What Can History Educators Learn From Environmental Education? – Part 1

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This article is the first post in a set of two in which Sara Karn and Heather E. McGregor reflect on what history educators can learn from environmental education.

In response to calls by NiCHE for more environmental history teaching resources, we share our experiences teaching environmental education (EE) courses in the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) program at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Although history was not an area of focus in previous EE courses, nor is it a feature of EE in Ontario generally, our background as history educators has shaped our understandings of how the past can inform our views, actions, and decisions in the present and where we would like to see education headed in the future. We centre environmental histories throughout our courses and have engaged teacher candidates in learning about the history of environmental education in Ontario.1

This is the first of two posts that we write in the hopes that our reflections on the content, pedagogies, and assessments in our courses may be useful for others teaching environmental topics, including environmental history. We acknowledge that in offering the question posed in the title, we include ourselves in this learning journey, as we are history educators who have more recently begun working to bring history and EE in conversation with one another.

Sarah Karn and Heather E. McGregor, two white women educators, wear #TeachClimate shirts on Zoom for an online lecture.
Team teaching calls for team uniforms! During our first week of classes in 2021 (held remotely due to delayed confirmation of health protocols), we wore our #teachclimate t-shirts from Climate Generation, a US-based organization that hosts an annual institute for climate change education.

In Queen’s B.Ed. program, teacher candidates are required to enroll in two elective courses that together make up a concentration, or an area of teaching and learning in which they develop additional expertise. This year, we are team teaching the Environmental Education concentration. Heather is teaching the theory-oriented course which explores issues and questions related to our relationships with the environment and the significance of EE. Sara is teaching the practice-oriented course which focuses on enhancing teacher candidates’ understanding and appreciation of the natural environment as a classroom, while increasing their knowledge of environmental issues and how to teach about them. While the program designates one course for theory and another for practice, we work towards suturing that split. We sought to achieve this goal by designing our courses together, challenging ourselves to ensure content and assignments are complementary, and pursuing regular and transparent communication with students and each other.

The courses hinge on formative assessments and recursive scaffolding for summative assessments. In the first semester, students complete a series of journal entries, intended to invite ongoing reflection, dialogue, and questioning about course concepts and themes. The first set of entries encouraged students to:

  • develop a set of commitments to themselves as an environmental educator, their future students, and the more-than-human world.
  • identify approaches to environmental education and/or environmental educators that they are most inspired by or aligned with.
  • consider their relationship to the environment and place, based on their personal and family histories, cultures, and identities.

Not only do we feel like we come to know each of our students better in the process of reading their journals, but we are continually impressed by their thoughtful reflections, insightful connections drawn between course learning and their prior knowledge/experience, and their awareness of their relationships with place. The journals also provide a venue for students to begin identifying their questions, areas of interest, and preliminary goals for themselves as environmental educators, which are then taken up in subsequent assignments (described below and in a future post). At the end of the course, students return to their earlier journal entries to reflect on how their thinking has changed.

There are four main themes that characterize the content of our EE concentration in the first semester: interdisciplinarity, critical thinking, socio-emotional learning, and learning from the land. We suspect that those who teach environmental history are already engaging with similar topics and approaches, so we offer these ideas as extensions of, or new possibilities for, your own classes.


One of the most generative characteristics of teaching an elective course in the B.Ed. program is that learners come with diverse disciplinary training and are preparing to teach at all school levels and in all subject areas. Instructors have a responsibility to tailor coursework for these different disciplinary orientations, but in EE there is ample opportunity to intentionally model interdisciplinarity and encourage teacher candidates to do the same in their future teaching. One way we facilitate this is a workshop on “systems thinking.”

Students read a chapter which includes practical examples for teaching the characteristics and representations of systems (e.g., closed loop, systems archetypes, emergent properties).2 In the workshop, students are organized into subject-area groups to brainstorm inquiry questions, active pedagogies, and visualization techniques that lead to learning about a system of their choosing. Then, they join together with another small group (i.e., the math group meets the humanities group) and each group’s system is analyzed to identify ways to teach about it from both groups’ perspectives to achieve interdisciplinary learning about each system. Teacher candidates loved this activity and expressed confidence in and enthusiasm for taking a systems-thinking approach in future. History educators could take a similar interdisciplinary approach by examining a system that is typically associated with environmental studies or economics and identify elements of that system that change or stay the same over time, or how multiple causes and consequences intersect in a system in predictable and unpredictable ways.

Critical Thinking

In one study of Ontario teachers, 65.2% of those surveyed thought that EE should be about developing critical thinking skills to evaluate environmental issues, yet teachers commented that they did not have the time, support, or resources to develop their own EE content. Taking this need seriously, a significant portion of our course is devoted to modeling approaches to teaching critical thinking. Given our backgrounds in history, three of the exemplar lessons we offer have significant historical dimensions, though all are interdisciplinary.3 The three lessons are:

A slide from an environmental lecture on thinking critically about the anthropocene

1: In this lesson, students examine text, images, and graphs for their selected period (Human control over fire, Beginnings of agriculture, Colonization, Industrialization, the Great Acceleration) to develop an argument for when the Anthropocene began, based on a set of criteria.

Slide from an environmental education lecture on the Angry Inuk

2: In this lesson, students watch Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk to learn about Inuit perspectives on seal hunting and the impact of animal rights activists on Inuit livelihoods over time. They discuss whose perspectives on environmental policies and decisions should matter.

