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    18. Environmental Civic Engagement for Secondary Classrooms: Why and How through the Reasonable Person Model Lens


    Since preparation for civic engagement in the United States generally occurs in secondary school, in this chapter I ask how secondary classrooms can incorporate civic engagement regarding complex environmental issues in ways that would enhance these students’ participation now and as future citizens. In spite of challenges to environmental civic engagement such as subject-specific classrooms where civics and environmental learning rarely mix, successes exist. The Reasonable Person Model (RPM) provides insight into how to effectively engage students in environmental civics and why such engagement can promote diverse learning objectives and future civic participation.

    From climate change to increased energy demands, communities today face complex, wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) related to natural resources and the environment. While national- and international-level action to address these issues is important, individuals must also be engaged to address these problems at local levels. Beyond addressing the actual problems, getting people engaged in local issues can build social networks and enhance adaptive capacity (Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005). Among high school students, environmental conservation behavior has also been linked positively to other measures of civic engagement, including willingness to contact a government official, engaging in political discussion, and participating in community service (McIntosh & Muñoz, 2009).

    Secondary students are of particular interest because in the United States, high school civics and government courses are the primary vehicles for preparing individuals to become active citizens. As of the fall of 2012, forty states require such courses for secondary school graduation (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement [CIRCLE], 2012b). Yet despite the requirement for such courses for graduation, many studies indicate that students have low knowledge of or interest in civic engagement (Galston, 2007), including environmental civic engagement (Twenge, Campbell, & Freeman, 2012). Other studies show that in comparison to previous generations, today’s youths are less likely to vote (Kirby & Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2009). To understand civic engagement, I point to Ehrlich’s basic explanation: “promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (2000, p. vi). For environmental civic engagement, this could involve improving environmental factors such as air quality, water quality, open spaces, or CO2 emissions. Efforts toward these ends may involve using existing political avenues (e.g., ballot initiatives, campaigns, elections, or lobbying elected officials) as well as nonpolitical means such as joining citizen groups devoted to specific causes (e.g., tree planting, improving walkability, or maintaining waterways).

    This chapter explores how teachers in secondary school classrooms can design learning opportunities to meet students’ informational needs—while simultaneously meeting students’ learning goals and meeting learning objectives outlined in state standards—through engaging students in environmental civic issues. I focus on environmental civic engagement for many reasons: we face looming environmental problems outlined above, all communities and schools have local environmental issues ripe for exploration, and environmental issues can be integrated into various subject areas. The chapter begins by looking at the current status of environmental civic engagement in formal secondary settings followed by a discussion of institutional challenges to increasing such engagement. The discussion also touches on how schools and classrooms often are not designed to meet students’ needs. The second section provides examples of secondary classrooms that have successfully incorporated environmental civic engagement and discusses insights that the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) offers for understanding successes and failures.

    Preparation for and Challenges to Environmental Civic Engagement in Secondary Schools

    Preparing youths for environmental civic engagement entails acquiring knowledge about political and nonpolitical processes for engagement as well as actual participation in addressing environmental issues. While many studies examine student knowledge of and participation in political processes, very few studies hone in on student civic knowledge of or civic engagement in environmental issues. Fewer still examine such knowledge or engagement in the context of secondary school classroom preparation. This section will discuss how prepared current students are to partake in environmental civic engagement, barriers to such engagement, and the importance of providing students with opportunities for meaningful participation as part of the classroom curriculum.

    Understanding the broader context of civic participation and knowledge provides some insight into the more specific focus here of environmental civic engagement. Data generally indicate that high school graduates are not prepared in terms of political participation and knowledge. For example, only 50% of youths aged eighteen to twenty-nine voted in the fall 2012 presidential election, suggesting even lower participation rates in off-cycle years (CIRCLE, 2012c). In terms of voting knowledge, over 40% of youths indicated that they did not know the voter identification law in their state, nor did they know the early voting laws in their state (CIRCLE, 2012a). While voting is only one measure of civic participation, it is an easily accessible action and is a universal measure of civic engagement. Beyond elections, schools can broadly support (or hinder) civic engagement. In a district-wide study of over sixteen thousand high school students, McIntosh and Muñoz (2009) found that school-related factors such as school engagement (e.g., finding school interesting and challenging), school belonging (e.g., feeling part of the school community), and school support (e.g., feeling supported by teachers) explained nearly 29% of variance in civic engagement in their sample. That school-related factors accounted for substantial variance in civic engagement suggests that schools are an essential part of building civic capacity among future citizens.

