Understanding Environmental Education

Environmental Education is a term that gets used in a variety of ways but often is misunderstood. What is it and why is it important?

When you hear the term “environmentalist” what images come to mind? Some people visualize tree huggers, people lying in front of bulldozers, barefoot hippies and troublemakers. An “Environmentalist” could also be used to describe those who care about maintaining our woods, water and wildlife for future generations’ hunting, fishing and recreation. Others may only see people who advocate for wrongs against the environment. According to Michigan State University Extension, understanding Environmental Education can help get past stereotypes.  

Environmental Education (EE) is a term that causes confusion and has been loosely used by individuals describing any teaching done outdoors. While their intent is well received and the benefits are positive, EE is more than just teaching outside. Clarifying this is valuable for both students and teachers. This is the first in a series of articles by MSU Extension about Environmental Education, the goals of EE and how to make it happen in your community.

We’ve all been on a nature hike. Many of us have taken part in a program at a nature center or have read articles and books in support of environmental quality. Nature study, natural resource education, outdoor education, earth science and biology all have their place in teaching others about the environment. EE incorporates aspects of all these disciplines and more. EE is the teaching about natural resources, our impact on the environment and what we as citizens can do to improve it.  

The defining difference is that EE has defined goals and an age appropriate sequence that guides delivery to help produce desired results. In 1977, the first international conference on environmental education was held in Tbilisi, Georgia. The Tbilisi Declaration of 1977 identified these goals as:

Awareness: to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.
Knowledge: to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.
Attitudes: to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.
Skills: to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.
Participation: to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

The well-known environmentalist, Aldo Leopold called for a “land ethic” that would create in people an attitude of care and respect for the environment. EE is the result of this land ethic. Most environmental educators are environmentalists, yet the two need separate identities and must remain separate in their approach in order to attain desired outcomes.

EE is an important and valuable tool in the respect, care and preservation of our environment. A quote from the famed environmentalist Baba Dioum sums it up nicely, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

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