Teaching Global Environmental Politics
Summary and Keywords
Among the many strengths of higher education is the adaptability of faculty to create curricula in response to the changing needs of society. Since the 1950s, there has been a growing awareness of the consequences of modernity on natural environmental processes. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic increase in course offerings on many subjects related to the environment and sustainability, including substantial teaching and research activity in global environmental politics. Examining what is being taught in the nation’s classrooms provides an opportunity to gain insight into how college teachers are preparing students for the world they live in. One way to demonstrate the complex ways in which global environmental politics can be taught is by viewing it through the lens of Shulman’s framework, called “pedagogical content knowledge.” Derived from principles in contemporary learning theory, Shulman proposed approaching pedagogy by having teachers work through six steps: comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension. Viewing the teaching of global environmental politics through these six steps is useful to seeing the depth and complexity of teaching in this particular subject area. Using this framework, an analysis of how college teachers have approached their course preparation shows that most professors continue to use conventional approaches to teaching. These approaches include a traditional way of teaching, mostly lecture with classroom interaction and group work and a traditional choice of content, with an emphasis on literature with western epistemological worldviews. From this examination, one can conclude that the teaching of global environmental politics can be strengthened by integrating Shulman’s framework into the classroom: setting the context; building positive social norms; emphasizing inquiry, discovery, and synthesis; and creating the possibility of transformation.
The Origins of Global Environmental Politics in the College Classroom
Among their many strengths, institutions of higher learning adapt to new societal considerations by creating curricula that contain important content for their students. Ideas are integrated into coursework as new understandings emerge about what is needed to build students’ knowledge base, critical for their professional futures. Since the 1950s, this adaptation has been evident in the teaching of environmental issues as universities have added courses, curricula, departments, and even schools dedicated to matters pertaining to environmental policy and sustainability (Thomas & Sterling, 2006). Internationally, increased awareness of and growing concern with environmental issues has resulted in an equally substantial expansion of scholarship and practice in the field of global environmental politics (Cass, 2015). Lastly, several interrelated factors since World War II have influenced the growth of this field, including:
• An active global environmental movement.
• Growth in international institutions with responsibilities in social and environmental issues, such as UNEP and UNDP.
• Increased scholarly work in all areas of international relations.
• The consequences of globalization and its worldwide economic impacts.
• Enhanced awareness in the developed world of its ethical responsibilities toward other nations.
• Improved scientific knowledge pertaining to global environmental degradation.
• Better understanding of environmental management principles.
• Advanced communications among nations.
• Increased accessibility to knowledge and learning opportunities through virtual technology.
Situated within the field of international relations, environmental politics has a robust literature that is interdisciplinary in orientation (Sustainability Degrees, 2018). For example, analysis of international environmental policy making has greatly advanced institutional theory building, especially in terms of interest-based and knowledge-based explanations (Selin, 2006). Pedagogy is often dominated by this institutional approach, which emphasizes theoretical literature and explanatory frameworks focusing on institutions, actors, and interests.
Learning about international environmental politics requires students to comprehend large amounts of information across multiple disciplines. Understanding also requires navigating among differing perspectives, some of which may be unfamiliar or controversial in nature. Simultaneously, students also have to consider the ramifications of the politics of the environment on even larger issues in international relations—globalization, structural inequality, resource scarcity, and violent conflict (see Homer-Dixon, 2001).
In addition to this information complexity, teachers face the task of facilitating vigorous intellectual debate without having class discussion disintegrate into assertions of simplified ideological positions. Offering a classroom setting that supports such learning requires preparation. Such settings also help to accustom students to thinking about their roles as active citizens and leaders who understand the integrated nature and large scale dimensions of environmental problems. Thus, the teaching of global environmental politics can introduce students to complex problems and offer them opportunities to grapple with the multiple facets of environmental issues.
Teaching global environmental politics, therefore, poses numerous pedagogical challenges and has become an increasing focus of attention for teachers and researchers in the field. In 2006, Michael Maniates, a political science professor who teaches global environmental politics, launched an email discussion list about the topic. By 2018, this email discussion list was a google forum that includes comments and reflections about the difficulties of teaching a multi-disciplinary subject over the short timeframe typical of a semester or quarter (Gep-ed, 2018). The forum also reflects that the subject matter often strikes deep emotional chords with students, which can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and helpless in the face of seemingly intractable problems and, subsequently, to lowered attendance (Maniates, 2003).This parallels other studies focused on the gap between individual beliefs and behavior in which the more intractable the environmental problem, the more difficult it is for people to believe that their behavior will make a difference (Preston, Salomon, & Tannenbaum, 2017).
The Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework
Given the complexity of teaching global environmental politics, the pedagogical content knowledge framework offers an approach for teachers to sort through various ways of teaching this subject matter.
Contemporary learning theory, much of which grew out of the works of early thinkers about adult learning and classroom teaching reform (Ball & Cohen, 1996; Glatthorn, 1990; Jung & Storr, 1983; Kirschenbaum & Henderson, 1989; Ornstein & Lasley; Piaget, 1971), has much to offer college teachers. While Kolb (1985) and Gardner (1993) have added interesting dimensions to the theory of learning styles and cycles, Shulman’s concept of “pedagogical content knowledge” provides a useful framework for examining the teaching of global environmental politics because of its dynamism and emphasis on the developmental aspects of learning.
Shulman (1986, 1991, 2005) introduced the term to highlight the necessity of combining two types of knowledge for effective teaching: (a) content, also known as substantive knowledge of the subject itself, and (b) knowledge of the curricular development of the subject. Knowledge of curricular development requires understanding general teaching principles, which include knowing how to make explicit the assumptions that guide course development. Shulman also outlined a model of pedagogical reasoning—a cycle of learning from one’s own teaching—comprised of six steps that create a process for continuous improvement. These steps are comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension. The cycle provides a useful lens through which to examine modalities used in teaching global environmental politics.
Initial comprehension begins with understanding the purposes, subject matter, and ideas both within the subject area and outside of it that influence the teaching of global environmental politics. As Shulman framed it, an educational function underlies all classroom instruction and is employed to help students gain literacy in the subject. For example, students do not come equally prepared to courses on global environmental politics, which requires the course instructor to perform some assessment of the students’ basic knowledge. Such an assessment can be as simple as an open group discussion or more formal, such as a written survey, depending on what the course instructor deems appropriate. As part of initial comprehension, readings are best chosen to increase understanding of global environmental science and international geography while also building student comprehension as they begin to read about environmental problems and international actors.
An important part of maximizing comprehension is designing classrooms that enable students to build on and enjoy their learning experiences. Often this educational setting is accomplished through open, interactive discussions and structured experiences such as simulations and games. These kinds of experiences also lend themselves to post-activity reflection and skill building in self-awareness and cognitive complexity.
Furthermore, the pedagogical content knowledge framework emphasizes the importance of building skills around how to ask compelling questions and find new information. In this conceptualization, inquiry, discovery, and synthesis are emphasized to
• give students the opportunity to learn how to inquire and discover new information, and
• help students develop broader and deeper understandings of new information.
Group projects are supported by pedagogical methods that enhance this type of skill building. Students learn to seek out information (inquire), reveal new ideas (discover), and pool their knowledge together to form complex understandings (synthesize). Small group exercises, both in-classroom and out-of-class assignments, can be used for students to practice this cycle of inquiry, discovery, and synthesis. As just one example, take a topic on global environmental politics such as global water issues. A teacher could assign foundational readings on water issues across the globe and then design assignments specific to developing and maximizing their comprehension of water issues.
In terms of building content expertise, students discover that studying global environmental politics also requires investigation into how politics works more broadly. For example, discussions about water issues rapidly expand to include a wide array of spheres, such as global structural inequality, sustainable development, international political economy, and international trade (e.g., Leonard, 1988; Levy, Keohane, & Haas, 1993; Paterson, 2001). Introducing students to the broad complexity of global environmental politics also helps them develop the skills and values they will need to function as professionals in other spheres. A by-product of such discovery is that the study of global environmental politics often leads to developing a more nuanced understanding of the role of citizenship in society. As a pedagogical framework, the study of global environmental politics lends itself to exploring multiple points of view. Beyond mastering the content, students will confront the ways in which values are articulated through political means. By building the analytical skills of students, teachers offer the possibility of helping to create a more vigorous civil society through active engagement of complex social issues (Shulman, 1991).
In transformation, the teacher is responsible for adapting content into instructional methods that are compelling and sensitive to student abilities and backgrounds, which fosters an open learning environment and facilitates transformational experiences. An example in teaching global environmental politics would be to have students learn about international environmental negotiations by having them simulate the discussions around climate change that led to the Kyoto Protocols (2018). Using this example, the teacher needs to prepare the materials, represent them in a form that is understandable to the student, select the best method and model for the instruction, adapt the material based on individual student’s learning styles, and then tailor the experience to the individual students in that classroom.
Shulman also suggests that the classroom is a place to build positive social norms. In the context of the global environmental problems, this suggests that a course such as this could
• enhance students’ sense of responsibility to become caring people,
• teach students to trust and respect others, and
• help them discover how they might personally contribute to the wellbeing of their community.