    In terms of environmental knowledge, internationally most such knowledge is learned in schools in science or geography lessons (OECD, 2009). By comparison, in the United States, whereas geography is seldom required, students generally gain environmental knowledge in science classes since they are required courses in most states. State science standards[1] can therefore provide some insight into environmental knowledge and engagement at the secondary school level. State social studies standards can likewise provide insight into requirements for civic knowledge and participation. However, science standards generally lack content relating to civic participation (especially political participation), and social studies standards generally lack content relating to environmental concepts. This lack of integration presents a critical challenge to preparing students for environmental civic engagement.

    Integrated curricula that incorporate environmental civic engagement face barriers precisely because they integrate material from multiple subjects. Teachers (and students) can be uncomfortable with incorporating information deemed outside of a course’s primary subject (Kumler, 2009). Nonetheless, numerous organizations have developed curricula for teachers and students focused on environmental civic engagement, including Facing the Future, Roots and Shoots, Earth Force, Creative Change Educational Solutions, Project WET, Project WILD, and numerous others. Why do such programs persist in the face of institutional barriers? Perhaps these curriculum developers believe that they have much to offer students in terms of increasing engagement in their schools and communities, enabling them to participate in authentic experiences beyond the classroom and improving their knowledge of environmental science and environmental civic engagement. In fact, these curricula often exemplify the principles of RPM: the curricula meet students’ needs related to building mental models, developing competence, and engaging in meaningful participation. Furthermore, these programs may be inherently interesting to students, since they build on their mental models of how the world functions outside of the classroom. In their study of Earth Force’s Community Action and Problem Solving (CAPS) model, Bardwell and Kaplan (2008) illustrate how RPM explains successful CAPS service-learning experiences, much like the examples in the second part of this chapter. And as Grese (Chapter 19) illustrates vividly, students engaged in meaningful landscape design activities took great pride in ownership of their work, and several students demonstrated remarkable personal and academic growth as a result of their participation.

    These examples and the ones below underscore a particularly important component of environmental curricula: the opportunity for students to engage in meaningful action. Meaningful action refers to participating in some activity that has an impact, providing students with a sense that they can make a difference in the world. As Newmann (1975) observed in his book Education for Citizen Action, the overwhelming message that students often receive in schools is “that the purpose of instruction is to help the student understand the world, rather than to affect it.” Being bored, confused, and doubtful about why one is in school so easily leads to helplessness—the opposite of meaningful action. While grade point average and increasing one’s knowledge can be meaningful, neither has an impact on the world per se. As Ivancich (Chapter 5) explains, humans have an aversion to boredom and helplessness, and our desire for clarity of impact (being clear that our actions will make a difference) and challenge are important motivators.

    Examples of meaningful action are common in service-learning projects and extracurricular activities, both of which have shown positive benefits for students. For example, in a study of one thousand high school students, those involved in service learning had stronger intentions to vote and enjoyed school more than students not involved (Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005). In addition to school-related factors, McIntosh and Muñoz (2009) also found that participation in community-based clubs or activities (not including sports) was a strong predictor of youth civic engagement. Although often lacking, opportunities for meaningful action can be integral to the curriculum. Students’ great desire for relevance in what they learn (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008) can be addressed by assignments that permit them to take action and to use their newfound knowledge for effecting change.

    Meaningful action likewise contributes to model building as indicated above, often through enabling students to integrate classroom knowledge with out-of-classroom knowledge. Finally, it is easy to imagine how some service-learning projects can help students gain a sense of competence, especially those in which students help plan and make decisions (Morgan & Streb, 2001). In working to address real-world problems, including environmental ones, students can see that they can have an impact through contacting officials, interacting with citizens, and improving the environment. Ginsburg’s (Chapter 9) Education Justice Project illustrates the expertise that students bring with them to the classroom and how opportunities for using and exploring their expertise serve as powerful motivators.

