Here's the unedited and full-length version of last month's interview in a Boston College newsletter for graduates.
Boston College Alumni Profile: A Conversation with Environmental Educator and Children's Author, Tim Magner
By Timothy Sullivan
BCEEAN Newsletter Editor and executive committee member, Tim Sullivan, posed the following questions to environmental educator and children's author Tim Magner to discuss his views on environmental education today.
What drew you to the field?
First and foremost, it’s about spending time with children. I discovered the joy of being with kids while tutoring in high school. After graduating BC as a history major, teaching kids was my full time gig for a few years- from camp counselor, to golf coach to ski instructor. After a stint with EMC Corporation and bored with the rat race, I spent a couple years studying the environment and education. Writing for kids is an opportunity to fill a need and an excuse to be with more kids, more often.
What do you see as the major needs for environmental education?
My motto is growing green minds. The first part is about giving kids the opportunity to be kids. That means unstructured outdoor activity- time to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. It means giving kids a chance to fall- and to fall in love with, to bond with, the natural world.
So, I work to inspire kids of all ages to play. Opportunities to wander and to wonder, to explore and investigate ought to remain a part of childhood. Not only for their health and the skills it develops, but also for their happiness. No matter the technology, electronics will never engage the senses in a way nature does.
And the second part of growing green minds?
Is about kids growing up understanding how nature works. And I don’t necessarily mean the scientific stuff like the regulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or memorizing the periodic table of elements. Rather, I refer to the concepts behind nature’s successful evolution over the last billion years or so, e.g. nature cycles all its own nutrients, runs on current sun energy, rewards cooperation over competition, thrives on diversity. Nature teaches us everything we need to know. It’s already solved all the problems we face. For example, it’s easy to have a conversation with nine-year olds about worms and composting while demonstrating how waste for one is food for another. In nature there is no such thing as worthless waste, so when we recycle or compost, we mimic nature.
What is the best approach to Environmental Education?
I’ve been lucky enough to see programs across the country and they run the gamut, from head-in-the-sand tactics to the scare-the-hell-out-of ‘em approach. I argue- even if you claim to care nothing about the air, water or soil- education ought to start hands-on, local and relevant to every day life. Our first Parent and Teacher Guides contain nothing but activities that engage nature nearby, offering ways to learn where we live, who lives with us and how it works.
Environmental education isn’t just for science, just for Earth Day or only when we have time to squeeze it in. Learning about the place we live can be woven throughout the curriculum and used to teach reading, writing, math and social studies.
Kids can care about the bog down the street or a grove of trees in the schoolyard, but can a child really know a jaguar in the rainforest? Generally, we go abstract too early. Put away the cookie-cutter rainforest lessons and engage the nearby. Why not do projects that are relevant to their lives and the communities they live? Start with exploring the landscape on school grounds, make maps, measure, graph, document, record, read. It’s not necessarily always teaching about the environment, but teaching through the environment. It takes creativity and demands getting out of the classroom, but the best education provokes thought, goes deep and covers more than one subject at a time. And for those that live and die by test scores, check out results: www.SEER.org
John Dewey said it well: “Give students something to do, not learn: and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.“
Do you believe that we, as parents and community members, ought to advocate for more than recycling programs?
Sure, teaching “environmental manners” like turning off lights and separating trash into “reuse/compostable/recycling facility/landfill” bins makes sense, but we can’t process why we do it and what the impact is unless we have a baseline understanding of the connections.
Education ought to be relevant for the time in which we live. Industrialists designed the formal public school system. The result: our “take-make-waste’ system is productive making stuff we consume. But forty years after the first Earth Day, every living system on the earth is in decline. And that decline is accelerating. Sure, we’re the half that live comfortably, and are disconnected from our needs like never before, but that doesn’t change reality. If it were just the destruction of tropical forests, or just the loss of topsoil (& desertification), or just the loss of biodiversity, or just the toxins we produce, or just the collapse of the fisheries or the acidification of the ocean, we’d be OK. But it’s all of them, plus more (like adding another two billion of us) and they are all connected. These issues are just symptoms of a failing system and applying band-aids doesn’t constitute a solution. Linear growth on a finite planet only works for so long.
So, start local and hands-on, but is teaching about the environment in education is for more than just elementary kids?
First of all, I agree with David Sobel: “No tragedies before 4th grade.”
With ten-year-olds, I’d rather discuss how acting like a local detective improves observation skills and aids writing skills.
But for sure, there are universities waking up to the fact that continuing to teach as if we’re in the beginning of the industrial revolution no longer makes sense. Why teach subjects in silos if the world doesn’t work in silos?
If you’re going to have a conversation on food policy, it ought to include fossil fuels, subsidies, defense spending and healthcare. Unfortunately, most universities are structured in silos and change is notoriously slow and painful.
David Orr at Oberlin College believes we don’t have a problem in education, but a problem of education. Consider: those that have created the most damage to the planet are those with the most formal education. So, if more of the same type of education produces more bad, what should we do?
Orr created a 60,000’ university building that produces more energy than it consumes. Oberlin uses it as a teaching tool. He brings in disciplines from across the curricula, from history to econ and they learn how the building works with its surroundings. Sure, the science students may focus on material cycles and energy flows, while econ students cover cost versus price on construction and energy, but they all learn to become ecologically literate.
Another interesting Orr point worth debating is how we rate schools. Rather than base rankings on factors like SAT scores and graduates starting salaries, let’s use factors like ‘waste per student’, ‘how the school benefits the community’ or ‘how much positive work the graduates do.’
Do kids of all ages “get it”? What is their reaction to environmental teachings?
We don’t give kids enough credit. Children blow me away every day. They are brilliant. In a lot of ways, they can be systems thinkers easier than adults. Every six-year-old I’ve met is perfect. Creative and curious, they are natural learners that go through trial and error daily. We only need to make sure they remain curious at 16 and at 26. “To educate,” the Latin root, I believe, means “to draw out.” Too often, however, school kills creativity, rewards passive memorization and dulls our senses.
Empowering kids needn’t be difficult. A middle school class can learn critical thinking skills studying a local topical issue like, for example water. Through exploration, interviews, research, documentation, reading, journaling and debating, they learn deep and wide. Perhaps by working with the local water department, or redesigning the school’s landscape, do something to impact water quality. I don’t mean to ignore, say, the history of Jamestown and Haitian colonialism, but maybe while on water you tie in a comparison on the history of Haiti and the effects of water use and deforestation with local history.
The environmental movement shouldn’t be about the end of the world. It’s about all the good being done creating a new, better world. I tell kids every day, this is the greatest time in the history of the world to be alive. For creative thinkers and problem solvers, it’s a world full of possibilities and opportunities.
Finally, any advice to parents?
Playing outdoors, with little or no agenda, is not wasted time. It’s productive on a lot of levels. On the environmental education part, here’s another Sobel quote: “Give kids a chance to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” And, even if you care nothing about the “environmental movement” consider what qualities your children need to thrive. Kids entering 1st grade this year will reach retiring age in 2070. What kind of changes will they see in next sixty years? How do you develop adults who can think on their own, assess risk and problem solve? Can you nurture their curiosity?
Lastly, my sister has this Eleanor Roosevelt quote posted in her kitchen:
“If you want your kids to turn out well, spend half as much money on them and twice as much time.”