Thinking is the Key

The Australian Association for Environmental Education conference is overflowing with great conversations about how to improve what we do as educators.  There is so much ground to cover, I think I’ll be writing about it for many months yet.

For now, I’d like to talk about the plenary session given by Professor Sam Ham from the University of Idaho this afternoon.  Looking around the packed auditorium I could see the audience were hanging on his every word.  He is such a fantastic communicator, which makes what he says even more powerful, since good education has good communication at its core.

Sam led by illustrating that as environmental scientists, managers and educators we are essentially different to the majority of other people on this planet.  People who are passionate about environmental issues are in the minority – we are not the norm in society.  Consequently, if we try to motivate others toward behavioural change by using things that would inspire us, we will be unlikely to reach the majority of people, and really only be preaching to the converted.

He went on to say, however, that most people are capable of doing the right thing (by our particular standards), but they will only do it for their own reasons.  The trick is finding out what those reasons are.  That’s where good survey techniques are important, but that’s an issue for a future post.

Perhaps the most important thing (to me anyway) that Sam said was that it won’t be what we say to them that will make them act, but it will be their own thinking that does.  Hence, we must get them to think, and find out the answer, for themselves.  The notion of constructivist learning is not new, but never-the-less it is often overlooked, especially in community education.  We have to get better at encouraging our audiences to think their own thoughts and find for themselves the motivation to act.  That means finding what is relevant to them.

That brings me to an earlier workshop by Grahame Collier from T Issues Consultancy.  He was discussing how to reach challenging people and groups.  The people that are disengaged by traditional community education campaigns.

One thing Grahame did was to showcase a few successful examples.  Some were quirky, such as the Shit on my Shoe campaign to encourage UK dog owners to pick up their dog poo, or Dog Breakfasts to protect threatened Hooded Plovers on South Australian beaches by inviting dog owners to a breakfast bbq and in the process talk to them individually about keeping their dogs on leads around Plovers.  Others were more sedate, but used a peer from that sector of society to champion the message, or used the personal approach of having face-to-face conversations about what it is that matters to them.

One great example that Sam used was encouraging walkers to stay on the path in sensitive forest areas of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.  It wasn’t environmental or safety reasons which ultimately motivated them to stay on the path (in fact, even people who strayed off the path already held these beliefs).  In the end what mattered to most visitors to these areas was seeing the best view and getting the best photos.  So by reinforcing the notion that the path went to the spots with the best views, the rangers were able to change visitor behaviour considerably.  Only good research about your target audience can find what is most relevant to them.

Ultimately, people will not change their behaviour unless they want to.  Our job is to make the message relevant to them, and encourage them to find the answer for themselves.