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Teaching Global Environmental Politics

Summary and Keywords

Learning about international environmental politics requires students to comprehend large amount of information across multiple disciplines, while also considering the ramifications of broad issues in international relations as they relate to the environment. As such, teaching global environmental politics poses numerous pedagogical challenges. The concept of “pedagogical content knowledge” provides a most useful framework for teaching global environmental politics because of its dynamism and emphasis on the developmental aspects of learning. There are six steps that create a process for continuous improvement in a cycle of learning from one’s teaching: comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension. Two surveys conducted concurrently between April and November 2008 were analyzed to reveal patterns that suggest strengths and weaknesses in content and pedagogy. The first analyzed 47 global environmental politics syllabi by 44 instructors teaching at major colleges and universities in the United States. The second was a confidential and anonymous online survey of 114 teachers in the field. The combined results of these two surveys show some inconsistency between what instructors say and what their syllabi show. Ultimately, teachers can improve learning by drawing on four major themes that can be distilled from the framework of pedagogical content knowledge: setting the context; building positive social norms; emphasizing inquiry, discovery, and synthesis; and creating the possibility of transformation. Possible future directions of teaching and learning include the incorporation of distance learning practices, electronic applications, and creative combinations of both with traditional methods.

Keywords: global environmental politics, pedagogical content knowledge, pedagogy, content, transformation, comprehension, distance learning practices, electronic applications


This essay explores the state of teaching global environmental politics through the lens of pedagogical content knowledge. It is informed by data collected in two surveys conducted concurrently between April and November 2008. The first analyzed 47 global environmental politics syllabi prepared by 44 instructors teaching at major colleges and universities in the United States. The second was a confidential and anonymous online survey of 114 teachers in the field. In the final section, the author addresses possible future directions of teaching and learning incorporating distance learning practices, electronic applications, and creative combinations of both with traditional methods.

Increased awareness of and growing concern with environmental issues at the international level has resulted in a rapid expansion of scholarship and practice in the field of global environmental politics. An unprecedented response has come from nearly every segment of civil society and is a result of several interrelated factors, including but not limited to the:

  • rise of the global environmental movement;

  • growth in international institutions and frameworks;

  • increased scholarly work in all areas of international relations;

  • consequences of globalization and its worldwide economic impacts;

  • enhanced awareness in the developed world of its ethical responsibilities;

  • improved scientific knowledge pertaining to global environmental degradation;

  • enhanced understandings of environmental management principles; and

  • advanced communications among nations.

The study of environmental politics has become a central theme in the field of international relations. Analysis of international environmental policy-making has greatly advanced institutional theory, especially in terms of interest-based and knowledge-based explanations (Selin 2006). Pedagogy is generally dominated by this institutional approach, which emphasizes theoretical literature and explanatory frameworks focusing on institutions, actors, and interests.

Learning about international environmental politics requires students to comprehend large amounts of information across multiple disciplines, apply often unfamiliar perspectives, some of which are controversial in nature, while also considering the ramifications of broad issues in international relations – such as globalization, structural inequality, and violent conflict – as they relate to the environment. In addition to this informational complexity, teachers face the task of facilitating vigorous intellectual debate without having class discussion disintegrate into assertions of simplified ideological positions, while preparing students to become citizens or leaders who understand the integrated nature and large-scale dimensions of environmental problems.

Teaching global environmental politics, therefore, poses numerous pedagogical challenges and has become an increasing focus of concern for teachers and researchers in the field. For example, Michael Maniates, a political science professor who teaches global environmental politics, launched an email discussion list, gep-ed listserv, which was quickly filled with comments and reflections about the difficulties of teaching a multidisciplinary subject over the short period of time typical of a semester or quarter. In addition, the subject matter often strikes deep emotional chords with students, which can lead to a tendency to feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of seemingly intractable problems and, subsequently, to lowered attendance (Maniates 2003).

The Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework

Contemporary learning theory, much of which grew out of the works of early thinkers about adult learning (Piaget 1971; Jung and Storr 1983; Rogers 1996), has much to offer college teachers. While Kolb (1984) and Gardner (1993) have added interesting dimensions to the theory of learning styles and cycles, Shulman’s concept of “pedagogical content knowledge” provides a most useful framework for teaching global environmental politics because of its dynamism and emphasis on the developmental aspects of learning.

Shulman (1986; 1991) introduced the term to highlight the necessity of combining two types of knowledge for effective teaching: (a) content, also known as substantive knowledge of the subject itself; and (b) knowledge of the curricular development of the subject. Knowledge of curricular development requires understanding general teaching principles and making the tacit assumptions that guide course development more explicit. Shulman also outlines a model of pedagogical reasoning – a cycle of learning from one’s teaching – comprised of six steps that create a process for continuous improvement. These steps are comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension. The cycle provides a useful lens through which to examine the current modalities used in teaching global environmental politics.

Initial comprehension begins with understanding purposes, subject matter, and ideas, both within the subject area and outside of it, which may affect teaching of the subject area. As Shulman frames it, an educational function underlies all classroom instruction and is employed to help students gain literacy in the subject. All students do not come equally prepared to courses in global environmental politics, which requires the course instructor to perform some assessment of the students’ basic knowledge of the subject area. Such an assessment can be as simple as an open group discussion or more formal, as the course instructor may determine appropriate. If needed, readings could be offered to increase understanding of global environmental science and international geography while building student comprehension even as they begin to read about environmental problems and international actors.

An important part of maximizing comprehension is creating environments that enable students to use and enjoy their learning experiences. Often, this is accomplished through open, interactive discussions and structured experiences such as simulations and games. Furthermore, the pedagogical content knowledge framework emphasizes the importance of building student skills around how to ask appropriate questions and find new information. In this conceptualization, inquiry, discovery, and synthesis are emphasized to:

  • give students the opportunity to learn how to inquire and discover new information; and

  • help students develop broader understandings of new information

Well-designed group projects are a pedagogical method that supports this type of skill building. Students learn to seek out information (inquire), reveal new ideas (discover), and pool their knowledge together to form complex understandings (synthesize).

Global environmental politics calls into question the way the political world works. Discussions rapidly expand to include the North–South divide, sustainable development, international political economy, and international trade. Introducing students to these issues can help them develop the skills and values they will need to function in a democratic society, as well as introduce them to notions of citizen engagement. This argument recognizes that education serves more than a content function. Education is not value-free and will convey some point of view. By building the analytic skills of students, teachers offer the possibility of helping to create a more vigorous civil society through active engagement of complex social issues (Shulman 1991).

In transformation, the teacher is responsible for adapting content into instructional methods that are compelling and sensitive to student abilities and backgrounds, which fosters an open learning environment and facilitates transformational experiences. An example in teaching global environmental politics would be to have students learn about international environmental negotiations by having them simulate the discussions around climate change that led to the Kyoto Protocols. Using this example, the teacher needs to prepare the materials, represent them in a form that is understandable to the student, select the best method and model for the instruction, adapt the material based on individual students’ learning styles, and then tailor the experience to the individual students in that classroom.

Shulman also suggests that the classroom is a place to build positive social norms. In the context of the global environmental problems, this suggests that a course such as this could:

  • enhance students’ sense of responsibility to become caring people;

  • teach students to trust and respect others; and

  • help them discover how they might personally contribute to the well being of their community.

Ethics and morality also have a place in the classroom. As an example, students can come to an understanding of how the tragedy of the commons plays out in ways that have direct consequences for them as individuals operating in society. They can also learn that we share the biosphere with all species, even those unseen and unknown to us. The Tragedy of the Commons simulation (College Entrance Examination Board 2004), several versions of which are readily available on the internet, can be adapted for undergraduates or graduate students, as well as for small and large class sizes. Experiencing this simulation is an effective source of inspiration for ethical discussion about the choices we make and whether we have an ethical responsibility toward care and stewardship.

