A forum for exchanging ideas

This blog has three functions: (1) a repository of ideas, findings, reflections, readings, and observations from a faculty travelling seminar on sustainability in 2011, and (2) a space for continuing exchange of ideas about how we can carry forward lessons from that tour into our classrooms, our colleges, and our communities, and (3) a place to post links to the many amazing developments that are in the news. The purpose of this space is to help sustain an ongoing seminar-like exchange that can capture and build on ideas from our original seminar.

Updates to this blog will be irregular and occasional, but it can provide a resource for colleges and classes
and other groups that share our enthusiasms, concerns, and common challenges.

Our initial sustainability seminar was funded by the Mellon Foundation,
whose support has been critical to initiatives in faculty development and intellectual exchange.

Education and Sustainability


Olivia Aguilar, Denison University and Dana Dudle, DePauw University

Environmental education in the U.S. encompasses many areas including (but not limited to) education in the outdoors, education about the outdoors, and education for the outdoors.  The difference between these areas is hard to distinguish but can usually be determined by the objectives set forth by the educator.  According to the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency, environmental education “increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues or problems.  In doing so, it provides the public with the necessary skills to make informed decisions and take responsible action…Environmental education does not advocate particular viewpoint or course of action.  Rather, environmental education teaches individuals how to weigh various sides of an issue through critical thinking and it enhances their own problem-solving and decision-making skills” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2011). Therefore, despite our ultimate aims and goals, we teach in, about, and for the outdoors from an unbiased perspective.  As an environmental educator and an educator in the sciences, we find limits within the current approach to environmental education in the U.S.  It is our intention to learn about environmental education practices during our trip to Denmark and Germany so that we can compare practices and learn how we might improve in this area.

Udeskole in Danish schools.
(gathered from papers by and interviews with Dr. Peter Bentsen)

The idea of udeskole in Copenhagen is being studied by Dr. Peter Bentsen of the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Forest, Landscape and Planning.  He is currently one of the only researchers associated with Skovskolen, the forest campus for the Univesity of Copenhagen. His background is in sport science and psychology and he has a PhD in outdoor education and green space management.  His work and interests span the areas of friluftsliv (discussed in further detail below), outdoor education and outdoor recreation.  He works with practitioners, organizations and institutions at local, state and international levels.  Bentsen is currently crossing disciplines as well as institutions to study udesckole in the Danish school system, including the Research School for Forest, Landscape and Planning, the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, the College of Education and the College of Forest and Landscape.

General background on udeskole. The concept of udeskole seems to be most closely associated with the American concept of education in the outdoors or outdoor education.  In fact, Udeskole is roughly translated into “outdoor school”.  Bentsen, Mygind and Randrup (2009) explain the definition of udeskole well in, “Towards an understanding of udeskole; education outside the classroom in a Danish context” and discuss the results of a study that intends to identify the use of and obstacles to udeskole in k-12 schools in Denmark.  To summarize, udeskole serves as a method of teaching students about different concepts through an out-of-classroom context, and often times local setting, that is often outside. The outdoor concept is meant to capture the “social, economical, political and geographical context” (Bentsen et al., 2009, p.32) of a particular place.  Bentsen argues that this is significant for the Danish because many do not move far beyond their places of birth during their lifetimes, thus understanding their sense of place is important.  This is further enhanced by the rapid urbanization of the landscape and lack of forested areas (Bentsen et al. 2009) in Denmark.

Bentsen, Jensen, Mygind, and Randrup (2010) claim that roughly 28% of schools responding to a study on udeskole in Denmark have practiced udeskole at some point and 10% of all kindergarten classes practice udeskole.  Udeskole is largely a grassroots phenomenon among educators and is often a regular and consistent part of the classrooms in which it is practiced. 

Benefits and challenges associated with udeskole.  In the future Bentsen would like to see udeskole implemented in most Danish schools, and at the very least in all kindergarten classes. He suggests that the success of udeskole is largely due to the flexibility teachers have with their approach to teaching the state curriculum, as well as the fact that the movement to include udeskole is largely bottom-up, or a “grassroots movement of practitioners” (Bentsen et al. 2010, p.237).  This, perhaps, complicates his own agenda to see implementation of udeskole from the top-down, for at least all kindergartens.  In this scenario, udeskole would no longer be a grassroots movement, which might take away from the creativity involved in its implementation in the classroom. 

