Featured image of post Decolonizing environmental education
Episode 37

Decolonizing environmental education

How does environmental education reproduce colonial structures and mindsets?

Environmental education is often done from a western scientific perspective. Concepts of natural capital and ecosystem services take the relationship between the natural world and people and encodes it within a capitalist system of values. In theory, these concepts could push economic and political systems to safeguard nature because of its value as raw resources and ‘free’ services such as flood protection or purification of air and water.

Indigenous ways of conceptualizing nature often do not have the strong dichotomy between people and nature. Places are part of the people who live there, and are often referred to as relations. Evaluating the worth of an area’s resources and services might be like trying to quantify the value of your cousins or your parents.

In an article by Sheelah McLean in The Canadian Geographer, she writes that environmental education tends to focus on the effects of environmental destruction in a way which ignores root causes like capitalism and colonialism, and overlooks the different ways environmental damage can impact different populations.

It seems to me that there has been significant change in the last few years with progress seemingly being made by indigenous populations and countries of the global south beginning to have their voices represented and respected in national and global forums. Though there is still a long way to go environmental educators do seem to be recognizing concepts of environmental justice.

Colonization in the British Isles

There is a bit of a sense that decolonizing efforts are not relevant in the UK because it does not have an indigenous population. Related to this, there can be a sense that efforts at decolonization forgets white kids. That cultural responsiveness leaves them behind because they don’t have a culture.

Looking back through history, the peoples of Ireland and the British Isles have actually been subject to a series of colonization events which affected the languages and views of the people here.

  • Celtic tribes had different languages and material cultures. Sometimes they got along, and sometimes they didn’t. They invaded one another, took over, and ruled over peoples from other tribes.
  • Then there was Roman conquest. Which shaped the cultures and even the british landscape. They shaped the british diet with the introduction of such exotic plants as apples and plums.
  • Viking invasions and imposition of Danelaw. Which shaped much of the english language, including famously the names for the days of the week.
  • Norman invasion from France.

Learning about how these episodes left marks on what are now the cultures of the British Isles, might go some way towards understanding that white identities are cultural.

Britain is also a colonizing power. When we talk about the legacy of colonialism elsewhere in the world, one of the main issues discussed is the way colonizing powers create narratives and structures to legitimize and reinforce control. Often they are based on narratives and systems used at home to legitimize and reinforce structures of inequality.

The pedagogies developed by efforts to decolonize education around the world generally include these themes:

  • First, an acknowledgement of the history of colonized peoples, that they existed and thrived before colonization and have suffered since
  • Listening to and valuing the experiences of peoples who had been silenced.

These themes are in large part about understanding and reconciling with differences and inequalities, and so they are themes which offer benefits even for places or peoples without the same recent history colonization.

What might decolonizing environmental education look like?

Recognition that our perspectives on nature are shaped by our personal cultural background, and the cultural environments we work within. And that part of our role as educators is to build bridges between these different ways of knowing.

  • Conducting an archaeology of your own way of understanding the world.

    • What is your relationship with nature?
    • What experiences shaped your views?
    • Who guided and taught you? How did they teach you?
    • What was your relationship to structures of power and authority?
  • Invite students or community members to share their own knowledge and understanding.

    • It can be an opportunity for elders to share their knowledge with a younger generation. And for children who have drifted away from the culture of their parents and grandparents, another opportunity to reconnect.
    • Don’t expect them to be the expert. Many indigenous peoples have lost or weakened connections with their culture because of histories of oppression by colonial powers. Also we are the teacher, and should not expect a student to do all the heavy lifting.
  • Find out how students learned before they started school and while they’re at home.

    • What are the strategies their parents or families use to teach life skills?

Tips for culturally responsive teaching

Gamify it

Gamification adds game elements into teaching. Zaretta highlights that games often make use of features common in oral knowledge traditions like repetition and pattern recognition. It also adds a bit of competition.

Competition does not have to be against other students. It can also be competition against themselves, like in speed run games where you try to beat your previous score or a set time limit. Gamification can also include competition against the game, which can support development of collaboration skills. Think board games like Forbidden Desert, or team games like keep up where the group works together to keep the ball in the air as long as possible.

What might culturally responsive gamification look like? Find out what games or kinds of games the kids you work with like to play and build activities around those. Do the kids like to play chasing games? Make-believe games? Games of chance?