Adapting classroom activities to individual students requires rigorous preparation beforehand to understand their individual abilities, styles of learning, and other pertinent information that will impact their learning experience, followed up by a careful evaluation afterwards in order to determine if learning objectives were met. By building a relational space in the classroom, the teacher creates the conditions for students to interact with the subject while also learning more about the self. In larger classes, this might have to be done through questionnaires that reveal learning styles as well as biographical information. Larger groups may also be divided into smaller cohorts based on commonalities or differences as a way to create more relational ways of learning. One way to do this is to use multiple teaching methods that take into account different learning styles. Teaching global environmental politics may be a particularly good topic for this, since it focuses on topics which are diverse and wide ranging, as well as across several disciplines.

Instruction, Schulman’s third point of the circle, is the act of teaching itself and includes all the elements of pedagogy, including lecture, discussion, group work, simulations, and exams, as well as the personality of the teacher in the form of humor, imagination, questioning, and organization. In addition to making knowledge accessible, teachers learn about and respect different learning styles. Studies by Kolb (1984; 1985) and others (Cherry 1990) have demonstrated the importance of learning styles and how different instructional techniques preference certain learning styles over others. These studies further suggested that the use of multiple methods in the classroom benefited all the students in terms of comprehension of subject matter and engagement in their own learning. Becoming more mindful of student learning styles can liberate teachers to explore new methods and tools of teaching. Explicit discussion of learning styles in class can build students’ awareness of the ways in which they learn, which can help provide them skills for future learning experiences.

Evaluation, the fourth element of the cycle of pedagogical content knowledge, refers to both assessing students’ progress and to analyzing the impact of one’s own pedagogical style. Evaluation is an ongoing process, as the teacher checks in with students during the teaching process to assess their comprehension and adjusts course material or pedagogical style to enhance student learning.

Reflection, the fifth element, is continuously incorporated throughout the cycle. Reflection involves the teacher’s thinking about their own teaching methods, pedagogical style, and what is actually happening in the classroom. This might include keeping a journal or forming a talking circle with colleagues. For many teachers, engaging in explicit reflection as the course proceeds is a change in the way they approach teaching. In the literature on the transformational aspects of the education process, reflection is a key component for change and the emergence of new comprehension (Merriam 2001).

New comprehension completes the pedagogical cycle. It does not require that teachers experience great, or even any, changes from their initial understandings of purpose or subject matter; rather, it is the new beginning point reached through recent experience and mindful reflection. Becoming mindful in our practice of teaching helps assess what works, what does not, and how we might improve the classroom experience for students. Are there environmental or political events that intervene in the planned curriculum? Are there changes or adaptations that need to be made to suit the needs or interests of a particular class? This process of review and analysis develops the teacher’s pedagogical skills and enhances the learning experience of future classes.

Shulman’s cycle of comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension encourages teachers to think about such things as their classroom environment, teaching techniques, evaluation methods, and student interface in an intentional way. This intentionality improves pedagogical content knowledge and creates conditions for a positive learning atmosphere.

Global Environmental Politics Syllabi – Analysis

Aspirations of developing a compelling pedagogical style to create a positive classroom experience frame this evaluation of course syllabi in the subject of global environmental politics. By analyzing syllabi in one particular field, we may begin to reveal patterns that suggest strengths and weaknesses in content and pedagogy.


Forty-seven syllabi prepared by 44 instructors were accessed from the following websites: the Yale Center of Environmental Law and Policy’s Global Environmental Governance site, the database for Teaching Environmental Politics established by the International Studies Association’s Environmental Studies Section (ESS), and public access course content posted at 24 colleges and universities.

The syllabi chosen for analysis were clearly titled to indicate that the predominant subject taught was global environmental politics. Policy-making and the resultant laws, covenants, agreements, and so on are political acts. Some syllabi were entitled “Environmental Policy” but were considered appropriate for this study.

