Research Summary

Systemic ecological illiteracy? Shedding light on meaning as an act of thought in higher learning

Preservice Teachers Struggle to Define Basic Ecological Concepts

Environmental Education Research

In Ontario, Canada, education leaders have made a commitment to building ecological literacy, instructing all teachers to integrate ecological literacy across subject areas in grades K-12. The province does not, however, require teachers to receive any specific preservice instruction in ecology.

In a recent study, the authors of this paper found that preservice teachers in Ontario had a poor grasp of the meaning of most key ecological concepts. The authors described the ecological terms the teachers used as “opaque empty shells,” with most teachers being able to use, but not accurately define, basic ecological concepts. The authors explain that “the teacher candidates used the words in articulate (university-level) speech, though,” which made the teachers appear to understand the terms. Only the researchers’ probing revealed that educators were expected to teach something about which they, in reality, knew very little.

In this study, the researchers focused on 25 preservice teachers enrolled in a Bachelor of Education program who were beginning a course that would qualify them to teach environmental science in middle and high school. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the participants had undergraduate degrees in science, geography, or outdoor recreation. During the first week of classes, the researchers administered a concept analysis test asking the preservice teachers to define 10 ecological concepts that are part of the province’s science guidelines (such as “greenhouse gas,” “recycling,” “clean energy,” “biodegradable,” and others). The authors explain that in this type of open response, “the learner must construct meaning in order to provide a definition rather than pick the ‘right’ meaning [in a multiple choice format] via some kind of mechanical analysis.” In this way, the authors could gauge the teachers’ level of understanding of the terms. In addition, the authors administered a short survey to the teachers.

As the authors found in their earlier research, the teachers had a poor grasp of the terms, despite many of the teachers’ past training in fields related to ecology. Out of 250 total definitions provided in the study, three quarters were either undefined or scored at the lowest level, indicating a vague or incorrect definition. No definitions scored at the highest level, indicating a robust understanding. Interestingly, the survey results reveal that the preservice teachers received a moderate amount of experience with ecological concepts as undergraduates, and were moderately confident about teaching ecological concepts. In the authors’ view, in light of the preservice teachers’ poor results in defining the concepts, “a moderate level of confidence is not merited.”

The preservice teachers were most likely to agree that most of their university education had come from lectures and assigned readings. As a result, the authors question whether this type of instructional style has truly been effective. They point to previous research that has demonstrated that lecture-style educational approaches are largely ineffective at helping learners “make meaning and adapt understanding.” As a result, the authors advocate new approaches to teacher professional development, so that teachers no longer “pass through” their training with their misconceptions “undetected.” They explain, “The authors have little reason to believe the . . . trend will change for the foreseeable future with similar cohorts of teacher candidates year after year unless elementary and secondary schooling and higher learning are re-conceptualized significantly. . . .”

The Bottom Line

Sometimes you have to probe a little to find out just how deeply a student (including student teachers) understands a concept. This research suggests that while teachers may be able to use ecological terms correctly, they may not have a robust—or even passable—understanding of the terms’ meaning. And that vague understanding is likely to make it difficult for teachers to effectively teach their students. Although this research focused only on a small group of Canadian preservice teachers, it serves as a reminder that teacher professional development should be based on the most current research about effective education, and that assessing teachers’ knowledge should go beyond quick multiple-choice methods to probe conceptual knowledge more deeply.