Ep 49 – A cross-curricular unit on parts and needs of plants

Ideas for a cross curricular unit on the parts and needs of plants.


  • Curriculum
    • What a plant needs to live
    • Parts of a plant

  • Set up experiments to see how plants react to more or less: water, light, soil types
    • Students record their set-up, anything they add (watering)
    • Record observations 2-3 times/week
    • Describe how the pants react and grow
  • Weekly snapshots
    • Students start the experiment with several identical set-ups
    • Every week, gently rinse away soil from one of the experimental setups
    • Press the plant or take a photo for comparison at the end
    • Compare pressed plants to see if different parts are affected by the experiments
  • Not everyone in a class needs to do everything
    • Groups are responsible for investigating one factor
    • Students circulate to different stations and make notes on other experiments
    • Mini science fair 
      • Students circulate and a representative shares their observations. Other students ask questions or make suggestions about the experiment.
      • Groups share their experience and expertise. They may recognize a growth habit from their own experiments and help others make sure their experiments aren’t being affected by other factors.

Outdoor ideas

Look for examples of the same type of plant growing in different micro habitats. Students can make notes of any difference in growth habit. Some plants will grow differently in bright/low light, or if they are cut/trampled/grazed.

Make notes, take photos, or draw sketches of different microhabitats to capture what the conditions are like. Take advantage of being able to examine rich details which are really only possible to explore in outdoor spaces.


  • Curriculum
    • Create sketchbooks to record observations
    • Use them to review and revisit ideas
  • Activity ideas
    • Sketch their experimental seedling once per week
    • Take a photo of their plant and edit the photo so it accurately captures the light levels.
    • Take a photo of the experimental plant each day and create a video
    • Look at different plant/botany photography styles on platforms like Instagram and compare the effect of different styles/techniques.
    • Create a plant sculpture using crepe or crumpled tissue paper and pipe cleaners. Manipulate the tissue paper leaves so they mimic the leaves of their plant

Writing an artist’s statement about their work blends science and art. Student’s need to use correct terms for parts of plants to describe their work. Need to be thoughtful about how their technique captured what was happening to their plant. But be clear in what is being assessed. If the artist statement is being assessed for art, make sure the criteria are focused on that.

Outdoor ideas

Make sure you know: how much time and space will be available, what habitats are around to explore, is it a wilder or more managed site.

  • Constraints of being on a field trip can be an opportunity to explore different techniques.
    • Bring a limited range of colour pencils. Less to carry, and forces students to experiment with colour mixing to match the colours they encounter.
  • Use digital photography to quickly capture scenes if time is limited.
    • Bringing paper or clipboards to place behind subjects can help isolate them from the background.
  • Look for opportunities to blended art and science.
    • Capture mood using repetition by picking a plant and exploring what would be lonely, comfortable, or crowded for it. Would these situations look the same for a tree as it would for grass? How does this link up to the parts of a plant and the amount of room a plant needs to grow?


  • Curriculum
    • Changes from the stone to iron age
    • Connections and trends over time
  • Lesson ideas
    • How people made use of plants. What plants did they use.
    • What kinds of tools would people have used
    • Compare stone age and iron age peoples’ impact on their environment
    • What would people need to do to the landscape in order to grow crops?

History unit provides background information to inform the big project. Writing a picture book to add to the class or school library.

English/Language arts

  • Curriculum
    • Plan by reading writing in similar style to what is planned in order to learn from structure
    • In writing narratives develop setting, characters and plot

End goal of a unit is to write a story from a plant’s perspective about what happened when people arrive.

  • Lesson ideas
    • Start with reading books written in a similar style to learn from the format.
      • Books from a plant’s perspective
        • The little Crooked Christmas tree – Michael Cutting
        • The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein 
        • The Dandelion Seed – Joseph Anthony 
        • In a nutshell – Joseph Anthony
        • Sequoia – Tony Johnston
      • Books about plants
        • The Great Kapok tree – Lynn Cherry
        • The Lorax – Dr. Seuss
        • The Last Tree – Mark Wilson
        • The Sequoia Lives On – Joanna Cooke
  • Break down the project into parts
    1. Choose an important or interesting plant from science or history
    2. Outline the plot using developments learned about in history
    3. Develop character and fractions to events using observations from science
    4. Share the outline with other students to give feedback. Peer review history and science content.
    5. Start writing out the story
    6. Block text into pages and sketch illustration ideas
    7. Use diagrams from science or sketchbook from art as basis for illustrations
    8. Put text and illustrations together into final piece

Set deadlines for milestones. Students have class time to work, but if they don’t feel like they are going to make the deadline they may need to work together with the teacher to come up with a strategy.

  • Do they need to take the work home because they haven’t been working effectively in class?
  • Talk through writer’s block with a friend, parent, or the teacher?
  • Are they being a little bit too ambitious?
  • Is there are another way they could be working that might speed things up?
  • Reduce the number of pages by condensing their text.
  • Do they need it to be in a different format with fewer illustrations? Story blog post, magazine article etc.

Consider assessing milestones instead of the final product, or allow students to decide. This approach could allow this project to gather evidence of student learning and achievement in different subject areas.

  • Outline of plot
  • Outline of character and reactions to events in the plot
  • Sketches of ideas for illustrations
  • Evidence of giving constructive feedback to another student
  • Text of the final book

Final product might not be assessed at all if you have collected sufficient evidence of learning from the earlier stages. They’ve put so much hard work into the final product, rather than putting a red circle around a typo or grading the effort out of 100, final product is just celebrated.

