Insights: The Challenge of Environmental Literacy, A Call to Action

Last week I fell behind on my daily blog postings. Writing these posts is something I truly enjoy doing. Truthfully, it is something that I want to do everyday. When I cannot get to it, after almost two years of posting daily, I feel like something is missing or I’m not living up to an arbitrary standard I set for myself.  Then, there is the other practical piece about blogging. If you don’t post, your readership falls off.

In an effort to continue to post but take a little pressure off of myself, I have decided to post some of the academic essays I wrote over the last four years in graduate school. The topics will vary. I took a great deal of education courses, environmental education courses, and even theory, research, and pedagogical courses. I was driven to write them, despite being also required by my professors’ course syllabi. Now, I want to share them.

Bear in mind, it is academic writing. I will include references, since most of the papers are referenced. I used references even when I was not required to do so. The reason for this is because I believe it lends credibility to what I am stating. You see, it is not just my opinion I am offering but a researched stance on an issue. Additionally, my purpose is to make you think. I want you to think about our earth, how you treat her/him, and what you can do (yes, personally) to improve our sustainability of life on this planet.  The time for action is now, not tomorrow, and not yesterday. Now.

The Purpose of Environmental Educatioin

“The ultimate goal of environmental education is the development of an environmentally literate citizenry” (NAAEE, 2010).  This goal is not easily addressed due to the multi-faceted dimensions and complexities that need recognition to reach this goal. Environmental Education (EE), ultimately, needs to be broad in scope, interdisciplinary, incorporate leaders from community sources (not necessarily elected leaders), and demand critical thought processes that lead to responsible action, but may not be realized in a traditional cost benefit ratio analysis to the acting individuals (Coyle, 2005: McCarty & Schrum, 2001).

Required and elective readings in the field of EE have highlighted my understanding of environmental education and the essential strand of environmental literacy. There is much that I have learned. Particularly, I have gained three insights, and chosen to expound on these because they either surprised or discouraged me.

Insight #1

  • My first insight is that there is a lack of comprehensive coordinated efforts in the field of EE. If this changed, it may lead to a more environmentally literate citizenry. The NAAEE or North American Association Environmental Education, admits that needed is a coherent body of information about environmental education issues. The current information, research, analysis, and methods of dissemination are not found often enough to be effectively creating an environmentally literate citizenry. Furthermore, the knowledge must be incorporated into all types of education for all ages, and must lead to action (Coyle, 2005). The relevance here is that a coordinated effort will be difficult. The difficulty chiefly stems from knowing exactly how to harness the sweepingly broad array of informational sources and implement programs with consistency and a coordinated effort. In the very least, coordinating consensus on issues that vary from region to region but of equivalent importance on a national scale will be extremely hard to address. Some forward steps are being made but, as it seems in most of education, once ideas seem to take hold, new methods arise or new leaders are in place, and the cycle starts all over again. We cannot afford this luxury of time with our environment (Coyle, 2005). Truly, I believe, we cannot afford this luxury of time with regards to the education of our children, either.

Perhaps, the Common Core State Standards  (CCSS) could help with the implementation of a comprehensive coordinated effort of EE in the public-school sector but that alone (even if it happens) will not be enough. It has been shown that despite requiring some EE in public schools for the last 30+ years, a great difference has not been shown in the creation of an environmentally literate citizenry. Surely, the existence of overseeing bodies for the discipline of EE (such as the NAAEE and others) are helpful in leading a coordinated effort, but it seems that having these organizations and their well-intended directives just are not enough.  All this is coming at a time when the public-school system in the U.S seems to be in flux – grappling with new ideas, theories, standards, and trends to try and shore up a system that is currently largely failing the needs of our students to become members of a globally competitive society. Personally, I am concerned about the state of education in the U.S. and feel it needs reform. The discipline of EE has the correct approach in a desire to join communities with educational institutions in providing our students with the necessary skills to produce a responsible and environmentally literate future generation of individuals.  Creating a coordinated comprehensive effort in the implementation of EE will remain a challenge. If EE is not already in place within some of our schools, adding its curricular content to an already burdened profession, stressed by new standards and new levels of professional accountability, facing a conundrum of overworked invested teachers or counterparts that are unwilling to make that investment in our youth, will be a hard sell to put the environmental education content in place, now.

Insight #2

  • This leads to my second insight gleaned from readings on environmental literacy. Like many, I suppose, as I observed from the NEETF/Roper Reports, I was shocked to learn that the youngest age range in these studies did not score the highest on the questionnaires about environmental literacy. Specifically, the insight is that younger Americans are not more knowledgeable or environmentally literate than their middle age counterparts! This is considerably more shocking in that this is despite EE being placed in the schools since the late 1970’s (Coyle, 2005).  I believe the relevancy here is that since EE was offered in schools for some considerable length of time, the discipline assumed that younger adults would be more literate (Coyle, 2005). However, it is not the case! Perhaps, we have been lulled into believing education was taking place when in fact in has not been done effectively.   This is evidence of the stated conclusion that information delivered haphazardly, at best, is not enough to achieve environmental literacy.