Ethics and morality have a place in the classroom. As an example, students can come to an understanding of how the tragedy of the commons plays out in ways that have direct consequences for them as individuals operating in society. They can learn to deepen their understanding that humans share the biosphere with all species, even those unseen and unknown to us. The Tragedy of the Commons simulation (College Entrance Examination Board, 2004), of which several versions are readily available on the Internet, is a useful teaching tool that can be adapted for undergraduates or graduate students, as well as for small and large class sizes. Experiencing this simulation is an effective source of inspiration for ethical discussion about the choices society makes and how these decisions manifest in resource use and stewardship of the environment (Easton & Sawyer, 2005).
Adapting classroom activities to individual students requires rigorous preparation beforehand to understand their individual abilities, styles of learning, and other pertinent information that will influence their learning experience. This preparation often involves the use of short surveys and focus group work at the beginning of the course. Thorough evaluation at the end of each module as well as at the end of the course helps to determine if learning objectives were met. This might be done through questionnaires that reveal learning styles as well as biographical information.
Larger groups may be divided into smaller cohorts based on commonalities or differences as a way to create more relational ways of learning. One way to do this is to use multiple teaching methods that take into account different learning styles. Careful preparation and evaluation also supports building a co-learning space, one in which the students are invested and responsible for their learning. A relational classroom empowers the teacher to create the conditions for students to interact with the subject while also learning more about their sense of self. Research shows that such types of classroom lead to self-efficacy and greater comprehension of the subject matter (Burns & Knox, 2011). Teaching global environmental politics is a particularly good topic for this, since it focuses on topics that are diverse and wide ranging, as well as across several disciplines.
Instruction, Shulman’s third point of the cycle, is the act of teaching itself and includes all the elements of pedagogy, including lecture, discussion, group work, simulations, and exams, as well as the personality of the teacher in the form of humor, imagination, questioning, and organization. In addition to making knowledge accessible, teachers learn about and respect different learning styles. Studies by Kolb (1985), Kolb and Kolb (2006), and Cherry (1990) demonstrated the importance of learning styles and how different instructional techniques preference certain learning styles over others. These studies further suggested that the use of multiple methods in the classroom benefitted all students in terms of comprehension of subject matter and engagement in their own learning. Becoming more mindful of student learning styles can liberate teachers to explore new methods and tools of teaching. Explicit discussion of learning styles in class can build students’ awareness of the ways in which they learn, which can help provide them skills for future learning experiences. In addition to providing space to introduce students to their different learning styles, teachers can offer students opportunities for insight into how different types of learners approach complex subject matter. Teaching global environmental politics is a particularly good subject for this work in that students face personal choices about their behavior regarding environmental issues. Having greater self-awareness will help them with understanding their choices now and into the future.
Evaluation, the fourth element of the cycle of pedagogical content knowledge, refers to both assessing students’ progress and analyzing the impact of one’s own pedagogical style. Evaluation is an on-going process as the teacher checks in with students during the teaching process to assess their comprehension and adjusts course material or pedagogical style to enhance student learning. In courses for global environmental politics, evaluation can be accomplished through brief end-of-module surveys that reveal the level of student comprehension and preferred choice of pedagogical method.
Reflection, the fifth element, is continuously incorporated throughout the cycle. Refection involves the teacher’s thinking about their own teaching methods, pedagogical style, and what is actually happening in the classroom. This might include keeping a journal or forming a talking circle with colleagues. For many teachers, engaging in explicit reflection as the course proceeds is a change in the way they approach teaching. In the literature on the transformational aspects of the education process, reflection is a key component for change and the emergence of new comprehension (Merriam, 2001). Some teachers write daily in journals; other find that self-reflection at the end of each module or course section is sufficient.
New comprehension completes the pedagogical cycle. It does not require that teachers experience great, or even any, changes from their initial understandings of purpose or subject matter. Rather, it is the new beginning point reached through recent experience and mindful reflection. Becoming mindful in the practice of teaching helps assess what works and what may be improved upon for students. In teaching the subject matter of global environmental politics, some questions that lend themselves to the cycle of new comprehension include: Were there recent environmental or political events that intervened in the planned curriculum? Are there changes or adaptations that need to be made to suit the needs or interests of a particular class? This process of review and analysis further develops the teacher’s pedagogical skills and enhances the learning experience of future classes.
Shulman’s cycle of comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension encourages teachers to think about their classroom design, teaching techniques, evaluation methods, and student interface in an intentional way. This intentionality improves pedagogical content knowledge and creates conditions for a positive learning atmosphere. More generally, it is a helpful framework to assist teachers in course preparation.
The use of such a framework is effective for examining the pedagogical approaches of a particular subject matter. It is the teaching of global environmental politics that this essay now turns to as a way to evaluate what is happening in the classroom.
