Constructivism in Conservation Education

This is the online publication of my final assignment completed for ETEC 530, Constructivism and E-learning, as part of my MEd in Educational Technologies at the University of British Columbia. This project was done under the supervision of Dr. Diane P. James and was awarded a distinction when graded. Below you can find a short rationale for the project, as well as the write up of the salient concepts for this work. At the end of the document you will find a downloadable PDF including this essay, a full reference list, expected participants, a workshop design and assessments.

Conservation education is a field in which science meets social science, often with dissonance in efforts to get these worlds to work together. This workshop will consider work done in epistemology and constructivism to investigate and better understand how effective, socially situated, conservation education can be offered by public organisations such as zoos, museums, botanical gardens and wildlife rehabilitation centres in order to encourage visitors to take up appropriate conservation action. We will not be looking at the content of conservation education, but rather at the systems and frameworks for conveying conservation information to diverse public audiences through a constructivist learning lens with suggested frameworks, practices and techniques.

Conservation education generally refers to conservation biology, or conservation science, entailing research that analyses and proposes conservation practices or environmental protection and policy. A much-overlooked aspect of conservation education, however, is public education aimed at informing communities about surrounding ecosystems and how to integrate more sustainable practices into daily life. Zoos, aquariums, museums, botanical gardens, rehabilitation centres and other public organizations with conservation ties are in a unique position to educate visitors about conservation issues and inform conservation action by exposing visitors to new environmental knowledges. Whilst there have been increasing efforts to fulfil these educational goals, they are often situated in the realm of ‘traditional’ educational frameworks where information is transferred to a learner in a factual, linear way via signage or poster-based information often laced with scientific language. This educational approach is susceptible to perpetrating public biases of inability to make any significant impact on conservation efforts or alienating audiences with almost-exclusively scientific knowledges and language. This paper motivates a constructivist framework for public conservation education in order to combat these current downfalls. With constructivism’s learner centred approach, organisations can involve visitors in meaning making processes when interacting with the educational experiences on offer and thus increase the possibility of instilling a sense of environmental stewardship and conservation action in daily life. Furthermore, constructivist frameworks allow for the integration of diverse knowledges, involving local or indigenous knowledges alongside scientific knowledge, and encouraging organisations to integrate culternomics into their outreach efforts to make education socially meaningful.

Over the last few decades, educational research and practice has moved from focusing on traditional teaching approaches to learner-centred constructivism. This entails a shift away from the notion that information can be transferred and memorized, toward considering learning as a process in which a learner utilizes their own experiences and perspectives to scaffold information onto their pre-existing knowledge, thus constructing new insights and understandings autonomously (Fosnot, 2013). Without situating a framework within either social or cognitive constructivism, a general sense of teaching and learning can be drawn from So (2002) which looks at factors likely to promote learning with a loose constructivism. This understanding proposes that individuals should be active participants in the learning process with both cognitive and social pre-existing ideas being included in the learning process by shaping how individuals respond to and makes sense of new stimuli. Drawing from a vast literature review, undertaking this practice would include situating new knowledge in the context of learner’s pre-existing knowledge, guiding learners through a process of viewing, formulating explanations and then finding alternative interpretations to their original positions, encouraging learners to ask and answer questions or partake in discussions, and providing resources and environments for learners to express, test, utilize or play with new ideas or knowledges (So, 2002). Information gained in this way is internalised by the learner, who has ownership of the new knowledge and an inherent understanding of its applicability and useful in any given context. Public organisations that offer visitors conservation education experiences would benefit greatly from this type of process, increasing the possibility of conservation action being taken up and a sense of environmental stewardship being developed. Furthermore, this approach has the potential of developing visitor’s intellectual virtues, thus creating environmentally oriented epistemologists that have the ability to actively seek understanding where possible rather than seeking factual pieces of knowledge (Pritchard, 2018). This will aid in informing conservation action that visitors have justification for their knowledge and extended cognition systems to analyse and independently create appropriate environmentally friendly behaviours in private spaces without the aid of ongoing educational efforts.