While acknowledging this, Bentsen does believe that udeskole could be more widely adopted if teachers were provided with teacher training in the udeskole method (Bentsen, personal communication). Thus, it appears that as this agenda is pursued, there might be obstacles faced that are similar to those faced by environmental educators in the U.S., such as standardization of educational goals, development of appropriate curriculum, and standardization of practitioner education/certification.  Similarly, udeskole is considered beneficial when it is a constant and regular part of the curriculum, much like environmental education in the states.  Still, it appears that both countries lack the time and resources to devote to these important issues in the current education system. 

 However, it seems that one element unique to the Danish school system is that each local school district is largely influenced by the local municipalities and the parents of the children in that district.  For example, when Bentsen explains the udeskole model, he depicts a triangle with parents, school and youth at each vertex.  This demonstrates how the udeskole is built to meet the needs of the local community and its youth.  Through my own research, I have found that including the needs of the local community in the educational process appears to provide more opportunities for students to participate fully in that process (Aguilar & Krasny, 2011). 

Finally, the support for udeskole appears to be based on its focus with place-based contexts, healthy lifestyles and motivation to learn.  The forest campus for the Univesity of Copenhagen, Skovskolen, is also hoping for an increase in this type of education and has even developed outdoor structures like wooden cars, huts and large tree houses to support udeskole. The focus on health in Copenhagen’s approach to udeskole can also be seen with the concern about additives and processed food, as well as the bicycling culture.  In fact Dundes, Kulow, and Lemke (2009) argue that this “healthy lifestyle” component might also be used as an entry into sustainable behaviors for current college students in the U.S.

Obstacles to widespread udeskole. Despite the findings regarding the use of udeskole, only 15% of schools surveyed by Bentsen claim to want to include the concept more in their curriculum, while 35% of schools do not have a desire to include udeskole.  This might be a result of the obstacles many educators purported to experience in the study by Bentsen et al. (2010).  The major obstacles to implementing udeskole in all schools include the costs of hiring more teachers to implement udeskole, costs for transportation to outdoor sites, and costs of training teachers in udeskole practices.  There are also barriers associated with the time needed to practice udeskole in an already crowded curriculum (Bentsen et al. 2010).

Another obstacle to widespread use of udeskole is the difficulty of evaluating the success of the method.  Most forms of environmental education in the U.S., have, as an objective, to change environmental attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to studying the true effectiveness of environmental education programs at changing attitudes and behaviors.  This also appears to be true of udeskole in Copenhagen.  Dr. Bentsen believes it is hard to gain support and funding for research that is not quantitative by nature.  Thus, his objective is not to compare learning with udeskole and learning without, but rather to show that udeskole is as effective as regular schooling but has the added benefits mentioned above. 

Comparative look at Udeskole and environmental education in Denmark
As context is important in the concept of udeskole, it is also gaining importance in educational research from the U.S.  That being said, I want to identify both the context as well as the perceptions that affect how I understand Denmark’s primary approach to environmental education.  Ultimately my perception of udeskole is based on my background with environmental education in the U.S., that is education that spans the realms of “in, about and for” the environment.  Udeskole seems to be strictly focused on education “in” the environment with recognition on the importance of place. The focus, however, does not explicitly touch upon the “for” the environment, often found in environmental education practices in the U.S.  Still, the focus on biking and public transportation, as well as sustainable design in Denmark would suggest that sustainability is of significant importance in this country. So the question is, “How do issues of sustainability become important enough for the Danish to ask their government to pursue these objectives?”

