Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What does it really mean to teach in the 21st Century?

This is a special post from one of our members, Jenn Recant. She is a Penn State sophomore majoring in Elementary Education and a regular and vigorous attendee to 3E-COE's meetings.

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While speaking with Dr. Richard Alley, a well-known scientist and professor at Penn State University, we discussed anthropogenic climate change and he stated, “you eat around 2,400 calories per day and you use about 240,000 calories per day - something does not add up” (link here for more). After listening to Dr. Alley I began thinking about what I had learned from him and how our lifestyles are unsustainable. I began to realize that what I have been learning about the environment not only applies to my life but also to what I will teach as a future educator. Teaching in the 21st century means teaching about current issues, and one of the leading problems that we are faced with today is that of environmental responsibility. Unsustainable living should no longer be an option. As teachers in this century, we cannot simply apply old methods of frontal learning and memorization and neglect crucial information about the earth we live on. We as teachers need to change some of the methods of teaching in order to engage our students with a hands-on, whole-child approach; teaching not only the basics but also about how to live our lives. Schools need to educate students at all grade levels about important and topical issues that they will need to address throughout life and as adults. Learning about the environment, problems that are occurring, and how to make positive changes are some of the most important topics of this century.

One of the key conclusions from the 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal and most likely anthropogenic”. The National Academy of Sciences agreed with this statement and there is little debate among scientists that global environmental changes are taking place. What does this mean for us as teachers in the 21st century? It means we need to take on the responsibilities that these changes will brings about.

The first step in mitigating the effects of climate change and eventually adapting a new lifestyle is teaching about the problems that the environment is currently faced with. Our process through the entire materials economy from extraction, production, distribution and consumption all the way to disposal is not a lifestyle that we can continue with. Our “throwaway economy” and our “story of stuff” that we are living with on our finite planet will not last. We as teachers have the power to change the future through our students. We can educate them on how to live sustainably with the foods we eat, the way we run businesses, the manner is which we use energy and much more. Climate change is becoming more and more dire; it will ultimately affect every aspect of our lives from social, political, physical to economic aspects. But how can we ever achieve that change if our school systems do not teach about the issues properly and our students do not learn what their futures hold?

This growing and changing process needs to start within the classroom with the teacher. In order to help teach the reality of issues and have our students become fully aware of the world around them, teachers need to get creative. We need to teach our students from a whole child perspective. We need to motivate our students into taking the right actions and have them become interested in the environment. It always seems as though students learn better when they are involved in interactive learning. There is currently a wealth of knowledge and experience that teachers can draw from including sample lesson plans from the internet, attending conventions that demonstrate teaching environmentally, and even new textbooks which provide sustainable living models that can help teachers achieve fresh ways to help their students connect to the environment. An article in The Boston Globe entitled “Put Climate Change in the Curriculum,” Queen Arsem-O’Malley discussed that the point of climate-change and environmental education is not to make sure that students can recite facts about carbon-emissions or biomagnifications, but students need to understand the science behind climate change and recognize that we can act now with the information we have. Students need to become more familiar with the general strategies we will use to lessen the impacts of climate change. Perhaps most importantly, students need to learn to think creatively about climate change, since innovative solutions will be necessary for one of the most challenging problems of our time.

This learning can and needs to take place at all grade levels and in all subject areas. Teaching environmentally can be challenging but it is a cross-disciplinary field that can be drawn into almost any subject or activity. Environmental education and use of active learning techniques in the classroom, such as creating learning centers or having a class garden can encourage children to eat nutritiously, allow them to participate in hands on and experiential learning, have social experiences, learn about leadership and participation, learn about nature and animals, and acquire life skills. Teachers can find help and get support through numerous organizations by approaching their superintendents, principals or civic associations. Organizations like The National Gardening Association have been providing material assistance to youth, community gardens and classroom gardens for the past two decades and have witnessed a growing interest. They encourage every grade level from K-12 to participate in garden learning and they try to help with funding and new ideas.

Though we cannot predict the future we know how important our earth is and that it is a major issue that the next generation will be faced with. As the National Science Board states, "The environment is a critical element of the knowledge base we need to live in a safe and prosperous world." Today's students will one day have to participate as citizens in making decisions regarding the environment, decisions that will be of lasting importance to themselves, their children and grandchildren, the nation, and of course, the planet. As teachers in the 21st century we need to implement green strategies into our classrooms, make our classrooms sustainable and motivate and teach our students about how to be conscious and eco-friendly throughout their lives.

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