The NEETF (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation) offered some reasons for this finding, such as the peaking of interest in science and the environment in middle age and the assumption (probably correct) that environmental knowledge is acquired over a lifetime and probably through some exposure to the media but also through friends, jobs, involvement in community organizations, and even politics (Coyle, 2005).

An article on locus of control by McCarty and Schrum (2001) may shed some additional light on this. They stated that if the consumer has some level of self-interest or feel they personally will benefit from pro-environmental knowledge and behavior, they will be more likely to perform that behavior.  Maybe, it is that the younger adults (ages 18-34) are still to ego-centric and cannot yet come to terms that some actions might not be immediately beneficial to themselves but be realized only by later generations (their children). Maybe, it is not until middle age when the cost-benefit ration of knowing about the environment and making environmentally sound decisions makes more sense.  By then, most people have started families (parents generally worry about their children’s’ future), have homes (might be more likely to learn about ways to save on energy or water bills), and be part of a community. In other words, people might be able to invest in something bigger than one’s self upon reaching middle age.

An additional article points out that it would be expected that older people (this was not chronologically defined) would be more likely to have high levels of self-efficacy than younger people, because their increased age makes them more likely to have a greater understanding and control over their environment (Pensini, Slugoski, Caltabiano, 2012).

In any case, I was most shocked by the Roper Report finding that children are NOT a significant factor in passing environmental knowledge on to their parents! I always assumed that this was the opposite!  In fact, I assumed that garden club students were sharing the information with the adults with whom they lived. However, over the years, I found that, in most cases, the students do not share the information from the environmental lessons we have in garden club.  This realization was one of the factors that led to the development of the garden club website. So, based on my own anecdotal experience, I should have expected this result and not been surprised by the reported results.  This was particularly eye opening and relevant in that it highlights the fact that all ages need to be included in EE, not just those in a school system and why community based programs might need to be intergenerational where children attend with parents and grandparents to become more environmentally literate citizens. I am considering this finding as a secondary insight for my second observation, as they both related to surprising age findings in the report.

Insight #3

  • My third insight regarding environmental literacy is one I expected to glean from the readings. It is the great need for more research. The NEETF (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation) report stated that the Roper Report Card results are not definitive but are consistent with studies from other environmental organizations such as: National Geographic, the International Social Survey Program, the Ocean Project Study, and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS). These organizations offer correlating research findings on environmental knowledge.  The findings are that the majority of adults do not possess environmental literacy (Coyle, 2005). It is of great relevance that a discipline has research to show what is needed and where actions would be more useful. Published findings might be used as a unifying thread to bring insight number one, the lack of a concentrated cohesive effort, to resolution. Some other areas identified for further or initial study are:
  1. Identifying knowledge gaps and how to address them,
  2. Pinpointing where the fall off in knowledge occurs in relation to complex issues,
  3. Determining how the field can increase familiarity with EE terminology,
  4. Assessing whether survey respondents act to improve their environmental literacy scores after being informed of their lack of knowledge, and
  5. Assessing where people rank environmental concerns in priority against other issues like national security and the economy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge rests in having the American public recognize they are deficient in their knowledge regarding environmental issues and problems. History might tell us that until there is a catastrophe or a visible problem that “hits home” or “hits the wallet” little might be done to rectify the situation of a citizenry mostly void of environmental literacy. I am old enough to remember the oil embargo of the 1970’s. We need an informed public working on resolving environmental problems now.  If we wait until there are visible issues (we are already there, if you ask me), we might not be able to resolve the harmful trends. Unfortunate as it seems, one of my motivating factors for becoming involved in environmental education is the belief that we are killing our planet earth, and as we do so, we are digging our own graves. Research that can be done with expediency and be immediately applied for problem resolution is needed. This forms a circular effect for this can only be done with a vastly concentrated and coordinated effort. Part of the challenge will be having people who are struggling with just getting by day to day realize that efforts in this area now will preserve a future for their children, and all of our children.

In conclusion, there is much to be done in the field of environmental education and especially reaching the ultimate goal of producing an environmentally literate citizenry. Each of us can help to accomplish this goal, a goal vital for our society (NAAEE, 2010). The bar has been raised high; we must rise up to meet it!



Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental Literacy in America: What ten years of NEEFT/Roper Report Research and related studies say about Environmental Literacy in the U.S. The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. Washington, D.C.

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) (2010). Excellence in Environmental Education: Guidelines for Learning (K-12).

John A. McCarty & L.J. Schrum (2001). The Influence of Individualism, Collectivism, and Locus of Control on Environmental Beliefs and Behavior. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing: Spring 2001, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 93-104.

Pensini, P.M., Slugoski, B.R. & Caltabiano, N.J. (2010). Predictor of environmental behavior: a comparison of known groups. Management of Environmental Quality, 23(5), 536-545.



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