What Is Being Taught in the Nation’s Classrooms?
A review of syllabi is the first step to deepen this exploration of the teaching of global environmental politics. The analysis of syllabi reveal patterns in both content taught and pedagogical approaches. For the purposes of this examination, 47 syllabi were evaluated. These syllabi were posted on publicly available websites and had been prepared by 44 instructors.
The syllabi chosen for analysis were clearly titled to indicate that the predominant subject taught was global environmental politics. Multiple syllabi prepared by the same instructor were included only when they covered different subjects. For example, one professor offered one course in Navigating the Global Environment: Knowledge, Resources, and Risk and another in International Environmental Politics that provided substantially different content, objectives, and references. Duplicates were removed. Although not specifically chosen with this in mind, the syllabi are all from U.S. colleges and universities, and most were from undergraduate courses. There are fewer graduate level syllabi available for public viewing.
For this analysis, the level of course mattered less than the types of readings assigned and teaching methods employed. The available syllabi are rich and varied, providing a glimpse into the large, expanding universe that is teaching global environmental politics. While syllabi do not convey the actual reality of the classroom (see analysis of Table 5), as a collective, they are suggestive of what is being taught and how it is being taught across American college campuses.
Content: The Readings
Altogether, 1,222 required readings were assigned in these syllabi. This number does not include recommended readings or website referrals. Though a number of readings were assigned in multiple syllabi, no reading was common to all. This variety suggests that there is no dominant theoretical approach to the teaching of global environmental politics. Furthermore, there is no standard textbook that every professor learns to regard as the foundational text.
While there may be no dominant theory, there is a thread of institutional emphasis evident in the most frequent choices of required reading. The two books assigned most frequently were Global Environmental Politics: Dilemmas in World Politics by Pamela S. Chasek, David Leonard Downie, and Janet Welsh Brown (2016), in its seventh edition, and Green Planet Blues: Critical Perspectives on Global Environmental Politics, edited by Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko (2014), in its fifth edition. Both of these works are continually updated to reflect new subjects, knowledge, and understanding about global environmental issues.
Each of these texts was assigned in 29% of the syllabi. In 23%, they were assigned together, suggesting the glimmer of a common approach. Both texts approach global environmental politics within an institutional theoretical frame, emphasizing international frameworks, actors, and interests. Chasek et al. (2016) employs a case study approach on key issues such as climate change, toxic chemicals, and biodiversity loss. These studies culminate in discussions of globalization, international trade, and global structural inequality. The seventh edition incorporates new materials on the adoption of global Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well international meetings of major conventions on desertification and biological diversity, just to name two.
Conca and Dabelko offer a panoply of leading historical and contemporary scholars who have written on global environmental politics. Topics covered include sustainability, environmental security, ecological justice, and other issues that influence international discussions on a variety of environmental challenges. It is organized as a reader, with reprints of important materials, such as Garrett Hardin’s 1968 classic essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” followed by a more contemporary response written by Susan Buck. It also includes the essay “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 2014), arguably one of the most famous and important outlines of the potential effects of the devastation of the global environment. The syllabi that use this text frequently indicate that instructors use the Conca and Dabelko reader to familiarize students with the important themes in the field.
Examining the optional readings affords a glimpse of the diversity of the literature reflected in the syllabi. Although the books and articles noted are the most frequently assigned, additional readings on eco-justice, political economy, and consumption and population are also common. Examples include Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment by A. Sachs and JA Peterson (1995); Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne’s (2005) Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment; and The Crowded Greenhouse: Population, Climate Change, and Creating a Sustainable World by John Firor and Judith Jacobsen (2002). Despite the breadth of the readings named, there is still a dearth of voices from scholars outside of North America and Europe. This is somewhat surprising given the emphasis placed on global matters, but indeed, global in this context tends to emphasize more institutional frameworks and policy making. Other voices from the field are included in some of the syllabi. Often these individuals are more activists than academicians. For example, Wangari Maathai’s (2019) work in Africa is highlighted in a few syllabi. Other than that, the exposure to non-western thinking occurs in the edited collections noted, mostly through case studies.
As mentioned, the syllabi do reflect a diversity of reading, which is logical in light of the newness of this field as an area of inquiry and the multidisciplinary nature of the topic. In addition, a wide range of sources is employed. While most of the readings are chapters in books and articles in journals, 58% of the syllabi includes required readings from original sources, such as texts of international conventions and protocols. In 35% of the syllabi analyzed, teachers assigned journalistic pieces such as newspaper articles or essays in popularized magazines and the general press such as Time and The New York Times. Other required readings in periodicals included periodicals such as Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and Scientific American.