The time period for the study was 2004–9. Multiple syllabi prepared by the same instructor were included only when they covered different subjects. For example, one professor offered one course in Navigating the global environment: Knowledge, resources, and risk and another in International environmental politics that have substantially different content, objectives and references. Duplicates were removed. Although not specifically chosen with this in mind, the syllabi are all from US colleges and universities, and most were from undergraduate courses. The next stage in this research could include a larger sample, with more graduate courses. For this analysis, the level of course mattered less than the types of readings assigned and teaching methods employed. The available syllabi are rich and varied, providing a glimpse into the large, expanding universe that is teaching global environmental politics. While syllabi do not convey the actual reality of the classroom (see the analysis of Table 5), as a collective, they are suggestive of what is being taught and how it is being taught across American college campuses.

Content: The Readings

Altogether, 1222 required readings were assigned in these syllabi. This number does not include recommended readings or website referrals. Though a number of readings were assigned in multiple syllabi, no reading was common to all. This variety suggests that there is no dominant theoretical approach to the teaching of global environmental politics; there is no standard textbook that every professor learns to regard as the foundational text.

While there may be no dominant theory, there is a thread of institutional emphasis evident in the most frequent choices of required reading. The two books assigned most frequently were Global Environmental Politics: Dilemmas in World Politics, by Pamela S. Chasek, Janet Welsh Brown, and David Leonard Downie, now in its fourth edition (2006), and Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Johannesburg, edited by Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko, now in its third edition (2004).

Each of these texts was assigned in 29 percent of the syllabi. In 23 percent, they were assigned together, suggesting the glimmer of a common approach. Both of these texts approach global environmental politics within an institutional theoretical frame, emphasizing international frameworks, actors, and interests. Chasek et al. employ a case study approach that culminates in discussions of globalization, international trade, the North–South divide, and global structural inequity. Conca and Dabelko offer a panoply of leading historical and contemporary scholars who have written on global environmental politics. It is organized as a reader, with reprints of important materials, such as Garrett Hardin’s 1968 classic essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” followed by a more contemporary response written by Susan Buck. It also includes Donella H. Meadows et al. (1972), The Limits to Growth, which is arguably one of the most famous and important outlines of the potential effects of the devastation of the global environment. The syllabi listing it indicate that instructors use the Conca and Dabelko reader to familiarize students with the important themes in the field.

As mentioned, the syllabi do reflect a diversity of reading, which is logical in light of both the newness of this field as an area of inquiry and the multidisciplinary nature of the topic. Also, there is a wide range of sources employed. Most of the readings are chapters in books and articles in journals. Fifty-eight percent of the syllabi required readings from original sources, such as texts of international conventions and protocols. In 35 percent, teachers assigned more journalistic pieces such as newspaper articles or essays in popularized magazines and the general press such as Time magazine and the New York Times. Others required readings in periodicals that are more intellectual, but still nonacademic, such as Foreign Affairs, Atlantic Monthly, and Scientific American.

Pedagogy: The Teaching Method

The stated objectives in the syllabi can be grouped into three major themes: (a) the study of the relationship between theory and policy; (b) the role of institutional actors and the framework of forming international environmental policy; and (c) an emphasis on global environmental governance. Generally, professors recognized the interrelatedness of global environmental problems and the complexity of international solutions. The categories outlined in Table 1 show the stated objectives as the way in which the teachers organized the course, and the different lenses that they chose to use in their examination of the field.

These categories mirror to some extent the way the field is currently conceptualized. The last decade has seen a growing understanding of global environmental problems, which has been paralleled by many academic analyses of the debates and politics of these issues (Selin 2006).

In terms of format, 47 percent of the teachers stated that the course consisted of lectures, 35 percent conducted their courses as seminars, and 0.5 percent stated that both strategies were used. The remaining 17.5 percent of the syllabi were silent on the type of format used in the course; however, assignment details permit inferring the type of approach based on the emphasis of in-class participation and simulations. For example, 79 percent of the syllabi stated that in-class participation constituted 10 percent or more of the grade, suggesting a mixed format that allowed for active engagement as well as lecture, or that lecture may not be the primary format in some of these courses.

The courses employed various teaching methods and tools: games, simulations, group work, individual written papers, and in-class presentations. Table 2 indicates the frequency of each method.