    Applying RPM to the Classroom

    Of the three RPM areas, meaningful action is certainly the least emphasized in the secondary school curriculum (Kumler, 2009). Meaningful action calls for activities that permit students to participate in ways that can have a positive impact beyond the classroom. In the process of making a difference, students can gain a sense of respect and feel valued. As discussed earlier, community activities and service learning can achieve some of these goals. It is therefore not surprising that such activities have been hailed as a panacea for remedying the many ills of the high school years (Bridgeland et al., 2008; Grim, Dietz, Spring, Arey, & Foster-Bey, 2005). Participating in such meaningful activities can contribute to students’ model building and sense of competence. Feeling less helpless can, in turn, contribute to a more positive outlook about education. And through such participation, students also become more involved citizens.

    At the same time, it is important to recognize that many students do not partake of service learning or other volunteering projects and that not all service learning opportunities are equally effective (Billig et al., 2005; McLellan & Youniss, 2003; Melchior, 1998; Reinders & Youniss, 2006). In incorporating service learning and other forms of meaningful out-of-classroom participation, teachers hit barriers ranging from lack of planning time to lack of financial and human resources to challenges understanding how to assess learning in such a context (Billig, 2002). Nonetheless, it can be done. This section provides three examples of ways to incorporate environmental civic engagement in classroom instruction and the extent to which each case met students’ informational needs as outlined by RPM.

    Environmental Land Use

    A curriculum unit on local environmental land use was incorporated by secondary school teachers in both natural science and social sciences courses in a southeast Michigan county (Kumler, 2009). Based on teachers’ logs, students’ responses, and observations, the unit provided a number of ways to straddle both local dimensions and universal concepts in science and social studies.

    For example, one teacher enacted the curriculum in her ninth grade government class. Most of the course focused on state- and national-level governments, but she felt that it was important to cover local government as indicated in the district standards. While designed for civics and meeting many civics curriculum standards in her state, the unit integrated several land-use concepts closely related to science, such as pervious and impervious surfaces, storm water runoff, and some ecological impacts of land use. The unit also covered historical land use in the region, zoning, transportation, how land-use decisions are made, concepts of sustainable land use, and economic and social impacts.

    Students completed activities including interviewing local citizens about past and present land use, learning about actions they could take toward sustainable land use, evaluating the impacts of new high school construction on the community, and, finally, participating in a role-play exercise to decide whether to allow new homes to be built in place of a wetland in a fictional community. The teacher abridged the five-week unit to fit into three weeks.

    From the perspective of RPM, the unit offered students a variety of ways to enhance model building and meaningful action and to foster being effective. The local nature of the curriculum enabled students to build on and revise mental models already in place. For example, students evaluated how they typically get around and how their modes of transportation might be improved upon, became familiar with their neighbors while finding out more about the history of the community, and had the opportunity to learn more about construction of their new school, which had been a media focal point. Although the teacher did not focus as much on natural world or science-type elements in the curriculum, reading about science concepts helped students to develop and explore understanding of land use beyond social studies (Kumler, 2009).

    Students gained some competence in understanding land use in the community, interacting with community members through the interviews, and applying their knowledge in the land-use decision scenario. In terms of meaningful action, some of the actions undertaken, such as interviewing community members and participating in the land-use decision scenario, required students to participate in the community and the classroom. Yet it would be a stretch to say that through these actions students had a sense of making a difference in the world. To improve on this, after choosing a local land-use issue to explore (perhaps in pairs or small groups), students could devise and implement a plan to address the issue. While the curriculum presented this option and teachers were encouraged to use it, the teacher did not incorporate it.

    The curriculum provided examples for student action, such as exploring the sustainability of the school grounds and presenting recommendations to the school board and community, writing a letter to the editor, raising money to implement recommendations, or developing a program to educate others about sustainable land use. In doing so, students would both refine their understanding of the issue and enhance their sense of competence related to taking public action. This sort of synergy is what Schusler, Krasny, Peters, and Decker (2009) found in a study on developing citizenship skills in youths through environmental action. Although learning about actions is important, Kumler (2009) found that simply learning about actions had little impact on high school students’ abilities to even identify actions that they might take beyond the usual recycling and trash pickup. Other studies found that students who both learned about issues and actually participated in related action projects showed improved attitudes, efficacy, or knowledge compared to students who only learned about issues (Schusler & Krasny, 2008; Zint, Kraemer, Northway, & Lim, 2002).

