Peak & Prairie
February / March 1998
|"This is far beyond environmental education; this is a whole
Empowering Students to do
Environment as an Integrating Concept
by Pam Sherman
All over the country, public and private schools and home-schooling families have started to embrace a concept called Environment as an Integrating Context (EIC), in which schooling focuses on the interdependence of all life and the curriculum follows suit. Environment is the integrating concept for subjects such as math, literature, languages, social studies, music, science. At the beginning of each semester, the students, teachers, and even parents pick a topic of local ecological interest. For instance, they might choose the watershed they are part of, the invasions of weedy plants their community is dealing with, migrating geese, road salting, or desert life. The possibilities are endless.
EIC teaches about what is in one's backyard, both figuratively and literally; builds on children's innate interest in nature, using dynamic, hands-on activities; and focuses on the real world using learner-centered, adaptive pedagogy.
Some teachers applaud this as stimulating holistic thinking, which they feel is crucial to solving pressing world problems. For instance, it is coming to be recognized that agricultural research in our country focuses almost exclusively on technical aspects of production, while completely ignoring the inequitable social aspects of food distribution, farm ownership, and agricultural wealth. Students of sustainable agricultural policy analysis bemoan the fact that technical production scientists rarely if ever speak to their sociology-studying colleagues.
Students trained in EIC learn to see the big picture and the inter-relationship of components. They are therefore asking more of the right questions than many of us are used to. "This is far beyond environmental education; this is a whole paradigm shift," says Gerry Lieberman, EIC's Project Director.
EIC was given its name by the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER), a group made up of the top environmental education administrators from each participating state department of education. Colorado's own Don Hollums is a member. Lieberman is the visionary who pulled the roundtable together. The project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Yet the concept seems to follow the "hundredth monkey" route as well: Several new schools around the country are based on the EIC concept even though they have never heard of EIC, SEER, or Gerry Lieberman.
In Colorado, the EIC schools are Glenwood Springs High School, Logan School in Denver, and Nederland Elementary in Nederland. Gold Hill School in Gold Hill, already holistic and integrated, is enthusiastic about incorporating EIC. And a new school in Crestone, which knew nothing of SEER, has been founded on the same principle.
As a result of their exposure to EIC, students are making academic gains and developing higher-level thinking skills, dealing with complex problems and issues. They are more resourceful, more strategic thinkers, and more willing to deal with problems. "EIC didn't teach me all the facts that every traditional English or history teacher thought I should know," said one high school graduate. "What it did teach me was how to learn and how to process what I learned into my own facts."
Students are gaining basic life skills--better, more caring relationships, acting responsibly, working independently, cooperatively, and collaboratively, developing communication skills, seeking and demonstrating leadership, understanding thinking and communicating about issues larger than themselves, becoming involved in their communities. They develop confidence and a sense of ownership. The validity and significance of school increases. They have expanded opportunities for higher education and career options. And they are becoming life-long learners, capable of adapting to a rapidly changing world.
These impacts appear to occur as a result of increases in students' enthusiasm and engagement in learning and the adaptability of EIC programs to a wider variety of learners. Discipline problems were 72% lower than before the schools went EIC. "I seem to like doing experiments better than the sit-down-and-shut-up- and-write tests, says one middle-school student. "I think I am a hands-on person."
Teachers, even those who at first were less than thrilled about EIC, find themselves more enthusiastic and engaged in education than any prior time in their careers. And family support is strong. There are waiting lists in excess of 200-300% of available space at a number of EIC schools. Students expend extra effort to maintain grades and control behavior to insure their continued participation in an EIC program.
For more information on EIC, contact Gerry Lieberman,16486 Bernardo Center Drive, Suite 328 San Diego, CA 92128, phone (619) 676-0272, email: Gerald @ seer.org, WWW: http://www.seer.org/round