Environmental Education Theory

Environmental Education Theory

Environmental Education Theory

The importance of Relating

By: Kyle Fredrickson


As humans continue to expand their domain and progress economically, an important factor to consider for our future wellbeing is the sustainable use of the environment. Throughout my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Mexico, I have realized thatthe health of local environments stems from attitudes people have towards the environment. These attitudes are linked to the awareness people have in regards to the effects their actions have on the environment. As awareness is derived from the education people have received, environmental education is a critical component in the health of local environments and global spaces.

According to the United States Environmental Protection AgencyEnvironmental education (EE) is generally thought of as a means to “increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues or problems. In doing so, it provides the public with the necessary skills to make informed decisions and take responsible action”. The goal of EE is to improve the quality of life for the individual, and extrapolate that throughout the population.

What makes EE work? According to Joy Palmer, author of Environmental Education in the 21st century, “There are no definitive answers and foolproof tips”. From my research and experiences I have had, there are a number of factors that contribute to effective EE. This report focuseson the most common theory presented in the literature, the importance of relation. I will use the available literature to explain why relating and connecting messages to the learner is so important in solidifying environmental awareness, proving it examples from my work.


A relation between the educator and the learner allows the learner to be more invested in the lesson. Trust and respect between the learner and educator allow for an open exchange of ideas which progresses understandings of the subject. A disconnected relationship prevents free exchange of ideas, which obstructs the communication that would allow the learner the opportunity to be an active participant to better understand the importance of the content being presented. A learner may be more apt to reject the lessons of the educator, if the educator is seen as untrustworthy, or un-relatable. This presents an image of the educator as an overbearing nuisance in the learner’s life, instead of a trusted source of information and a positive role model.

Once an educator has created a healthy connection to the learner, a focus should be placed on connecting the content to the learner. There are multiple connections the learner shares with their environment, but younger students without adequate knowledge generally don’t see them. The majority of students I worked with lived in a large town, in concrete houses, with little or no yards. These students lived in a ‘concrete jungle’, removed from the natural processes of the earth, obscuring their ability to see their connections to nature. Combined with a school curriculum that lacked dedication to environmental awareness, the interest of these students was quite low. I worked to instigate a realization in the students that they relied on a system much larger than they could see, by informing them about the resources they rely on most. I got to know my students as well as possible, and then used my creative skills to connect nearly any subject I was teaching to the learner.

Experiences and methods

During my time working as an environmental educator with the Peace Corps in urban central Mexico, my goal was to effectively reach as many students as possible. My main task was to work in a federally run tree nursery, using community outreach to promote the host agency, CONAFOR (the Mexican Forest Commission). I worked alongside the man running the nursery to invite schools to the nursery for tours about what the agency did, the importance of reforestation, living sustainably, and other aspects of environmental awareness.

Due to difficulties in getting interested groups to come to the nursery, I dedicated much of my time to other avenues in which I could be an effective environmental educator. I worked with the students fulfilling social service volunteering at the nursery to complete their requirements for graduation. I alsopresented interactive lectures at classrooms to students of all ages, worked with the department of ecology in eco-fairs and workshops, assisted a high school teacher in applying hands on practice to his lectures, worked with other volunteers to teach camps around Mexico, worked with a private business dedicated to teaching people urban organic agriculture, and taught English. I taught thousands of students, and the theme that persisted in all these educational experiences was the importance of relativity and connection.

I did my best to connect with the students. This started with them getting to know me to break the ice, then with me getting to know them. This was a quick and often rushed exercise for the majority of my teachings, as I had little time with the students. However, I did see various groups multiple times, allowing me the chance to sit down during lunch and understand how they thought, and withwhat they connected.

Based on interviews withmany of the teachers in the town I worked in,“many students lack respect and are not well behaved, making it difficult to get messages across.” I noticed this lack of respect in the classes I taught in the nurseryand in various schools. Many students were unruly, disrespectful, and generally inattentive. The go to method of control was to out shout the students, allowing a moment of attention, and then losing it quickly. I adopted a different strategy based on the teachers that I respected during my adolescent years. I would stop, look at the commotion and ask what was more important than the content being taught. I would go as far as to say if the students didn’t think what I had to say was important to them, they could leave the class. Students never left. Instead they seemed to realize I was not there to fight them, rather to inform them. I did what I could to make the sessions as interactive as possible, allowing the students to ask and answer questions.