Further reading

Smithsoniam Magazine article about the possibility of tree communicating with one another, and why Peter Wohlleben anthropomorphizes trees and uses narrative style in his science books.

Edutopia article on getting started with project based learning.

Making time for project based learning

Ep 48 – Embedding climate in curriculum and hope enhancing programmes

Discussion of two pieces of research and what they mean for environmental educators. Potential problems with embedding climate and sustainability in the curriculum. How environmental-hope-enhancing programs could resolve some of these issues.

State of Climate Education in the UK

Top line results

  • Do you feel you’ve received adequate training as a teacher, during qualification or since, to educate students on climate change, its implications for the environment and societies around the world, and how these implications can be addressed?
    • 70% of teachers responded that they had not received training on any aspect of climate change.

  • When asked how climate change is taught in their school
    • 53% responded that Climate change is often mentioned, taught in the curriculum and has also been the topic of other classes or assemblies.
    • 40% of respondents reported that climate change was rarely or never mentioned.
  • 90% felt that climate change was of concern and more should be done
  • 90% felt climate change education should be compulsory
  • Main barriers to teaching about climate change
    • overstretched teaching the current curriculum: ~40%
    • lack of confidence in knowledge of the topic: ~20%
    • too divisive/political: 9%

Issues raised

Too political

We need think about the topic into the situation and the solutions. The situation is a physical reality. Climate systems and the impact of greenhouse gases are now very well understood. Teachers should be able to teach about this situation and how its impacts are felt in various subjects. The ecological impacts are most commonly thought of, but these have human impacts which can be studied in geography or social studies. Climate has also shaped history.

Solutions to climate change are political. We have many tools at our disposal to have an impact on the situation: eating less meat, reducing flights, protection of peat bogs, renewable energy. However each of these have different costs to different people. Weighing the costs and the benefits of these is not an objective process, it is a political one. However teachers can still allow students to explore these solutions and their costs/benefits. Writing assignments or art projects can allow students to express themselves. Teacher can assess the technical aspects of students’ work without needing to express an opinion on a student’s view that everyone should be vegan, or that all flights should be cancelled.

Too much curriculum content already

What is probably needed to resolve this perennial problem is a hard look at how the education system works in the UK, and there needs to be a push to give teachers the space and tools to teach kids how to teach themselves. Check out these other podcasts which explore ways to rethink teaching in much more depth.

Embedding in the curriculum may not be enough and even counterproductive

  • Too much focus big problems could lead students to suffer from empathy burnout/compassion fatigue, where students essentially tire out their ability to worry about others. Allowing teachers to be flexible in how they approach climate and other environmental issues means they would be able to adjust to the needs and interests of their class. It also allows them to give students a break, so they have time to process how they feel.
  • Adding more content to the curriculum could cause teachers to fall back on easier, but less effective teaching methods like lecturing or assigning reading. These allow teachers to cover more content quickly, but the information is often quickly forgotten.

Environmental hope enhancing programmes

Dorit Kerret, Hod Orkibi, Shira Bukchin & Tammie Ronen (2020) Two for one: achieving both pro-environmental behavior and subjective well-being by implementing environmental-hope-enhancing programs in schools, The Journal of Environmental Education, 51:6, 434-448, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.2020.1765131

This study consisted of surveys of students in schools in Israel. Some of the students went to normal schools, while others went to schools with green certification, where the environment is supposed to be embedded in all curriculum areas. The researchers found that school-type was not strongly associated with pro-environmental behaviour. In other words, going to a green school did not seem to have much impact on whether students took action on environmental issues. What did have an impact was taking part in hope-enhancing activities or programmes. Students who participated in this type of programme were more likely to self-report that they regularly took action to do things like reduce waste, or participate in environmental activism. They were also more likely to report feeling positive, and have higher school satisfaction. This result held regardless of whether the school had green accreditation or not.

What makes a hope enhancing programme?

Social trust – Trusting that others are also doing their part. This breaks down the feeling that there is no point doing anything because an individual action would have no impact.

  • Programmes often involved:
    • collaboration with partners both inside and outside the school to achieve a goal.
    • Teaching about actions which were already being taken by others
    • Building a sense of community

Pathway thinking – Being able to see a path or plan a route through a problem.

  • Programmes often involved:
    • Setting goals
    • Prioritizing
    • Tracking progress
    • Problem solving

Agency thinking – Knowing what you want to do and believing that your goal is achievable.  

Thinking about goal setting – Approach versus Avoidance goals

An approach goal is one which you work towards achieving, an avoidance goal focuses on preventing something from happening. As an example, an approach goal might be to find ways of protecting or supporting biodiversity. An avoidance goal might focus on how many species have become endangered and preventing their extinction. The two are similar, but the researchers found that more hopeful students tended to use ‘approach’ goals. Supporting students in developing ‘approach goals’ may help them stay positive in their outlook.

Source: Approach Versus Avoidance Goals: Differences in Self-Evaluation and Well-Being


Carefully consider how environmental issues are incorporated into sessions.

