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John Muir Graphic Novel improves pupils’ green behaviour

A graphic novel based upon the life of pioneering conservationist John Muir, free copies of which were sent to every secondary school in Scotland last year, has created a statistically significant shift in pupil’s attitudes towards and connection to the natural world, according to a recent study.

Muir, a Scottish born inventor, naturalist and writer, spent his life exploring wild places and was the founding father of national parks in America. The novel, entitled John Muir, Earth – Planet, Universe, combined environmental studies with literacy in an innovative way that hasn’t previously been implemented in Scotland, and was intended to help S1, S2 and S3 children develop a deeper understanding and awareness of the natural environment and the importance of protecting wild places.


The findings, released during John Muir Week (18-26 April) and resulting from an independent evaluation of the novel’s impact involving 268 pupils and 62 teachers, show that the format of a storied role model strongly impacted on the pupils who read the book. The evaluation was conducted by Alette Willis PhD from the School of Health in Social Science at the University of Edinburgh. Commenting on the results, she said:

“There are plenty of examples in the story of John Muir being and feeling connected to nature, of him valuing the rights of nature and acting to protect wild places. By looking at the results, it seems that shifts in the pupil’s attitudes match the orientation of the book, further supporting the idea that the book itself (and not just the environmental activities) played an important part in shifting pupil attitudes.”

She added:

“Recent studies in fields such as neuropsychology, psychology and sociology have begun to provide research evidence that books help people to process difficult emotions and experiences, make ethical decisions and develop empathy and shift attitudes and opinions. I believe this is the first study to measure values shift in relation to the environment through a book and to find a statistically significant shift.
“This research provides us with a basis to anticipate that providing books that tell stories which children might not come across elsewhere could make a difference to the way they see themselves, the way they relate to nature and the choices they make in relation to the environment.”

The study found that many Scottish secondary schools are already actively involved in the protection and restoration of wild places, and that the book complemented such activities. It was used it in conjunction with the John Muir Award and was also used in a biology class on “proactive conservation”, in a geography class alongside a “recycling and environment module”, and in a RE class on environment, values and personal actions. It was used in language and literacy classes to examine the genre of graphic novels, to support literacy in general and to study the Scots language.

A teacher who was interviewed as part of the evaluation agreed that:

“The graphic novel was an excellent way of engaging all our learners.”

Written by award-winning author Julie Bertagna and illustrated by Glasgow-based artist William Goldsmith, the novel was developed in partnership with John Muir Trust, Creative Scotland, Education Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage and in consultation with teachers and school pupils and is supported by accompanying online resources for teachers.

Commenting on the use of graphic novels as a way of engaging pupils in learning, Koren Calder, said
“This evaluation supports the use of books as facilitators of individual and social change. Telling the story of John Muir’s life and thoughts through the highly accessible and entertaining form of a graphic novel allows us to reclaim a Scottish hero and helps children to develop a deeper understanding of the key environmental issues he campaigned for, in a creative and enjoyable way.”
David Taylor, Creative Scotland’s Portfolio Manager Special Projects, said:

“It is good to learn that young people have enjoyed the graphic novel and that it has enhanced their understanding of the natural world. This project was part of Creative Scotland’s contribution to Year of Natural Scotland which engaged artists and the public with environmental themes throughout 2013.”

Pete Rawcliffe, Scottish Natural Heritage’s People & Places Unit Manager, said:
“We were pleased to support this practical and creative way of telling the John Muir story to children – and to many adults too! He remains an iconic Scottish figure whose thinking on the important role that nature plays in all our lives remains as relevant today as it was when he was alive. So we’re really encouraged by the findings of the study and the positive impact that this lively, fun book is having on young people.”

Link: John Muir graphic novel

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