Pedagogy: The Teaching Method
Analysis of syllabi objectives can be grouped into three major themes: (a) the study of the relationship between theory and policy, (b) the role of institutional actors and the framework of forming international environmental policy, and (c) an emphasis on global environmental governance. Generally, professors recognized the inter-relatedness of global environmental problems and the complexity of international solutions. The categories outlined in Table 1 show the stated objectives as the way in which the teachers organized the course, and the different lens that they chose to use in their examination of the field.
Table 1. Course Objectives and Themes
Conceptual frameworks of course objectives
Theory and policy‑theoretical understandings linked to analysis of international environmental policymaking
Institutional actors, frameworks, and interests—with focus on international institutions and frameworks (e.g., UN, International Environmental Agreements), as well as using a lens of common interests among sovereign states
Global environmental governance—emphasis on international structures, both formal (protocols, conventions, treaties) and informal (regimes, international norms).
Note: These categories mirror the field. There is a growing understanding of global environmental problems, which has been paralleled by many academic analyses of the debates and politics of these issues (Selin, 2006).
Source: Compiled by author.
In terms of format, 47% of the teachers stated that the course was lecture-based, 35% conducted their course as a seminar, and 0.5% stated that both strategies were used. The remaining 17.5% of the syllabi were silent on the type of format used in the course; however, assignment details permit inferring the type of approach based on the emphasis of in-class participation and simulations. For example, 79% of the syllabi stated that in-class participation comprised 10% or more of the grade, suggesting a mixed format that allowed for active engagement as well as lecture, or that lecture may not be the primary format in some of these courses.
The courses employed various teaching methods and tools: games, simulations, group work, individual written papers, and in-class presentations. Table 2 indicates the frequency of each method.
Table 2. Teaching Methods
Method of teaching
Games—of short duration, usually with a zero sum outcome.
Simulation—usually produced over several class periods; involves highly interactive group work, preparation, often replicates international negotiations.
Group work—involves 3 or more students involved in a project that requires collaboration, pooled knowledge, and an outcome (formal, such as a paper, or informal, such as a report presented in class.)
Individual written presentations—paper given to professor for evaluation.
Individual in-class verbal presentations—individual project that is reported on in class.
On-line use—internal use such as posting on group fora or participating in on-line class discussions.
Note: Total equals more than 100% because most classes employed multiple methods.
Source: Compiled by author.
Although one might think that the content of global environmental politics offers multiple opportunities for innovative pedagogy, the data suggest that college teachers continue to choose classroom assignments more in keeping with what is seen as more traditional. This is most evident in requiring individual written and in-class oral presentations as key components of the grade. This is perhaps not surprising in a culture that emphasizes individual agency, where the interaction is mostly between teacher and student. Also noteworthy is the use of on-line methods to provide students with another way of interacting with each other—chat rooms and directed discussions—and with the content of the course—blogs and domestic and international news sites.
Student evaluation methods seem generally to parallel teaching methods. There is some overlap between Table 2 and Table 3, because some of the evaluation methods, such as requiring presentations, are also teaching tools. Not surprisingly, there is an emphasis on in-class participation and written work, two of the tools most commonly deployed by teachers for evaluating what their students are learning.
Table 3. Evaluation Methods
Methods of evaluations
In-class participation (verbal)
Written papers (during term)
In-class presentations (individuals and group)
Mid-term exam or paper
Final in-class exam
Note: Total equals more than 100% because most professors employed multiple evaluation methods.
Source: Compiled by author.
To a great extent, evaluation methods reveal the importance that teachers place on different means of student participation. The frequency of in-class participation suggests an emphasis on creating an interactive classroom environment, one in which students interact with their fellow students as well as the professor. That 64% of the syllabi included in-class presentations, both individuals and group, also implies widespread interest in creating an active learning space. Noticeably absent from these syllabi are evaluative methods such as peer review, individual portfolio reflection, narrative evaluation, and self-grading.
What Do Teachers Say About Teaching Global Environmental Politics?
Syllabi alone provide limited information about classroom practice. Understanding teachers’ pedagogical preparation can provide additional insight into what actually occurs in the process of how teachers interact with their students. This was explored through a confidential and anonymous on-line survey, sent to the list-serves of the Environmental Sections of the International Studies Association (2018) and the American Political Science Association. Respondents were self-selecting, and a total of 114 teachers participated in this survey, answering questions about their teaching experiences (Table 4). The participants are members of these professional associations, which serve the academic community in these disciplines, and teach at the college level. Two of the survey’s questions are particularly relevant for this discussion: the first about teacher preparation, and the second about methods deployed in the classroom.
Table 4. Which of the Following Best Describes How You Were Prepared for Classroom Teaching?
