Seven Ways to Improve Environmental Education

An essay in PLOS Biology The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It), by Daniel Blumstein & Charlie Saylan propose seven ways to improve environmental education. The proposal has some good points, but is both US-centric and and some of their points are overly based on the assumption that everyone agrees on what environmental outcomes are desireable (1,5) and that we know what is needed to create a sustainable society (2, 6). Their seven proposals are:

  1. Design environmental education programs that can be properly evaluated, for example, with before-after, treatment-control designs. Such approaches represent a sea change from programs today, and we expect considerable resistance from environmental educators. But the environmental community at large must stop rejecting criticism as negative and must embark on a policy of continuing self-evaluation and assessment. To be deemed effective, environmental education and the funding process that supports it must also work backward from specific environmental problems by evaluating the degree of actual impact on a specific issue versus the amount of money and energy spent on public education. …
  2. Many environmental issues facing us today are caused by over-consumption — primarily by developed countries. Changing consumption patterns is not generally a targeted outcome of environmental education, but we believe it is one of the most important lessons that must be taught. The magnitude of our impact, as first proposed in 1971 by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, can be viewed as dependent upon population size, affluence (specifically, per capita economic output), and technology (specifically, the environmental output per unit of economic impact). As countries develop, their environmental footprint may expand, and consumption control may become more important. … Thus, we need to radically overhaul curricula to teach the conservation of consumable products. Teaching where and how resources come from—that food, clean water, and energy do not originate from supermarkets, taps, and power points—may be an important first step.
  3. We need to teach that nature is filled with nonlinear relationships, which are characterized by “tipping points” (called “phase shifts”): there may be little change in something of interest across a range of values, but above a particular threshold in a causal factor, change is rapid. For instance, ecology, which focuses on understanding the distribution and abundance of life on Earth, is a complex, nonlinear science. If environmental education is linear—in other words, if you teach that recycling one beer bottle will save “x” gallons of water—people will not have the foundation to think about linkages or nonlinear relationships. …
  4. We need to teach a world view. … A greater appreciation of the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world should help us realize the selfish consequences of our consumption. “Not in my backyard” is not a sustainable rallying cry in an interconnected world when we are faced with global climate change. We are too late for “think globally and act locally” to work. …
  5. We must teach how governments work and how to effect change within a given socio-political structure. We suspect that many individuals will be offended by the thought that large industries have so much sway on the wording of state and federal legislation. We all suffer from polluted water and greenhouse gasses, but lobbyists are very effective in diluting potentially costly legislation meant to safeguard our water supplies or prevent rampant climate change. Understanding how the system works will empower subsequent generations to change it.
  6. We must teach that conservation-minded legislation may deprive us of some of the goods and services that we previously enjoyed. Self-sacrifice will be necessary to some degree if we are to avoid or minimize adverse effects of imminent environmental threats with truly global consequences.
  7. Finally, we must teach critical thinking. Environmentally aware citizens must be able to evaluate complex information and make decisions about things that we can’t currently envision. True scientific literacy means that people have a conceptual tool kit that can be applied to a variety of questions. Unfortunately, much science education is not inspired, and students are required to learn facts without being given the ability to manipulate and analyze those facts. …

3 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Improve Environmental Education”

  1. Thanks for drawing our attention to the article, Gary. In recommendation one, Blumstein and Saylan argue that, “…the environmental community at large must stop rejecting criticism as negative”. Despite this recommendation, they continue in this theme in recommendation six, saying, “We must teach that conservation-minded legislation may deprive us of some of the goods and services that we previously enjoyed. Self-sacrifice will be necessary to some degree if we are to avoid or minimize adverse effects of imminent environmental threats with truly global consequences.”

    Could we perhaps add another recommendation, such as, “The environmental community should embrace positive messages that approach conservation issues, pointing out the positive benefits that will arise out of embracing change”.

    Applying this, we could re-write recommendation one to read:

    “The environmental community at large will find that embracing criticism is a positive thing to do”.

    The passage from recommendation six might then read:

    “We must teach that conservation-minded legislation will provide as with a host of wonderful, life-giving benefits. Finding new ways to enjoy conservation experiences will lead us out of harms way.”

    For a more detailed account of the positive functions of dissent, see: http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/105/109)

    David Low

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