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A few words from So What? founder, Matthew Payne....

My name is Matthew Payne and I am the founder of So What?, a UK based educational website which aims to get more young people learning about wildlife conservation in schools.  I would first of all like to thank both Chris and Pieter from Lion Aid, for not only setting up this blog on their website and giving me the opportunity to contribute to it, but also for their incredible support over the last few months.  I am extremely proud to have my website linked with Lion Aid as they are inspirational in their tireless campaigns to try and prevent the decline of our global lion populations.

So What? was created for many reasons.  As already mentioned on the Lion Aid website, So What? primarily came from the reaction of those who feel they have no voice.  Given the message that the world's species are going extinct, the initial reaction is usually "so what?" until they gain a better informed platform to evaluate what extinction actually implies and that they can influence a world wildlife heritage that belongs to us all.  In addition to this, So What? was also created as a result of my own experiences with wildlife as a child.

As a child I was obsessed with the natural world!  I can still remember lying down on my Grandma’s dining room floor, creating fact files about many of the different species of shark.  But my favourite was, as it is with many children, the stunningly beautiful great white shark!  I can still clearly visualise my drawings of dorsal fins slicing through the water and sharks roaming closely to beaches, all of which were copied from Encyclopaedias or from my small collection of animal books.  Yet my passion was not just reserved for sharks.  I was, and still am, completely in love with big cats.  As a child, I can remember watching Born Free seemingly on repeat, and I even named my first cat Elsa.  George Adamson and Simon King were my heroes!  I wanted to be just like them!  When Big Cat Diaries came on TV I actually thought my life could not get any better!  Every night I would sit down and like most who watched this programme, my eyes would be glued to the television, gripping the armchair rest when something bad was going to happen to one of its stars.  I could not get enough of big cats, or animals in general.  Before I was 10, I had even created a top 5 list of animals which I wanted to see in the wild when I was older: lions, mountain gorillas, great white sharks, tigers and cheetahs.  I have ticked off three so far (lions, cheetahs and mountains gorillas) and I am currently working on the 4th with my wife!  However, she does not share my love for great white sharks, or my opinion that they are beautiful so I am not holding out much hope for that one being ticked off anytime soon!

Yet, despite my love for wildlife, I did not choose to purse a career in anything closely related to it.  Why? Because like most boys in their teens in this country, I soon became distracted by things that really didn’t matter.  I soon became distracted by computer games, music, football and rather embarrassingly, girls! Before too long, I was completing my A-levels that I did not want to take in subjects I did not have a passion for and eventually, I did the same with my degree as well.  From the age of 11 until my early twenties, I had spent my life falling deeper and deeper down a slippery slope which I felt I was expected to go down.  My career had become something which I felt I should do, rather than something I wanted to do.  I was, in the words of a particular honest family member, “floundering!”  For some reason, I had temporarily forgotten about the animals that I had once spent hours creating elaborate fact files on.  I was no longer aware of the threats they faced.  I am certain that my love for wildlife was still there, but like I said earlier, I became distracted by trying to achieve something that I thought was expected of me!  

It was also out of this frustration and regret that I created So What? I hope that I can one day give a young person the opportunity that I missed out on.  The opportunity to feel rewarded for their passion in wildlife at school and to not lose it.  When I was young, I did not even consider that my teachers would want to know about my love for wildlife.  Furthermore, wildlife only came into the curriculum in science, and then at my primary school it was in the form of a text book, often involving long words which I did not fully understand.  I quickly disassociated the learning of wildlife with schools and therefore I did not even think I would be able to purse a future career involved in wildlife conservation.  Through So What? I want to change this.  I want kids to come to school, knowing that at some point in the day or even just once a week, they can look forward to learning about some of the amazing animals we have on this planet in a fun and creative way.  Finally, I hope I can inspire at least one young person to not get distracted by things that don’t matter and not to pursue a career path which they think is expected of them, but rather devote themselves to something worthwhile - something like wildlife conservation.  If I can do this, then I have done my job!

I also created So What? because I firmly believe that in order to conserve our planet’s wildlife, we have a responsibility to inspire a future generation of wildlife conservationists!  We need to feel confident that in the future, there will be a group of like-minded, innovative and well-educated conservationists ready to lead the fight to protect species such as the lion and the great white shark!  But are we doing enough to inspire this future generation?

In order to do so, I firmly believe that we need to ensure that we are providing all young people with as many opportunities to learn about wildlife as possible, and the threats they face in the wild.  Before I ran the first So What? club at the primary school which I currently work at, I noticed that whilst almost every child in the school had an interest in wildlife of some sorts (and some young people had a real opinion on current issues within conservation), there were no opportunities in the curriculum for the children to express it.  It makes you wonder, how many future talents have been lost due to the same reason throughout the United Kingdom? In particular, how many young people living in urban areas, who have little or no access to the natural world at all, have we ignored? These are the young people I want to engage through So What?!  In addition to trying to encourage teachers to run So What? after school clubs or by incorporating its resources into the curriculum, I believe that we need to get more speakers into schools, telling young people about their experiences and the threats facing the animals they have studied/worked with.  We need to ensure that young people are getting access to conservation projects in their own community, something which I am doing in my current So What? club.  By grabbing their attention early, we can hopefully encourage more young people to become interested and involved in wildlife conservation and, most importantly, get them to feel like it is a worthwhile and viable career choice!  A future idea of mine is to create a group of So What? Young Leaders throughout the UK.   The group would comprise of young people, aged 15-18, who volunteer to help run So What? clubs in their local primary schools, organise and help local community based conservation projects as well as meeting together once a month to discuss their work, and current topics in the world of wildlife conservation.  Not only will this maintain young people’s interest in wildlife conservation, as well as helping them feel like they are making a real difference in trying to encourage others to also get involved, but I also believe that the So What? Young Leaders programme would enable young people to obtain vital experience which could benefit them when they are applying for jobs in the future.    

