Education vs. Advocacy

Not counting my last phenology post, this will make my fourth post in a row with no photos. Whaaa? Well, between the cold, damp, windy weather this week and the mountains of grad school work to slog through, I just haven’t been outside as much as usual. I’m giving myself a homework assignment to go for a ramble in the woods tomorrow afternoon, but in the meantime let me ruminate on an interesting debate that came up in my class on “environmental education theory and practice.”

We’ve talked a couple times now in that class about the idea that environmental educators wear “two hats” – our education hat, and our advocacy hat – and we have to be careful not to get them mixed up. What this means is that when teaching about environmental issues you have to be careful to present multiple viewpoints rather than advocating one specific way of seeing things to your students. Fine. But at the same time we’re being told that one of the core goals of environmental education is to empower people to practice more environmentally responsible behavior and take action to protect the environment.

Okay, so we can’t be advocates but we want to teach other people to be. Hmm.

I think there is a middle ground here that makes sense – I definitely believe in presenting multiple viewpoints on a controversial issue, and a teacher who requires her students to agree with her and to, say, write letters to a legislator supporting her position is frankly a bad teacher. But at the same time, you do your students a disservice by pretending to be neutral on an issue when you’re not. No one is really objective or neutral, we all have our biases, and it’s surely better to acknowledge them. Sometimes there is a right and a wrong side of an issue, damn it! As the very wise Douglas Adams once said, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

I guess I just feel that the “two hats” concept is setting up a false dichotomy that’s not helpful in navigating this fine line. Environmental educators ARE environmental advocates. If we weren’t passionate about inspiring people to love and protect the environment, we wouldn’t have gotten into this field in the first place. Does anyone else have a take on this?

7 replies on “Education vs. Advocacy”

I am working on a post along these lines right now, but it will be a while before I finish it. One thing about reaching an older age is that I have learned that fads come and go, even environmental fads. Many of the things I learned at your age have turned out to be incorrect as science has advanced. I also find that environmentalists today focus in like a laser beam on an issue, and if you step back and look at the big picture, your opinions may change.

I don’t have an opinion on this specific issue, but it sounds like you’re on the way to being a good teacher. You’re thinking, rather than sucking down The Code (whatever it may be this time around), and pledging blind faith to it.

And quietsolo may alter your opinion a bit, or not; either way you’re still questioning the Accepted Wisdom. That’s an important lesson to model for students, no matter what you teach.

I remember this coming up when I started teaching about 15 years ago. The duality of educator and advocate is a dichotomy dreamed up in the academic classroom and the real world is far muddier. I’m an advocate of looking at teaching about “nature” in two different ways. There is Environmental Education and there is Natural History education. Many people don’t believe in this split but it can be useful to think of them in this way. Natural History education starts by teaching about ecological systems and adaptations to make a connection between the learner and the subject. Once a learner knows the science behind the subject they can make informed decisions about it. In Environmental Education the topic is often issue based. The core of the educational material is about the problem or issue and the science behind it. The natural resources, be it fish, lakes, air, trees, rivers, etc. is merely something impacted by the issue. It becomes background information to digest.

I teach in a natural history setting where we educate about the resource. Sure, issues come up, but they come up in the context of the resource we are interpreting. The natural history, the ecology, etc. are key. I’m a big fan of this approach. I think it is especially effective with younger audiences where research has shown “doom and gloom” education is not productive.

Now is there advocacy? Yes. Do I tell people how many migrating birds are killed by house cats in our Migration class? Yup. Do I tell them they should keep their cats inside? Yup.

Is my class about the issue of bird mortality? No. The class is about the science behind how birds migrate. When you understand the wonder of what birds do it makes you appreciate them more and hopefully care about them more.

That’s a long way of saying that the idea you should encourage other people to advocate for something while you yourself do not advocate is hogwash. It may be a useful construct in a college classroom and a good cautionary tale about getting too far away from your core teaching principals but in the real world information leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to the ability and responsibility to make informed choices.

As Rebecca said, we’re human, we have opinions. And kids will sense if you’re holding back, and you will feel “fake” to them. But I think a reasonable teacher will present it as “I personally feel that house cats should be kept inside. But…(other people feel differently; that’s an ongoing discussion in our society; you have to make up your own mind, etc.).” That way the kids know you have an opinion, but they also know that’s what it is: an opinion (go ahead and back it up with facts, too, why not?). Part of education should be weighing differing opinions in order to form your own. Younger students should get explicit guidance in this–“This is an opinion, guys!”–and of course be able to hold a differing one.

(Dang, shouldn’t there be some sort of “civil discourse” class where students are taught the difference between fact, opinion and hearsay? Maybe it should be required before commenting on the internet!)

Yeah, when I brought this up in class the other grad students made the valid point that you have to be sensitive to the age of your students when considering if and how to explain where you, as the teacher, stand on an issue. With teenagers or adults, it’s probably reasonable to take the “Here is how I feel about this; if you disagree, that’s fine, and I’d love to hear you present some facts to back up your opinion” approach. Elementary-aged kids are more likely to have trouble distinguishing between fact and opinion and to take whatever their teacher says as gospel, so you have to be more cautious.

If anyone’s interested in following a fascinating semester-long experiment in teaching kids how to find and evaluate information a crucial environmental issue (climate change, specifically) and formulate their own opinions, check out It’s the class blog of an eighth-grade environmental writing class at a private school in Savannah, Georgia.

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