If an issue is only touched on at the end of a session students could leave feeling overwhelmed and helpless. It could also trivialize the issue because it appears not to be important enough to devote session time towards discussing. It may be more effective to focus on a concept or the experience of the visit. You could then provide teachers with support and resources to build on the experience and tackle a bigger issue back in class. This approach could allow you to focus on helping students develop a connection or appreciation for nature. This positive experience can provide relevance and motivation for students when they approach an issue.

Frame environmental problems in terms of developing approach goals rather than avoidance goals.

For example: Instead of ‘how can we stop deforestation’, which focuses on what is being lost. You might reframe this as ‘how can we help forests to grow or thrive’. The latter includes tackling deforestation, but also includes looking for ways to support what is good. This could help prevent kids from being overwhelmed with negativity and eco-anxiety without losing sight of the problem.

Teaching students about what is being done on the site to tackle environmental issues.

This supports social trust. Learning about the actions taken by a local organization, or a local green space could be a really powerful way to counteract feelings of helplessness. The fact that these actions are being taken by a local organization can also bring home the message that global issues also affect us, and that there are things which can be done to help.

Encourage teachers to visit outdoor sites in their own time.

Teachers need to have positive connections with nature and are confident using outdoor spaces, and have solid background knowledge of the topic. Environmental organizations need to be providing hope-enhancing experiences for teachers as well as students. Encouraging teachers to visit when you are running hands-on activities over holidays. Allow teachers to observe and help with school sessions. These are opportunities for teachers to take ideas and first hand experience back to their classrooms.

Leaf hunting with line drawings

Three activities which can be used modularly, or together to create a lesson on identifying common plants and practicing use of descriptive language. This lends itself best to younger ages (UK KS1, age 6-7). With some work this can also be modified to be an activity focussing on classification for older groups.

Sorting leaves

Sort pictures/pressed/laminated leaves into groups. Then pick one group of leaves and describe what they have in common/why they were put in the same group. Focus on introducing terminology for parts of a leaf and having groups make detailed descriptions.

Leaf hunt

Scout out your leaf hunting area to see what plants are about then build up a scavenger hunt sheet. Go out hunting! 

If you are allowing the kids to pick the leaves, reinforce that they should carefully match as many features as possible so they only pick the leaves they need. Most lawn ‘weeds’ are very resilient to picking. Many evolved in grasslands where grazing and mowing are constant threats.

Another option is taking photographs of matching leaves. A small piece of paper or card placed behind leaves provides a plain background which can help with seeing leaf details later.

Sample leaf hunt sheets:

20 questions 

One student closes their eyes while the rest of the class chooses a leaf. The student opens their eyes and asks the class questions to narrow down the options and guess the leaf. This is a good way to reinforce terminology and practice using descriptive language.

Take it further

Compare, contrast, and theorize 

Some plants can have leaves with slightly different shapes. Kids can compare the leaves they found and come up with theories about any differences they spot. Remembering where they found the leaves can be useful information. This is a good exercise to get kids thinking about how a plant’s environment affects the way it grows. It is also an opportunity to recognize the limitations of what they’ve learned; plant ID can require looking at flowers and other features.

Common reasons for differences

  • They come from closely related species (ie. dandelions and their relatives, geraniums and cranesbills)
  • Lower leaves are sometimes different from ones growing higher up
  • Shaded leaves can be different from those growing in the sun, often larger.
  • Young plants/leaves can be different from mature leaves/plants

Classification Modification

Use all the leaf images, or collect as many different leaves as you can find. Students start making their own branching key sorting the leaves into groups, recording the first characteristic they used. They then take the leaves in one group and sort them again, recording the characteristics as they go.

Groups could make a diagrams of their key and compare the approaches taken. Were there strategies which led to identifications in the fewer steps than others? 

Students could also compare their keys with those in wildflower ID guides. What are the similarities and differences? Are there strengths or weaknesses in the way the guides arrange their keys?

Leaf illustrations

Feel free to download and use any of these illustrations of common lawn wildflowers.

Ep 46 – South London Botanical Institute

Interview with Sarah Webley, Education and Outreach Coordinator at the South London Botanical Institute. We discuss how they structure their school sessions, and get an overview of the huge variety of programmes they offer.

South London Botanical Institute Website

School sessions

  • Classes divided into 3 groups doing different activities in a round-robin/carousel.
  • Garden and art activities led by experienced volunteers who can share their knowledge of the garden and experience as artists.
  • Groups get about 30 minutes for each activity.
  • Offers lots of variety so everyone has something to really enjoy.

Garden activities

  • Trails around garden with challenges or questions to be completed in the garden
  • Hunts for leaves/flowers matching a description

Art/Drawing activity in the library

  • Look closely at plant materials and draw them
  • Link plant material to pictures of animals and draw a food chain
  • Make a plant press
  • Create a herbarium sheet

Microscope/science activity

  • Students can have a microscope each to use due to smaller group size.
  • Need to be patient with themselves if they can’t see the object right away.
  • Seed features and dispersal methods
  • Flowers and draw/identify parts of flowers

Family event – Apple day

  • Tasting and comparing apple varieties 
  • Apple prints with cut apples and paint
  • Apple monsters using natural materials

Guided walks and ethnobotany

  • Themes include: introduction to plant ID, autumn fungi, foraging, street weeds
  • Guide points out often overlooked diversity in the local area
  • Stories and folk-knowledge add particularly engaging element for many
  • Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey is an excellent UK resource

Ep 45 – Film Club – Arrival

When gigantic spaceships touchdown in 12 locations around the world. Linguist Louise Banks is approached to lead a team attempting to find a way to communicate with  extraterrestrial visitors. Pressure mounts as nations teeter on the verge of a global arms crisis which could be set off by a simple misunderstanding.