Although one might think that the content of global environmental politics offers multiple opportunities for innovative pedagogy, the data suggest that college teachers continue to choose methods more in keeping with what is seen as more traditional; the individual written presentation and in-class verbal presentation. This is perhaps not surprising in a culture that emphasizes individual agency, where the interaction is mostly between teacher and student. Also noteworthy is the use of online opportunities to provide students with another way of interacting with each other – as in chat rooms and directed discussions – and with the content of the course – as in blogs, and domestic and international news sites.

Table 1 Course objectives and themes

Conceptual frameworks of course objectives


Theory and policy-theoretical understandings linked to analysis of international environmental policy-making


Institutional actors, frameworks, and interests-focus on international institutions and frameworks (e.g., United Nations, International Environmental Agreements), as well as using a lens of common interests among sovereign states


Global environmental governance – emphasis on international structures, both formal (protocols, conventions, treaties) and informal (regimes, international norms)



Table 2 Teaching methods

Method of teaching


Games – of short duration, usually with a zero-sum outcome


Simulation – usually produced over several class periods; involves highly interactive group work and preparation, often replicates international negotiations


Group work – involves three or more students in a project that requires collaboration, pooled knowledge, and an outcome (formal, such as a paper, or informal, such as a report out in class)


Individual written presentations – papers given to a professor for evaluation


Individual in-class verbal presentations – individual projects that are reported on in class


Online use – internal use such as posting on group fora or participating in online class discussions


Note: The total equals more than 100 percent because most classes employed multiple methods.

Student evaluation methods seem generally to parallel teaching methods. There is some overlap between Tables 2 and 3, because some of the evaluation methods, such as requiring presentations, are also teaching tools. Not surprisingly, there is an emphasis on in-class participation and written work, two of the tools most commonly used by teachers for evaluating what their students are learning.

The evaluation methods reveal to some extent the importance that professors place on different means of student participation. The frequency of in-class participation suggests an emphasis on creating an interactive classroom environment, one in which students interact with their fellow students as well as the professor. That 64 percent of the syllabi included in-class presentations, both individuals and group, also implies widespread interest in creating an active learning space. Some examples of innovative evaluative methods not found in the syllabi analysis include peer review, individual portfolio reflection, narrative evaluation, and self-grading.

Table 3 Evaluation methods

Methods of evaluation


In-class participation (verbal)


Written papers (during term)


Final paper


In-class presentations (individuals and group)


Mid-term exam or paper


Final in-class exam


Simulation performance


Scheduled quizzes


Note: The total equals more than 100 percent because most professors employed multiple evaluation methods.

Teaching Global Environmental Policy – Surveying the Teachers

Syllabi alone provide limited information about classroom practice. Understanding teachers’ pedagogical preparation can provide more insight into what actually occurs as teachers interact with their students. This was explored through a confidential and anonymous online survey that was conducted between April and November 2008. The author sent the survey to the listserves of the Environmental Sections of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. Respondents were self-selecting, and a total of 114 teachers participated in this survey, answering questions about their teaching experiences. The participants are members of these professional associations, which serve the academic community in these disciplines, and teach at the college level. Two of the survey’s questions are particularly relevant for this discussion (see Table 4).

These responses suggest that while training does occur, it is mostly informal or through a mentoring relationship. Categories 2 and 3 equal 50 percent, while almost 30 percent of professors are learning teaching methods completely on their own. Only 21 percent have formal training, which is consistent with Shulman’s finding that pedagogical content knowledge is not well emphasized in graduate school curricula across the country. The percentage of formal training has increased recently, a trend likely to continue as a result of tightening economic circumstances, but this is a phenomenon that would be better understood if tracked longitudinally (see Table 5).

Relatively few university professors have been formally trained in the art of classroom teaching, and 79 percent of the respondents to this survey indicated that they had not been formally prepared. However, 50 percent felt they had benefited from either some informal training or from mentors. It is not unreasonable to expect, therefore, that college courses often lack innovative classroom techniques. That is, teachers continue to use methods they have experienced.

