Interview with the Professor Steve Van Matre, the founder of the earth education movement.
Earth education is described as an ‘alternative to agency – and industry – sponsored supplemental environmental education’ and ‘the process of helping people live more harmoniously and joyously in the natural world’. The original approach operates now at the international level, recently the Chinese version of their ‘Earthkeepers’ programme was launched.
In addition to the educational programmes like ‘Sunship Earth’, ‘Earthkeepers’ or a new programme ‘Rangers of the Earth’, Steve van Matre, the founder of the earth education movement, is an author of Earth Education… A New Beginning, a theoretical framework for earth education and a sharp criticism of the mainstream of environmental education. Recently, he finished his work on a new book, Interpretive Design, describing methodology for informal enrichment of visitors to museums, ZOOs, natural parks etc.
In October 2007, he arrived at Sedmihorky (Liberec region) to give a 2 day workshop for leaders from Czech environmental education centres.
J.C.: You've founded the earth education movement 40 years ago. Could you asses on what scale you have been successful in achieving your visions?
S.V.M.: Very hard to tell. Because in the beginning we were just trying to create a small programme for youngsters. And our mission became larger as time went on. Because we found so many people interested in what we were doing, we started expanding and growing. But it's been kind of an incremental process, step by step by step. In the beginning, we never dreamed that it would become worldwide, that we would have so many programmes and we'd have our own catalogue, trainers, and so far then we started out, we just had in mind that we wanted to build a programme for youngsters and then it gradually extended itself from there.
J.C.: Nowadays also the earth education research team is the part of your movement…
S.V.M.: The Research Team is made up of people who are, I think, most of them in Universities trying to do systematic research on earth education. Trying to do it through their graduate students in most cases. Sometimes undergraduate students. And then the team is trying to develop instruments that can be validated and used elsewhere in the future. So that we would have a standardized instrument for the understandings and one for the feelings and one for the behaviours that we are focusing on emphasizing in earth education. And we think that's the main product the team will come up with. As they gather the research we'll have this on-line archive that the team will oversee. And eventually, perhaps, our own journal of research.
J.C.: When you characterize your work, you usually compare and contrast it with environmental education. However, even the mainstream of environmental education is in the process of changes. There are approaches which apply constructivist strategy, project based education like the Eco-school, place based education… What is your opinion of these approaches? Do you think that it is something different from the mainstream you criticised?
S.V.M.: We don't believe that the world has a serious educational response to environmental problems. They have little projects here and there, based on supplemental approach and fusion model taken by environmental education coming out of the Tbilisi Report and the Belgrade charter, an approach promulgated really by the United Nations Environmental Programme. We just don't think that's a serious educational response.
And what has happened though is a lot of projects have said they’re doing environmental education, even though it was not really their intent in the beginning to have a serious educational response to our environmental problems in the world. But they ended up saying they are part of the environmental education movement, for various reasons. It's hard for us to make judgements about what they do, but we don't think it's either what environmental education said it was going to be, or it's not really a serious response today. It's just something else, whatever it is, and it might be good stuff and it might be good learning, but we don't think it's a serious educational response to environmental problems. So it's really hard for us to know what to say sometimes about these various projects.
We really believe strongly that a serious educational response to environmental problems has to start with basic ecological understandings about how life functions on the planet. And those need to be rather systematized, not just one off little things here and there but a very clear structural grasp of what are the systems of life here that we need to understand as the human species. And then we need to build feelings for share.
Some have said that, well, could you build the feelings first and than the understandings? I think that's an issue that one would have to see in the outcome but to build rich first hand feelings for the life that we share and the natural communities we share, we think is so often overlooked. People need these feelings for communities of life as well as the members of those communities. And third, that people are making changes in their own lives, behavioural changes. And not only in their own life, but they are working with others and as they reach out and plan actions together with them.
Environmental education has sort of approached this backwards. They start with some issue of the day, get all the kids fired up about that issue, but the learners frequently never get that systematic structural understanding base. They maybe get some feelings but it's kind of hit or miss. And we think it just has the cart and the horse the wrong way round, and it would be far better if they could do it in a more structured way where all those elements work together. But once again it's hard to be critical without knowing exactly the particular project, and know what they are really doing and what they are accomplishing, not what they claim.
For example, a group in Britain just got a huge chunk of money, and they are going to create some sort of nature areas for schools all over the country. So we get kids more out to nature. Well, on the surface that sounds good. But then you wonder what does that mean they are going to really do? Does that mean they are just going to recreate a little garden kind of nature area? Or perhaps little wild patch behind the school? But then what will they do with that? Who's going to really use it? And what are they going to do there? Just put identification signs on all the stuff? That's probably what will happen and then it will gradually fade away. So you hear these things and you go… Maybe, maybe not. You just have to wait to see. Again it's a matter of not having any systematic structural outcome in mind.
J.C.: The weak part of your approach might be that you have very well structured programmes, which are, on the other hand, not flexible. But every group is different, each child is different. Do you have an opportunity to build upon the preconceptions, the previous knowledge of children?
S.V.M.: Of course, everyone does that, but constructivism is not where it’s at. In fact it's fading in the world, because people realize that it's not where it’s at. I mean do they have a tennis programme for every individual learner? No. They have a programme. Are they able to adjust certain techniques for one? Of course. Are they able to pay attention to individual learners? Of course. That's why we have coaches who do this. But they have a programme.
The idea that you're going to come up with an individualized approach for every kid in school is just a joke. I don't think there is any evidence that really happens. Even though some teachers may claim to do this, teachers make a lot of claims that are not accurate. I think it's very very hard to do that, but if you've got a good program to work with, then the teacher's free to be able to individualize more, and to watch for how each kid is doing. And to me that's what the teachers need to be doing. Teachers don't need to be creating programmes. Teachers need to be delivering the programmes that have been created. Anyway, as you can see I get rather angry about this situation because they make these amazing claims, and you go, ‘come on’. In reality, I don't think it works at all.
J.C.: Constructivism is now getting very popular in our country…
S.V.M.: I know it's popular. Of course. You don't have to account for anything. Constructivism is what the world agreed some years ago. But in the end, what do you do? You just do all this and all that and say that you're building from where the learner is. All learners are in different places. And to think that you're really going to individualize your instruction to that extent… I don’t think. In fact, as a world movement it’s fading because there is no evidence at all that it works as a serious educational response to our environmental problems.
J.C.: Thank you very much for your time.
Transcript and language corrections: Petr Gilar.