Here’s another ‘old’ paper that resonates more today than it did when it appeared in the very first Volume of a very valuable journal “Local Environment” in 1996. What is interesting to note is that the neighborhoods in Detroit where the action research reported on took place have been transformed quite a bit: abandoned houses – often crack houses back then – have been torn down and the vacant lots have, in some instances, been ‘reclaimed’ by nature or converted into productive land for fruit and vegetables (see “Detroit Agriculture”). Perhaps, in a very modest way, educational initiatives like the one described in this paper have contributed to this transformation, although a question today is to what extend the Detroit schools take part in this transformation and whether schools are able to ‘localize’ their curriculum and educational processes to allow for this. Below you find the abstract of the paper which can be obtained in full by clicking on the reference at the end.
Environmental education can be a catalyst for sustainable development in local communities as long as it is recognised that communities have different challenges and needs. From a perspective of social change and sustainable development, environmental education can be broadly defined as the process that enables students and teachers to participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of educational activities aimed at resolving an environmental issue that they themselves have identified. What an ‘environmental issue’ is, then, depends on the perceptions and earlier experiences of the learner as well as the context in which education takes place. An illustration of such a participatory approach to environmental education is provided by the case of Pistons Middle School in Detroit, Michigan where teachers, students and outside facilitators combined action research and community problem solving.
Source: Wals, A.E.J. (1996). BackAlleySustainabilityWals 1996
Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education. Local Environment, 1 (3), 299-316.
Recently I re-visited The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I once was a PhD-student with the late Bill Stapp, considered the founding father of Environmental Education, as my mentor. During those years (1987-1992) we worked in inner-city Detroit schools to help make education more relevant and meaningful to students growing up under harsh conditions. Many of the neighborhoods surrounding the two schools that we worked with have changed in some ways (the crack houses have been demolished mostly, some abandoned lots have been converted into what is referred to as “Detroit Agriculture” and the kids we worked with have grown-up when gotten the chance or, more likely, have moved or passed away (the life expectancy of many of the youngsters in these ‘hoods’ was not all that high in the 1980-ties). Of course some things haven’t changed, for instance, there is still poverty and most education is probably still not all that relevant and meaningful (something that holds true for kids growing up in more affluent communities as well).
Driving past 8 mile road reminded me of the time we spent with teachers and students in re-designing the curriculum to allow for the kids to link their education to the issues that mattered most to them and for the teachers to link those issues to the curriculum they were expected to teach. In the end we came up with “action research and community problem solving” (ARCPS) – a cyclical learning process consisting of problem identification and analysis, generating ideas for action and change, selecting and design concrete action plans, actual implementation and evaluation of those plans – with action and reflection throughout the process.
As we talk about sustainability, transition towns, community greening, social learning, transformation and so on a lot these days, I realize that some of the work done back then is very relevant today – there’s one difference though: much of what was considered radical and out of the main stream back then is getting much more traction today which is why I am offering a key paper from that time here: Action Research & Community Problem Solving (full reference: Wals, A.E.J. (1994). Action Research and Community Problem Solving: environmental education in an inner-city. Educational Action Research, 2 (2), 163-183) and along with what in some ways is a modern version of ARCPS: The Acoustics of Social Learning. The latter publication is more recent (an available as open access) and center’s more on community-based and multi-stakeholder social learning in the context of sustainability but has similar premises and a similar cyclical reflexive learning process. This publication can be found here: Wals, A.E.J., van der Hoeven, N. & Blanken, H. (2009). The Acoustics of Social Learning: Designing learning processes that contribute to a more sustainable world. Wageningen/Utrecht: Wageningen Academic Publishers/SenterNovem.