It is quite a challenge to teach children to understand the environmental issues that our planet faces. The incredibly abstract scientific ideas backed up by a wealth of carefully compiled data are arguably of less significance to the average primary school pupil than other more pressing concerns that they might have at their age like – “I wonder what I’m having for lunch today?” The following looks at my involvement with The Pathways Project, and how my class became totally absorbed in studying their locality and the environmental issues that it faces in the future.
The Pathways Project provided my class of Year 3 and 4 pupils with the opportunity to engage with their environment in a meaningful way. First of all, the children planned a route to walk in their locality. This got them outdoors and talking to each other about the places that have some significance to them: a tree, a park; in fact, an amazingly diverse list of places. Isn’t it ironic that with technology giving this generation of children the most fantastic access to the ‘world of virtual information’, as never before, how many children actually have a ‘real life experience’ by going outside? As good as the virtual world is, apparently it is still nowhere near as good as actually touching, feeling, tasting, hearing and smelling the real thing!
At this point in proceedings it is always interesting to pose the question, “What if… your park; your tree was no longer there?” With this simple question, children begin to understand the emotional connection they have with their environment and the places that are significant in their lives. I’ve found that this can also lead into deeper discussions about the nature of change and our role in shaping the places in which we live.
As our location was on The Norfolk Broads, these discussions raised issues which involved balancing the need to generate tourism to create work for the local economy, with protecting the plants and animals in their habitat. The children were introduced to the concept that The Norfolk Broads are, in essence, an artificial habitat, created when rising sea levels hundreds of years ago flooded the man-made excavations made by people digging for peat as fuel for their fires. Now millions of pounds are spent to prevent the sea returning and destroying the habitat that it once created.
Before too long, we were having a fantastic discussion about the issues of conservation, ecology, adaptation of species to their habitat and evolution. Our discussions had a particular emphasis on how the plants and animals that fail to adapt quickly enough to rapidly changing circumstances could become extinct. My class became increasingly interested in the idea that non-native invasive species pose a threat to the plants and animals that have made The Broads their home. They researched what the specific threats were and how these species were transported to their new environment in the first place. All of this work came, initially at least, from taking a walk in their locality!
Finally, The Pathways Project was able to provide my class with the opportunity to link with another school in South Africa. After making a whole school contact with the South African school, where the children exchanged general questions and answers with each other through Skype, my class were asked to make presentations to our new South African friends about the history of their locality; how it was created and some of the animals that have become beautifully adapted to this habitat. I was particularly impressed by the added motivation that having this international audience had on the way my class approached their research. This was school work for a real purpose, which was totally reinforced by the appreciation and interest shown by the South African children to the presentations they were watching. It was hoped that the South Africans would, at a future time, create their own presentations about their locality and the plants and animals that share it with them. All this came from taking a walk outside!
The range and the breadth of the work that the children were engaged in meant a whole range of learning objectives were covered from the National Curriculum. During my class’s involvement in the project, we covered the more obvious links regarding speaking, reading and writing promoted through research and presentation to an audience. The children met the science statutory requirements in the Year 4 programme of study, requiring pupils to identify and name a variety of living things in their local and wider environment, as well as recognising that environments can change and that this can sometimes pose dangers to living things. We touched on the Year 6 programme of study, in which one of the statutory requirements regarding evolution and inheritance is that pupils identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways; and that adaptation may lead to evolution. We also covered locational knowledge in the geography curriculum for key stage 2: identifying human and physical characteristics of our region, key topographical features and land-use patterns; and to understand how some of these aspects have changed over time.
I will be always grateful to the organisers of The Pathways Project for choosing my school to be a part of their research. Not only did they allow the children in my class to think about the places that are special to them in their own environment, but they also made them feel that they were part of something so much wonderfully bigger. In this project, we achieved the statutory curriculum requirements but we did so using unorthodox and innovative methods to inspire the children. This shows that venturing down less-travelled pathways to arrive at predetermined destinations can involve exciting pedagogical journeys; both for teachers and pupils.
Opportunities for Environmental Education across the National Curriculum – Early Years Foundation Stage and Primary, NAEE (2015)
Gary Fowkes teaches at a primary school on the North Norfolk coast, although this research was carried out at a different school which is on the Norfolk Broads. This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017 journal (Vol. 114). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.