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Ryerson Urban Water
Dr. Lynda McCarthy and Dr. Michal Bardecki

Dr. Lynda McCarthy (Great Lakes ecotoxicologist) and Dr. Michal Bardecki (watershed geographer) are engaging students and educators from kindergarten to Grade 12 on the issue of sustainable water practices. They are working with school teachers, the Ontario Ministry of Education, Faculties of Education and other post-secondary experts to deepen the quality of water education in Ontario classrooms.

On April 1st 2015, Lynda and Michal led Ryerson Urban Water’s first Education Experts Workshop, bringing together principals and teachers from grade schools and high schools, personnel from the Ministry of Education and Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, professors from select Faculties of Education, and representatives from select NGOs, extracurricular education centres, and conservation authorities. The Workshop aimed to produce a plan to advance environmental education in Ontario schools, with a special emphasis on urban water issues. Ryerson Urban Water members facilitated roundtable discussions to identify obstacles in the way of children in Ontario receiving sound environmental and water education. A summary of the workshop and recommendations on the way forward are contained in this white paper

2015 Education Experts Workshop on Environmental Education

On June 16, 2016, both Lynda and Michal participated in the National Roundtable on Environmental and Sustainability Education in Pre-Service Teacher Education at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. The Roundtable brought together over 75 individuals from across Canada, with backgrounds in education, NGOs, government, policy and school boards to create a new network of educators and researchers committed to strengthening Environmental and Sustainability Educations in pre-service teacher education. Pre-service education is an important component of our education system, ensuring that our teachers have the knowledge that they need to feel confident and successful in their classrooms. Over two days, the Roundtable worked collaboratively to develop a strategic plan to strengthen the presence of environmental and sustainability education in the pre-service teacher curriculum.

What drew you to the National Roundtable in June?

Michal: Both Lynda and I were looking for an opportunity to advance the discussion we had begun during the Education Experts Workshop in April 2015. When the National Roundtable in Trent was announced, we thought it was a great opportunity that would bring together a wide variety of stakeholders – from government, academia, teachers, etc. The Roundtable is run by the Teachers’ College at Trent. Environmental education is not a required component at the Teachers’ College. And even though it is in the Ontario school curriculum, it of often overlooked. That is why it was important to participate in the National Roundtable, to keep this important discussion going.

In addition, I also have a grad student focusing on this very topic, so I thought it would be a timely initiative to take part in.

LyndaWe now are totally aware that the Voting Public has little knowledge of the environmental issues besetting the world. We also know that the Voting Public once was very knowledgeable in this area. So, what has happened in the past 3 decades to bring about this ignorance? In my mind, it is that we do not teach our young anymore about the very important issues. We MUST get back to deeply teaching our very young minds again. This desperation is what drew me to the National Roundtable and is an area of knowledge that I can contribute to.

Trent University, Peterborough - host of the National Roundtable on ESE in Pre-Serive Teacher Education

Additionally, I went to the National Roundtable to expound on some other observations that I have made over the years: The teaching profession has become a second-rate profession over the past several decades. This is partially because teaching is often not a calling or passion of students who are doing an undergraduate degree. For example, if a student wishes to become a doctor, or an engineer, they usually have wanted to be one since they were young (or at least in high school). Thus, there is a passion for excellence and those professions are therefore well respected. Conversely, often, today's teachers wanted to be something else; they did their undergraduate degree in history, for example, and could not get a job upon graduation. They thus "defaulted" to going to Teachers' College to be a teacher. This often does not produce committed, engaged, excellent teachers. Thus, the profession suffers.

Lastly, we are graduating too many teachers; there have not been enough jobs for these new teachers for the past two decades. Thus, if we have so many teachers, and not enough positions, we need to make the entrance to Teachers' College onerous (as it is to get into Medical School). This does not need to translate into a "marks competition" but it does mean choosing to educate those who have a proven passion for teaching.

What did you learn at the Roundtable?

Michal: We recognized that there is a problem, and the National Roundtable helped us understand the problem in more detail. Teachers are uncomfortable teaching about the environment because they feel like they don’t know enough about it. This seemed particularly evident in outdoor education. Teaching about the environment in the classroom is easy enough with assistance from textbooks and other resources, but taking kids outside and letting them experience what they are learning is tough for teachers. In Grade 4, it is suggested that students be brought outside to examine a puddle, but teachers don’t feel comfortable leaving the classroom for fear that they might not have the knowledge to answer some of the questions that may arise. It is important to identify this component of the problem and discuss how to make teachers comfortable and confident with regard to teaching about the environment.

Dr. Lynda McCarthy and Dr. Michal Bardecki

Lynda: Teachers (from Kindergarten to Grade 12) are 80% female. They lack the confidence to teach outside a very narrow niche; and they are not required to "step up to the plate" to learn anything beyond their comfort zone. Hence, when I asked whether a Grade 8 teacher, with an undergraduate degree in History, could teach Grade 8 math, I was told that this would not be possible. This does not make sense to me; surely, All of us should at least be able to learn and teach Grade 8 math! Surely, our self-worth should suffer if we cannot do this! Thus, we have a generation of teachers unwilling or unable to convey even the most rudimentary information regarding the world around them. This is very problematic for two reasons: young kids are not learning about the environment, young kids are taught at a very early age that their beloved female teacher is uncomfortable teaching very basic information. This leads to continued gender inequality as well as a massive ignorance about Spaceship Earth.

Was there anything about the Roundtable that you found surprising?

Lynda: The Faculties of Education at the various universities are treated as second-class Faculties. Thus, the Professors trying to teach the new teachers do not get the respect and/or resources that other Faculties get. This just contributes to the massive inequities and confidence issues moving forward.

Fireside workshop at the National Roundtable on ESE in Pre-Service Teacher Education
Courtesy of Hilary Inwood, University of Toronto

Where there any results arising from the Roundtable?

Michal: The idea was to move forward – build a national organization around this topic, have an additional session, an education conference – and build a bigger presence in the education sphere on this topic.

Lynda: As a result of the Roundtable, several key steps were identified to move forward:

  • The need to establish a new national organization to support Environmental and Sustainability Education in pre-service teacher education,
  • Assess the state of Environmental and Sustainability Education in pre-services teacher education in Canada,
  • Develop supports for Environmental and Sustainability Education in Canada, and 
  • Advocate for the crucial importance of Environmental and Sustainability in pre-service teacher education in Canada.

Over the next few months, Trent will be organizing working groups from the Roundtable to formalize the National Roundtable on Environmental and Sustainability Education in Pre-Service Teacher Education.

Is there anything that RUW can contribute to the National Action Plan?

Lynda: Yes. Michal and I and other RUW members bring unique perspectives and passions born of desperation to the table. We are running out of time to save our "Spaceship Earth"; we are running out of time to deeply education the Voting Public. We were involved in helping to formulate the National Action Plan and will continue to help the Faculties of Education professors forge forward with teaching the Pre-Service teachers about environmental education and ensuring that it is taught in the younger grades.

Michal: RUW is committed to keeping the discussion going, but focusing on Ontario, instead of nationally. We want to work with the Ontario government to facilitate environment specific studies that is based locally, in Toronto, and around our main watersheds. 


Interview by Madeline Gibson, Communications and Project Management Assistant, Ryerson Urban Water