Teaching toward Compassion: Environmental Values Education for Secondary Students

By Hartsell, Brandis | Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Teaching toward Compassion: Environmental Values Education for Secondary Students


Hartsell, Brandis, Journal of Secondary Gifted Education


Research has established that gifted children often develop deep sensitivities to world issues and injustices at an early age (Piechowski, 1997; Silverman, 1993). Once provided with information, they become more intensely interested in and concerned with current environmental problems (Clark, 1992; Cullingford, 1996). Although ecology is usually part of the secondary public school curriculum, the subject is often taught in rote fashion (deBettencourt & McCrea, 2000). This article discusses why and how the moral development and affective needs of gifted students at the

secondary level could be more appropriately addressed through a holistic approach to environmental studies and suggests some additional strategies that allow gifted students to advance their interest in ecological issues despite--or in deference to--the scheduling constraints imposed by the regular curriculum.

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One of the well-known characteristics of the gifted is their acute sense of justice. Gifted children are questioners, keen observers, logical thinkers. They will notice inequities, unfairness, double standards, and will question instances and experiences of that sort with passion. Often, they feel helpless and powerless to make an impact, and they suffer deeply from this. They worry about the injustices of the world. They worry about peace, about the bomb, about their futures, about the environment, about all the problems they encounter.

--A. Roeper (1988, p. 12)

Fortunately for gifted students, environmental education has become an established course of study in most public and private school systems. In a survey of 1,505 secondary level teachers conducted by deBettencourt and McCrea (2000), 61% said they included environmental topics in their curriculum. In fact, starting in the first grade, students are expected to understand basic ecological concepts in order to meet the requirements for their grade levels at the end of the school year. The Web page for the Environmental Literacy Council (2002) tells us that "Environmental sciences have become an integral part of the K-12 curriculum.... our relationship with nature [is] shaped by environmental actions" ([paragraph] 3). Unfortunately for gifted public school students, the educational setting rarely accommodates their intense fascination with learning (Ward, 1985). deBettencourt and McCrea's survey also revealed that due to time limitations, 90% of teachers at all grade levels, including the 61% mentioned above, taught environmental topics through discussion only. In a typical public school scenario, two interesting conditions often exist simultaneously. One is that concepts are repeated and reinforced multiple times at the most fundamental levels, slowing the pace of learning for "quick learners" who become bored. The other is that because time is of the essence in matters of curriculum coverage, a hurried presentation of the material is a common occurrence. Through discussions with other teachers and personal experience, it seems that both conditions can have detrimental effects.

First--and most importantly--conceptual connections are never made. Students are initially taught each idea in isolation from the other, especially when an emphasis is placed on learning the appropriate vocabulary. For instance, the term ecology may be defined, and examples may be given. However, when the time comes to define natural resources or extinction, the connection between these terms--which is essentially their relationship to the first term--is left for the students to discover. There simply is no time for the kind of discussion that would pull these concepts together. This strategic failure is particularly ironic in light of the fact that ecology is a science of connections.

In addition, because instructors may feel the need to move quickly through the chapters in their science texts and the curriculum is often presented in an "overview" fashion, students may place a higher value on the assessment of their learning rather than the learning itself. …

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