You may want to watch the film before listening and consider:

  • How does Louise’s approach to communication differ from the other characters?
  • Are there lessons which can be applied to environmental and science communication?
  • What preconceptions do other characters bring to the situation? 
  • Are the preconceptions helpful or a hindrance?

Guest on this episode: Atul Kumar, fundraising consultant, author, and podcaster

Changing perspective and reevaluating priorities

In the film

  • Shifting perspective and changing ways of thinking are major themes in the film
    • Louise must convince the military to accept a more nuanced view of what they want in order to reduce chances of miscommunication with the aliens.
    • We come to understand that the memories we are shown in the film is Louise gaining access to memories of her whole life, allowing her to see the consequences of her choices. This gives extra depth and poignancy to her decisions to begin a relationship with Ian and have a child.
  • In tackling environmental challenges
    • Nationalist concerns appear less significant when taking a global perspective. Greenhouse gas emissions do not respect national boundaries. Impacts of climate change will be felt globally. Etc.
    • Historical and future emissions are as important and current emissions.
    • Short term benefits might not be worth it when weighed against long term costs.
    • Evaluation of costs tend to focus on the local and short term.They ignore externalities (costs which are not born by the producer of a product). For example, environmental damage from resource extraction and the impact that has on local communities. Unless companies are forced to repair the damage or contribute to the community, often the cost of this damage is ignored.
    • Being able to shift perspective allows us to better take into account externalities and re-evaluate what is important

More about externalities:

IMF – Externalities: Prices do not reflect all costs – Article

Personal perspectives, biases, and ideology

  • Perspective relates to what we can see. What information is available/hidden.
  • Ideology encompasses ideas about: value/importance, morality, responsibility; and that a version of these ideas are natural or universal truth. Like a lens which colours what we see.
  • Bias describes the result of how ideology interacts with our perspective. Our blind-spots; how we interpret things; the directions we lean; what we are likely to believe or agree with

Starting point for further reading

Malka A, Krosnick JA, Langer G. The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Analysis. 2009 May;29(5):633-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2009.01220.x. Epub 2009 Mar 12.

In the film

  • Louise has a very different perspective from Ian because she knows what will happen if she has a child. 
  • Her perspective may give her a bias towards choosing not to change her decision to have a relationship with Ian and to have a child because she has experienced the positives of the loving relationship with Ian and their daughter. 
  • Ian doesn’t have a clear bias one way or another when asked whether he would change things if he could see his whole life, start to finish. He has no relevant experience to inform him.
  • Louise places high value on the experiences with her daughter, and that this outweighs consequences of her daughter dying young. Ian’s values and sense of morality, lead him to a different conclusion. Differences in their ideology (values etc.) lead them to different conclusions about the ‘rightness’ of their choices.

In communication about the environment

  • Confirmation bias – people are more likely to believe information which fits in with what they already ‘know’.
  • Trust in science/scientists can have an effect on how knowledge is correlated with concern or willingness to take action.
  • The reality of climate change, its causes and consequences, is as removed from individual ideologies as we can get. This is the goal of scientific processes.
  • There is an understanding of what we need to achieve: reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. What should be done to reach that goal is less clear because it is tightly linked to ideology; what we place value on, how we think about morality and responsibility etc. 
  • Being aware of our own bias and attempting to take different perspectives can help us recognize how ideology affects how we interpret physical reality and rebalance how we weigh information. It tends to encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate surroundings, and instead consider the global community and long term consequences.

More detailed explanations of ideology

How we communicate affects how the message is received

  • Louise points out that using a game as a medium for communication can frame messages in terms of opposition and conflict.
  • How we communicate about climate change can affect how those messages are received.
  • Too much focus on the scale of the problem can be overwhelming, or lead to a kind of ‘compassion fatigue‘.
  • Learning more about a problem may not help with taking action if the learning doesn’t include solutions.

Bjarne Bruun Jensen (2002): Knowledge, Action and Pro- environmental Behaviour, Environmental Education Research, 8:3, 325-334

Ep 44 – Pond dipping and night-time nature at London Wetland Centre

Interview with Paul, Learning manager at the London Wetland Centre (LWC). A site maintained by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). We discuss the ever popular pond dipping sessions, how they’re structured and the resources provided to support students. Paul also shares his thoughts on the wonders of exploring nature at night.

Find out more about the London Wetland Centre: https://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london

More about the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust: https://www.wwt.org.uk/

Pond dipping

Public sessions

  • Drop-in sessions (45 minutes)
  • Aquarium nets, white trays, simple ID guides, plastic containers
  • Staff and volunteers on hand to help with tips, ID, other questions
  • Participant dwell time tends to be 10-15 minutes
  • Have trialled 30 minute booked sessions, this tends to lengthen individual dwell time to 20-25 minutes.

