This week marks the halfway point for my Fulbright project in New Zealand. The Fulbright teachers will gather with advisors and Fulbright staff on Monday to review our progress so far and look toward the culmination of our projects. For those who have asked, “Now, what is it you’re doing again?” here is a brief overview.
- Discern global best practices for teaching sustainability at work in NZ primary schools.
- Create a toolkit for sustainability and biodiversity education
- How can we help schools focusing on 21st century skills to incorporate sustainability and place-based awareness into their culture?
- What practical tools can we give schools, administrators, and teachers to make effective use of their resources?
- How do we translate the concept of sustainability into terms that different communities can embrace, and that empower them to change and grow in healthy ways?
- Visit and observe schools
- interview students, teachers, parents, and administrators.
- Visit and observe school programmes at the Wellington Zoo and Zealandia
- interview staff
As Wellington has taught me, every downhill has its uphill. A great deal of navigation was required at the beginning, trying to locate schools/teachers/administrators willing to participate in my project , and then negotiating the official approvals that would give me access. At this midway point, I’m glad to report that I have observed 11 schools, and am aiming to complete focused interviews in the second term (through May).
Life in New Zealand is all about successful adaptation, and my project here is no exception. The initial effort to find participating schools led me in an unanticipated but ultimately fulfilling direction, partnering with Wellington institutions whose central mission is teaching about sustaining biodiversity.
The Wellington Zoo invited me to join not only the Bush Builders programme, which specifically targets and supports conservation in local schools, but also their other primary level programs. I was able to talk extensively with zoo education staff, who provided insight into their efforts to work with the local community. The same was true for Zealandia, which issued me a research permit and let me observe and accompany school groups of varying ages in preliminary lessons and through the sanctuary.
It was this unexpected and delightful route to learning about sustainability and biodiversity education that has added an important dimension to my project. Rather than focusing on NZ schools as teaching in isolation, I have come to view them as participants in a community that is rich in potential resources. The Enviroschools program is a great example of the educational power of community networks. These schools receive support and guidance from regional facilitators and are encouraged to connect with and support fellow schools that are working on similar initiatives. Their success does not rely, as so often happens, on one highly motivated teacher to initiate and sustain involvement.
I have seen this emphasis on team effort extend throughout primary curricula in NZ. There is no single script for what must be taught; instead, there is a collaborative effort among teachers and administrators to develop themes that can incorporate many key learning elements. Schools feel like true learning communities.
My emphasis of potential resources indicates one of the key issues that has become apparent in my observations thus far. The Zoo, Zealandia, Otari-Wilton’s Bush, Island Bay Marine Centre, and other venues are all available to enhance the sustainability and biodiversity education of regional schools. These are places and people with expert knowledge and natural history interpretation skills. However, they are not financially accessible learning options for many, if not most schools. There are some corporate sponsorships available to low-decile schools to have Zoo and Zealandia experiences, and for some these have had lasting positive outcomes. However, schools face the problem of affording travel costs and justifying time spent out of the classroom. The same is true for US schools. How can we ensure that these incredible resources are available to all? How can all teachers receive mentoring and support to use them?
I had also hoped to see field trips generate follow-up lessons in school classrooms, but so far this hasn’t happened. For some schools, it appeared these were just one-off field trips to a lovely place, with interesting animals. Which brings me to another key issue: how do you sustain sustainability education? As with any other subject, sustainability has to be embedded in a school’s mission in order to survive. If it is treated as an occasional or supplementary topic, then it relies on the enthusiasm of one or a few to maintain its momentum. In several schools, I saw sustainability interwoven through the curriculum in such a way that it felt utterly natural, a given, integrated with math, science, literacy, and social studies lessons. In others, it was defined as environmental education, receiving its own space and time, but not apparently integrated into other areas.
I’ve been shown sustainability in the form of a school garden, an outdoor play area, a recycling program, a community rubbish clean-up. I’ve accompanied groups through Zealandia who had deep interest in conservation, but were unable to identify common native species; likewise, I’ve seen five year olds at Otari-Wilton’s Bush approach complex ethical questions with uncommon and articulate wisdom. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that there is no “one size fits all” standard of competence when it comes to achieving sustainability goals. Every school will define these differently, based on its own culture and mission.
Since starting this blog 8 months ago, I have used it to explore daily encounters with different aspects of sustainability and biodiversity, each of which contributes to my understanding of how best to teach them. Whether contemplating the role of introduced mammals, like Wellington’s cats, or the beauty of sharing knowledge between different age groups (tuakana/teina), I hope to incorporate this expression of my own learning process into my final project design. A further goal is to illustrate my use of resources such as NatureWatch NZ in citizen science efforts aimed at documenting biodiversity. This is one of the most valuable tools that I have encountered in New Zealand, one that is actively incorporated into Zealandia programmes.
Where I’m headed
Here at the mid-point of my Fulbright project, as I try to conceive of tools that I have come across – best practices – that would enhance sustainability education globally, I remain guided by my initial questions, and inspired by several models that I’ve seen. With the benefit of these past months in the field, I would add:
- What does sustainability education mean in this school? What would you like it to mean?
- What resources (would) help you achieve and sustain this?
- What community connections support you in teaching sustainability?
- Where goals do you have for sustainability education in and beyond your school?
I see these questions as helping to inform my own teaching practice upon my return, as well as to share the insights that I gain with my Jemicy school community.