Water Education: Cultivating Water Thinking
Education is at least part of the answer to how we influence people’s behaviors towards water and water management. So education is an important strategy to create behaviors to address our water issues.
However, the devil is in the details. What does effective education look like?
That is, what are the common experiences and learning strategies that lead people to changing their behaviors, both individually and collectively, to improve the quality and quantity of water?
We know that more than just information is necessary to get people to both care and take action. Effective education engages and empowers people and gets them to think critically about something. Often we mis-equate information with knowledge. Rather, knowledge is developed through thinking about information.
For education to be effective, thinking needs to be at the center. Like most educators, I’ve intuitively known this for a long time. But I struggled with teaching thinking. It reminds me of that often shared cartoon where a mathematician is writing an equation on the chalkboard. Before the solution to the equation, he’s written “then a miracle occurs.” The thinking part of learning was the miracle—students were just supposed to do it.
Fortunately, there is research about that “miracle” of thinking and understanding that can help us to become better thinkers and educators. This research should inform water education.
Becoming a water thinker
Cognitive scientist Dr. Derek Cabrera’s research has led to the discovery of four universal patterns of thought. His new theory on thinking serves as a strategy to integrate thinking into water education. This theory can be considered both a metacognitive (thinking about thinking) and systems thinking theory. In fact, this theory has been called the unifying theory of systems thinking (Midgley, 2014).
I’ve been fortunate to spend some time learning about and applying this theory to water education. The result of using this strategy is to become a “water thinker.” And I believe we can all become better water thinkers with ongoing practice.
The core of becoming a water thinker is using Dr. Cabrera’s four simple rules of systems thinking—Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP):
- Distinctions. It is innate for humans to make distinctions—to distinguish one thing from another. In water education, we distinguish groundwater from surface water, precipitation from evaporation, and sustainable use from non-sustainable use.
- Systems. All things are simultaneously parts and wholes. A part of one whole can also be a system with many parts. For example, a river is part of a watershed system. The river is also a system made up of many parts (water, fish, food web relationships, etc.).
- Relationships. Relationships exist within and between the parts and wholes of systems. Relationships can be indirect, causal, linear, etc. Interestingly, we find that relationships themselves are also parts and wholes of systems. For example, the food web (a set of relationships between organisms) of a lake is an important part of that system.
- Perspectives. All that we perceive and understand is done from a particular point of view. And there are multiple points from which to view any idea/thing. That means that every distinction, every system, and every relationship identified is influenced by perspectives. We can come to a better understanding of reality if we view the thing of interest from multiple angles. The ecological view of a lake is different than a social view of that same lake. Together, they better represent the reality of that lake.
The rules operate together to deepen our thinking about the world by making conscious the process of thinking. They are simple rules, but they add up and combine to produce thinking of great complexity. DSRP provides a straightforward, practical tool to approach complex situations and problems. For more on DSRP, see this article.
Water thinkers of all ages and backgrounds utilize systems, thinking tools, technology, resources, and networks to become better thinkers, consumers, and citizens. Researchers apply systems thinking to their research topics to produce higher quality, more interdisciplinary results. Educators integrate systems thinking into existing water-related content, which they enhance by creating deeper understanding and caring about water on the part of students of all ages. Extension and outreach staff apply systems thinking principles to deepen their fieldwork and outreach efforts.
Becoming a water thinker has provided an important perspective on effective water education, a path that I began many years ago on trout fishing adventures. If we can help develop a state (and nation, and world) of water thinkers through water education, we can ensure that many more generations get the experience of lying awake in anticipation of trout-filled rivers and spring ponds.
Shortened from the original article on the Wisconsin Academy