School sessions

  • Begins by recalling what students already know about habitats
  • Head to pond for quick health and safety briefing, hand out equipment
  • Students select an animal to observe in more detail
  • Head back to work area with animal
  • Set task of investigating: How animal survives in the habitat, classification of the animal, adaptations
  • Part way through observation question or prompt sheets can be given out for support
  • Observations and ideas are recorded on small whiteboards
  • Groups share their observations as the class views the animal projection on a screen

Supporting resources

London Wetland Centre uses bespoke resources to support most students. This decision allowed the resources to reflect the most commonly encountered creatures, removing creatures which would not be found on the site because of habitat type or geographic range. Information can be tailored to support objectives of particular sessions. Off-the-shelf resources are often too general, with distracting or irrelevant details.

ID Keys

Branching keyFreshwater name trail from the Field Studies Council is designed for older groups. Proper use depends on details which can be difficult to observe and language which can be tricky for younger groups. Most groups use it as a gallery of images, scanning the chart for matching image rather than working through the key. This is used at the centre for groups age 11+

Sorted gallery – The is the bespoke guide currently used at LWC. It was developed based on observations of how children talked about and groups the animals they were encountering. Pond creatures are grouped into a few categories, each described by a simple sentence. The guide opens to a page with a gallery of images which student match against.

Simplified taxonomic – Used at the centre for terrestrial invertebrates. The guide was developed based on the model of the sorted gallery, but the sorting features supports teaching about classification. Students begin by looking at the number of legs. This opens to a page with a gallery of images and separates the invertebrates into insects, arachnids etc. Significant characteristics for further classification are called out with simple sentences.

Both the sorted gallery and simplified taxonomic key take advantage of the tendency for children to scan the images to find a match. Placing similar creatures together of a page limits the number of images (which speeds the process), and encourages close observation of details in order for students to arrive at a conclusion. When presented with a single page chart of all common creatures, finding a match can be slow, and students can easily end up at an incorrect conclusion because they have stopped looking at the first roughly similar image.

Image stylePros/Cons
Backgrounds can be distracting/make some features harder to distinguish.
High level of detail and colour can make it easier to match.
Too much attention to details specific to the pictured individual can make it harder for kids to identify related species.  

 Simple illustration
Gives sense of colour.
Should include key ID features.
Limited details means it is easier to interpret.

 Detailed line drawing
Too much detail can make it difficult to interpret by those with less experience 

Supporting information

Provided to support students with less prior knowledge. Groups/adult helpers can also be provided with question sheets to help groups maintain focus on the task, and word banks to prompt students to use descriptive scientific language. These are hit or miss, with some groups using them as worksheets/answer sheets. Currently iteration is to give out these resources after groups have had time to record their own ideas to support closer observation. Some groups may not need this support at all.

Information givenPros/Cons
– Eats other animals
– Breathes through gills on its sides
– Can swim by wiggling

Focuses on needs of living things
Describes behaviour which is often not observable in session
Gives away answers
Observing and thinking can become copying

– Has big jaws
– Has gills on its sides
– Has big eyes  

Focuses on body parts/adaptations
Draws attention to features which are key to the lesson
Still need to draw connection with adaptation

– Pounces on other animals
– Sits in burrow
– Can swim by wiggling
Focus on behaviours
Highlights behaviour which might not be observable in session

Night Safaris

  • Welcome and team building games
  • Den building
  • Snack and stories until dusk
  • Bat and nocturnal nature walk
  • Astronomy (weather and time permitting)
  • Recap of the evening around the campfire with marshmallows

Ep 43 – Part 2 – Peppered moths: Example of evolution and science at work

Part 2: Primer on a resource on the peppered moth and evolution, using digitized specimens from the collections of the Natural History Museum.

The story of the peppered moth is a great illustration of evolution by natural selection. And the study of the phenomenon now called industrial melanism is also a great example of how science operates.

Peppered moth PowerPoint – free to download!


The peppered moth (Biston betularia) is a species with huge variation. They can be white and speckled (which is the typica colour form) to almost entirely black (the carbonaria form). In the 19th century, collectors in Britain noticed that the darker form was becoming more common.  

At this time coal had been fuelling the industrial revolution. This put out huge amounts of air pollution, including lots of sulphur compounds. When these mixed with water vapour in the atmosphere it formed sulfuric acid, which fell as acid rain. This is not great for plants, particularly lichen, some species are very sensitive to this. The death of these light-coloured lichens and soot from the coal, led to darker tree trunks and branches in forests around big industrial cities such as Birmingham and Manchester. 

Naturalists guessed that darker carbonaria moths were better camouflaged against the darkened trees, and less likely to be eaten by birds. Burning coal was changing the environment and putting selective pressure on peppered moths making it more likely for darker forms to survive. The carbonaria form became uncommon in peppered moth populations, and the phenomenon became known as industrial melanism. Since the Clean Air Act came into force in the UK in 1956, lichens have regrown and the lighter coloured moths have become more common again. And the peppered moth has become a textbook example of evolution by natural selection.

Science at work

The story of naturalists investigating this phenomenon is also a good window into how science operates. In the 1950’s scientists experimented by putting moths on trees and seeing if colour and contrast with tree trunks had an effect on a bird’s likelihood of finding and eating the moth. Part of the old maxim is to never work with animals, I imagine because you can’t tell them what to do. So often these scientists worked with dead moths, pinning or gluing them to tree trunks, and finding that moths camouflage against the trees was at work.

However these methods came under heavy criticism, and for a while peppered moths were knocked off their textbook pedestal. The main criticisms centered around scientists creating experimental situations which did not accurately reflect the real world. Dead moths can’t sense birds and fly away. And scientists had been pinning them to tree trunks (probably because it was convenient), when it was argued that peppered moths tended to hide on tree branches. 