In my opinion, we also need to ensure that the work we set young people has a clear purpose! This is something which I personally feel is vital to maintaining the interest of young people, yet I also feel that it is something which is often ignored, or not even thought about, when trying to educate young people about wildlife conservation.  Whether we like it or not, we are in competition for the interest of young people with computers, social media and other technological “advances.”   Young people can simply turn on a computer game and it immediately has a purpose for them!  They can build their own virtual cities, drive a car they designed themselves or lead a hero in its quest to defeat evil.  Purpose is vital to the learning of young people and if they feel their work has no purpose then they will turn off.  However, if they feel that they are working towards a final project or idea, then their interest will not only be maintained, but I have seen through my experience that they will often put more effort into it.  This is why I decided that at the end of my So What? age 7-11 teaching packs, the children use their knowledge to create their own conservation advert based around the species they have been learning about.  By mentioning this at the start of the club, the children realise that there is a purpose to what they are learning about, e.g. the relationship between jaguars and local ranchers.  In addition to this, I always put a selection of the children’s work on my website, and social media sites, and I also encourage anyone else running a So What? to contact me so I can do the same for them.  Again, this gives the children a purpose to what they are doing, and also enables them to go home and show others what they have been learning.  I think a sentence in the introduction to So What? on the Lion Aid website sums it up perfectly when it states: “When young adults are given a real voice in making a difference in conservation, they will become dedicated conservationists.”

Additionally, I believe it is vital that all providers of wildlife education assess the impact their work is having on the achievement and learning of the individuals taking part.  Again, this is another area which I feel is fundamental yet as far as my research goes, is often ignored in wildlife education.  As a provider, I believe that we have a responsibility to know how our work has impacted on the learning of the young people involved.  If it hasn’t made an impact, then we need to look at what we are providing and make changes.  If I can say that in the first session of my So What? club I asked a girl to note down everything see knew about gorillas and all she was able to write was one incorrect fact, and then I do the same at the end of the club and she then can list 35 facts and figures, all of which are correct, then I can say I have made an impact on her learning.  How on earth can we ever reliably say we are inspiring a future generation of well educated conservationists if we never assess the impact of what we are doing? 

Finally, I believe we need to make sure that in our resources, we are providing young people with opportunities to express their own opinions, and challenge the views of others on current wildlife conservation topics.  This is a significant area which I feel is crucial to capturing the interest of young people.  During my after school So What? clubs, I have found that by allowing young people the opportunity to debate current conservation issues, they often find they had an opinion which they previously did not realise.  In each of my So What? age 7-11 teaching packs, the children are asked to debate the relationship between the specific animal they have been studying and people.  For example, should we cull great white sharks to protect people? Is it fair for farmers to kill a lion which they believe has killed some of their livestock? This is my favourite session out of all 9 in the So What? age 7-11 teaching packs because it usually follows the same path.  Beforehand, the children are always vehemently behind the animal they have been studying, and in one particular case where the children were debating the relationship  between farmers and cheetahs, a girl told me at the start of the session that, “the farmer should just get over it.”  You would not expect anything else after the children had spent 3 sessions learning about cheetahs.  However, when some children are asked to debate in favour of the farmer, something interesting happens.  You can see them begin to realise that the problem is far more problematic then they had previously thought and it is then they really begin to realise the difficulties conservationists such as Chris and Pieter have to overcome.  The girl I mentioned earlier, who believed that farmers “should just get over it,” well she came up to me at the end of this particular session involving cheetahs and said, “I don’t know whose side I am on.  I still don’t think that farmers should be allowed to trap or kill cheetahs, but I now know you can’t tell farmers to just get over it.  I can now see that we need to talk to them to save the cheetahs which live near their farms.”

I am extremely excited about the future of So What? and I hope that we can get as many educators using our resources as possible in order to inspire a future generation of well-educated wildlife conservationists.  I am sure there are plenty of other areas which people feel we need to consider in order to improve the education of young people in wildlife conservation, and how we can get more young people interested and involved in it.  If you do have, I would love to hear from you via Twitter or Facebook.  Furthermore, if you feel like you could help So What? in any other way, I would be delighted to hear from you via the contact details on the So What website.

I would also like to thank Chris and Pieter from Lion Aid once again for setting up the So What? blog on their website and for their constant support. 

Matthew Payne
So What?

Posted by Chris Macsween at 20:23

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