Surprisingly, this is much different than the type of environmental education I anticipated seeing in Denmark.  Recent literature indicates that the notion of education for sustainable development has been widely adopted in the EU and other developing countries.  My understanding was that compared to other countries, the U.S. was behind in our approaches to teaching about sustainability and sustainable behaviors.  For instance education for sustainable development (ESD) involves “education that allows learners to acquire the skills, capacities, values and knowledge required to ensure sustainable development…(and) that fosters responsible citizens and promotes democracy by allowing individuals and communities to enjoy their rights and fulfill their responsibilities…”(UNESCO 2011).  Similarly, Kevany (2007) argues that ESD is largely about values education which is in stark contrast to EPA’s definition of environmental education in the U.S.  However, in Denmark it appears that sustainable development (in the American and UNEP context) is not a primary concern.  Instead, growth (yet responsible) seems to be a primary concern.  Still, the notion of responsible growth and careful use of resources seems to be implied in many of the Danish institutions, while not explicitly addressed.

On the other hand, sustainable behaviors in Freiburg, Germany seem to be much more directed. This can be seen with the trash receptacles in most buildings and on the streets that call for careful attention to which should be recycled. There are wooden playgrounds in many pockets of the city.  We visited a solar classroom used to help train expert technicians in solar technology.  The demonstrations we saw were intended to allow students to use hands-on activities to connect the ideas of energy and power to concepts they are familiar with (exercise, food, etc.).  This sector of the educational infrastructure in Freiburg is focused on preparing a population of skilled workers in “green technologies” who will continue to receive training throughout their careers.   Our bicycle tour of sustainable development in Freiburg, and especially in the Vauban district, highlighted primary schools and kindergartens as places where local children are likely to experience a hands-on, interdisciplinary, “whole person” education using Steiner-Waldorf or Montessori methods.  Our guide suggested that these educational methods should be congruent with developing positive attitudes towards living sustainability.  Also in a residential section of Vauban, we saw informal educational materials meant for the public that explained some details of the energy-plus construction used in the homes, as well as the transportation design of the Vauban sector.  Although it wasn’t entirely clear to whom these educational displays were directed (tourists?  local residents?), the explicit presentation of the materials may reinforce or inspire more sustainable practices among passers-by.

Reflections on the “4 C’s” associated with Udeskole in Danish schools.
Classroom/Campus: While I have learned a great deal over the course of this trip, it is difficult to generalize and claim that I have learned a great deal about environmental education in Denmark and Germany. This is likely to be expected after only a ten day trip.  Rather, I’ve learned that culture and context play a significant role in both how we do things and how we perceive things are done.  I came to Europe with the assumption that I would learn how we can do things better in the U.S.  I am leaving with the feeling that we might be on the right path in the U.S. in regards to teaching about sustainable development.  The overarching complexity seems to be the issue of scale, both within in the U.S. and with comparing the U.S. to other places.  For example, there are places within the U.S. that are doing exciting things with environmental education and education for sustainable development; however, due to the size of the country, it is often difficult to point to the states as an excellent example of sustainable behaviors.  On the other hand, in smaller countries with excellent examples, it is much easier to generalize excellent behaviors to the whole country.  Thus, the most important lesson I will take with me to my classes is the value of culture and context. 

It is clear that geographic, historical, political and economic issues play a significant role in the policies and behaviors of both institutions and individuals in the countries we visited.  For instance, the biking culture of Denmark is largely influenced by the history of the country and its geography.  While the flatness of the country as well as the dependence on bikes after World War II have led to a culture of biking, the culture has provided a type of feedback that leads to policies that enable efficient and safe biking around the city.  In a similar fashion, the “welfare state” that is both appreciated and disliked, allow for the people to be invested in each other and therefore concerned with the overall wellbeing of the entire population.  Still, some of the Danes we met with argue that this prevents grassroots and individual activism, as many feel that the state will take care of their problems. 

These issues will fit easily into my “People and the Environment” class, which is organized around political, economic and social issues surrounding environmental problems.  The trip will also help me to round out my curriculum in “Approaches to Environmental Education”.  The class focuses on environmental education in the U.S. during the first part of the semester, but I try to bring attention to international environmental education practices during the second half.  This trip will enable me to provide a first-hand account of some of the practices I’ve encountered overseas, as well as discuss my own misinformed assumptions about environmental education in other countries.  This is an important lesson for both students and the campus in general.

