Research Summary

Learning places and "little volunteers": An assessment of place- and community-based education in China

Place- and Community-Based Education in China Contribute to Learning Outcomes and Personal Growth

Environmental Education Research

With the advent of rapid urbanization, China—like many other countries today—faces immense environmental problems, ranging from air and water pollution to species extinction and massive habitat destruction. At the same time, younger generations are increasingly disconnected from the environment. Because high school and college entrance exams rarely test for knowledge related to local history, ecology, geography, and culture, most classroom teachers do not emphasize this kind of information in their curricula. This disconnection between youth and the environment is particularly troubling as research suggests that formative nature-based experiences in childhood often influence pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors later in life.

In reaction to these challenges, the Chinese Ministry of Education made an impressive commitment: In 2003, the ministry mandated that all public schools incorporate environmental education (EE) into every subject at every grade level. Yet, to date, there have been numerous barriers to implementation and few success stories documented.

One initiative in the highly urbanized city of Kunming, however, has demonstrated positive learning outcomes and personal growth among students in fulfillment of this mandate. In this case, an innovative teacher developed a volunteer docent program for her fifth- and sixth-grade students at the Yunnan Provincial Museum, which houses exhibitions related to local history, culture, and environment, in addition to exhibitions about larger-scale environmental issues. Through this program, the students provide interpretive programs for museum visitors.

Of the teacher’s more than 400 students, 73 participated in the semester-long volunteer docent program. In preparation for the students’ role, the museum’s director of public education led docent trainings, and the teacher provided her students with supplementary training related to the museum exhibits. The teacher supervised her students throughout their volunteer service term to ensure student participation and engagement.

Researchers evaluated this EE initiative by observing student activity, soliciting feedback from museum visitors, and analyzing written and verbal self-evaluation forms completed by the students. Analyses of the evaluation data indicated that the docent program influenced a number of positive outcomes related to environmental knowledge as well as other factors contributing to pro-environmental behavior.

In the self-evaluations, students reported increased knowledge about local history and ecology, in addition to broader marine-related environmental problems. Many students reported that this environmental knowledge prompted them to make more environmentally friendly choices, although the students did not describe specific changes. Additionally, some students indicated that the program motivated them to educate others in order to encourage pro-environmental behavior.

Although such increases in knowledge are important, research has shown that knowledge alone does not lead to pro-environmental behavior. Nevertheless, the docent initiative did address some of the other important factors that support pro-environmental behavior, such as self-confidence, self-efficacy skills, and connection to place.

Perhaps most significantly, the docent program influenced a self-reported increase in student confidence as a result of interacting with and informing the public about the exhibits. Positive visitor feedback regarding student docent performance further facilitated the students’ confidence and sense of accomplishment. Past research has demonstrated that self-confidence, or a sense of empowerment (elements also related to developing a strong locus of control), is critical for supporting pro-environmental behavior because individuals need to believe their actions are meaningful and that they have the ability to undertake those actions.

Additionally, many students developed a sense of connection with their local community and environment as well as a sense of satisfaction from volunteering. Both of those outcomes—connection to place and enjoyment of community service—can build on environmental knowledge in contributing to pro-environmental behaviors.

Many students reported that their docent experience improved their academic performance due to their increased knowledge of local history and the environment; they indicated drawing on this knowledge base in academic contexts. Furthermore, the student docents’ time spent volunteering did not negatively impact their test scores. In fact, many students stated that their docent experience improved their academic performance due to their increased knowledge of local history and the environment.

Yet, those positive outcomes did not come easily. The teacher noted that developing the docent program required significant time and effort to research and prepare new materials as well as to supervise the students while at the museum. Nevertheless, the teacher emphasized that her work with students in this initiative was fulfilling and provided motivation to continue the program.

The Bottom Line

Community-engaged projects that bring students out of the classroom and engage them with relevant, local, hands-on learning, can bolster students’ environmental knowledge and place-based connections. One example of this—a museum docent program in China— provided students with an opportunity to teach others about local culture, history, and environment. This process boosted the students’ environmental knowledge, connection to place, self-efficacy, and other precursors to pro-environmental behavior. Although designing and implementing such a program may require more effort from the classroom teacher in terms of student training, supervision, and partner collaboration, the student benefits will be substantial.