Saying Why


“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” —Robert Kennedy

I’ll admit it—I’m one of those people who sees things as they are, and says “Why?” And frankly, I wish I’d started doing it sooner.

It’s a question I don’t think gets asked often enough at nature centers.

There are lots of people in our profession who ask, “Why not?” Why not provide educational programming for every age group in the community? Why not make that programming affordable for everyone? Why not try to cover the costs by writing another grant proposal?

Because not enough people are asking why, we end up doing a lot of things that may have been good ideas at some point, but now actually get in the way of our accomplishment of the goals and objectives that really matter to us. We’re like the British artillery crews in WWII, which had two members of the team stand at attention while their field gun fired. Then they stepped back in to help. When a researcher doing a time-motion study of the process asked what the two crew members were doing, he learned that their job was to hold the reins of the horses so that they wouldn’t bolt when the gun went off. The guns were WWI-vintage field artillery pieces, and during the First World War they had indeed been pulled into place by horses. By the Second World War, though, the horses had long since been replaced by trucks. It’s just that no ever bothered to replace the crew manuals, and now two members of the five-man gun crew were wasting time doing something quite useless.


It’s the same question I ask about school programs. Why are elementary-aged school programs the main occupation of so many nature centers? There is a lot of evidence that they lose money hand-over-fist, but very little evidence that they actually accomplish anything. In their classic paper “Changing Learner Behavior through Environmental Education,” published 25 years ago, Harold Hungerford and Trudi Volk wrote, “The traditional thinking in the field of environmental education has been that we can change behavior by making human beings more knowledgeable about the environment and its associated issues. . . . Research into environmental behavior, unfortunately, does not bear out the validity of these linear models for changing behavior.”

So why do school programs? Mostly, because we’ve always done them.

I think the best reason to do school programs is that they can connect us to kids, and help us get them to return to our sites with parents and grandparents in tow. In other words, I think school programs should be, first and foremost, a marketing tool. Research by Louise Chawla and others suggests that the things most powerfully associated with conservation-friendly behaviors in adulthood are (1) opportunities for unstructured play in nature as young children, and (2) the influence of an adult mentor who models a love of nature and conservation. With rare exceptions, nature center staff and volunteers are not going to fill those mentor roles—parents, grandparents, other relatives and family friends will. So we should be investing our resources in fostering those relationships. I’m always looking for ideas on how to make that happen. Do you have any?