Take me Outside!

In October 2015 I participated in an Environmental Education Conference in Canmore, Alberta organized by Alberta Council for Environmental Education (ACEE). The Columbia Basin Environmental Educator Network (CBEEN), provided bursaries for about 12 talented educators from the Basin to go to the conference (thanks!).


Events where passionate people share ideas, get inspired and create new opportunities are super important for personal and professional development.  Whether it is a maker fair, a hack-a-thon, a herbal gathering or environmental educators conference, you leave with feelings of connection, joy and creativity. Often times we can feel alone in our work and these events are important to bring us back in touch with reality and envision a better future.

"If you look at the science that describes what is happening on Earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data.  If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart." - Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest

Learning the Carbon Dioxide Game with Tim Grant from Green Teacher

I met some truly amazing educators at the conference from school teachers, community educators, academics and everything in between.  All of these educators were really passionate about cultivating a love for nature, for this earth which we call our home.  The question posed in different ways during the conference was how to create the opportunities for this care, consideration, eco-literacy and resiliency to flourish in our schools, at our workplaces and in our daily interactions.

The Migration Game, with Tim Grant from Green Teacher
There were many workshops occurring co-currently during the conference, so it was difficult to choose which one to attend since all of the descriptions were of interest to me.  I will give some highlights as well as resources that I picked up on during the event.

Hiking beside Lake Minnewanka, Banff
Bow Habitat Station- ran a high energy workshop of how they teach some of their fish life cycles and about microbes in a very memorable way.  We got to do an alevin obstacle course as these small fish tries to navigate its way towards the fry life stage.  We also did a 'choose your own adventure' game where you got to figure out 'what microbe am I most like?'.  Followed by how these microbes appear in the fish hatchery or wetlands or other areas in the Bow Habitat Station.

There was a booth showcasing science, education and programs from the Polar regions.  If you are in Alberta, the Arctic Institute of North America has some education programs for elementary schools.  Otherwise there is an adventure podcast called PoLAR Voices, that investigates climate change science and its impact on life at the poles.  If you want to see some beautiful images of aurora borealis, and participate in citizen science, you can help classify different types of aurora images at AuroralZone.

Mountains above Panther Lake, BC

The curriculum in BC has recently changed to be more open and allow teachers to incorporate more inquiry learning, place based learning, and individualized learning.  I really enjoyed Patrick Robertson's presentation on the curriculum updates.  The BC curriculum is now based on the following foundations:
  • core competencies
  • big ideas
  • place based, community connected learning
  • aboriginal perspective
This is a real opportunity for teachers to take their students outdoors and become more engaged in community projects.

Outdoor Learning Lab

I also attended a workshop on Transforming Learning Through Authentic Inquiry by Natural Curiosity and Connect the Dots.  This was a new way of facilitating a learning circle which I am excited to try out. This circle allows a group of people to express themselves and follows with reflection, group research, action, or making connections and moving on. This can be used as a way build cohesiveness in a group, to inspire curiosity in the world, and a way to instigate action around an issue.

The workshop that had the biggest impact was called 'Emotionally Intelligent Environmental Engagement' by Amber Bennett and Olive Dempsey.  In permaculture we talk about visible and invisible structures that shape the world.  The emotional, or inner response to environmental issues is a key invisible structure to understanding how to craft more sustained environmental change.  The Transition Network is one of the few environmental movements that really takes in this psychological reality, and has included in the design of the movement, Inner Transition, to help people really engage on all levels.

In the workshop, Bennett and Dempsey go over their independent research of how people cope/don't cope with environmental challenges.  When faced with emotionally complications like feeling nothing will be enough, with the idea that you are complicit in the problem, with the social cost of speaking out against the status quo, we might have the following reactions:
  • push the issues away
  • moral binary of having good or bad actions, nothing in between
  • we can take baby steps, but baby steps are not enough
  • concern disavowel
Disavowel was a key vocabulary word that I hadn't come across before:

'Disavowel strategies unconsciously and systematically distort information in order to defend against the emotions of grief and loss'- Bennett and Dempsey

This means that people often go in a cycle of turning a blind eye, fearing speaking out, remaining with the status quo and refusing action.  This is kind of like the cycle of addiction that Rob Hopkins talks about in the Transition Handbook and that I've blogged about here.

Instead of hitting people with a scary dose of climate change reality, what can we do to avoid those emotional defence responses, and instead, create the conditions for change and empowerment?

According to Bennett and Dempsey, we should incorporate four main themes: building safety, getting real, increasing capacity for change and expanding identities. This allows us to shift to a systems view, move beyond self interest, connect with our community, promote new narratives, acknowledge contradictions and demonstrate visible leadership in our community.  We allow the space for reflection and transition of our inner world, in order to better operate in the outer world.

Let's take the example of cycling as a mode of transportation in an urban environment instead of driving.  If we were trying to promote this idea we might want to discuss the bigger picture, instead of just saying 'it's fun and healthy' and nothing else.

Velo-City Tour 2007- photo by Red Sara

Cycling can be fun, invigorating, a great way to exercise, and less expensive than driving.  However, when having a real, safe and identity expanding conversation about cycling with someone who is new to the idea, we might want address some barriers as well as the benefits.  For example:
  • Sometimes it's difficult to cycle when it's raining, or you are tired, or there is alot of traffic and no bike lanes.  
  • Physical safety- are there bike lanes on your route, are there quiet streets?  Does your bike fit well, can it be modified if it doesn't?  Is there a safe place to lock it up? Can you carry all you need in panniers/baskets/knapsacks?
  • Socially safety- is there a place to shower/change at work, are there bike to work events that are supported by the whole office?  Do some of your friends bike?  Are there public leaders that model this behaviour?  
  • Identity-Can you start to identify with the image of a cyclist, or that you might choose cycling over driving for most trips under 10km?  Are there ways you can use buses or trains to increase this range? 
  • What makes cycling easier for you personally?  What makes it more difficult?  What kinds of laws, infrastructure, gear, personal support do you need to make the switch?

I'm sure I've left out quite a few points, but you get the idea.  By taking an emotionally intelligent strategy, we are more likely to have good conversations and longer lasting engagement than green-washing or enviro-scare tactics. We need to explore all the visible and invisible structures around a particular issue, in a whole systems view to address barriers to involvement.

Velo-City Tour 2007
 I think David Orr says it best here:
 What can educators do to foster real intelligence?.... We can attempt to teach the things that one might imagine the Earth would teach us: silence, humility, holiness, connectedness, courtesy, beauty, celebration, giving, restoration, obligation and wildness. -David. W. Orr

Thanks to all the presenters, workshop organizers and the work that all the educators do out in the world!


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