Learn Baby Learn

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In psychology, learning is commonly defined as ‘a relatively permanent change in behavior based on experience.’

Isn’t that remarkable.

Learning is not only about changes in the amount of information stored in your brain. Nor is it only determined by changes in how you feel about a subject or how you perceive it. Rather, while both of these contribute to the learning process, it’s the change in behavior that signals that learning has actually taken place.

When it comes to how people treat nature, I’ve always wondered which techniques would be most effective in changing negative behaviors. How do you get a sensation seeker to stop driving a truck into a meadow? How do you instill an ecologic ethic in someone who believes all of nature belongs to humans? Is it enough to explain the workings of a meadow, or to call on feelings such as empathy, to encourage respect and responsibility towards the environment?

Last week a friend sent me a video about two guys who, while surfing in Bali, discovered the beaches were littered with plastic debris. When they asked why the trash had not been removed, they were told that every day the beach is cleaned and every day the waves and tides deposit new litter on the shore.

After considering the situation, they came up with a business plan called 4Ocean, which is a method for helping remove plastic from the sea. In Bali they hired local fishermen to haul plastics and other debris out of the ocean with their nets and bring the trash to shore, where it is prepared for recycling and dumping.

Since their experience in Bali, they have expanded their operation to twenty-six countries around the world, using the Bali approach of hiring local people to do the work.  To date, they claim to have removed almost eight hundred thousand pounds of plastic and other debris from the ocean and its shores.

The person who sent me the video suggested there might be some incidental learning about caring for the environment among those involved in the clean-up, a kind of transference of information from the ocean to all of nature.

That’s an interesting idea.

Incidental learning is very common. It is unintentional and unplanned, and it happens when we are involved in one thing and then extrapolate to another. Incidental learning allows us to gain new perspectives on an old idea or a familiar situation. It’s natural. Unforced. And, it’s personal, often occurring during hands-on experiences.

And here is where it would appear that the 4Ocean model offers a great opportunity for those involved in the project to incidentally learn that they are part of something greater than ocean clean-up. I mean,  4Ocean is operating in twenty-six countries. Imagine how many people are being touched directly and indirectly by this awesome and potentially mind-altering process.

According to experiential learning theory, as developed by David Kolb in 1984, however, one of the essentials for learning is that a person has to reflect on his experience.  It’s through these reflections that the individual is able to develop a new perspective about the situation, can internalize  something new, realize something incidental.

It’s not clear that reflection can be taught, however. And, it’s not clear that a person could explain his reflections, even to himself. Also, 4Ocean does not have the capacity, nor the mission, to encourage incidental learning associated with their operation.

So the question remains about developing techniques for changing negative behaviors towards nature. If experiential learning can spawn reflection that has the power to incidentally transform perception and ultimately change behavior, how can that be implemented in environmental education?