Using environment to relate lessons

Informal nature hikes are a great way to connect lessons with real life examples. I learned this while studying Chinese in Taiwan. A couple interested in learning English invited me on nature hikes around the area to learn English from me, and to assist me in my Chinese. This was the best way for me to learn Chinese, so I have tried to duplicate it with other subjects. An interview of learners in a study conducted by Palmer expressed “I cannot remember any school experiences that fostered an interest in the environment.... School most certainly was NOT an influence”. This may be an extreme statement, but it does have some merit. In my experience, students do obtain information in traditional lessons, but the content comes at them in a sterile environment. Bridging the gap between theory and real life relation can have much more success in promoting interest in the student because the content becomes much more relatable.

Presenting the student with opportunities to see, hear, feel, smell their environment fosters a relation between them and the environment. I worked with groups dedicated to bird observation and saw a noticeable increase in environmental awareness among members. Bird observation encourages people to view the environment in a way most people do not. It allows them to focus on particular specie, and understand the needs and threats they face. This encourages a desire to protect the species, and as a result, environmental action. An example of this action comes from the group of bird observers I was most affiliated with. They understood the threats mining presented for the iconic symbol of Mexico, the Golden Eagle. They felt especially connected to this species due to their patriotism, so they fought to protect the species by lobbying for their protection. Currently, a large span of land some Golden Eagles call home is being protected from the threats of mining due in part of the actions of this bird observation group.

Nursery Tours

My primary task was to facilitate tours of a federal tree nursery, explaining what the parent agency (CONAFOR- the National Forest Commission of Mexico) did, and how we can live more sustainably. As various age groups came to the nursery for tours, I noticed a large difference in interest among age groups. The younger the group was, the more curious they were, so they had more interest in the content. They may have been easily distracted, making lessons difficult, but they were much more interested than students from the high school ages. In reference to interest of the environment in students in the United States, Palmer reports “One common trend seems to be for individuals to have a childhood rich in outdoor experiences and sensory awareness of the natural world, followed by more ‘latent’ teenage years, and then a reawakening of enthusiasm for the quality of the environment in early adult life”. This trend became very apparent to me as I continued working with students from every age group.

The tree nursery was the best place for EE within the town, as it was the largest natural area within the local population. By inviting students and teachers from the area, we gave them a chance to leave the normal rhythm in the classroom and connect the lessons in real life examples. Lessons were more effective if the student had prior knowledge of the subject taught, but was not critical. Pooley and O’Connor, authors of ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AND ATTITUDES Emotions and Beliefs Are What is Needed” note “Because a clear goal of environmental education is to change behavior, it would be advantageous first to understand the basis of environmental attitudes to facilitate changing environmental behavior. As environmental programs are overwhelmingly cognitively based, there would seem to be some merit in looking at affect. If direct experience produces affective-based attitudes, then the source of the information on which an attitude is based is important to the further development of this attitude or the development of related environmental attitudes”.

I found that students could relate to their environment if the environment was used as a resource. Caroline Strong, author of "The impact of environmental education on children's knowledge and awareness of environmental concerns" reported that educators can better “facilitate learning through participation and thereby help to fix information in children's minds through active involvement, gaining education through the environment by using it as a resource, with emphasis on enquiry and investigation and pupil's first hand experience.” I worked to integrate students’ interests into the tours of the tree nursery. When my counterpart was in charge, the tours were generally the same. Students listened for a while but eventually lost interest and were inattentive. My style was to give the students the option of what to see. I gave them an outline of what was available, and allowed them to choose how the tour would go. Strong’s notion that “Teachers surveyed confirmed the belief that children develop a sound knowledge of issues in which they are "involved" and environmental issues are such that outdoor activities are practical and accomplish the desired results effectively” backs up this theory, as well as the theories I implemented with the social service students.