    Field Guides on Environmental Priorities

    Over the past decade, science students and their teachers at High Tech High School in San Diego have created field guides to the city based on student-identified environmental priorities. The guides are created as part of biology classes at the school—with some collaboration with humanities and math classes—and are researched and written by students. The guides cover topics ranging from the history of San Diego Bay to an assessment of present-day Bay resources (High Tech High, 2012). Importantly, the class first chooses the local topic of interest. Students conduct original research via scientific investigations, interviews, and on-the-ground assessments. To date, four of these guides have been published and are available for sale (two via Amazon): Two Sides of the Boat Channel: A Field Guide (2005), Perspectives of San Diego Bay: A Field Guide (Next Generation Press, 2006), San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration (California Sea Grant Press, 2007), and San Diego Bay: A Call for Conservation (California Sea Grant Press, 2008).

    This project is an excellent example of RPM in practice. In terms of model building, students are provided with the opportunity to integrate knowledge and interests from a variety of disciplines (history, biology, math, ecology, public policy) and to explore and build on their personal models of the local community. Students expand their knowledge of local ecology while also learning how to research, how to write, and how to find information. In creating a book, they are exposed to concepts of marketing, publishing, photography, and more.

    Thus, students gain competence and confidence in a wide variety of skills, from researching and communicating to writing, editing, and working with others toward a goal. They also have an opportunity to hold up classroom learning to life beyond the school walls. In determining what questions to ask, researching those questions, visiting field sites, and interviewing others, students have undertaken meaningful action with participation guided by their own interests and strengths. Finally, their actions produced a result meaningful to others in their community and beyond by creating a published guide for policy makers, scientists, and the layperson.

    These student-created publications are not unique to biology courses at High Tech High; the school’s website boasts scores of texts on diverse topics by students in grades ranging from primary to secondary school. While High Tech High is a unique public high school with extraordinary resources (financial and otherwise), its student body is diverse both ethnically and socioeconomically due to its lottery admission system. As the next example demonstrates, environmental civic engagement can also occur in schools with modest resources.

    Local Issue Tied to Multiple Subject Areas

    Another example comes from a small high school in northeastern Oklahoma where students live near one of the worst hazardous waste sites in the United States. Over time, mines have severely contaminated the land and a local creek. A group of teachers decided to coordinate a unit around the creek. In English class, students connected their community with a play being read in class. After a field trip, students became concerned about the problem and wanted to take action; they realized that scant information was available to the public on the topic (Kesson & Oyler, 1999). What started out as student concern became much larger, as students compiled a book about the creek highlighting its history and role in the community. The book was locally published, further contributing to public awareness. Beyond this, students involved themselves in raising money to post warning signs, writing articles for the local papers, participating in city council meetings, and more. As RPM would predict, teachers reported increased student motivation and engagement toward research, writing, community involvement, and school in general (Kesson & Oyler, 1999).

    These examples demonstrate how RPM can help to support students’ cognitive needs for exploration, competence, and meaningful participation while complementing many educational aims regarding citizen participation, student motivation, and even measures of achievement. While these examples involve relatively major undertakings, the RPM framework can be applied in much smaller ways to weekly activities that have become dull and unengaging. As Duvall (Chapter 20) demonstrates, even a routine walk in a familiar locale can become engaging when participants explore their walking environment in novel ways. In a school setting, for example, one might begin the school year by asking students to ponder what makes a subject matter important and how it can be relevant to their lives (essentially asking what we are all doing here). Enabling students to explore established underlying assumptions in novel ways could lead to new “ways of knowing” (A. Kaplan, Chapter 17), in this example, new understandings of purpose in schooling, of the role of school subjects and disciplines, or of oneself and one’s interests. Likewise, asking students to outline individual learning goals allows them to share in the responsibility of what they will learn and provides clarity regarding their reasons for participating in the class. Such an exercise also communicates important information to the teacher regarding where the students are, enabling the teacher to build from students’ mental maps (R. Kaplan, Chapter 2).

