Unfortunately, issues concerning the environment and sustainability are often considered in isolation, as just one more item on the agenda.
Alternatively, David Orr (1992) argues that "[sustainability] is not only a permanent feature on the public agenda; for all practical
purposes it is the agenda. No other issue of politics, economics, and public policy will remain unaffected by the crisis of resources, population, climate change, species extinction, acid rain, deforestation, ozone depletion, and soil loss."
For the United States to address these problems and prevent new ones, we need an environmentally literate citizenry that is not only capable of taking individual action, but of making well-informed public policy decisions collectively. Increasingly, the public is asked to make choices on complex issues such as those reflected in NAFTA and GATT that not only impact the economy and jobs, but also have significant environmental ramifications. Environmental education can help to prepare learners to take on these responsibilities.
Further, we must develop an environmentally literate citizenry to remain competitive in the global marketplace. There is a growing demand for trained workers in environmentally-related fields such as solid waste management (13%), air quality management (25%), water quality management (9%), wildlife management (3-5%), and parks and outdoor recreation
(5-8%) (Environmental Careers Organization, 1993).
Environmental education throughout a learners' schooling can help build the skills and knowledge necessary to make the successful transition from school to work.
What Is Environmental Education?
Environmental education enjoys a rich history. Its philosophical and pedagogical heritage can be traced to Aristotle and Rousseau, to Dewey and the progressive schools movement, to nature study, conservation education, and outdoor education. At its roots, environmental education is interdisciplinary, drawing upon the knowledge
content and skills of social studies, science, language arts, mathematics, and the fine arts.
Infused throughout the curriculum, environmental education can meet multiple goals:
Environmental education has potential as an exemplary vehicle for what many believe all of education should consider its primary function: furthering the development of higher-order skills-critical thinking, creative thinking, integrative thinking, and problem solving. Environmental education can provide real problems that can be studied or simulated, topics and problems that can be adjusted to the developmental levels of specific groups of students, and topics and problems that cut across the curriculum and enhance the integration of knowledge. (Disinger, 1993, p. 32)
1) affect (e.g., environmental sensitivity or appreciation);
2) ecological knowledge (e.g., understanding of major ecological concepts including those focusing on individuals, species, populations, communities, ecosystems, biogeochemical cycles);
3) socio-political knowledge (e.g., understanding how human cultural activities influence the environment; geographic understanding
at the local, regional, and global levels; understanding of economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence);
4) knowledge of environmental issues;
5) skill development (e.g., ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information about environmental issues using primary and secondary sources);
6) sense of personal responsibility (e.g., an understanding that what individuals and groups do can make a difference); and
7) knowledge of citizenship skills and strategies (Simmons, 1995).
How Can Environmental Education Support Education Reform?
Environmental education, with its emphasis on the development of citizenship skills, can play a particularly critical role in meeting our national education goals (America 2000, 1991). Because environmental education is by its very nature interdisciplinary, it can help students meet the high standards set by the traditional school disciplines (e.g., science, social studies, mathematics, geography, history). The ability of environmental education programs to further these disciplinary standards is illustrated in materials developed by the World Resources Institute (Paden, 1994). Students participating in the unit on Sustainable Development, for example, will not only gain understandings essential to environmental education, but will gain understandings related to the standards set for Social Studies (e.g., people, places, and environments), Civics and Government (e.g., what are the roles of the citizen in the American political system?), History (e.g., historical chronology, historical analysis), Geography (e.g., physical systems, human systems, environment and society), Mathematics (e.g., mathematics as problem solving, statistics), and Science (e.g., science as inquiry, life science, science and societal challenges).
Although environmental education can effectively and efficiently facilitate the learning of specific concepts, utilizing environmental education as a means for meeting student performance standards also provides an often missed opportunity for synthesis of material that crosses disciplinary boundaries. Disinger (1993) suggests:
Rarely do students receive instruction or engage in guided practice in developing syntheses and drawing generalizations [across disciplines] ... Environmental education can provide a convenient and challenging mechanism for overcoming the shortcomings of monodisciplinary education, by using the interdisciplinary entity that is the environment as a focus for teaching and learning. (p. 40-41)
Why Do We Need Separate Environmental Education Standards?
We in environmental education argue strongly that environmental education is essential education.
It has a well-developed philosophy, set of goals and objectives, and framework. But to be truly effective, environmental education must be integrated into all aspects of the curriculum. Infused throughout the curriculum, environmental education supports the high standards set by the traditional disciplines.
We know, however, that currently the implementation of environmental education nationwide is inconsistent at best. As with any
of the Goals 2000 projects, environmental education standards would provide students, parents, and educators a set of common guidelines, an understanding of what all students should know and be able to do. Environmental education standards would provide needed focus and direction.
The standards already developed by the various discipline-based groups (e.g. National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Geographic Education, The National Center for History in the Schools, Center for Civic Education) do, to one degree or another, address environmental education interests. Learning essential to environmental education can be found in the standards documents if one is practiced. However, these standards are not comprehensive, nor do they provide a unified voice for environmental education.
Without standards, teachers will be left to their own devices to pull together bits and pieces of a program without benefit of seeing a whole. A set of standards will give teachers the guidelines that will allow them to not only develop a coherent, comprehensive environmental education program, but to use environmental education to create integrative learning while also meeting the standards set by the traditional disciplines.
How Can You Become Involved in Standards Development?
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) is coordinating an effort to develop a set of national standards for environmental education. We are particularly interested in gaining input from classroom teachers, program developers, and curriculum specialists. Of special concern is the need to correlate environmental education standards to those developed by groups such as the National Council for the Social Studies. If you are interested in reviewing standards documents as they are developed, or have questions concerning the process, please contact Bora Simmons at Northern Illinois University, Lorado Taft Field Campus, Box 299, Oregon, IL 61061; (815) 753-0205.
America 2000: An Education Strategy. (1991). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Disinger, J. F. (1993) Environment in the K-12 curriculum: An overview. In R. Wilke (Ed.). Environmental education teacher resource handbook (pp. 23-43). Milwood, NY: Kraus International Pub.
Environmental Careers Organization. (1993). The new complete guide to environmental careers. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Orr, D. (1992). Ecological literacy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Paden, M. (Ed.). (1994). Teacher's guide to world resources. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.
Simmons, D. (1995). The NAAEE standards project: Papers on the development of environmental education standards. Washington, DC: NAAEE.
For More Information on NAAEE:
North American Association for Environmental Education, P.O. Box 400, Troy, OH 45373; (513) 676-2514
About the Author
Deborah Simmons is Associate Professor in Outdoor Teacher Education at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.