Social Service Students

I spent most of my time supervising the social service students. After working with four semesters of students, I noticed that most shared a ‘latent’ interest in the environment. This is not a blanket statement, because I worked with quite a fewinterested and hard working students. However, many did not see a connection to what they were doing, and how it would ever improve their lives. Under the supervision of my counterpart, they were placed with a task a nursery worker would normally do. The problem was, when they noticed the nursery workers neglected work, they felt they were being used as free labor. They would work only when someone was watching, doing just enough to slide along.

A shift in leadership occurred after a year of my service, and my counterpart no longer worked at the nursery, and nobody took responsibility of these students, so I took that role. Under my supervision, they were educated about the process, given various options about what tasks needed to be accomplished, and given an option as to what they would do. Initially, the students would pick tasks based on ease of work, or whether they could work with friends. They were more engaged in activities they had control over and most of the work started with some sort of energy, then productivity decreased. A challenge I faced was getting these students to feel like what they were doing mattered, while engaging them more as a respected equal, instead of an overbearing controller; all while avoiding being walked over by the students. A significant issue with this was the students saw federal employees being paid to work in the facility generally didn’t care about their work, came late, avoided tasks and drank on the job. It seemed like an impossible task, but I did have success. I dedicated a lot of time and energy to connect with these students in a way that allowedthem to realize that in a series of connections they could not see, helping care for seedlings had the capacity to make their future better through reforestation.

We not only worked with forestry seedlings; we also worked on a project aimed at showing ways to live more sustainably. The area contains a building constructed from straw bales and ecological cement, a water cistern, a wood efficient stove, medicinal plants that form a living pharmacy, familiar gardens, fruit trees and native plants. We made numerous improvements to the area by planting more native and medicinal plants, painting the straw house with ecological paint, using organic material to conserve water, creating a flower garden for pollinators, removing invasive plants, and working in the gardens that were used to teach how to grow one’s own food.

In the beginning stages of work, the students expressed their discontent in the work. Some particularly upset individuals referred to this as slave labor. However, once the student proved they were responsible and respectable, they were allowed access to the area outside of work hours. This gave them a reason to put energy into this project, because it benefited them, so they developed a better work ethic. They were allowed the opportunity to improve an area, in a way that catered to them. Being that the nursery was the largest natural space in the town, and there were no parks, this was a sought after place to spend time to relax. They developed a sense of connection to the place, and this sparked new enthusiasm for work in the nursery.

The most popular work was centered on the food garden. Although we were working in a tree nursery, students had a closer connection between food and their need to eat it, than they did with forestry trees that would likely be planted outside the town. We worked hard enough on those gardens that the students eventually wanted to start their own gardens and have a bit of a productivity contest between teams. We allowed the original garden to produce seed, collected them, planted, produced seedlings and transplanted them in the garden area. Some students wanted to get stronger for sports, so they generally chose heavy tasks, such as hoeing and clearing land to plant, but usually turned compost. The end goal was to produce so much food, that they could sell it for profit. I knew this was too lofty a goal, but I encouraged them to do what was possible. Growing ones own food allows them to realizethier dependence on environment.

Generally, students had low interest in non-food crop plants. However, when a student had an ailment that could be cured with these medicinal plants, they would gain interest quickly. Something simple like an upset stomach cured with peppermint or trouble sleeping helped by lavender, or a skin issue alleviated with aloe, and the student gained much more interest in these plants. Some really got interested and would ask for plants to take home to have and use. The connection was formed.

Interactive Classroom Lectures

There have been well intended, however ineffective styles towards EE in the past. Peter Hay, author of “Main currents in Western Environmental Thought” points out that western literature is concerned with wilderness-type environments and should be accompanied by more relatable examples from common areas in which we live. Based on this idea, I developed lessons that contained content my students could recognize. Being that the schools I visitedweremost focused on the set curriculum they were required to follow, my opportunities in classrooms were limited. Generally, I saw a class just one time. As a result, I was forced to condense all the issues effecting the area into one presentation.

This presentation touches on the issues in the environment of Mexico like pollution, water scarcity and contamination, soil loss, and deforestation. It includes photos of the area, but starts with photos of my homeland and travels to allow the students the opportunity to learn about me. This is a great icebreaker, while creating a connection and encouraging an open exchange between the students and myself as an educator.