Campus/Community: In fact, I hope to relay to both my college and community the importance of recognizing both our assumptions about a particular place as well as the generalizations we tend to make about a particular place after only a few observations.  This trend becomes problematic, especially when we teach.  More importantly, it can obscure how we understand things and prevent us from paying attention to subtleties.  The main goals for my classes include teaching critical thinking as well as empathy. This trip has, perhaps, emphasized the importance of these goals.  Content is only valuable when context is understood.  Often times, when the context changes, so does the meaning of the content.  Thus, I want my students to value and appreciate the complexities associated with each context so that they can make meaning of the classroom material in multiple ways.

Overall, it is refreshing to see the importance of the out-of-classroom context emphasized in other countries. While many educators in the U.S. have been doing this through place-based and experiential education, the Danish might be able to make progress in implementing this method throughout their entire school system. 

Challenges:  Many educators at small liberal arts colleges appear to be aware of the benefits of place-based and experiential education.  Still, we are often confronted with the same obstacles mentioned by Bentsen, time, money and resources.  The challenge, then, is finding ways to be creative about our methods of teaching with our limited resources.  Usually, this comes down to a question of process versus product.  At the university level, each educator has to decide how to balance these two issues according to their philosophy of education.

Ultimately, the challenge that I am confronted with is knowing how much I do not know.  This trip has opened my eyes to some of the misconceptions I had about environmental education at the international level.  Unfortunately, due to the size and location of my institution, there is often a feeling of isolation in regards to issues pertaining to my field.  I think further international travel and connections can help to clarify my perceptions and understandings.

Concluding thoughts: I firmly believe that experiences provide us with the ability to think more broadly and critically about a particular issue.  This particular experience, funded by the Mellon grant, has genuinely opened my eyes to my own assumptions and educational experiences within my field.  I am very grateful for the learning experience as well as the social experience provided by the Mellon grant.  I feel that both my research and my teaching will improve because of this opportunity.

 Udeskole and early environmental experience at the Forest Campus, Skovskolen, Denmark.

General background on Skovskolen.  The forest campus, Skovskolen, is situated outside of Hillerød, Denmark about 42 km from the center of Copenhagen.  The campus occupies a clearing within a 2800-hectare forest fragment that was historically a part of Denmark’s royal hunting grounds.  Though the surrounding forest has been selectively harvested throughout its history, it has not been cleared for hundreds of years.  Skovskolen sits within the third-largest fragment of mature forest in Denmark, and the campus contains some of the oldest oaks in the country (having been planted soon after the British attacks on Denmark in 1807), as well as Esrum Lake, Denmark’s third-largest freshwater lake (surface area:1729 ha).  The site will become one of Denmark’s first national parks, renamed “King’s North” by 2014.
Skovskolen is part of the Forest and Landscape department at Copenhagen University. Under the leadership of Anders Bülow, the primary function of the campus programs has shifted dramatically, away from production forestry toward forest maintenance and conservation, outdoor education, recreation, and tourism – more generally, Friluftsliv.  Skovskolen has >70 full-time employees ranging from food-service providers to instructors of university courses.  At present Peter Bentsen is the only academic researcher whose work is based at the site, but the administration is interested in increasing the research activities at the forest campus facility. The physical structures include administrative offices, a large auditorium, and several classrooms as well as a cantina that seats >100 people and residential cabins students.  There are outdoor teaching facilities include an outdoor playground, a lumberjack training ground, treehouses, and campgrounds, as well as >30 km of hiking trails.

Educational programming and course offerings at Skovskolen.  The forest campus serves a range of educational functions, for young children through adults. It is possible to earn a Masters’ degree in outdoor education or Fruiluftsliv based at Skovskolen, but many of the courses offered at the forest campus are vocational training courses, and specialized skills courses for students of forestry and other outdoor occupations.  Below is a bit more detail about two of the programs we discussed more extensively with Peter.

