Citation: Lackney, Jeffery A. (2008). “Teacher Environmental Competence in Elementary School Environments.” Children, Youth and Environments 18(2): 133-159. Retrieved [date] from http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye.
Teacher environmental competence, the ability to understand and effectively use physical instructional space for a pedagogical advantage, continues to receive limited attention in education. Exploring the perceptions of 20 teachers at five urban elementary schools, this study investigates teachers’ understanding and effective use of the physical environment to meet instructional goals. It examines organizational factors that contribute to poor environmental competence in school environments. The action research approach employed in this study includes a set of interconnected training, research and action activities. Once teachers were introduced to a means of communicating their environmental experience through the training component, they were able to articulate specific environmental concerns, see their interrelationship, and make judgments of priority. The paper suggests avenues for raising the environmental competence of educators within the context of educational reforms advocating for collaborative, learner-centered environments.
Environmental competence refers to the ability to effectively use the physical environment to meet desired goals (Steele 1980). The question of how, and to what degree, teachers understand and effectively use instructional space to their pedagogical advantage continues to receive only limited attention in education research (Taylor 2005; Horne-Martin 2002; OECD 1989; Taylor and Vlastos 1983; Richardson 1970). The main objective of the study reported here was to raise the environmental competence of teachers. A second objective was to determine, if possible, the degree to which those increased competencies influenced their classroom practice.
Understanding how to effectively organize instructional space is critical to successful classroom practice, both in terms of classroom design (Taylor 2005; Sanoff 2001; Nelson and Sundt 1993; Taylor and Vlastos 1983) and management (Weinstein 1996; Follows 2000). Educators admit the importance of the physical school environment as a contextual factor in the educational process (Weinstein 1981). For instance, they perceive school facilities as affecting their ability to function as professionals (Overbaugh 1990; Lewis and Smith 1990). However, the degree to which educators are able to manipulate the school environment for their purposes varies considerably (Taylor and Vlastos 1983). Regardless of improvements in classroom size, spatial configuration, physical features, furnishings or equipment, traditional patterns of direct instruction persist (Sanoff 2001). This paper will argue that these unchanging patterns of use exist because, first, educators as a whole lack the environmental competence to effectively use the school environment to support their teaching practice. Second, educators lack a common language for expressing their experience of the school and for articulating their environmental concerns with reference to the activities of teaching and learning.
Overall, educators have not been formally trained to use the physical environment in the learning process (Weinstein 1996). OECD (1989) suggests that the environmental competence of teachers could be greatly improved through in-service programs and professional development, although at present, this training is virtually non-existent. What is needed is a method of training designed to assist teachers to gain insights by effectively using the physical setting to better support their teaching practices, and thus lead to more engaged learning on the part of their students. Action research, specifically Kurt Lewin’s triangle of action, research and training (1946, reprinted in Lewin 1997) offers an approach to raise environmental competence. This study makes the argument that training teachers to conduct assessments of their own school environments will lead to actions that support the teachers’ practice and will further improve their environmental competence.