Scaffolding new knowledge onto visitor’s pre-existing knowledge is one of the first major paradigm shifts needed in conservation education, as knowledge is currently scientifically situated and is not diversified for the audiences it is presented to. These challenges are being recognised in research seeking ways to better educate and motivate individuals to personally commit to sustainable, energy-saving activities, labelled as critical psychological and social barriers to conservation (Zaval & Cornwell, 2017). Conveyance of scientific and conservation research knowledge is clearly not enough to change behaviour and attitudes, particularly when there are pre-existing rational biases regarding the public’s understanding of wildlife conservation and the impact of individual sustainable practices (Zhou, Wan, Jin, & Zhang, 2016). Since local communities are considered key players in the sustainability of any conservation program, offering conservation education that is related to already existing knowledge paradigms in a community is vital to bridging this gap (Grúnová, Brandlová, Svitálek, & Hejcmanová, 2017). Constructivism’s use of individual’s prior knowledges as well as knowledge diversification via the inclusion of local knowledge alongside scientific knowledge may greatly aid in resolving aspects of the current shortcomings’ researchers have identified in conservation education. Ladle et al. (2016) offer a complimentary theory of culturomics that can be used to fulfil this constructivist mandate by helping instructional designers in conservation education respond to cultural trends, building and reinvigorating its societal relevance. These include reframing conservation issues, promoting public understanding, demonstrating public interest in nature, identifying local conservation emblems or language and assessing the cultural impact of conservation interventions to hone and adapt efforts in conservation education (Ladle et al., 2016). These aspects could impact a visitor’s learning process by making the content approachable and culturally situated as well as disrupting existing visitor biases around not holding enough knowledge to partake in conservation action. The fields of anthropology or religion and nature could be invaluable data sources for informing this approach and assuring that educational knowledges align with the social or cultural climate of the region. If engagement strategies were reformed in this way, conservation education could be much more impactful, allowing visitors to meaningfully internalise conservation knowledge with greater ease and translate it into environmentally friendly behaviours.

When conservation knowledge is personally, socially and culturally relatable to visitors, constructivist learning principles easily follow as participants are primed to actively engage and could be more willing to partake in a learning process. With organisations being in a unique position to educate the public about conservation issues, there is a need to improve public education practices and to understand how various educational techniques will influence visitor learning and experience. Currently, exhibit signage remains the most prevalent medium for the conveyance of conservation information and thus render the viewer as a passive participant in their learning process (Roe, McConney & Mansfield, 2014). A recent study by Perdue, Stoinski, and Maple (2012) showed that visitors spent significantly more time at the exhibit when a video or live presentation occurred and scored significantly better on knowledge questions than those who were not there during a presentation, even though all information was available on signs throughout the exhibit. These results suggest that technological additions within a constructivist framework, such as educational video presentations, have the potential to positively influence visitor behaviour and knowledge internalisation (Perdue, Stoinski, & Maple, 2012). Essentially, when visitors are offered interactive experiences with conservation knowledge being presented, they are more able to formulate explanations for the new information, challenge their pre-existing ideas and develop interpretations of the new knowledge. Socialising learning, such as offering spaces for visitors to ask or answer questions and partake in discussions, will also aid conservation education efforts. Finally, a constructivist conservation education model would require providing resources and environments for students to express, test, utilize or play with new ideas or knowledges seeking tasks to promote meaning-making and offer a sense of ownership of the new information to visitors. This process could take a variety of forms ranging from augmented/virtual reality headsets, to research stations with interact access, gamification of information, reward incentives for knowledge demonstrations, social evenings with talks and discussions, multiple choice quizzes with feedback sessions, systems for social media information posting or further innovative methods catered to the specific educational goals. This also lends itself to organisations utilizing websites and social media platforms for e-learning based conservation education, creating opportunities for asynchronous and non-geographically tied environmental knowledge development. These approaches could motivate people who may have no physical connection to nature spaces to experience and understand them and possibly result in more prevalent conservation action or a sense of environmental stewardship (Colleton et al., 2016). Immersive and interactive efforts will encourage visitors to develop new understandings of conservation and the environment through independent production of meaning and shows rich potential for efforts to elicit conservation action in public communities. Conservation education for the public is becoming increasingly important. Whilst various factors may be responsible for the current divide that exists between conservation research and action, a conceptual paradigm shift in public conservation education toward constructivist practices could greatly increase the impact of these efforts. A constructivist educational framework encourages individuals to internalise and construct knowledge and works with an understanding that perception and experience are important in the learning process. It is also a pedagogy which embraces notions of cultural or social shaping of knowledge and integrates socio-cultural filters into conservation education in diverse environmental and social contexts to guide and improve the outcomes of environmental stewardship initiatives. If public organisations begin integrating visitor’s prior knowledges, creating dissonance about current misunderstandings or biases as well as providing opportunities for application of knowledge and feedback, they could shape environmental epistemologists who can analyse and respond to new events from their base of environmental knowledge. Whilst more research along with pilot programmes developed with interdisciplinary efforts would be needed, this proposal puts forward a strong motivation for conservation education rooted in constructivism to prompt more wide spread conservation action.