Table 4 Which of the following best describes how you were prepared for classroom teaching?



Category 1: I had formal training which required me to present materials and receive feedback on my methods and style


Category 2: I had training, but it is best described as informal


Category 3: I had some mentoring from more experienced teachers, but not very much


Category 4: I had to learn teaching methods and skills on my own


Table 5 What teaching methods do you use most frequently in the classroom?





In-class discussion






Student papers with in-class presentations


On-line discussions/chat rooms


Films/videos or other in-class viewing experiences


I use four or more of these methods evenly across the semester


Note: The total equals more than 100 percent because most professors employed multiple teaching methods.

The Syllabi Analysis and the Teacher Survey – Contrasts

The results of the teacher survey, when combined with the content analysis of the syllabi, give us more information about what is occurring in the college classroom in teaching global environmental politics, and show some inconsistency between what instructors say and what their syllabi show. The analysis of syllabi did not reveal any games and only simulations in 11 percent of the course content, although 28 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they use games or simulations as part of the classroom experience. Films were not mentioned in the syllabi, but 21 percent of respondents said that they used films.

Both survey respondents (14 percent) and syllabi (29 percent) indicated use of the internet, but with differing percentages. What is revealing is that the use of the internet could be seen as a component of innovative pedagogy, taking learning out of traditional classroom setting and co-locating it with the student’s home environment. That a student can access the ideas from the course in an online chat room from their own personal space is another way to create a more active learning opportunity for the student.

There were also differences in the percentages between individual in-class verbal presentations, with 41 percent of the syllabi and 29 percent of the survey respondents indicating that they use this method in their classroom. Again, the variance may simply result from the different sampling, but what is interesting here is that in-class verbal presentations do suggest a framing of the classroom as an interactive space, important for pedagogical content knowledge. Combined with in-class discussion (57 percent), and the frequency of in-class participation (88 percent in the syllabi), it seems clear that requiring and encouraging students to engage verbally with each other and with the material is suggestive of an interactive classroom.

These differences may be due to a number of factors. For instance, not gathered was information on teachers’ level of education (MA, ABD, PhD); nor was seniority (years in the department, extent of classroom experience) indicated. As the project was designed, it was also not possible to correlate teachers with a particular syllabus. The survey was sent only to the listserves of the Environmental Sections of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association, which also contributed to the relatively small number of respondents.

Revisiting Shulman

Teachers can improve learning by drawing on four major themes that can be distilled from Shulman’s conceptual framework on pedagogical content knowledge: (1) setting the context; (2) building positive social norms; (3) emphasizing inquiry, discovery, synthesis; and (4) creating the possibility of transformation. Setting the context is the creation of the classroom atmosphere that supports student learning. Building positive social norms means creating discussions that involve questioning current ideas and attitudes as a way to involve students in considering ethical implications of actions. Emphasizing inquiry, discovery, and synthesis requires facilitating student interaction that builds on specific skills sets, such as developing curiosity, teaching research skills, and helping students think about the ways ideas, patterns, and systems exist in relational ways. Shulman approaches creating the possibility for transformation by focusing on what the teacher can do to incorporate compelling content into the course, which takes into account student abilities and engages them with learning. This environment involves fostering conditions for students to learn, to self-reflect, and to open them to changing their own ways of thinking about important social and political issues.

Setting the Context

Setting a context that supports student learning seems to be evident in the teaching methods revealed in the syllabi, which demonstrate a high frequency (50 percent or higher) on the techniques of in-class participation and in-class presentations. What cannot be determined from this set of data is whether or not teachers are encouraging students to be active learners. The data also indicates that 79 percent of college teachers have had informal or no pedagogical training. This percentage suggests that while some interactive techniques are used, there is not necessarily a formal understanding of how to create an environment where student learning is supported. The pedagogical content knowledge framework emphasizes asking the students what their learning objectives are, encouraging them to engage in their own learning rather than passively accept not only the content being taught but also the structure of the classroom. Students could help set the context by taking responsibility for a portion of each class and by creating their own homework assignments. These techniques are invisible in this data, and it may be important for our understanding to continue this line of research to see if we can reveal the specifics of setting the context.

