Dr Susan Pike, Lecturer in Geography Education, writes about her work at St Partick’s College, Drumcondra.

New teachers’ experiences of and attitudes to Environmental Education (EE) depend on many factors.  At St Patrick’s College in Dublin, we find student teachers come to us with a wide variety of experiences of EE.  Some students have attended schools with strong EE, in transition towns and had plenty of freedom to play, explore and connect with their locality, whilst others have none of these experiences.  For this reason geography education courses at the college focus on the merging of geography, EE and outdoor into GEO education to ensure students have positive and lasting experiences.

Place-based geographical and environmental education

EE in the college focuses on students doing, thinking and feeling EE in the college and local environment:

  • Doing: Student teachers learn intentionally and unintentionally, when learning as teachers and children through place-based EE.
  • Thinking: For students, being in places enables their thinking in EE to be broadened and deepened.
  • Feeling: Students can develop their ideas about, opinions of and interest in EE.

EE and Teacher Education

Traditionally in Ireland, many teacher education courses provided few opportunities for this type of activity, as students were taught mainly in lecture style settings. In the past 15 years this practice has changed, as students spend increased amounts of time in seminar-based work, including environmental themes. Students also spend time outdoors doing EE and other activities with an environmental angle. At St Patrick’s College, students in geography, art, science, history and digital learning education course all spend time in the locality. This combination of EE and outdoor education is significant as it is this type of activity that student teachers remember long after they graduate. We hope such opportunities for prolonged engagement with the environment by student teachers ensure the continued dedication to EE in schools.

In the first year, place-based outdoor time, incorporating EE, amounts to over 60% of the 12-hour course for geography education. They carry out guided and independent enquiry type activity in the college grounds and in Drumcondra, the suburb in which the college is located.

The result of this first year is that students:

  • Gain new geographical and environmental knowledge about the area in which they are a student and will live for 4 years.
  • Use and develop geographic, environmental and generic skills that they may not have experienced before.
  • Reflect on how they can incorporate such activity into classroom experiences for children they will teach.
  • Have some fun and adventures with new friends!

These activities contribute towards students’ cognitive and affective ways of learning – as a child and as a teacher. In the second year and third year they apply this learning to their home area, sourcing opportunities to develop their locality as a location for GEO Education. Some students take options in Geography and/or GEO Education and have the opportunities for residential fieldwork to places such as the Wicklow Mountains, Belfast City and Cloughjordan EcoVillage, Co. Tipperary.

Students are very positive about their experiences, even when the Irish rain catches them out! Their comments on the courses reflect this:

“I found the classes very engaging, interactive and interesting. The class provided me with an opportunity to learn how to explore different environmental settings, reflect on where I live and my surroundings, something I would not have done in class before.”  Hugh

“I thought the resource packs were great, such as the EcoDetectives enquiry ‘Where would a butterfly like to live?’. We did some work inside but then we got to go out around the grounds of the college from which we learned and will remember.”  Anna Marie

“I really enjoyed the outdoor activities we did throughout the geography course. The outdoor area around a school is an exciting, often new environment for particularly young children to be in, in an educational context, and is the perfect opportunity to encourage discovery, enquiry, creativity and group work/discussion with a primary class in a fun and interesting way.”  Lauren

“I loved how geography was taught in the College because when I was in primary school, I didn’t see geography as a practical subject. I think using the idea of geography as an exploration is such a good way to teach the subject to primary students. Getting out of the classroom will excite the children and get them to be more independent and use their own opinions, that’s what I found myself doing anyway! I made my friends in college because of the approach to the geography class.”  Rebekah

“I thought the Discovering Drumcondra part of the module was really well done. Giving children that sense of responsibility and freedom is really important in my opinion, and it’s another way to encourage them to come to school and participate in class!” Stephanie

The students’ passion for teaching shines through in their quotes, astounding but not surprising as they have only just left school themselves! The students’ language is also strong – they ‘loved’ their classes, they thought GEO was a ‘perfect opportunity’ for children to learn. Such opinions reveal the integration of GEO into ITE really has a powerful impact on new teachers, one that I hope will last well into their teaching careers. EE is a marginalized subject, however the nature of active, engaging EE means that it can be a subject that is meaningful for students whether they are children or adults. 

See also: Green Schools Ireland  and the EcoDetectives Resource Pack

St Patrick’s College hosted Ireland’s First ‘Learning through the Outdoors’ conference in May 2015.

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This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 108).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.