Teaching for the Environment
What is Environmental Literacy?

Teaching for the Environment

Environmental issues affect, and are affected by, all our activities to varying degrees. The need to have a working knowledge of environmental issues is not confined to environmental scientists, engineers, and policy makers. In our society, all educated citizens need to have a working understanding of the fundamental principles involved for environmentally responsible decision making. The knowledge and understanding of a range of concepts and connections are required in order for an interested person to think and make decisions coherently about individual and societal behaviors that affect the environment.

The interconnected nature of environmental problems, the interactions between societal and individual decision making and their effect on the development of solutions for environmental problems require that a comprehensive environmental literacy course include scientific, social, economic, organizational, and ethical dimensions. An active, project-based approach to learning is imperative if course material is to enable students to be skillful and confident participants in environmental decision making at the individual and social level.

Over the last decade, we have evolved a course based on a systems approach, integrating disciplinary knowledge and exploration of and issues as relevant, and using pedagogy that involves active, participatory learning. This text is an exposition of the components of the course for teachers. As an understanding of environmental systems requires knowledge from a variety of disciplines, we bring together relevant knowledge, and methods for assessing the students' learning. To make it possible for teachers with diverse disciplinary backgrounds to teach the course, all the necessary content is included. Suggestions to guide student learning are included as part of this text.

Environmental literacy is challenging to teach due to the complexities of the systems that make up the environment, and the roles of individual and institutional decision making with regard to the economy, ways of living, and technology choices. Interactions among the components of the environment including humans are complex and span space and time. The environment also evokes many emotions. Over the past decade of teaching this course, we have continually learned from our students and revised our ways of teaching, assignments, and presentation of material. The possibility of student engagement and the complexity of the topic makes the environment one of the most exciting and challenging areas of inquiry for teaching and learning.

People of all ages have varying degrees of knowledge and comprehension about the components of the environment and their interactions. Many students are knowledgeable about the environment because of media exposure, personal interest, and high school, service, or activist backgrounds. Students also bring incomplete or incorrect knowledge, opinions passing for facts because of things they have read, and the underlying philosophies of their cultural or disciplinary backgrounds. The ideal scheme of learning is a student-centered and participatory process in which the students' existing framework of knowledge will be revealed, corrected, and enhanced.

The overall facets of good teaching may be framed in terms of "context, connections, competence, and conscience." Situated learning is learning in context, and is widely accepted as the most enduring way of learning. Understanding a topic in relation to experience and with respect to other topics is part of situated learning. Active connections of concepts and phenomena to one another are thus essential to learning. If these connections are not made explicitly, the learner may connect new knowledge to his/her existing knowledge framework sometimes erroneously, giving rise to misconceptions. Thus establishing context and connections intentionally is an important part of providing learning experiences. This is the basis of constructivist teaching.

Competence is of course the objective we all set explicitly when planning a course. We want to transfer knowledge and skills. Being able to apply these is acknowledged as part of the requisite for learning. In the case of environmental decision making, competence includes problem solving and decision making explicitly. Assignments and readings seek to place students in decision-making situations. Conscience is perhaps the one aspect left out of most formal teaching because it is often placed in the private rather than public realm of knowledge. However, understanding the value system--the ethos--of our society today is central to environmental literacy and environmental decision making. Discussion of values occurs throughout, both in relating the history and course of events, and in student exercises.

The general aspects of teaching that cover these four tenets are woven together into the design, organization, and material in this text. The organization of the environment into systems underscores the interrelationships and intricate connections between components of the environment including humans. The knowledge of science, technology, behavior, institutions, and other contributors to the environment and its change are discussed in an interdisciplinary manner. There is an emphasis on natural and human-caused processes in discussing environmental phenomena. Process is also emphasized in the assignments, both in terms of active exploration, and in terms of the decision making that the students have to do. The following sections elaborate some of the central aspects of this design and pedagogical features that can encourage an integrated and action-oriented thinking.

  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.