Education for Sustainability: A Conversation with Janet McVittie on EcoFriendly Sask

SERI-affiliated faculty member, Janet McVitte, was featured on EcoFriendly Sask's blog.  Below is a selection from the article - the entire post can be found here.

“Most of our thinking is centred around the immediate – today and tomorrow. We need to be thinking seven generations out,” says Janet McVittie, Assistant Professor, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan. “That’s hard to do when you’re young, but I’m hopeful that starting environmental education at a younger age will have an effect.”

Purpose and Parameters

There are several different forms of education around environmental issues.

Environmental education focuses on teaching ecological concepts and principles, such as the definition of an ecosystem or the balance between predator and prey. “They teach studentsabout the environment, but the programs are not necessarily action-oriented or experiential, nor do they necessarily challenge the status quo,” explains Janet.

Outdoor education encompasses educational programs that take place out of doors. Most Saskatoon programs fit into this category. Outdoor education programs teach students to observe and to learn by doing. “It’s not enough to simply spend time outdoors,” Janet says. “Teachers can help students to view their surroundings critically. For example, one teacher took his students to the same spot in each of the four seasons, and he asked them questions: Where does the water in the creek go? How does it affect the areas downstream?”

“Outdoor education teaches about the environment in the environment. It’s experiential,” Janet explains. “However, unless the teacher provokes critique and action, it does not necessarily teach for the environment.”

Janet stresses the importance of discussing issues from a local perspective. “Issues such as poverty are complex. It’s easy to think we’ve solved the problem by sending money to Guatemala. By starting at the local level and moving to the global level, children appreciate that these are complex issues,” she explains. “Social and ecological justice issues are intertwined. One cannot heal the environment without resolving issues of inequity.”

Programs in Saskatoon

Saskatchewan has only one formal environmental education program. Other than in that program, environmentally committed teachers are responsible for taking the courses they teach and working them around environmental topics.

“It’s an advantage to not have an environmental education curriculum as it allows teachers to take a critical, action-oriented approach,” Janet says. “But teachers are also at a disadvantage as they have to fit the environmental courses around the existing curriculum.”

There are some Saskatoon programs that teach students about the environment while in the environment. These include programs at theBrightwater Science and Environmental Centre, theBlackstrap Outdoor/Environmental Center, the Ed and May Scissons Environmental Centre at Eagle Creek, and the nature-based programs offered by the Saskatoon Zoo Society, the Meewasin Valley Authority, and Wanuskewin. Transportation costs and the small size of the programs limit how many students can participate.

The Province of Saskatchewan recently introduced a new science curriculum for grade 11 students. The Environmental Science 20 course description states that, “Students will learn how to examine local and global environmental issues from a systems perspective while considering the effects of human actions and a growing global population on the climate and environment, as well as the effects of the environment on human health.”

“The new program expects teachers to take their students outdoors,” Janet says, “but it’s hard to get outside in the regular 60-minute class. You need places close to the school, such as a community garden or a native plant garden.”

The rest of the post can be found here.

Photo Credit: Alyssa Wiebe, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan