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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Research-Backed Strategies to Engage Students on the Environment

Photographs can be a powerful way to explain complex issues
By Lisa Nehring — April 26, 2023 3 min read
How do I talk to students about abstract concepts like biodiversity?
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How do I talk to students about abstract concepts like biodiversity?

I’m a former middle school science teacher who left the classroom to research teaching about the environment. Here’s an expanded version of something I wrote for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

In the front of my classroom, I projected a photo of a group of Chinese farmers in a sunny pear orchard. Surrounded by delicate white flowers, the farmers extend long wands up toward the tree branches.

By looking at this picture, my 6th grade students came to terms with an astonishing fact: With no bees left, these farmers must pollinate their crops themselves.

Concepts like biodiversity loss are challenging to talk about—especially with children. How do you explain something that’s happening slowly and invisibly? But conversations are vital to understanding hidden threats, and photos offer a unique entry point.

In a recent study conducted on Character Lab Research Network, my colleagues and I found that using photos combined with informational text can lead to a greater sense of appreciation for biodiversity. Participants who saw these photos showing the consequences of biodiversity loss—for example, a koala in the middle of a clear-cut forest—acted differently because of it, choosing to donate more money to an environmental organization.

Whether you teach kindergarten or high school, photos can pique students’ interest, inspire curiosity, and help hone important skills of observation and critical thought. Here are a few ideas on how to incorporate photos into your lessons:

Show photos as a conversation starter. We can’t solve big, scary problems in a day, but photos can spur an otherwise hard-to-start conversation with kids. Begin with the concrete, the what. What do you notice in the photograph? Then move to the why. Why do you think this is happening? You don’t have to know the answers—you can seek them together. Finally, the how. How might things be different? How can you be a part of that shift?

Use photos as a data source. Aerial photos are rich with information. You can ask students to compare the size and number of green spaces in one neighborhood versus another. Or they can compile other sources of data, such as asthma rates or air quality, and measure the distance from major highways and industrial areas to see if there is a relationship.

Collect information via photographs. Engage students on local issues that matter to them. For example, they can conduct a school waste audit by taking photos of what’s put on students’ plates at the beginning of lunch and what’s left on their plates at the end of lunch, as well as what packaging is used in this process. Photo-taking is also a great excuse to get you and your students outside on a more regular basis, going out into the neighborhood to document issues. Students can take photos of illegal dumping on vacant lots or use photos as part of a wildlife-monitoring project.

Show students faraway wonders of the world. I’ll never forget when I showed my students, many of whom had never left the city, a photo of a star-ladened sky, free of light pollution, in southern Africa. “Is that real?” they asked with surprise. It became an important (and totally unplanned) lesson on what is hidden in plain sight, the diversity of lived experiences in our world, and the universality of simple truths like the night sky.

I should mention that in my research, participants who viewed the photos also reported more negative emotions than those who did not see them. And I found this to be the case in my classroom as well. After viewing the photo of Chinese farmers, students shared their anger over losing another animal species and their fear of what that means for the food their families need. I shared that it makes me sad, not just for the bees, but also for my students’ futures. Yet these moments of sadness, anger, and grief are linked to our broader goal of action and hope.

Under a chart detailing the process of plant reproduction and next to a list of reasons why bees are disappearing, I hung the photo of the Chinese farmers. We invited a beekeeper to our school and curated a bee section in our class library. We visited pollinator gardens in the area before planting and caring for our own. We created cartoons about the importance of pollinators, voiced and recorded our creations, and hosted viewing parties of the final product. We grieved for the bees and our uncertain futures. But instead of avoiding the negative emotions, we used them to fuel inquiry and action.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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