Going Green: The Changing Nature of Environmental Education


I’ve only blogged about it indirectly, but I’m pretty big on surrounding ourselves with nature and becoming conscious of today’s many ecological and social problems, including global warming, pollution (both on land and in the oceans), sustainable living, alternative energy, food production and processing, and food labeling. Although I haven’t yet managed to live plastic free (so cool!), I have been trying to use more homegrown produce from my garden, buy locally at the farmer’s market, read environmental news as often as I can, and keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. I do believe that each of us can do a little bit each day to understand and protect the earth—and promoting “green education” in schools seems to be a good way to do that. So I wanted to share a short essay I wrote on the topic for one of the classes I’m taking.

Garden June 2014

My little garden is my first step in learning to live more consciously and to make nature a part of my daily life.

Green education, better known as “environmental education,” has grow since its conception in 1948, when Thomas Pritchard used the phrase to describe a study of the natural and social sciences. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with three international conferences on the topic; the most important resulted in the Tbilisi declaration of 1977, which defined environmental education as a multidisciplinary approach to teaching that should foster collective concern for environmental and ecological issues (Moseley, 2000, p. 23). In 1990, the National Environmental Education Act mandated that the Environmental Protection Agency create an Office of Environmental Education, which offers grants for environmental education projects, training and resources for teachers, and fellowships for students. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education initiated the Green Ribbon Schools project to reward sustainable schools that promote environmental education in the classroom (Ornstein, 2012, p. 448).

Despite this progress, environmental education came under criticism in the early twenty-first century for its lack of rigor and its tendency to promote activism and idealism, rather than a balanced treatment of environmental issues (Holsman, 2001, p. 4). In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act ignored the concept completely. This sparked the “No Child Left Inside” movement to increase funding for environmental education and promote awareness of ecological issues among students. A federal bill of the same name, which encouraged the inclusion of such topics in elementary and secondary school curricula, arose in the Senate in 2009 but was never passed. A similar bill was proposed in 2013 but has since stalled in committee.

The green education movement first stressed conservation and “environmental consciousness”— a sense of responsibility to protect the planet for future generations (Schoenfeld, 1970, p. 5); however, as education turned increasingly to assessments, environmental studies adopted a more data-driven approach that encourages students to ask questions and develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to find answers (Roth, 2008, p. 212). Environmental education now stresses “environmental literacy,” which refers to a students’ ability to make informed decisions about environment issues (Ornstein, 2012, p. 448). One thing that hasn’t changed is the notion of creating an integrated curriculum that infuses environmental education into “classic” subjects like math, reading, and social studies.

Environmental education today utilizes an activity-centered, experience-based approach and focuses on local issues directly related to students’ lives (Roth, 2008, p. 452). This could take place inside the classroom through direct instruction or cooperative projects, as well as outside the classroom via trips or hands-on activities like planting trees. In New York, Environmental Education Centers, sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation, help organize student field trips, educator workshops, and internships. Grassroots organizations like GrowNYC have also emerged as strong proponents of environmental education. For example, GrowNYC organizes classroom visits by farmers and plants sustainable gardens in public schools.

As the call for environmental education continues to grow, there are several important questions to keep in mind: Should environmental education curricula be aligned across the nation? How can students attending inner-city schools get exposed to nature? Most importantly, how can teachers encourage students to care about environment, both locally and globally?


Holsman, R. (2001). The politics of environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 32(2), 4–7. Retrieved from http://coekate.murraystate.edu/courses/edu515/Readings/PDF/EEPolitics.pdf

Moseley, C. (2000). Teaching for environmental literacy. The Clearing House, 74(1), 23–24. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30189626

Roth, C. (2008). Conservation education for the 21st century and beyond. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17(3), 211–216. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41219413

Schoenfeld, C. (1970). Toward a national strategy for environmental education. The Journal of Educational Research, 64(1), 3–11. Retrieved from http://www.jstore.org/stable/27536048

4 thoughts on “Going Green: The Changing Nature of Environmental Education

  1. Thank you for the link! I didn’t realize no child left behind gutted environmental education but I’m also not surprised either. My neighbor is a school director and I have told her I would love to see home ec taught in every public school so kids learn to garden and cook. Through this hands-on education, they would study the environment and gain an appreciation for it. They would learn biology in the garden, microchemistry in the kitchen (through simple fermentation, like making yogurt)…I have the curriculum all planned out in my head 😉 What class was your paper for?

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