    These examples support RPM themes evident in other chapters, particularly issues related to expertise and supportive environments. The U.S. secondary education system is still frequently driven by the old model of teacher expertise: the teacher conveys her knowledge to students, and this conveyance results in supposed learning. In contrast, teachers in the examples provided in this chapter assume the challenging role of facilitator. Teachers are learning new material themselves—guided by student interests—removing or at least reducing the content expertise from the picture. Such an approach also reduces difficulties that teachers encounter in attempting to communicate their more compact and often less accessible mental models, as described by S. Kaplan (Chapter 3). Instead, teachers must develop expertise in organizing meaningful learning opportunities that enable students to meet individual learning needs as well as institutional learning goals. Teachers must become experts in providing supportive learning environments that allow students to explore their own interests and goals, enable students to develop competence in skills such as writing and communication, and require and support students to participate in substantial and meaningful ways.

    Importantly, all three of these examples ask students to use their local communities as a basis for exploration. In so doing, students are able to begin from a familiar perspective and to build understanding from there. As R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) puts it, “When we connect our message or information to something the recipients can relate to, we are building on their familiarity and starting from their comfort zone.”

    While another model has been offered to specifically explain environmental political participation, it supports rather than conflicts with RPM. Levy and Zint (2013) draw upon diverse literature to develop a model of factors that might contribute to environmental political participation. Interestingly, their factors involve model building (learning about and discussing controversial public issues), political engagement (taking part in democratic decision-making experiences), and competence (internal and external efficacy). The presence of RPM’s central components in this model underscores its utility in the context of civic participation.


    Editors’ Comment: One way to think of hope is as a mental model of oneself whereby one predicts that one’s actions can make a difference. This of course is built on past experiences where this has turned out to be the case—precisely the kind of experiences described in this chapter.

    RPM provides guidance and a rationale for how we might bring out the best in students by providing a learning environment supportive of their informational needs. Engaging secondary students in environmental civics provides opportunities for them to explore and build on mental models of challenging environmental problems, to build a sense of competence in applying knowledge and using skills, and to participate in meaningful ways to address environmental problems. Taking action may also provide students with constructive hope, a potentially important component in prompting students to take positive action toward issues such as climate change (Ojala, 2011).

    While changing one’s teaching approach can be fraught with risk and failures, our modus operandi has not been faring well. Classroom emphasis on standardized test scores has been shown to bring out less than the best in students, ranging from poor motivation to a focus on lower-level thinking skills (Makara, 2008; Paris, 2000; Paris & Cunningham, 1996). While RPM elements such as model building and some aspects of gaining a sense of competence are occasionally incorporated into classrooms, such efforts seem to be the exception, especially in combination with opportunities for exploration and meaningful participation. In many cases, curriculum standards already ask that teachers incorporate meaningful participation into the classroom, but barriers to actually doing so are common. Teachers receive little guidance regarding how to construct opportunities for meaningful participation and how such opportunities can contribute to students’ mental models and competencies as assessed by standardized tests and otherwise.

    On a practical level, educators might ask how they can fit in even more than they do now. If they are considered extra or additional, such efforts at meaningful participation would indeed become onerous and disjointed. By contrast, RPM suggests that the three components are mutually reinforcing and jointly support the goals of the educator and learner. Teachers and schools may start with small experiments: revising a unit to include a participatory project, for example. Participation need not be complex; it could be as simple as involving students in setting their own learning goals, exploring their own topics of interest in lieu of teacher-chosen topics, incorporating interests from their nonschool life, or examining the physical environment of their own school. For example, if physically taking the class off campus is bureaucratically and financially fraught with difficulties, many types of meaningful participation can be conducted within the school’s building or on-site. To use a science example, a nearby river may be too far to get to, but the school grounds offer many lessons (e.g., relating to infiltration, runoff, and impervious surfaces) for student investigation. Students can then report their findings and recommendations to school officials. School officials, rather than being perceived as representing the bureaucracy, can become allies in the quest for meaningful change.

    Editors’ Comment: These participatory approaches demonstrate ways to create supportive environments in an educational context.

    If we hope for better student performance, we must provide the conditions necessary to motivate, engage, and enable students to build on their knowledge and increase their desire to explore and expand it. If we hope for better citizen performance, especially in addressing some of our most pressing environmental problems, we must provide classroom opportunities for students to experience environmental civics through meaningful personal participation. RPM offers a cognitive-based guide for how any classroom or curriculum can incorporate relevance and allow for participation, providing motivation for students to engage in the classroom and in civic life. In all likelihood, the teachers may find some similar benefits as well.


    1. In this chapter, state “standards” refers to public education curriculum ­standards. return to text


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