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Thinking about the Environment: Students' Cognitive Maps

Posted by Scott Pollock
29 January 2014 - 7:57pm

Environmental history is a topic of undeniable importance, and one that I must confess I know far too little about. As a result of this I was quite excited to learn that this would be topic for this month’s THEN/HiER blog! Having closely read all of this month’s entries I feel that I have been given a great deal to think about!

This series of blogs was started off by Heather McGregor who reminded us that our ancestors worked with different cognitive maps in regards to the environment and that we must try to understand these maps if we are to appreciateboth past and present beliefs regarding the environment.David Scott later built upon this idea in his post, which called upon educators and students to critically examine our own thinking about the environment. In particular, Scott challenged us to reconsider our own subjectivities by learning about and thinking through the environmental perspectives of other groups, such as Native Canadians.

Heather and David’s discussion of cognitive maps led me to wonder what sort of narratives, beliefs, and cognitive tools my own students were carrying with them and if/how these were being challenged by the curriculum and resources they were asked to work with. As I reflected upon the conversations I have had with students about the environment over the past few years I realized that my students’ tended to adopt one of four positions regarding the environment.

First, and most common, are students who have taken the “ostrich position.” These students are aware that we are facing tremendous environmental issues, but they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of these problems. So, instead of thinking through these issues and acting upon them these students choose to bury their heads in the sand (like the proverbial ostrich) and to carry on as if nothing was wrong.

Second, and next most common, are students who have taken on the “justifier position.” These youths also recognize the existence of environmental issues, but they feel (and will argue quite passionately) that they should not have to do anything about them. Adopting a sort of “well everyone else does it so its O.K.” mentality, these students refuse to make any changes that threaten their ongoing pursuit of conspicuous consumption.

Third, and appearing much less frequently, are students who take on the “naïve anti-modernist position.” These pupils have accepted the role of modern society in our environmental problems and wish to see the Western world take an immediate 180-degree turn. They will frequently deride our consumer-driven society and openly criticize their peers. Unfortunately, while the intentions of these students are good, they often do not know what to do about the problem, aside from criticizing those around them. It is also interesting to note that while anti-modernist students frequently point to non-Western cultures as a source of inspiration they tend to have little understanding of these cultures, and are very often guilty of romanticizing them.

Fourth, and arising very infrequently (I can think of only one or two examples in the past few years), are students who embody an “informed and pragmatic position.” This sort of student recognizes the issues we face today and wishes to see change but also recognizes that it is unlikely that Western civilization will undergo the radical change called for by the naïve anti-modernist. Instead, the informed pragmatist draws inspiration from environmental history and tries to create momentum for change through a multitude of actions, ranging from small scale personal activities (e.g., reducing the waste they create) to much larger communal efforts (e.g., anti-idling campaigns, pushing for the construction of greener buildings).

Looking at these four stances on the environment the first question that came to my mind was why the vast majority of students adopt one of the first two positions and so few the later ones. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but I suspected that a lack of environmental history is at least partially to blame.

While curriculum statements and textbooks are not accurate reflections of what is taught in classrooms they are resources that are frequently used and do shape instruction. Looking at my bookcase and pulling at random two current Ontario grade ten textbooks- Canada: A Nation Unfolding (CANU) and Canada: Face of a Nation (CFOAN)- I find that there is little coverage of environmental history and that what little exists is unlikely to challenge the “ostrich” or “justifier” mindsets of many students.

CFOAN, for example, has two entries in its index for “environment.” The first is for an entry, three paragraphs long, discussing the rising awareness of environmental issues in the 1970s. The second entry is four paragraphs and discusses environmental concerns in the 1990s. Both entries recognize growing societal awareness of environmental issues, but also concede that public pressure is often ignored. This narrative is one that would be reassuring to students occupying the ostrich or justifier positions, as it seems to imply that our actions do not matter.

CANU has only one direct mention of the environment in its index, which refers to a nine-paragraph discussion of environmental issues from 1968-2000. While recognizing that environmental issues often require a global solution, CANU seems (to me) to engage in a practice, common in many textbooks, of noting a problem but quickly reassuring its reader that the issue has been addressed. So having noted the existence of environmental problems like acid rain, the section on the environment goes on to state that:

As awareness of environmental problems grew, so did the desire to take action. Dozens of environmental groups formed from coast to coast…These environmental activists were successful in capturing public attention, and in the 1970s governments began taking steps to clean up the environment. In 1971 the federal government established the Department of the Environment, and most provincial governments set up similar ministries. They set emission standards for clean air and water, and industries were forced to reduce their harmful emissions. Those who failed to comply could be taken to court and fined. Efforts were also made to control the use ad disposal of poisonous chemicals and to clean up polluted rivers, lakes, and landfill sites…In Ontario an Environmental Bill of Rights was passed in 1994. This Act gave individual citizens the right to force the government to inquire into the activities of suspected polluters (pp. 355-56).

In fairness, CANU does conclude its section on the environment by noting that “clearly, much work remains to be done” (p. 356), however, the focus of the text seems to be on the progress that has been made. Again, this narrative is one that is unlikely to challenge the mindset of ostriches or justifiers as it implies they need not worry.

So, if we are to challenge our students’ mindsets what sort of environmental narrative might we need? I would suggest that we need a much more robust, lengthy, and sophisticated one. While this could take many forms, I would hope that it recognizes that environmental issues did not suddenly appear in the 1970s, but that people everywhere have always struggled with environmental issues of some sort. This narrative should also illustrate the interconnection between economy, environment, and social groups, highlighting how our beliefs in one area (e.g., consumerism) influence others. Finally, this narrative should not be a whiggish story of perpetual progress, nor an extreme declinationist tale of our inevitable environmental demise. Instead it should discuss some of the many attempts at environmental change that have failed as well as some that have succeeded, suggesting to students that environmental improvement is possible, but far from inevitable. Unfortunately, at this time there is little evidence that such a narrative is being taught and I suspect that many classrooms (and not just my own) are filled with ostriches.

How do you incorporate environmental history into your history lessons?


Photo: Ostrich by Petr Kratochvil (public domain). Found at


Bolotta, A., Hawkes, C., Jarman, F., Keirstead, M., and Watt, J. (2000).Canada: Face of a nation. Toronto: Gage Publishing.

Newman, G. (2000). Canada: a nation unfolding. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.