Environmental Education Newsletter

Article 1

In the article “Facilitating Youth to Take Sustainability Actions: The potential of Peer Education” researchers investigated whether peer-to-peer education influenced students to take greater action on sustainability issues. Action for sustainability is best encouraged in a holistic educational process that has meaningful social context rather than a simple teacher-learner interaction. Thus, peer education can play an important role in sustainability education. Peer-to-peer education involves people with similar characteristics or experiences learning from each other (DeVreede et al. 2013). Peer-to-peer education can be used as a way to support young people so that they can gain the skills and competence to initiate and define their own actions, instead of prescribe to a narrow range of lifestyle actions (DeVreede et al. 2013). Peer influences and relationships can be important in how youth learn and behave, especially in a school setting (crossref). Peer-to-peer education such as peers as role models and peer group exchanges can encourage responsible environmental behavior, civic action, and the development of individual and collective competences (crossref). Peer education uses the power of peer influences and utilizes learner-centered, action-oriented strategies, which means that it may be a useful strategy for sustainable educators (DeVreede et al. 2013). 

The school-based MindShift program was used as the focus of this study to research the value of applying a peer-led approach to sustainability education. The MindShift program was written in 2007 by a youth-led team at the Adventure Earth Centre, a recreation center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Mindshift program was developed to create knowledge of sustainability and to support the development of positive environmental attitudes and behaviors among high school students. The MindShift program trains peer education teams that consist of 10th to 12th grade students to deliver the MindShift presentation to 10th grade science classes as a one-hour, dramatic, and interactive experience.  The Mindshift program operates as a club throughout the school year. The club is encouraged to work with the school to organize youth-led events to engage and educate the student body.

   Over one school year, 23 peer educators and their teacher advisor participated in a school-based Mindshift program. The researchers did a comparative case study of three distinct Mindshift teams so that they could make comparisons of the teams to distinguish program from team trends. The researchers used descriptive accounts, including interviews, focus groups, and field observations along with quantitative questionnaire to capture student experiences. The researchers found that with positive team relationships and strong and active leadership, the students had a stronger sense of peer support and ownership when introducing sustainability issues. Students also reported feeling capable of more meaningful contributions and  better able to take on leadership roles.

Each team had unique and different characteristics that included variation in membership, leadership, and coaching styles (Table 1). The peer educators were predominantly Caucasians with families of middle to high incomes, and they all had mid-to-high levels of academic achievement. However, the peer educators varied in their environmental awareness, leadership experience, and level of involvement at the start of the program. The peer educators reported significant growth and learning that was categorized into six types including pro-environmental behavior, skills for action, sense of empowerment, pro-environmental attitudes and values, knowledge of sustainability, interpersonal relationships, and sustainability actions (Table 2). The most prevalent changes reported involved personal behavior. Every peer educator reported multiple lifestyle changes, with an average of five different behavior changes per peer educator. Some of the most common reported behavior changes included taking shorter showers, turning off lights, recycling, choosing local/organic/ fair trade foods, spending less time on the computer/TV, and purchasing secondhand clothes. Furthermore, almost all the peer educators reported maintaining the behavior changes in the year-end interview, and many reported the changes had become “permanent habits.”  These findings were found to be statistically significant. The peer educators also expressed a greater sense of empowerment which was shown in their desire to take action, and the sense that they had the skills and confidence to contribute to their team, school, and communities. However, these results were not found to be statistically significant, which could be from a disparity between the survey used and the interview results because the specific wording of the survey questions made it difficult for the peer educators to relay their experiences with Mindshift. Skill development was another area where all peer educators reported learning, such as leadership, teamwork, and presentation skills. The peer educators had a shift in environmental attitudes and values that was found to be statistically significant. Furthermore, most peer educators reported an increased awareness and knowledge of sustainability issues, and the students that were taught by the peer educators reported that they made connections between the Mindshift program and their courses, thus providing a meaningful context for academic learning. The Mindshift program also allowed peer educators to make new interpersonal relationships that they reported as might not having the opportunity to otherwise. The amount of time spent together led to team bonding and educators developing a sense of accountability to their teams. However, Team B reported feelings of regret and guilt when they could not stand by their commitment to the team, which led to team dynamics having less of an effect on building and strengthening friendships. Peer educators had numerous instances of taking sustainable action both within and outside the context of the program. 12 out of the 23 peer educators also reported that they had taken action to educate others outside the program context, such as sharing information or advice with friends, relatives, and co-workers. Furthermore, Six educators shared examples of becoming involved with community-based initiatives, such as attending a climate action demonstration where they wrote and performed spoken word poem, and becoming a member of a local environmental organization. Team B, however, was unable to complete a team project.