Nature interpretation training.  A recent grant from the Nature Agency (a subsidiary of the Danish Outdoor Council) provides funding for a required year-year-long in-service training course for all nature interpreters who are employed by the Danish municipalities or other public organizations.  The term “interpreter” might be an imprecise translation, according to our contacts; Peter Bentsen also used the term “nature mentor” to describe these students’ work.  At the Skovskolen, the course trains the interpreters/mentors to communicate effectively, and to help the public gain an appreciation for nature.  The course does not specifically teach scientific or cultural content such as forest ecology or land use history— many of the interpreters hired by the municipalities have University degrees in biological science or related fields.  Thus, Skovskolen serves a formal educational function for students who will be informal nature educators in communities across Denmark. 

Forest kindergarten.  Skovskolen is the site of a large forest kindergarten initiative beginning in the next academic year. In collaboration with several local teachers, Skovskolen will host several kindergarten classes all day, all year long. Peter Bentsen will be providing some teacher training for those involved with the kindergarten,as well as studying the effectiveness of the curricular approach used in the forest kindergarten. Ideally, the experience will result in an integration of nature education into the kindergarten experience via the methods of udeskole.  Peter Bentsen hopes that the forest kindergarten at Skovskolen will serve as a model, and when pressed, stated that he’d like all kindergartens in Denmark to incorporate much more udeskole into their plans.

Informal and community uses of Skovskolen.  The forest campus serves an important function as a site of informal outdoor education for the local community.  When classes are not using them, the outdoor facilities (except the treehouses) are available to the public. Families from Hillerød and other towns near the campus bring children to use the playground equipment, hike in the forests, use the fitness tracks, enjoy a picnic, etc.  Several times during our meetings, Peter Bentsen quoted a report from the 1970’s Forest and People project, which found that the most common leisure/fitness activity for Danes was “a walk in the forest”; Peter’s point of view is that Danish forests are the “country’s largest fitness centers”. Skovskolen and its surrounding trail system provide attractive, extensive (if not easily accessible) venues for family and individual exploration of nature.

Limits of Skovskolen.  According to Peter Bentsen, Skovskolen does not have the explicit goal of education for sustainable development (ESD).  The forest kindergarten and nature interpretation programs do not appear to have extensive curricular focus on sustainable practices, and we did not observe any written educational materials of any sort aimed at informal users of the site.  In addition, the site is not focused on education about the environment:  forest ecology, land use history, botany, etc. are not part of the training for nature interpreters, and are not a main focus of kindergarten courses.

Future plans at Skovskolen.  Skovskolen seems to function successfully as a site for students and community members to engage in outdoor activity, increase their fitness, engage with peers, and spend time in the woods, as well as a site for formal vocational training for foresters and nature interpreters (among others).  In general, Peter Bentsen and Anders Bülow have the goal of using Skovskolen to “make Deep Ecology practical”, i.e., to use outdoor education to instill a belief in the intrinsic value of forests and nature in Danish children and their families. Anders Bülow has ambitious plans for Skovskolen, including the development of more extensive built infrastructure and technological connections to the main Copenhagen University campus. Bülow and Bentsen are strong proponents of any strategy that supports the development of Friluftsliv and udeskole in the lives of Danish citizens; in the 21st century these strategies will entail explicit links between the forest campus and the traditional/indoor educational facilities (via high-speed internet, video, teleconferencing, etc.). 

Relevance of Skovskolen to environmental education outside of Denmark.  Skovskolen is a useful example of a multi-use outdoor education facility that promotes connections among residents of local communities, University staff, and the Danish natural world. Perhaps the openness to the surrounding towns is most relevant to similar sites outside of Denmark. The work of Louise Chawla and others on early development of positive attitudes toward nature emphasizes the importance of frequent, early exposure to natural areas.  For example, Chawla and Cushing (2007) reviewed the literature on experiences that affect environmental attitudes, and report that across all studies they examined, “half to more than 80% of respondents identify childhood experiences of nature as significant, such as free play, hiking, camping, fishing, and berry-picking”.  Skovskolen provides opportunities activities such as these; most will be incorporated into the forest kindergarten.  Chawla and Cushing (2007) go on to state that significant, positive early experiences of nature may predispose people to take an interest in nature, and work for its protection.  Though conservation is not the same as sustainability, there is some evidence that interest or work in nature conservation is congruent with activism for community sustainability.

