Reaching the ultimate goals of environmental education

Janice Alexander

Boise, Idaho

Kids helping in the garden

As articulated by Dr. Marianne Krasny of Cornell University, “the goal of environmental education is nurturing individual behaviors and collective actions that lead to healthy and resilient environments and communities.” (1)

Often environmental educators start from the premise that these behaviors and actions spring from the simple imparting of knowledge. Sharing the facts of a matter, perhaps with the passion of a teacher personally connected and committed to the issue, is all that is needed to sway a student toward a life of conservation and stewardship. Were that it was that simple, but there are many more complex and inter-connected avenues leading to behavior change.

As highlighted by Dr. Krasny’s research, knowledge is foundational, but it is best done through longer-term, student-led investigations that foster systems and critical thinking. Perhaps even more impactful are environmental education programs that help children form environmental values, beliefs, and attitudes, fostering a feeling of connection to nature and forging an environmental identity. These take long-term, repeated exposures to nature, in the company of trusted and caring adults. Environmental behaviors are also influenced by how connected someone feels to a place, which typically comes from unstructured or recreational time outdoors rather than through structured lessons.

Finally, the social elements of an environmental program are often just as important to its long-term outcomes. The social norms of a school or program – the trail etiquette we follow, how actively we reduce waste and recycle, etc. – can influence students’ personal norms and behaviors when they’re not with us. Building a sense of confidence in their ability to take meaningful actions (efficacy) and the place they hold in the larger community to do so (social capital) gives them a voice to enact change. Incorporating the full person each student is physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially, and then providing positive development opportunities, gives them the strength to take on new challenges.

This is all to say that successful environmental education programs will likely look and feel different than stereotypical classroom lessons. Students may need to spend time just exploring, following their own curiosities outdoors. They will need supportive adults to guide and challenge them, to grow them as a whole human, through longer-term interactions. Programs and instructors that act as behavioral models set a social norm of environmental responsibility. The learning that ultimately happens once these other aspects are in place will then have the foundational strength and momentum necessary to reach the outcomes we are aiming for.

  1. Krasny, Marianne E. Advancing environmental education practice. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 2020. 297 pages.