavior. Environmental education programs have to have very specific outcome goals, especially with children, who need the abstract nature of things to be made more concrete.
You call the students “investigators,” and you also use that term in your magazine, Dragonfly. It’s “a magazine for young investigators.”
My main mission in life right now is promoting active participation and investigation. If education is going to be transformative, then it has to actively engage the learner in a way which is relevant to their lives. Education doesn’t always have to be problem-based. That’s one of the things we try to get away from a little bit in Dragonfly. If all environmental education is about problems, kids are going to get a little bored or maybe feel, I don’t know…
…that it’s hopeless?
Yes, they might feel that it’s hopeless. But if kids are part of asking the questions and finding the solutions, it’s a naturally empowering process. People are beginning to realize that these problems are too complex for one single, simple, content-subject-based approach to answer it. Environmental education teaches you what’s upstream and what’s downstream; it can actually flip the traditional relationship, so that it’s no longer one teacher and 20 students just listening and sitting in a classroom. In really good environmental education, it’s the environment that becomes the teacher and the traditional teacher becomes the facilitator in learning lessons about the environment. It’s a less arrogant approach to environmental education, which I think is very healthy. The environment as a subject has some qualities and characteristics which are different from a lot of other topics that are taught more conventionally.
What are the differences?
Kids have a very direct and concrete relationship with the environment. They go out of the schoolroom and into the woods and have a whole different kind of education. That kind of excitement and wonder can be capitalized on with environmental education. I would argue that environmental education is, in many ways, the more primary mode of education. It’s more central to who we are as humans, and more closely aligned to our evolutionary history, than traditional methods. It’s becoming effective partly because we’re rediscovering how we learn naturally.
If it is indeed effective, and offered in some form in most of our schools, what is likely to be the result? The students of today are going to become leaders of government and teachers themselves 20 years down the road.
mbivalent, because I’m aware of the depth of some of the environmental issues that we face, and their complexity. I’m also aware of the limits that humans have in their ability to manage some of these issues. But I’m also very hopeful when I see a program that focuses on schoolyard ecology, and the kids learn all of the different habitats and niches. I’m inspired when I see children who feel like they have a voice in their environment. Even though environmental education is widespread, I wouldn’t say that type of environmental education is widespread. What’s probably still more common, but changing, is environmental education about issues, about getting the facts across. With that type of learning, the child leaves thinking, “Well, that’s the way it is.” They’re not asking themselves what can be done, and they’re not building skills.
Dragonfly is very strongly interactive. On almost every page there are things for kids to do or make or study.
That’s really the whole purpose of Dragonfly. And that has raised concerns I have about Dragonfly becoming a television series. I share some of the criticism about having kids learn about the environment through media as opposed to primary contact. Dragonfly is like a forum in which young investigators go out and discover things and bring them back. In many ways it mimics the scientific journals.
My background is in ecology. My first research was as an ecologist. The way I learned was reading through journals where people were talking about what they discovered. Sometimes I’d have a question about it that needed further investigation, so I would go out and do that.
My wife and I, because we had written some children’s books, realized the distance between what children normally see as environmental or science education and what investigators really do. What children usually see are third-person reports and all the human struggle is sapped out of it. They hear what the discoveries are, but the whole assumption in our society is that children are not really capable of investigating themselves. We think that if they can listen and learn, once they get older they’ll get to practice the fun stuff. Unfortunately by then, the kids have likely bowed out of the whole process because they didn’t have a voice of expression in it.
You mentioned having some qualms about Dragonfly being turned into a TV show. I imagine you also have qualms about the role of children’s TV in the first place. My daughters were watching Captain Planet, a cartoon show, and though the environmental message was very strong, there was also plenty of fighting and violence. Have you thought much about that kind of programming?
There’s been so little research on the effects of TV. As a kid, I was inspired by watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. TV allows you to see things you normally wouldn’t see, and that can be exciting. But some of the ideas we have and the assumptions society has, which are not necessarily very environmentally friendly, get passed on—usually unknowingly—through the format of television.
I’m encouraged that the Dragonfly producers at PBS in St. Paul/Minneapolis are very faithful to capturing real kids doing real investigations. If kids have a chance of seeing themselves as models, that’s as good as you can get on TV.
Do you get good feedback from your readers that they are indeed doing that?
One of the great things about the magazine is that we get to have these kid investigators writing in. A lot of them are very inspirational. Since the beginning we’ve had a column called “Place in Nature” [now “Nature and Me”], in which kids write about their personal relationship with their environment. They’re just incredible essays! I think sometimes we take it for granted, but children have incredibly unique and important questions about the environment.
We always send press releases to the local hometown newspapers and the kids’ stories usually get written up because they were published in a national magazine. So they become heroes in their hometowns as “kid authors” or something like that. That’s just fantastic to see. I’m getting more interested in the role of the media to create communities around important issues. It’s not just reporting.
What’s it like editing the work of kids?
It’s a lot different, but it’s fun. We also have articles by people like Senator John Glenn, the primatologist Jane Goodall, and Paul MacCready, the man who first achieved human-powered flight. It’s an unusual magazine because we have both adult and kid writers, and they each have their own challenges. For children, organizing the ideas in a way that makes sense thematically to an issue is a challenge, so a lot of times we’ll call teachers or parents and get more information. Sometimes the kids will have drawn some really neat stuff, but they didn’t think to send it in. We try to treat them just like any other author, so they understand that we respect what they’ve written. On the adult side, it’s almost the reverse. A lot of times we’ll get professional scientists writing and they’ve been trained not to say anything emotional. We write scientists and ask them, “What were the surprises? What were you feeling? What made you even start this investigation to begin with?” We do autobiographies about when they were children and what got them interested in the environment. The adults and kids are really kindred spirits in that they share a real love and curiosity about the outside world.
Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw had written a book called Facts Not Fear that charges that kids are basically being scared by their textbooks, which pass on biased information from activist environmental groups. Do you think there’s any truth to that charge, which seems to be gaining some momentum in certain political circles?
It’s an issue, but to me the bigger issue is that we shouldn’t see education as so entirely content-based. Our facts are not as hard and fast as people like to perceive them, especially environmental facts. Just like any issue that deals with humans, they’re open to alternative interpretations. You’re not going to be able to lay the numbers out clearly on the table, except in some very specific circumstances. The focus in this whole debate should be on the critical role of kids in addressing facts and making sense of them.
The thing is, the environment needs a lot of different voices. It needs the communication. It doesn’t need a million people going along with all the same numbers. People just have to realize that some of these organizations are interest groups, some are trying to be objective, and some are trying to prove a point. It’s all part of the human process of investigation.