Immigrant children promoting environmental care: enhancing learning, agency and integration through culturally-responsive environmental education
Culturally Responsive Environmental Education and Immigrant Children
Considering student perspectives or allowing for significant student action within environmental education (EE) can be challenging, despite students often learning more when EE material relates to their background. Immigrant youth, in particular, bear this burden, as EE is seldom grounded in their cultural contexts. However, culturally responsive EE, as well as EE situated through nurturing a sense of place, not only aids students’ personal development, but also allows them to bring what they learn home to their families. This study asked whether immigrant students in Quebec who engaged in EE programs were able to actively connect their families with environmental learning.
Over two years, the researchers who designed and implemented this study collected quantitative and qualitative data through interactions with students, teachers, and parents at a school in Quebec. First, the researchers led focus groups with students, grades 4 to 6, asking them open-ended questions about their experiences with EE. A multiple-choice questionnaire was also included, assessing how children learned about the environment in school and at home. Second, the researchers held 90-minute focus groups with teachers, asking questions about culturally responsive EE. Third, the researchers had five 60-minute focus groups with the students’ immigrant parents. Researchers asked parents about: communication between the school and home, 6 how and if the school took their cultural backgrounds into consideration, their interest in the environment, and their perception of children’s roles in the family. The data were coded thematically, first by the research team looking through the data and creating codes as a group, and then using HyperResearch, a code-and-retrieve computer data-analysis program.
The researchers found that EE that takes into account student background helps youth create connections between their schools, homes, and communities. Teachers elaborated on immigrant children being a special link between the schools and their parents; for example, children could talk to parents who did not speak English or French. Acting as environmental educators within their homes, students talked with their parents about what they learned in school, and some parents even changed their behaviors based on these conversations. Taking this active role helped increase children’s sense of self-efficacy and agency.
Students also brought their cultural contexts into the classroom; for example, EE in the West often emphasizes recycling, but when students talked to their parents, they described how more things were reused rather than recycled in their home countries. Children could then bring up the topic of recycling versus reusing to their teachers. However, even when considering culturally responsive EE, most opportunities continued to be unidirectional, with information moving from school to student to parents, and rarely the other way around.
The Bottom Line
Taking into account the cultural backgrounds of immigrant students not only serves the youth better in learning about the environment, but it also fosters personal development. These children can act as educators when interacting with their families and communities. They can also bring their own cultural context to the classroom, providing a different outlook on pro-environmental behavior than typical Canadian ways of thinking (e.g., recycling versus reusing). Finally, culturally responsive EE can also connect young immigrants to public life as well as further their identity and role as citizens.