Building Positive Social Norms

In this study, the collected syllabi reflected a robust selection of readings. The diverse assortment of texts, required readings, and suggested readings indicated that students had access to materials that questioned dominant ideas and considered the ethical implications of various practices in the field of global environmental politics.

Assigned texts include materials that encourage discussion around central ethical dilemmas, such as the uneven use and distribution of resources, the links between poverty and environmental degradation, the connections between racial prejudice and environmental issues, the complexity of modernization, and the consequences of global environmental destruction, which will fall on the world’s poor and disenfranchised. We can deduce from the presence of these readings that the context for rich discussion is possible. What is undetermined from the data is how these discussions are framed and conducted, and whether they reach the goal within pedagogical content knowledge in creating positive social norms in the discourse of the classroom. Teachers with the skills to organize group dialogues may find that these conversations offer significant learning opportunities for students.

Emphasizing Inquiry, Discovery, and Synthesis

The course objectives and assignments stated in the syllabi demonstrate efforts to build students’ skill sets. References to developing knowledge, creating awareness, and building critical thinking skills all suggest faculty interest in elements that emphasize curiosity, discovery, and synthesis. Shulman indicates that teaching research skills and helping students think about the ways in which ideas exist in relation to each other also foster students’ skills. While it is hard to know for certain, it seems reasonable to conclude from these syllabi that instructors are creating learning environments that attempt this third element in Shulman’s pedagogical content knowledge. Still to be discovered is the extent to which the teacher is intentionally creating this environment. Stating the objective of building critical thinking skills is a beginning. It is another step to construct a learning environment that facilitates that development. Constructing a learning environment requires knowing more about pedagogy and about learning than the data in this study reveals.

Most educators agree that helping students develop critical thinking skills is an essential element of teaching. There are several recognized strategies for teaching critical thinking (Beyer 1985; French and Rhoder 1992; Fisher 2001; Inch and Warnick 2009). These include:

  • Learning in groups, which often helps individual members learn more.

  • Promoting interaction among students as they learn.

  • Asking open-ended questions.

  • Addressing problems that are ill-defined and have no single right answer, which encourages students to be more creative in their responses.

  • Allowing sufficient time for students to reflect on the questions asked or problems posed.

  • Giving students time to process information, which helps them to absorb complex ideas.

  • Teaching for transfer, which means showing students how an idea in one category can be applied to another area. This stimulates thinking across categories and encourages students to establish connections and see relationships between ideas.

As a content area, global environmental politics lends itself to inquiry, discovery, and synthesis. Its multidisciplinary nature, spanning from the natural sciences to the social sciences, provides rich possibilities for educators interested in elevating their students’ learning throughout their course.

Creating Transformation

Shulman’s fourth theme, fostering the conditions for students to not only learn but also self-reflect, is an elusive goal for most educators. Transformation also includes creating the learning environment so that students can engage in self-examination to change their own ways of thinking about social and political issues. This is a process which ideally extends far beyond the classroom and into the future.

There is a wide-ranging literature about transformational learning, which could inform a college teacher’s classroom design. This body of knowledge emphasizes that individuals change themselves and that educational experiences are particular moments of possibility for transformation. The goal of the teacher is to create an open learning environment in which students can explore their personal development as part of the learning that they encounter. As discussed thoroughly in the literature, transformative learning involves “critical self-reflection, which results in the reformulation of a meaning perspective to allow a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative understanding of one’s experience” (Mezirow 1990:xvi). Transformation begins with a disorienting dilemma, which leads to critical reflection and then a change in one’s thinking. In addition, change can have both positive and negative aspects. According to Mezirow (2000) and informed by others (Gagne and Medsker 1996; Cranton 2005), transformational learning often follows this general cycle:

  • a disorienting dilemma;

  • self-examination, with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame;

  • a critical assessment of assumptions;

  • recognition that others share one’s discontent and that one is not alone in the process of transformation;

  • exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;

  • planning a course of action;

  • acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans;

  • provisional trying of new roles;

  • building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships; and

  • a reintegration of new understanding into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective (Mezirow 1990:22), much as Shulman described new comprehension

College teachers need to understand more clearly this process of transformation and its implications for adult learners. In the context of a classroom and a short course, teachers of global environmental politics interact with their students for a short time. But within that limited exposure, they can facilitate transformation by providing opportunities for students to explore emerging concepts, challenge traditional assumptions, adopt different roles that broaden their own perspectives, and build their competence with skills such as research and critical thinking.