Category 1: I had formal training that required me to present materials and receive feedback on my methods and style.
Category 2: I had training, but it is best described as informal.
Category 3: I had some mentoring from more experienced teachers, but not very much.
Category 4: I had to learn teaching methods and skills on my own.
Source: Compiled by author.
These responses suggest that, while training does occur, it is mostly informal or through a mentoring relationship. Categories 2 and 3 equal 50%, while almost 30% of professors are learning teaching methods completely on their own. Only 21% have formal training, which is consistent with Shulman’s finding that pedagogical content knowledge is not well emphasized in graduate school curricula across the country. Graduate students who go on to become teachers in college classrooms seem to have little training in pedagogical approaches to their disciplines.
This is not necessarily the case across the academy. There are professional development programs for graduate students. Often, they are located within departments, with some additional resources provided at the university level. There are a number of programs in the country that were designed using Preparing Future Faculty materials, a framework designed by the Council of Graduate Schools (Council of Graduate Schools, 2018).Despite progress in this area, the data presented in Table 5 did not evidence substantial pedagogical preparation for classroom teachers at the college level.
Table 5. What Teaching Methods Do You Use Most Frequently in the Classroom?
Student papers with in-class presentations
On-line discussions/chat rooms
Films/videos or other in-class viewing experiences
I use four or more of these methods evenly across the semester
Note: Total equals more than 100% because most professors employed multiple teaching methods.
Source: Compiled by author.
Relatively few university professors have been formally trained in the art of classroom teaching, and 79% of the respondents to this survey indicated that they had not been formally prepared. However, 50% felt they had benefitted from either some informal training or from mentors. It is reasonable to conclude from these data that college teachers continue to rely on methods they experienced as graduate students themselves, notably lecturing, in-class discussion, and student presentations.
Contrasting Data Sets
The results of the teacher survey, when combined with the content analysis of the syllabi, give us more information about what is occurring in the college classroom in teaching global environmental politics and show some inconsistency between what instructors say and what their syllabi show. For example, the analysis of syllabi revealed the use of simulations in 11% of the course content with no mention of games. Twenty-eight percent of the survey respondents, however, indicated that they use games or simulations as part of the classroom experience. This occurs again with the reporting of visual media. Visual media was not mentioned in the syllabi, but 21% of respondents said they showed films and used other visual media in the classroom.
Both survey respondents (14%) and syllabi (29%) indicated use of the Internet but with differing percentages. It may be that including the use of the Internet is still seen as somewhat suspect compared to more conventional approaches to learning, that is, the face-to-face classroom environment. Yet, students are clearly using the Internet as an important research tool. The question is how teachers are situating aspects of virtual technology as a component of innovative pedagogy. For example, a teacher could design the course in such a way that students create their own chat rooms and blog posts, as a way to engage the students more actively with online work and with each other.
There were also differences in the percentages between individual in-class verbal presentations, with 41% of the syllabi and 29% of the survey respondents indicating that they use this method in their classroom. Again, the variance may simply result from the different sampling, but what is interesting here is that in-class verbal presentations do suggest a framing of the classroom as an interactive space, important for pedagogical content knowledge. Combined with in-class discussion (57%), and the frequency of in-class participation (88% in the syllabi), it seems clear that requiring and encouraging students to engage verbally with each other and with the material is suggestive of an interactive classroom.
Connection to the Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework: Revising Schulman
Teachers can improve student learning by drawing on four major themes distilled from Shulman:
1. Setting the context,
2. Building positive social norms,
3. Emphasizing inquiry, discovery, synthesis, and
4. Creating the possibility of transformation.
Setting the context is the creation of the classroom atmosphere that supports student learning. Building positive social norms means creating discussions that involve questioning current ideas and attitudes as a way to involve students in considering ethical implications of actions. Emphasizing inquiry, discovery, and synthesis requires facilitating student interaction, which builds on specific skills sets, such as developing curiosity, teaching research skills, and helping students think about the ways ideas, patterns, and systems exist in relational ways. Shulman approaches creating the possibility for transformation by focusing on what the teacher can do to incorporate compelling content into the course, which takes into account student abilities and engages them with learning. This environment involves fostering conditions for students to learn, to self-reflect, and to open up to the possibility of changing their own ways of thinking about important social and political issues.
