Research Summary

In what ways are teacher candidates being prepared to teach about the environment? A case study from Wisconsin

Committing to Environmental Education in Teacher Training Programs

Environmental Education Research

Little is known about how teacher training programs across North America expose pre-service teachers to EE. This descriptive case study reviewed incorporation of EE in teacher education programs in the state of Wisconsin. Although Wisconsin is a national leader in developing institutionalized environmental education, teacher training programs in the State vary widely in how they incorporate EE. Some use a course-based approach, whereas others focus on activity-based EE. One factor that the most successful programs had in common is the presence on a particularly committed individual. Common shortcomings include lack of a shared vision for environmental education, lack of agreed-upon pedagogical teaching strategy from the leaders of teacher education programs, and a heavy focus on pure knowledge or educational content, without much training on different teaching methods.

The authors identified 33 teacher education programs in Wisconsin and reached out to the individual(s) responsible for each program. Representatives from 20 of the selected programs completed an online survey, and 11 individuals from 9 programs also completed an interview. Participants were asked to describe how EE content was organized within the teacher education program, and how teacher candidates engaged with EE activities throughout their training. The authors looked for recurring themes and trends in the survey responses and interviews.

The results show that when it comes to EE, no teacher education program is “typical.” Five of the 33 programs were identified as doing significantly more than others: each of these programs had an individual EE “champion” (a committed individual) as well as an institutional driver (some other factor that further facilitates or enhances EE activities). Some of the programs had a course-based approach, in which EE is merged within the content of a subject-specific course, such as biology or math. Others had an activity-based approach, where EE training relates to a stand-alone event, like a field trip.

The authors also found that even within a single teacher training program, the EE philosophy varied widely depending on the individual instructor. Teachers-in-training could elect to pursue an EE course or activity, but this was rarely a requirement. The research concluded that EE was most often integrated with science curriculum but rarely with social studies in Wisconsin teacher training programs. Importantly, no programs had evaluated whether existing EE training resulted in teachers implementing EE in the classroom.

The authors conclude that in order to effectively prepare teachers in EE, an institutional commitment to EE training beyond just one passionate individual must exist. Examples of institutional drivers for integrating EE into teacher education programs include identifying a shared vision for EE goals, making EE a required component, and coordinating teacher instructors to be consistent in their approach. By implementing some of these changes, the authors believe teachers would likely be better prepared to incorporate EE in their classrooms. Additionally, more evaluation of the impact of the EE training would help to improve teacher education programs that currently include EE.

The authors acknowledge that their results may have limited usefulness for those outside of Wisconsin. But, their approach could be replicated to provide further insight on teacher education programs in other areas.

The Bottom Line

Teachers require training to learn how to make EE part of their classroom lessons and activities. Yet, the authors of this study conclude that many teacher education programs in Wisconsin are not doing enough to train teachers in EE. Even when an EE “champion” exists within the program, common barriers include no shared vision of EE implementation, no required EE components, a lack of EE integration across different subjects (particularly social studies), and no evaluation to understand whether the EE training is having an impact on teachers. Teacher preparation could be improved if teacher education leaders commit to intentional, long-term efforts to better incorporate EE into their programs.