Scientists responded to this criticism by designing experiments differently. The most comprehensive was conducted by Michael Majerus. Majerus examined trees and noted the resting positions of wild moths. Then using this information he released thousands of live moths over several years at densities reflecting a wild population. He kept them in ‘sleeves’ around resting locations until they settled at sunrise. Then he removed the sleeves and would return 4 hours later. The moths rarely flew away, so missing moths were presumed eaten. He also observed some of the moths through binoculars and recorded what they were eaten by, and found it was indeed birds doing the eating.

Read more about Majerus’ research – Royal Society: Biology Letters

Activity ideas

Tracking industrial melanism 

Discuss images of moth samples collected across several decades. Is the mix of colour forms the same in each one? Why might the increase and then decrease in burning coal have an impact on the colour of the moth population? Could you conduct and experiment to collect evidence to support your hypothesis? 

Model moths 

Make model moths with clay or dough and paint them light or dark patterns. Bring your moths outside and see what natural surfaces your moths can camouflage on. What would happen to your moth if the environment changed due to deforestation? What if one type of tree or plant in your environment died out and other became more common? What if there were no natural surfaces, only human made ones? 

Moths in unnatural habitats 

Think about the habitat of your classroom or home. Research UK moths. Which UK moths might be camouflaged in your classroom or home? Is camouflage enough for a moth to survive and reproduce? You could also draw and colour in your own new moth species which would be suited to your surroundings. 

Gather your own evidence 

Design an experiment to test the story of the peppered moth. How could you collect evidence that the colour of a moth and the colour of tree bark affects chances of surviving and reproducing? 

Ep 43 – Enviro Ed research news; moth evolution resource

Part 1: Discussion on a report from Learning Through Landscapes about the results of a pilot project involving 47 UK schools and 1000+ students.

This is a report on the results of a pilot project. Most of the information in the report is only useful future rollout of the programme, and suggests directions for improvement and research. Not many specific insights for practitioners.

Added caveat that this pilot was conducted in Autumn of 2020 where comparisons with what children were doing before September are highly unusual due to the UK national lockdown. Increase in physical activity is not surprising, as the study was conducted while most restrictions were lifted.

Main findings in the report

Positive impacts seen: 

  • More engaged with local environmental issues
  • More engaged with their school grounds
  • More physically active 
  • Gained new knowledge about the topics studied in the project

Other results:

  • Connectedness to nature did not change much. Except in the participants least connected with nature at the start of the project. They did see an increase in their sense of connectedness.
  • Sense of social wellbeing unchanged
  • No change to overall happiness with their school. However most participants began with high happiness with their school.
  • Unclear results regarding linking identity and cultural heritage with environmental themes.

Would be good to get more details on:

  • Comparisons with control classes.
  • Frequency of sessions.
  • Content and delivery of project sessions. Were sessions topic content focused, or environmental issue focussed?

Putting the report in context of wider environmental education research

Increase in knowledge about the subject is not surprising. Research generally supports the idea that educational experiences kids get on field trips are effective.

Sessions with topic specialists at zoos, aquaria, outdoor sites result in more learning that self-guided visits. It is not be surprising to see that sessions with educators from specialist outdoor ed providers would be more effective than a similar session led by classroom teachers with less experience teaching outdoors.

Many studies highlight the difficulty of altering attitudes towards nature, intentions to take action, and behaviour. More exposure to nature is generally more effective at achieving these outcomes. Lack of consistent results on connectedness to nature is unexpected in a term-long project. Details on the content and delivery of the sessions could give insight into why there were not stronger results. Other research suggests this may be because the sessions were too issue focused. Another possibility is that the programme was too long or intense, and participants may have begun to suffer from assessment fatigue or a kind of topic burnout.

Follow-up evaluation of participants would be informative about the long-term effectiveness of environmental education interventions, for which research is lacking. Some suggestion in prior research that a longer duration programme like that would have durable results. Again details about the sessions would be informative. 

Related reading

Collins, Courtney & Corkery, Ilse & McKeown, Sean & McSweeney, Lynda & Flannery, Kevin & Kennedy, Declan & O’Riordan, Ruth. (2020). An educational intervention maximizes children’s learning during a zoo or aquarium visit. The Journal of Environmental Education. 1-20. 10.1080/00958964.2020.1719022. 

Drissner, Jürgen & Haase, Hans-Martin & Wittig, Susanne & Hille, Katrin. (2013). Short-term environmental education: Long-term effectiveness?. Journal of Biological Education. 48. 9-15. 10.1080/00219266.2013.799079.

Knapp, D. (1996). Evaluating the Impact of Environmental Interpretation: A Review of Three Research Studies. Research Symposium Proceedings: Coalition for Education in the Outdoors. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED413132

Knapp, Doug & Poff, Raymond. (2001). A Qualitative Analysis of the Immediate and Short-term Impact of an Environmental Interpretive Program. Environmental Education Research – ENVIRON EDUC RES. 7. 55-65. 10.1080/13504620124393. 

