Examples of activities to foster collaboration for a sustainable future

McGreavy, B., Druschke, C. G., Sprain, L., Thompson, J. L., & Lindenfeld, L. A. (2016). Environmental communication pedagogy for sustainability: Developing core capacities to engage with complex problems. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 15, 261 - 274.

When teaching environmental education and developing sustainably oriented students, an environmental communication teaching approach can effectively instill collaboration and problem-solving skills in students and communities. Complex environmental issues like climate change, water resources, and poverty require partnership and problem-solving in the decision-making process. Research has proven that communication training improves interdisciplinary thinking during collaboration and can lead to applying said interdisciplinarity in community and policy decisions. However, this research does not include ways environmental communication shapes understanding in relation to social or environmental problems nor practical ways to learn through skill-building. The authors of this paper reviewed six activities with adult learners as ways to implement an environmental communication pedagogy to support sustainability goals and demonstrate the attention to three levels of communication needed to be effective.

The three scales of communication that the authors focused on were individual, interpersonal, and contextual. Building skills at each scale helps collaboration on sustainability goals. At the individual level, reflection prompted by questions is important for someone to understand the values, power, and position of the issue at hand and, in turn, how the individual conceptualizes and communicates the issue. Co-creating content in a group setting that has trust and acknowledges communication issues can benefit interpersonal relationships. Finally, to address wicked environmental problems, both the individual and the group must be equipped to identify and translate the organizational and/or socioecological context in which they are solving problems. These three notions are central to the activities the authors employed.

The six activities involving adult learners that the authors reviewed have been used widely by the authors, and they described an example of each activity in this paper. 1) In Colorado, one author used cardstorming, an activity in which participants were given a question on an issue such as community resilience. Each participant was given sticky notes to record their responses. Then groups formed to review their respective sticky notes. They then co-developed 10 to 15 new answers. The last step was to post all group sticky notes on a wall for everyone to categorize into themes. 2) The authors in Maine conducted a group grant-writing activity on water pollution for shellfish management to develop collaboration in one setting. 3) They also used an activity called frame-within-a-frame for another group. In this activity, each participant received photos of a scene (from fine to large scale) and had to collaborate to put the photos in order without seeing one another's photos. Ethnographers observed the activity. Afterward, the group discussed the process to understand the collaborative experience. 4) For the activity reviewed from Rhode Island, the author gathered a group of female landowners to walk through other farms and engage with conservation professionals. 5) In areas both in the US and abroad, one of the authors implemented a shared history activity in which participants recorded what they knew about the ecological, political, or cultural pieces of an issue on a large paper timeline. 6) Another general activity that the authors analyzed was having participants make observations in the field and take descriptive notes. For example, participants took notes on their school dynamics by observing interactions, conversations, and traffic flow in hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. This helped reveal how place and the presence or absence of things, like food and technology, affect collaboration.

All the activities helped participants engage in the individual, interpersonal, and/or contextual scales of communication. The authors of this paper concluded these activities are practical examples to build collaborative communication skills for students, classes, and communities at large to effect sustainable change. These activities can address crises and transform the injustices in communities by fostering diversity.

There are limitations in this paper. The study was conducted over time in multiple settings on a range of topics and lacked details from each of the activity examples. In addition, the audience of the activities were adult learners so the recommended use in classrooms for younger students may not apply.

The environmental communication activities outlined in this study can be applied in the classroom through similar activities to develop collaborative skills for collective sustainable action. Adapted activities should include reflection (individual), interpersonal capabilities, and/or framing (contextual) alongside science issues for more effective teaching.

The Bottom Line

<p>An environmental communication pedagogy can effectively instill collaboration and problem-solving skills in students and communities to make sustainably-minded decisions. The authors of this paper used six activities with adult learners that used an environmental communication pedagogy to support sustainability goals and demonstrated the attention to three levels of communication (individual, interpersonal, contextual) needed to be effective. The authors concluded these activities are practical examples to build collaborative communication skills for students, classes, and communities at large to effect sustainable change. They recommended that teachers include reflection (individual), interpersonal capabilities, and/or framing (contextual) activities alongside science issues for more effective teaching.</p>

Research Partner