What are kids doing their games? And do those game elements echo systems of concepts you are teaching about?

Better still. Have students develop their own game. After being introduced to the concept, students could adapt the rules a game to fit the concept being taught. This is also a great opportunity to check student’s understanding of the relationships between different parts of a concept.

Make it Social

Making it social is about organizing learning activities so that students rely on each other and build a sense of community. Euro-American education tends to be very individualistic. Students are often trained to care about their own performance, keep their eyes on their own work. But many other cultures have a more communal orientation, and students with this sort of background can find individualistic settings difficult to adjust to.

Well organized and supported group work is a great way of doing this. But group work is not as simple as splitting a class into groups. The task needs to be clear and suitable for division of labour. Group size needs to be appropriate for the time, task, and class dynamics. Larger groups tend to need longer to work because it takes more time for everyone to take part and get organized.

Storify it

This is about taking advantage of narrative structure and our familiarity with it to enhance our ability to remember the content. It is often easier to remember the events in a narrative than a list of facts because the events provide context for the next event. Sort of a chain of events where recalling one link helps with recalling events around it.

Narrative is key in many cultures with strong traditions of passing on knowledge orally. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that narrative understandings are actually the default way in which humans understand the world.

Then there are simple things like good narratives building moments of tension and excitement, sweeping the audience up and carrying them with it. Engel, Lucido, and Cook in an article in Childhood Education point out that science narratives also contain information about the storyteller or scientists as people. This can make them more approachable and relatable, instead of being remarkable, exceptional, or unlike normal people. The way protagonists faced and overcame challenges can also help children see ways they might overcome the challenges in their own lives.

Pitfalls to avoid


Where bits and pieces of cultures are scattered through an activity. Which can have the effect of reinforcing stereotypes, over emphasizing differences, and othering already marginalized communities.

Things which can help with this are making sure that when teaching about cultures, make the people central to the lesson. So if teaching about rainforests or deforestation, don’t just drop in mention of Amazonian peoples. Instead choose one or more groups to highlight and make their perspective, and their voices central to the lesson or the unit.

Giving no context

Lack of context can reinforce inaccurate or sometimes harmful stereotypes. A very simple example of this is depiction of peoples in traditional clothing. Often the clothing depicted is worn only on special occasions. It would be like a story about American Christians only showing people in wedding dresses and tuxedos. A good way to avoid this is to make sure that you are also teaching about everyday life, homes, and pastimes, in addition to special occasions, sacred places, and ritual practices. Another good approach, if a group is represented in the school or local community, is to ask them what they’d like to share.

Infantilization / Romanticization

When looking at how peoples and their ways of knowing are represented, and look out for infantilizing or romanticizing them.

Infantilizing most literally refers to treating someone like a child. Think of sayings like ‘kids will be kids’, and ‘they didn’t know better’. A way environmental education can accidentally veer into this area is presenting traditional methods as ‘the old ways of doing things before new and better ways (probably from Europeans or westerners) came along’. Or these people thought this, but scientists now know better. This has the effect of devaluing traditional methods or knowledge, potentially offending or alienating groups.

Romatizication is in some ways the inverse, and also problematic. Think the ‘noble savage’ trope. In environmental education this also tends to characterize traditional cultures and indigenous people as being in harmony with nature, in the sense of living in it without damaging or impacting its functioning.

This paints people’s with a broad brush, making them 1-dimensional caricatures. It can also produce an image of empty landscapes, untouched by people. This is first, more than likely incorrect as there is considerable evidence that traditional cultures and indigenous peoples had significant impact on their environments. It can reinforce views of indigenous people as being primitive, lesser, lacking advanced technology. In addition, if landscapes are thought of as untouched, it becomes easier to justify taking over land for development or resource extraction.

A strategy for avoiding these pitfalls is to do more detailed comparison. Look for insights provided by different ways of conceptualizing nature. What kinds of knowledge are generated by spending a month living in a forest, visiting a forest once a month for 5 years, or using satellite images?

Look for the pros and cons of different methods. For example, when and why might you choose to bake bread by hand? Why might someone not be able to make bread in a breadmaker? Why might someone choose to go to the store and buy a loaf?

Investigate practices and the ways in which they maintained or changed the environment. How widespread was or is a particular system of agriculture? How did it support the local environment? How did it change the local environment?

More on Culturally responsive teaching

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