Ep 39 – Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust

An interview with Lorna Fox – Head of Engagement and Learning at Gloucestershire wildlife trust

About Gloucestershire wildlife trust

  • Manages around 60 sites in Gloucestershire, including Sites of Special Scientific INterest, and some Iron Age archaeological sites.
  • Most sites are very wild and do not have a visitor centre, but are beautiful and environmentally significant sites.
  • Crickley Hill and Greystones Farm are Gateway sites, which feature more facilities like visitors centres and cafes.

Find out more at the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust website

Public programmes

More details can be found on their Learning pages.

Minibeast Detectives/Scientists

Popular with classes of all ages and families. Particularly popular with Early Years – KS1 (Age 3-7)

Format of the session lends itself to being informal and open, or more formal.

Individuals can participate in the session in ways which suit them.

  • Focus on collecting, sorting, or in-depth examination of a creature
  • Can be more cooperative, semi-competitive (Catch more than other groups)

Simple but effective equipment, facilitated by knowledgeable staff.

Iron age experience

  • Bookable by schools at real Iron Age site.
  • Half or whole day experiences in reconstruction of the settlement
  • Dress up and experience life and the natural world in the Iron Age
    • Activities include: Bushcraft skills, Iron Age cookery, build the wall of a hut
    • Focus on thinking about what the landscape would have been like in the past, comparison with the landscape today, and how humans have caused those changes.
  • Much more structured than Minibeast Detective because of how busy the day is.
  • Programme is still booked in winter months, when bookings for other sessions are low.

Restore our future

We know that single visits can be great experiences which support learning. However these single experiences are not well linked to behaviour or attitude changes. Regular/recurring experiences are more effective. However there are practical and financial limitations on schools being able to visit a site multiple times a year. To get around these limitations Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust if piloting a programme to support schools in developing their own green spaces and build teachers’ confidence and expertise in using those spaces.

  • Aim is for partnerships to take place over a number of years so the wildlife trust can really support the embedding of a school culture with strong link to nature and the environment.
  • Length of partnership is important to ensure it is bedded in and not dependant on a single teacher or administrator’s enthusiasm.

Gloucestershire schools interested in the programme should contact Gloucestershire Wildlife trust at: info@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.ukOr contact Lorna Fox directly at: lorna.fox@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

Ep 37 – Decolonizing environmental education

How does environmental education reproduce colonial structures and mindsets?

Environmental education is often done from a western scientific perspective

Concepts of natural capital and ecosystem services take the relationship between the natural world and people and encodes it within a capitalist system of values.

  • In theory, these concepts could push economic and political systems to safeguard nature because of its value as raw resources and ‘free’ services such as flood protection or purification of air and water. 
  • Indigenous ways of conceptualizing nature often do not have the strong dichotomy between people and nature. Places are part of the people who live there, and are often referred to as relations. Evaluating the worth of an area’s resources and services might be like trying to quantify the value of your cousins or your parents.

In an article by Sheelah McLean in The Canadian Geographer, she writes that environmental education tends to focus on the effects of environmental destruction in a way which ignores root causes like capitalism and colonialism, and overlooks the different ways environmental damage can impact different populations. 

It seems to me that there has been significant change in the last few years with progress seemingly being made by indigenous populations and countries of the global south beginning to have their voices represented and respected in national and global forums. Though there is still a long way to go environmental educators do seem to be recognizing concepts of environmental justice.

Colonization in the British Isles

There is a bit of a sense that decolonizing efforts are not relevant in the UK because it does not have an indigenous population. Related to this, there can be a sense that efforts at decolonization forgets white kids. That cultural responsiveness leaves them behind because they don’t have a culture. 

Looking back through history, the peoples of Ireland and the British Isles have actually been subject to a series of colonization events which affected the languages and views of the people here.

  • Celtic tribes had different languages and material cultures. Sometimes they got along, and sometimes they didn’t. They invaded one another, took over, and ruled over peoples from other tribes.
  • Then there was Roman conquest. Which shaped the cultures and even the british landscape. They shaped the british diet with the introduction of such exotic plants as apples and plums.
  • Viking invasions and imposition of Danelaw. Which shaped much of the english language, including famously the names for the days of the week.
  • Norman invasion from France. 

Learning about how these episodes left marks on what are now the cultures of the British Isles, might go some way towards understanding that white identities are cultural.

Britain is also a colonizing power. When we talk about the legacy of colonialism elsewhere in the world, one of the main issues discussed is the way colonizing powers create narratives and structures to legitimize and reinforce control. Often they are based on narratives and systems used at home to legitimize and reinforce structures of inequality.

The pedagogies developed by efforts to decolonize education around the world generally include these themes:

  • First, an acknowledgement of the history of colonized peoples, that they existed and thrived before colonization and have suffered since
  • Listening to and valuing the experiences of peoples who had been silenced. 

These themes are in large part about understanding and reconciling with differences and inequalities, and so they are themes which offer benefits even for places or peoples without the same recent history colonization.  

What might decolonizing environmental education look like?

Recognition that our perspectives on nature are shaped by our personal cultural background, and the cultural environments we work within. And that part of our role as educators is to build bridges between these different ways of knowing.

  • Conducting an archaeology of your own way of understanding the world.
    • What is your relationship with nature?
    • What experiences shaped your views?
    • Who guided and taught you? How did they teach you?
    • What was your relationship to structures of power and authority?
  • Invite students or community members to share their own knowledge and understanding.
    • It can be an opportunity for elders to share their knowledge with a younger generation. And for children who have drifted away from the culture of their parents and grandparents, another opportunity to reconnect.
    • Don’t expect them to be the expert. Many indigenous peoples have lost of weakened connections with their culture because of histories of oppression by colonial powers. Also we are the teacher, and should not expect a student to do all the heavy lifting.
  • Find out how students learned before they started school and while they’re at home.
    • What are the strategies their parents or families use to teach life skills?