Slide from an environmental education lecture on misinformation in the past

3: In this lesson, students learn to identify and respond to science denial in the past and present by examining and comparing techniques used by the tobacco industry and climate deniers.

This modeling culminates in teacher candidates developing an EE critical thinking lesson plan, based on the approach to critical thinking advocated for by The Critical Thinking Consortium.4 Working in pairs, teacher candidates develop effective critical challenges using evidence, critical thinking vocabulary, criteria for reasoned judgment, organizational worksheets, and authentic assessment. They hand in a draft for formative feedback, followed by a subsequent workshop to refine their understanding of teaching critical thinking as they revise their draft, before submitting a final draft. Teacher candidates find this work challenging, but also particularly rewarding when they see its potential for preparing youth for the future.

Socio-emotional Learning

When it comes to learning about environmental degradation and climate injustices, whether in the past or present, students may experience a range of emotional responses—fear, anxiety, grief, hope. Therefore, we felt it was important to address the socio-emotional aspects of EE early on. Heather introduced teacher candidates to resources on exploring emotions and provided them with opportunities to reflect on their own feelings about climate change throughout the class. Sara began the next class by inviting teacher candidates to anonymously submit words to describe how climate change makes them feel, using a program that generates a Word Cloud.

A word cloud showing student responses to the question: "In one word, how does climate change make you feel?"
Responses to the question “In one word, how does climate change make you feel?”

We discussed the important role the arts can play (and have played in the past) in addressing climate change and viewed a few examples before teacher candidates had an opportunity to create their own paintings about climate change.5 As you can see from the sample artwork below, teacher candidates used colours and symbols to represent messages about climate change that aimed for a long-lasting, emotional impact on viewers. In the environmental history classroom, students could participate in a similar activity while considering the role of art and emotions in various environmental movements over time.

Left: “Our Earth is Melting” by Kiah Shanks. Right: “Duct Tape Can’t Fix This One” by Katie Mulvihill

Learning From the Land

We value learning that takes place outdoors and have provided students with opportunities to learn from the land. In one class, we encouraged students to listen to and interact with the natural environment by participating in a guided Forest Therapy session. They also learned more about the plants, animals, and minerals around campus by identifying and tracking them using different apps. These tools could also be used in the environmental history classroom to allow students time to recharge and learn from their surroundings, as well as contribute to generating historical data about a place in their community.

As Settlers, we acknowledge that we teach on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. We value and respect Indigenous knowledges and ways of being on the land and aim to centre Indigenous perspectives on the environment in our courses. Students had an opportunity to choose an article by an Indigenous scholar to learn more about their perspectives on environmental and sustainability education.6 In the early autumn, our class visited the Spirit Garden at a local park to learn about the history of the land and water and take part in a smudge led by an Indigenous colleague. We discussed the importance of developing meaningful land and water acknowledgements and read the book We Are Water Protectors. Following this experience, teacher candidates remarked on how much they learned from our guest speaker and that they held a new sense of appreciation for the land and its histories.

As these courses are currently in progress, we look forward to reflecting further on the outcomes of our teaching with a second post next semester. In the process of completing their coursework and assignments, we hope our students will continue to communicate with us about the fruitful intersections between EE and environmental history in the context of teacher education.

You can connect with the authors on Twitter @sara_karn and @heather_e_mcg.


1 One of the ways we explored the history of environmental education was through examining curriculum documents: Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow: A Policy Framework for Environmental Education in Ontario Schools, 2009; The Ontario Curriculum, Environmental Education: Scope and Sequence of Expectations K-8, 2017; and The Ontario Curriculum, Environmental Education: Scope and Sequence of Expectations, 9-12, 2017.

2 Linda B. Sweeney, “All systems go! Developing a Generation of ‘Systems Smart’ Kids,” in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, ed. The Worldwatch Institute(Island Press, 2017), 141-153.

3 We plan to distribute these lessons in the near future, with the website launch for Heather’s SSHRC Insight Development Grant project, Social Studies and History Education in the Anthropocene Network (SSHEAN).

4 Roland Case & LeRoi Daniels, “Teaching the Tools to Think Critically,” in The Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Secondary Teachers, ed. Roland Case & Penney Clark (The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2016), 74-85.

5 Julia Bentz, “Learning about Climate Change In, With and Through Art,” Climatic Change 162 (2020): 1595-1612.

6 Jacob Rodenburg & Nicole Bell, “Pathway to Stewardship: A Framework for Children & Youth,” in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, ed. The Worldwatch Institute (Island Press, 2017), 61-71; Nicole Bell, “Anishinaabe bimaadiziwin: Living Spiritually with Respect, Relationship, Reciprocity and Responsibility,” in Environmental and Sustainability Education in Teacher Education, ed. Douglas D. Karrow & Maurice DiGuiseppe(Springer, 2019), 63-70.

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Sara Karn and Heather E. McGregor

Sara Karn is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her research explores historical empathy in Canadian history education. Sara is also a K-12 teacher in Ontario and has led experiential learning programs to the battlefields in Europe. You can connect with her on Twitter: @sara_karn | Dr. Heather E. McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum Theory in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Her interest in environmental history began during her undergraduate degree at Acadia University and has taken many paths and forms since then. Now she teaches History Methods, History and Philosophy of Education, First Nations, Métis and Inuit Studies, and Environmental Education in teacher education programs. You can connect with her on Twitter: @heather_e_mcg

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