Setting the Context
Setting a context that supports student learning seems to be evident in the teaching methods revealed in the syllabi, which demonstrate a high frequency (50% or higher) on the techniques of in-class participation and in-class presentations. What cannot be determined from this set of data is whether teachers are encouraging students to be active learners. The data also indicates that 79% of college teachers have had informal or no pedagogical training. This percentage suggests that while some interactive techniques are used, there is not necessarily a formal understanding of how to create an environment where student learning is supported. The pedagogical content knowledge framework emphasizes asking the students what their learning objectives are, encouraging them to engage in their own learning rather than passively accept the content being taught and the structure of the classroom. Students could help set the context by taking responsibility for a portion of each class and by creating their own homework assignments. These techniques are invisible in this data, and it may be important for our understanding to continue this line of research to see if the specifics of setting the context can be revealed.
Building Positive Social Norms
In this study, the choices of texts in the syllabi are the only data we have that the students may be reading materials that involve questioning ideas and considering ethical implications of various actions in the field of global environmental politics. The syllabi reflect a robust selection of readings, many of which pose fundamental moral and ethical questions around global environmental politics.
Assigned texts include materials that encourage discussion around central ethical dilemmas, such as the uneven use and distribution of resources, the links between poverty and environmental degradation, the connections between racial prejudice and environmental issues, the complexity of modernization, and the consequences of global environmental destruction, which will fall on the world’s poor and disenfranchised. We can deduce from the presence of these readings that the context for rich discussion is possible. What is undetermined from the data is how these discussions are framed and conducted, and whether they reach the goal within pedagogical content knowledge in creating positive social norms in the discourse of the classroom. Teachers with the skills to organize group dialogues may find that these conversations offer significant learning opportunities for students.
Emphasizing Inquiry, Discovery, and Synthesis
The course objectives and assignments stated in the syllabi demonstrate efforts to build students’ skill sets. References to developing knowledge, creating awareness, building critical thinking skills all suggest faculty interest in elements that emphasize curiosity, discovery, and synthesis. Shulman indicates that teaching research skills and helping students think about the ways in which ideas exist in relation to each other also foster students’ skills. While it is hard to know for certain, it seems reasonable to conclude from these syllabi that instructors are creating learning environments that attempt this third element in Shulman’s pedagogical content knowledge. Still to be discovered is the extent to which the teacher is intentionally creating this environment. Stating the objective of building critical thinking skills is a beginning. It is yet another step to construct a learning environment that facilitates that development. Constructing a learning environment requires knowing more about pedagogy and about learning than the data in this study reveals.
Helping students to develop critical thinking skills is an essential element of teaching. There are several recognized strategies for teaching critical thinking (Beyer, 1985; Fisher, 2001; French & Rhoder, 1992; Inch & Warnick, 2009). These include:
• Learning in groups helps individual members learn more.
• Promoting interaction among students as they learn.
• Asking open-ended questions.
• Addressing problems that are ill defined and have no single right answer encourages students to be more creative in their responses.
• Allowing sufficient time for students to reflect on the questions asked or problems posed.
• Giving students time to process information helps them to absorb complex ideas.
• Teaching for transfer, which means showing students how an idea in one category can be applied to another area. This stimulates thinking across categories and encourages students to establish connections and see relationships between ideas.
As a content area, global environmental politics lends itself to inquiry, discovery, and synthesis. Its multidisciplinary nature, spanning from the natural sciences to the social sciences, provides rich possibilities for educators interested in elevating their student’s learning to develop robust skills for their chosen professions.
Shulman’s fourth theme, fostering the conditions for students to not only learn but also self-reflect, is an elusive goal for most educators. Transformation also includes creating the learning environment so that students can engage in self-examination to change their own ways of thinking about social and political issues. This process ideally extends far beyond the classroom and into the future.
There is a wide-ranging literature about transformational learning that can inform a college teacher’s classroom design (Mezirow, 1997). This body of knowledge emphasizes that individuals change themselves, and educational experiences are particular moments of possibility for transformation. The goal of the teacher is to create an open learning environment in which students can explore their personal development as part of the learning that they encounter. As discussed thoroughly in the literature, transformative learning involves “critical self-reflection, which results in the reformulation of a meaning perspective to allow a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative understanding of one’s experience” (Mezirow, 1990, p. xvi). Transformation begins with a disorienting dilemma, which leads to critical reflection and then a change in what one is thinking. In addition, change can have both positive and negative aspects. According to Mezirow (2000) and informed by others (Cranton, 2005; Gagne & Medsker, 1996), transformational learning often follows this general cycle:
• A disorienting dilemma.
• Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame.
• A critical assessment of assumptions.
• Recognition that others share their discontent and that they are not alone in the process of transformation.
• Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions.
• Planning a course of action.
• Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans.
• Provisional trying of new roles.
• Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships.
• A reintegration of new understanding into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective (Mezirow, 2000, p. 22), much as Shulman described new comprehension.
