After 50 Years of environmental education, what now?

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

What follows is a slightly edited version of the talk I gave to the 2021 AGM of the National Association for Environmental Education [ NAEE ] on Nov 20th.  It was one of two invited presentations on the day under a 50th anniversary theme; the other was by Prof Justin Dillon, NAEE President.

Whether environmental education has been a success is a question I ponder from time to time.  The answer depends, of course, on which aspect of environmental education you focus on, and on what the criteria are for success.  “Has NAEE been a success?” is another such question and one that, 50 years on, might be asked, particularly with the future in view.  The two questions are related, of course.  In one sense, the NAEE question might be thought easy to answer as the very fact of a 50thanniversary says something.  But the age of an organisation is not really the point as success has to relate to mission and purpose.

I think that NAEE is effective in two ways: firstly, directly, helping teachers and schools through curriculum resources, bursaries, analysis, case studies, reports and the like; and secondly, more indirectly, by encouraging the DfE and other agencies to help schools and teachers by establishing appropriate curricula, regulations, policies and funding.  The Association has been doing both of these for the last 50 years, and I’ve written in NAEE’s 50th anniversary journal (also on-line) about the contribution that it made from 1971 to the millennium.  For example, in 1976 it wrote a statement of Aims for environmental education that had international reach through the Tbilisi conference; and it helped make environmental education an official (if not quite a core) part of the national curriculum in the late 1980s.

Some of what NAEE does, it does itself, and the national curriculum analysis that Juliette Green did three or four years ago, is an example of this, as are the journals and grants to schools.  But a lot of what gets done is collaborative, as Paul Vare noted at last year’s AGM.  The work that Elsa Lee and I did helping the National Governance Association develop its school governor guidance last year is an example of this, as is the Association’s work with Lee Jowett for the 2021 parliamentary inquiry into green jobs, and its recent work for the Educational Recordings Agency.

But to go back to environmental education itself, and whether it’s been a success.  In one sense, environmental education is about increasing knowledge and understanding, raising awareness and interest, and inculcating a sense of responsibility and purpose.  In this sense, a strong case can be made that environmental education – viewed broadly – has been very successful, with NAEE making a sustained and effective contribution.  I listened during the run up to COP26 and during the event for any mention of the phrase environmental education, and came away empty-eared.  And yet, wasn't COP26 – again viewed broadly – a feast of environmental education; perhaps, the greatest there has ever been?

And yet the fact that our environmental problems now are much worse than they were in the 1970s invites the glib response that environmental education can’t have been much of success.  But is it the purpose of environmental education to solve the world’s environmental problems?  Put this way, the very idea seems silly.  However, taking action to solve problems has been a component of definitions from the outset.  In 1969, Bill Stapp wrote one of the first.  He said:

"Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve those problems, and motivated to work toward their solution."

And the Tbilisi Definition from 1977 says much the same thing:

"Environmental education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and its associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action."

Here’s a more up to date version.  This is what the Woodland Trust said about a resource in October 2021:

“Our simple guide will help kids understand climate change.  We’ll explain what’s causing it and how it’s affecting people and wildlife.  Plus, we’ll share some top tips to help youngsters take action.”

Taking action has been a feature of environmental education rhetoric from the outset, and it’s important.  It’s certainly instructive to see how the young people in groups such as Teach the Future are keen that the DfE changes the curriculum to help them address and solve the climate change challenges youngsters will face in their lives.  Some environmental issues are hard to grapple with, however, but it’s useful to recall what Justin Dillon said in his reflections on his first term of office as NAEE President:

“while sustainability is the key to future improvements in the life of the planet, it is the single issues that people can identify with as problems that need to be addressed if not always solved.”

Groups such as Teach the Future never use the phrase environmental education but they talk endlessly about teaching and learning about the environment.  Their interest lies not in putting environmental education into the curriculum, but in changing the curriculum and education itself.  Is that what NAEE is interested in?  Changing education?  Or does it want to continue to promote environmental education?  Maybe as a subject?  Maybe as a cross-curriculum theme?  Maybe as a so-called “golden thread”?  Maybe through outdoor activities, and eco-clubs?

Last year, Paul said that NAEE ought to collaborate more.  He also said that it was well placed to make a difference to education.  This echoes something that John Smyth wrote in the opening edition of the journal EER 27 years ago in his review of the state of environmental education [ Environment and Education: a view of a changing scene ].  He said:

“Perhaps we have done our enterprise an injustice by packaging it as environmental education, comparable with and separable from many other educational packages.  What we are really seeking now is to reform and recast Education.”

John saw environmental education as a movement for fundamental educational reform in a rapidly changing world that was under increasing stress both from human‐induced change and from human nature itself.  His dream – 27 years ago – was of a system of education designed to prepare a thoughtful and interested community to play its part in an ecologically sustainable society.

This is a project that is – to say the least – incomplete.


I should declare an interest: I am currently the Chair of NAEE's Trustee Board.

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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