Still, the visit to Skovskolen left some of us wondering if and how education for sustainable attitudes and behaviors is formally or explicitly incorporated into the K-12 system in Denmark.  Peter Bentsen was not explicit about his answer; when asked, he spoke about the forest campus’s role in development of friluftsliv among Danish children and families… however, inspiration for friluftsliv does not comprise education for sustainable development.  We’re left with some mysteries.

Reflections on the “4 C’s”: a few ideas inspired by Skovskolen
Classroom/Campus: First, think about ways in which we might effectively incorporate the udeskole method into our own courses more often.  It’s always useful to consider if the classroom is the only or best setting for learning; do we rely on the classroom environment out of convenience or habit?  Could some of our college-aged students learn more effectively if the context of the lesson was more experiential?  What assumptions about material we teach might be interrupted if we change the setting?

Also, it might be interesting to investigate the points at which methods that are comparable to Peter Bentsen’s descriptions of udeskole/ “education in the outdoors” (and, for those of us without environmental education specialists at our campuses, environmental education itself), are incorporated into the curriculum in Education or Ed Studies departments (if any).  Our conversations made clear that individual teachers’ passion and interest in udeskole have driven the rising interest in this approach to education.  If our own college students lack early experiences in nature, they may be less likely to consider education in the outdoors in their own classroom plans.  This cycle of “all children left inside” could (potentially) be interrupted at the university level if the education studies curricula include discussions of work such as Louise Chawla’s.

Community.  It would be valuable to evaluate (and perhaps increase) the opportunities for forming connections between campuses and the surrounding school systems that incorporate outdoor activities with local children.  I would like our campuses to open (and/or widen) connections between campus natural areas and local families with children, perhaps with events aimed at communities (with specific invitations), or specific facilities designed for children’s play or other functions.  How do our communities engage the public in developing friluftsliv? The closest analogue to the nature interpreters who were trained at Skovskolen that we could imagine was a “ranger” in national forests—however, our USFS forest rangers are based in (somewhat) remote sites, and may not be accessible to much of the general public. Is it feasible to imagine publically-funded nature interpreters that are separate from rangers based in national forests? 

Challenges.  As Peter Bentsen mentioned during our conversations, assessing the effectiveness of udeskole methods has proven difficult.  There are few quantitative studies that provide strong evidence that education in the outdoors is more effective / efficient than traditional classroom-bound coursework.  Therefore, especially in the standards-focused atmosphere of many public schools in the U.S., it may be difficult to persuade elementary teachers that these methods are worthwhile.

Aguilar, O. M. & Krasny, M. E. (2011).  Using the communities of practice framework to examine an after-school environmental education program for Hispanic youth.  Environmental Education Research, 17(2), 217-234.

Bentsen, P., Mygind, E. & Randrup, T.B. (2009).  Toward an understanding of udeskole: education outside the classroom in a Danish context.  Education 3-13, 37(1), 29-44.

Bentsen, P., Jensen, F. S., Mygind, E., & Randrup, T.B. (2010).  The extent and dissemination of udeskole in Danish schools.  Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 9, 235-243.

Chawla, L. and D.F. Cushing.  2007.  Education for strategic environmental behavior.  Environmental Education Research 13(4): 437-452.

Dundes, L., Kulow, A. & Lemke, D. (2009).  Energy conservation strategies among American college students.  Energy Efficiency, 2, 233-241.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011).  Accessed from http://www.epa.gov/enviroed/basic.html on June 8, 2011.

Kevany, K. D. (2007).  Building the requisite capacity for stewardship and sustainable development.  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 8(2), 107-122.

____.  2011.  Skovskolen: Continuing education, courses and activities for forest and landscape industry, outdoor life and park management.  Course catalog, Copenhagen University.

United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Bureau of Public Information Education for Sustainable Development. Accessed from http:/www.unesco.org/bpi/pdf/memobpi39_sustainabledvpt_en.pdf  on June 8, 2011.