Environmental service-learning in an age of accountability
Mullen, Timothy M.
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This case study sought to understand how an interdisciplinary team of middle school teachers collaboratively planned, negotiated, and implemented environmental service-learning, evaluated student learning, and assessed outcomes of their efforts. The study was framed theoretically through the lens of teacher belief, place-based pedagogy, interdisciplinary teaming and curricula, environmental education, and service-learning which provided unique insights into the team’s efforts to make learning more relevant for middle school students. In this qualitative case study, interpretive analysis was used to generate initial assertions which were revised based on supporting or refuting evidence. Data consisted of audio recordings of team planning meetings, reflection journals, autobiographies, lesson plans, and other archive materials; these were analyzed using constant comparative methods to generate themes for both within-case and cross-case analysis. The study took place in a rapidly growing suburban community where development was impacting the quality of life. In an era of standards and accountability this interdisciplinary team believed environmental service-learning could be a useful pedagogy for fostering student understanding of mandated curriculum across their four subject areas: math, social studies, language arts, and social studies. Team members had participated in an environmental service-learning professional development experience, that provided them with a common ground to participate equally. The interdisciplinary team began the planning of the environmental service-learning unit with good intentions but as they progressed, their work moved in directions quite different from what they initially envisioned. Findings of the study demonstrate some of the challenges the team confronted in their efforts to plan and implement environmental service-learning in an educational setting of mandated curriculum and high stakes testing. The key findings of the study were: a) the emphasis of the teachers was on preparing students for high stakes testing, b) teachers believed that environmental service-learning was good for their students’ learning yet they reverted to the default epistemology of teaching within traditional subject boundaries because of a multitude of pressures, c) when the teachers felt time pressures to accomplish all they felt necessary, the service-learning component fell to the wayside, and d) all teachers evaluated student learning using subjective observations of student behaviors. Interdisciplinary team teachers considering environmental service-learning must anticipate obstacles to implementation and be realistic with regards to what they might achieve. This study demonstrates the need for a strong leader within the team, teacher professional learning, loyalty among team members, and involvement and support of school administrators. Of utmost importance, the teachers must acknowledge what they want students to achieve as a result of participating in environmental service-learning and develop methods for assessing learning.