The Future of Teaching Global Environmental Policy

Changing Technology

During the last ten-plus years, teaching environmental policy has, like all fields of education and nearly every corner of society, been in a nearly frantic chase to keep up with emerging technology. Like good theory should, Shulman’s, Knowles’, and others’ works leave room for dealing with the unknown and unexpected, and although they address online learning, email, and other permutations of electronic communication, few of us could anticipate the sheer volume of possibilities.

A decade ago, we taught almost exclusively about the structures of policy-making; domestic and international governmental agencies, international protocols and agreements, with a nod toward some nongovernmental organizations from the private (corporate) sector and the relatively few powerful nonprofits. By today’s standards, information flowed in at a glacial rate. Now we seem to be teaching in a rushing river of information.

In addition to the traditional (hardcopy) textbooks, newspapers, and magazines, many of these have added online access to their services. Additionally, there are textbooks, newspapers, and magazines that exist only online, as well as hundreds of weblogs (blogs), ranging from personal commentary and journals to organizational websites, that purport to know exactly what is going on, on any subject, at any given moment. Teachers are faced with the dual challenge of first discovering these resources and then sorting through the accurate, the inaccurate, and sometimes the purely imagined. Furthermore, it is important that we do this, because our students will, and lacking the sophistication and grounding of our formal system of teaching and learning, they may easily find themselves confused or misled.

Up-to-the-minute availability of information creates great opportunities for online discussions about environmental policy issues. This can be especially exciting when the forum has been pre-arranged with classes at other schools, which may just as easily be in another country as in the next town. Also, there are many chat rooms; public spaces where anyone can join in. Such forums may be interesting for a student to find out “who’s out there?” but should be offered with preparation and serious warnings. Teachers using electronic media as a resource of any kind must have sufficient skills to lead students to these sources, but must also help them to distinguish the valuable information from poorly conceived opinions or outright bogus data. A cursory review of blogs during one week in May 2009, when a new US president was pledging greater involvement in solving environmental problems internationally (Delamaide 2009; Eilpern 2009) and domestically (Alberts 2009; Rucker 2009), and began taking serious action on these commitments (Superville 2009), revealed the instant and universal availability of information online.


The complexity and diversity of global environmental politics lends itself to teaching it in such a way that students take away with them tools and interests that help them become better educated and, hopefully, better prepared for the leadership positions that they may occupy now or in the future. Teachers must pay attention to primary learning around core subjects and specific skills sets. At the same time, the classroom is a good place to explore the concept of learning about one’s own process in gaining knowledge. This meta-learning could be useful for teachers and students alike.

Emerging from the discipline of education, scholarly conversations about pedagogy emphasize the importance of understanding that teaching has become more than an activity that transmits knowledge to individuals, and that offering substantive knowledge is just one element of accomplished teaching. The teacher’s portfolio is substantially enhanced by understanding pedagogical principles, giving them the tools they need to push at the innovative edge of teaching, and to challenge existing structures, practices, and definitions of knowledge. It also means testing new ideas, experimenting with new ways of thinking about content, and encouraging students to engage in the same kind of social discourse. In this way, accomplished teaching is an evolved order of pedagogy and becomes a public act of social change.

Global environmental policy has reached auspicious but challenging times and stands in a moment of new and constantly changing scientific information and technology. Instantaneous and nearly universal communication has raised public awareness and concern at the domestic and global levels. Dynamic academic research continues to increase understanding, and we who teach global environmental politics are challenged to become better purveyors of knowledge to our students.


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