Research Summary

Reframing Westernized culture: insights from a Critical Friends Group on EcoJustice education

Using Critical Friends Groups to Engage Teachers in Transformative Learning about EcoJustice

Environmental Education Research

Professional development opportunities can help educators from diverse disciplines integrate environmental education into their classrooms. Researchers argue that environmental education often requires learners to transform, or reframe, the ways they see, understand, and interact with the world. By extension, professional development in environmental education should facilitate such transformative learning. According to previous research, the most effective professional development models are those that are relevant and long term, and that foster teacher collaboration and communication. The author of this study suggests that Critical Friends Groups (CFGs) are one such professional development model that could encourage transformative learning in environmental education.

This case study investigated professional development in EcoJustice education, an environmental education philosophy that focuses on exploring and dismantling Westernized cultural frames and reconstructing more ecologically sound frames of reference. Through this case study, the author sought to understand how participation in an EcoJustice education CFG might impact (personally and professionally) “ecologically-minded” teachers. That is, educators interested in integrating environmental issues into their curricula, yet not trained in environmental education.

The author recruited participants through an environmental education listserv and through personal contacts. Seven ecologically-minded teachers based in North Carolina opted to participate in the study. Once participants were selected, the author conducted 60-minute interviews with each of them to collect baseline information about their teaching philosophies and approaches, environmental ethics and values, and teaching challenges. The seven teachers then participated in seven CFG meetings that occurred over the course of five months. The CFG meetings were approximately 90 minutes long each. For each meeting, participants were asked to read a chapter in EcoJustice Education: Toward Diverse, Democratic, and Sustainable Communities and come to the CFG meeting prepared for conversation about the reading. The CFG meetings involved exploring the main ideas of EcoJustice, sharing relevant classroom experiences, and brainstorming ways to tackle challenges. Two months after the final CFG meeting, the author interviewed all participants again. Throughout the study, the author recorded and transcribed all interviews and meetings. The author analyzed the interview and CFG meeting data to identify trends in participants’ thoughts and experiences.

Overall, participants appreciated the CFG as a safe place to share ideas, be vulnerable, and brainstorm solutions. Study results indicate that teachers must go through the transformative experience on a personal level before being able to use EcoJustice to shape their classroom approaches and practices. Notably, by the final meeting and interview, participants struggled to define EcoJustice and acknowledged that they needed more time with the learning materials to fully understand the philosophy. This finding suggests that such transformative learning might require teachers to spend more time in CFG meetings.

However, the EcoJustice transformative learning process could be cognitively, emotionally, and psychologically taxing. The author found that the process of critiquing Westernized ways of thinking was akin to a critique of self. Such self-critique could be demanding for participants, particularly as they acknowledged their own roles in promoting and perpetuating Westernized ways of thinking that resulted in systemic oppression and/or exploitation.

As is the nature of case studies, this study involved only 7 participants, all of whom were ecologically-minded and from similar backgrounds. The study likely would have elicited very different results had the participants been more diverse and less committed to environmental education. This potential bias was compounded by the fact that all meeting and interview data were self-reported; the author did not observe the teachers in action in classrooms. As a participant observer in the research, the author also brought his own values to the CFG meetings, which might have influenced the trajectory of the discussions. This study was also limited by time constraints. More time would have allowed for deeper exploration of EcoJustice education and might have led to different results.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from this study is that reframing the ways we perceive and interact with the world is a process that takes time. While participants did begin the process of re-thinking their own cultural frames, they needed more time to figure out how to translate their personal reframing into their professional practice. The author recommends that CFGs might be more effective if offered regularly and over longer periods of time.

The Bottom Line

Professional development in environmental education can be very beneficial for teachers who integrate environmental education into their classrooms. Based on a review of previous studies, the author of this case study suggests that professional development opportunities should facilitate collaboration and communication among teachers. For this study, the author used a Critical Friends Group (CFG) professional development model to engage ecologically-minded teachers in learning about EcoJustice education. EcoJustice education is a transformative process, whereby learners reframe the ways they see, think about, and interact with the environment. The author found that going through a transformative EcoJustice education process is a cognitively, emotionally, and psychologically taxing endeavor that takes time. Transformative professional development opportunities, such as EcoJustice CFGs, require that teachers experience personal transformation before being able to translate their learning into their teaching practice. CFGs focusing on EcoJustice education should be offered regularly and for extended time periods for teachers to reap the full benefits of these groups.