College teachers need to understand more clearly this process of transformation and its implications for adult learners. In the context of a classroom and a short course, teachers of global environmental politics interact with their students for a brief period of time. Nevertheless, within that limited exposure, they can facilitate transformation by providing opportunities for students to explore emerging concepts, challenge traditional assumptions, adopt different roles that broaden their own perspectives, and build their competence with skills such as research and critical thinking.
The Future of Teaching Global Environmental Politics
The negative trends on global environment health are deeply troubling. Resource consumption overall is increasing while there are downward trends in the health of the earth’s forests, aquatic environments, soil, water quantity and quality, and air quality (World Resources Institute, 2018). This is coupled with a lack of global political consensus about what is to be done. In the face of potentially deleterious global environmental change that will significantly influence the ability of human societies to flourish, it is important to consider what may lie ahead for teachers in the college classroom.
During these past decades, teaching environmental politics has been, like all fields of education and every corner of society, in a frantic chase to keep up with emerging technology. The rise of the Internet has significantly changed the classroom experience. Like good theory should, the work of Shulman and of Knowles, Swanson, & Holton (2005), leaves room for dealing with the unknown and unexpected, and although they address online learning, email, and other permutations of Internet communications, few of us can anticipate the sheer volume of possibilities in the future.
A decade ago, courses in global environmental politics focused on the structures of policy making, domestic and international governmental agencies, international protocols and agreements, transboundary environmental issues, and the roles of the corporate and nonprofit sectors. By today’s standards, information flowed in at a glacial rate. Now we are teaching in a rushing river of information.
In addition to traditional (hardcopy) textbooks, newspapers, and magazines, many of these have added online access to their classrooms. Additionally, there are textbooks, newspapers, and magazines that exist only on line, ranging from blogs and journals to organizational websites, that purport to know exactly what is going on, on any subject, at any given moment. Teachers are faced with the dual challenge of first discovering these resources, then sorting through the accurate, the inaccurate, and sometimes the purely imagined. Furthermore, it is important that we do this, because our students will, and lacking the sophistication and grounding of our formal education in the content, teaching, and learning, students may easily find themselves confused or misled.
Up-to-the-minute availability of information creates great opportunities for on-line discussions about global environmental politics. This can be especially exciting when the forum has been pre-arranged with classes at other schools, which may just as easily be in another country as in the next town. In addition, there are chat rooms, blog posts, and other social media that can be welcoming spaces for investigation and dialogue. Teachers using electronic media as a resource of any kind must have sufficient skills to lead students to these sources as students learn to distinguish valuable information from poorly conceived opinions or outright bogus data.
It is not just that teachers have to help students navigate more information. Technology is also playing a critical role in global environmental politics. We can do things now that would have been unthinkable without technology: many businesses were made possible only by the ubiquitous use of the iPhone. For example, Uber, Amazon, and Facebook are all companies that could not have been created without the Internet. We continue to create and use technology to solve problems. Think of the rapid change in health care related to the deployment of new medical devices. In the same way, teachers need to develop additional expertise as to the role of technology in addressing global environmental issues. Some areas where technology has been influential in addressing environmental problems include renewable energy, electric cars, environmental monitoring, the sharing economy, and waste reduction (Blue and Green Tomorrow, 2018).
Future Directions for Teaching Global Environmental Politics
The complexity and diversity of global environmental politics lends itself to teaching it in such a way that students take away with them tools and interests that help them become better educated and, hopefully, better prepared for the leadership positions that they may now have or will occupy in the future. Teachers must pay attention to primary learning around core subjects and specific skills sets. At the same time, the classroom is a good place to explore the concept of learning about one’s own process in gaining knowledge. This meta-learning could be useful for teachers and students alike in developing cognitive maturity for lifelong learning, an essential skill in navigating our complex society.
Emerging from the discipline of education, scholarly conversations about pedagogy emphasizes the importance of understanding that teaching has become more than an activity that transmits knowledge to individuals, and that offering substantive knowledge is just one element of accomplished teaching. The teacher’s portfolio is substantially enhanced by understanding pedagogical principles, giving them the tools they need to push at the innovative edge of teaching, and to challenge existing structures, practices, and definitions of knowledge. It also means testing new ideas, experimenting with new ways of thinking about content and encouraging students to engage in the same kind of social discourse. In this way, accomplished teaching is an evolved order of pedagogy and becomes a public act of social change.
Global environmental politics stands in a global historic moment characterized by significant political challenges and constantly changing scientific information and technology. Simultaneously, instantaneous and nearly universal communication has raised public awareness and concern across the globe. These trends are accompanied by dynamic academic research that continues to increase understanding. We who teach in this field are poised to become better purveyors of knowledge to our students and to facilitate the development of skills they will need for the complex society they face.
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