Tips for culturally responsive teaching

Gamify it

Gamification adds game elements into teaching. Zaretta highlights that games often make use of features common in oral knowledge traditions like repetition and pattern recognition. It also adds a bit of competition.

Competition does not have to be against other students. It can also be competition against themselves, like in speed run games where you try to beat your previous score or a set time limit. Gamification can also include competition against the game, which can support development of collaboration skills. Think board games like Forbidden Desert, or team games like keep up where the group works together to keep the ball in the air as long as possible.

What might culturally responsive gamification look like? Find out what games or kinds of games the kids you work with like to play and build activities around those. Do the kids like to play chasing games? Make believe games? Games of chance? 

What are kids doing their games? And do those game elements echo systems of concepts you are teaching about? 

Better still. Have students develop their own game. After being introduced to the concept, students could adapt the rules a game to fit the concept being taught. This is also a great opportunity to check student’s understanding of the relationships between different parts of a concept.  

Make it Social

Making it social is about organizing learning activities so that students rely on each other and build a sense of community. Euro-American education tends to be very individualistic. Students are often trained to care about their own performance, keep their eyes on their own work. But many other cultures have a more communal orientation, and students with this sort of background can find individualistic settings difficult to adjust to.

Well organized and supported group work is a great way of doing this. But group work is not as simple as splitting a class into groups. The task needs to be clear and suitable for division of labour. Group size needs to be appropriate for the time, task, and class dynamics. Larger groups tend to need longer to work because it takes more time for everyone to take part and get organized. 

Storify it

This is about taking advantage of narrative structure and our familiarity with it to enhance our ability to remember the content. It is often easier to remember the events in a narrative than a list of facts because the events provide context for the next event. Sort of a chain of events where recalling one link helps with recalling events around it. 

Narrative is key in many cultures with strong traditions of passing on knowledge orally. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that narrative understandings are actually the default way in which humans understand the world.

Then there are simple things like good narratives building moments of tension and excitement, sweeping the audience up and carrying them with it. Engel, Lucido, and Cook in an article in Childhood Education point out that science narratives also contain information about the storyteller or scientists as people. This can make them more approachable and relatable, instead of being remarkable, exceptional, or unlike normal people. The way protagonists faced and overcame challenges can also help children see ways they might overcome the challenges in their own lives.

Pitfalls to avoid


Where bits and pieces of cultures are scattered through an activity. Which can have the effect of reinforcing stereotypes, over emphasizing differences, and othering already marginalized communities. 

Things which can help with this are making sure that when teaching about cultures, make the people central to the lesson. So if teaching about rainforests or deforestation, don’t just drop in mention of Amazonian peoples. Instead choose one or more groups to highlight and make their perspective, and their voices central to the lesson or the unit. 

No context

Can reinforce inaccurate or sometimes harmful stereotypes. A very simple example of this is depiction of peoples in traditional clothing, often the clothing depicted is worn only on special occasions. It would be like a story about American Christians only showed people in wedding dresses and tuxedos. A good way to avoid this is to make sure that you are also teaching about everyday life, homes, and pastimes, in addition to special occasions, sacred places, and ritual practices. Another good approach, if a group is represented in the school or local community, is to ask them what they’d like to share. 

Infantilization / Romanticization 

When looking at how peoples and their ways of knowing are represented, and look out for infantilizing or romanticizing them. 

Infantilizing most literally refers to treating someone like a child. Think of sayings like ‘kids will be kids’, and ‘they didn’t know better’. A way environmental education can accidentally veer into this area is presenting traditional methods as ‘the old ways of doing things before new and better ways (probably from Europeans or westerners) came along’. Or these people thought this, but scientists now know better. This has the effect of devaluing traditional methods or knowledge, potentially offending or alienating groups.  

Romatizication is in some ways the inverse, and also problematic. Think the ‘noble savage’ trope. In environmental education this also tends to characterize traditional cultures and indigenous people as being in harmony with nature, in the sense of living in it without damaging or impacting its functioning.

This paints people’s with a broad brush, making them 1-dimensional caricatures. It can also produce an image of empty landscapes, untouched by people. This is first, more than likely incorrect as there is considerable evidence that traditional cultures and indigenous peoples had significant impact on their environments. It can reinforce views of indigenous people as being primitive, lesser, lacking advanced technology. In addition, if landscapes are thought of as untouched, it becomes easier to justify taking over land for development or resource extraction.

A strategy for avoiding these pitfalls is to do more detailed comparison.

Look for insights provided by different ways of conceptualizing nature. What kinds of knowledge are generated by spending a month living in a forest, visiting a forest once a month for 5 years, or using satellite images?

Look for the pros and cons of different methods. For example, when and why might you choose to bake bread by hand? Why might someone not be able to make bread in a breadmaker? Why might someone choose to go to the store and buy a loaf? 

Investigate practices and the ways in which they maintained or changed the environment. How widespread was or is a particular system of agriculture? How did it support the local environment? How did it change the local environment?

More on Culturally responsive teaching

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