Overall, the findings show the multiple areas of learning and growth in behavioral, affective, and cognitive domains experienced by peer educators of MindShift. Peer education as a part of the MindShift program allowed peer educator participants to acquire new knowledge, practice action, skills, shift their environmental behavior and attitudes, and deepen their ecological values. Also, the program gave the peer educators an additional important precursor of action for youth, which were interpersonal relationships. Pro-environmental behaviors also was shown to be an important precursor to youth action in the findings of this study, due to the high number of peer educators that reported making changes to their behaviors. The positive reinforcement received from adopting new pro-environmental behaviors may have created a positive feedback loop as well because the peer educators reported increasingly more challenging behaviors and actions over time. Thus, the interactions between the development of skills, attitudes, values, knowledge, relationships, and shifts in behavior are collaborative and work best when approaches are used that enable opportunities for the simultaneous development of each.

During the interviews, peer educators were asked how their experiences led to the learning and growth they expressed, and the most influential were peer support, meaningful contribution, teaching/leadership role, and youth ownership (Table 3). Peer educators often expressed the importance of shared, supportive experiences with peers. Enjoyment and bonding with friends and like-minded people increased the peer educators’ sense of commitment to the team, and seemed to facilitate development in areas, such as interpersonal skills, self-confidence, and a sense of empowerment. Also, peer educators reported that the MindShift program gave them a sense of empowerment because they assume a teaching role which gives them a platform to share their message with a larger audience. Peer educators described that the program made them feel like they made a difference by sharing their message with other, which led to them having a greater sense of empowerment. Furthermore, taking on a role as a teacher and preforming the presentation fostered leadership and presentation skills, as well as improved the peer educators’ knowledge of sustainability. Peer educators reported feeling more confidence and a sense of empowerment from becoming role models, which led to the educators feeling pressure to actually set a positive example in accordance with the message they taught. The Mindshift program also gave peer educators a sense of youth ownership, which mean that the educators assumed roles that allowed them to take responsibility for decision making, planning, and implementation of an initiative that they chose. Since the peer educators felt a sense of ownership towards the initiative they chose, they were more motivated to attend meetings, develop a sense of commitment to the team, and feel a sense of pride for their accomplishments. Having a coach to provide adult support in an empowering way also was important to the peer educators’ sense of empowerment. Thus it was important for each peer education team to be youth-led, have a coach, and paired co-captains facilitating the team meetings, rehearsals, and presentations. The co-captains were important in creating a sense of co-leadership with the peer educators, as well, which reinforced the idea of teamwork, leadership skills, and a sense of commitment to teammates and the program mission. The co-captains should also have a strong relationship with the adult coach so that the co-captains can feel comfortable voicing concerns and challenges that arise.

In conclusion, the Mindshift program allowed participants to work together and have fun, while making a difference with a topic that they felt was meaningful. The Mindshift program gave participants the opportunity to change their worldview and alter their everyday thoughts, feelings, and actions. Their experiences with peer-to-peer education enabled them to develop leadership skills, interpersonal relationships, and a sense of empowerment.

Published on December 30, 2015