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Environmental Education


Environmental education - What is it?


To talk about environmental education, we have to first explore education in general. Nelson Mandela has said that, “[e]ducation is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Kacoroski, 2015, p. 35), and ultimately has the potential to “cultivate empathy and respect for all life” (Dueck & Rodenburg, 2017, p. 4). This is the essence of environmental education (EE), and while there are many different definitions, that often vary from educator to educator, they all seem to embrace this belief at their core. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which environmental education can be framed and defined. 


At its most simple, EE is education about, in, and for the environment (Ministry of Ontario, 2007, p. 6). Let’s break that down. EE teaches students ABOUT the environment. That can include lessons on:

  • Earth’s physical and biological systems; 

  • The dependency of our social and economic systems on these natural systems; 

  • The scientific and human dimensions of environmental issues; and

  • The positive and negative consequences, both intended and unintended, of the interactions between human-created and natural systems. 

       (Ministry of Ontario, 2007, p. 6)


Next, EE teaches students IN the actual environment that they are learning about by making lessons locally relevant and culturally appropriate. EE enhances understanding that local issues often have provincial, national, and global consequences and works to build the capacity for community-based decision making in students (Omoogun et al., 2016, p. 64). EE takes students into their local environment and community (both physically and virtually)(Ministry of Ontario, 2016, p. 34). It is for this reason that place-based education is so deeply intertwined with EE. 

Finally, EE actively works to promote stewardship and pro-environmental behaviours in students (Dueck & Rodenburg, 2017) - it is education FOR the environment. EE arms students with knowledge. attitudes, and values that empower them to act to protect the environment (Omoogun et al., 2016, p.64). Within the academic community and related literature, EE is commonly characterized through its dual intent to foster harmonious relationships with the environment and positive ecological behaviours in students (Omoogun et al., 2016; Otta & Pensini, 2017). EE encourages the development of sustainable practices in its participants through its promotion of environmental ethics and values (Muthukrishnan & Kelley, 2017). EE strengthens and supports these values through the use of an intrinsic driver – connectedness to nature (Otta & Pensini, 2017). 


When implemented effectively, EE acts to change human views and attitudes of the environment and the utilization of its resources, focusing on deliberate responsibility and stewardship (Omoogun et al., 2016). As one source explains, EE is “concerned with teaching conceptual knowledge and skills, a process in which individuals gain awareness that will enable them to act and the development of the values and attitudes which will motivate and empower individuals and groups to work and promote sustainability to solve present and future environmental problems”  (Omoogun et al., 2016, p. 64). In sum, EE should foster a sense of awe and wonder in students, educating the head, touching the heart, and producing positive action (Deuck & Rodenburg, 2017, p. 4). 


Aside from the broader objectives of educating about, for, and in, the environment, EE has many specific goals. The Ministry of Ontario’s 2009 Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow: A Policy Framework for Environmental Education in Ontario Schools, outlines these goals, breaking them into the three categories: knowledge, skills, and attitudes (p. 26-27). They are presented as follows:




Environmental education should enable students to learn about:

  • the resources of the Earth, particularly soil, water, minerals, and air, their characteristics, and their role in supporting living organisms;

  • the nature of ecosystems and biomes, their health, and their interdependence within the biosphere;

  • the dependence of humans on environmental resources for life and sustenance;

  • the characteristics of human societies, including nomadic, hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial, and the impact of each on the natural environment;

  • the role of science and technology in the development of societies and the impact of different technologies on the environment;

  • the process of urbanization and the implications of deruralization;

  • the interconnectedness of political, economic, environmental, and social issues in the present world;

  • cooperative national and international efforts to find solutions to common environmental issues and to implement strategies for a more sustainable future.




Environmental education should enable students to:

  • define such fundamental concepts as environment, community, development, and technology, and apply these definitions in local, national, and global contexts;

  • use a range of resources, communications skills, and technologies in addressing environmental questions;

  • develop problem-solving skills and critical and creative thinking skills, including the ability to reason and apply logic, to recognize and apply abstract patterns, to identify connections and relationships between ideas and issues, and to test ideas against new information and against personal experience and beliefs;

  • work towards a negotiated consensus when there are differences of opinion;

  • detect and assess bias and evaluate different points of view;

  • recognize the need to incorporate an environmental perspective in decision making models.




Environmental education should enable students to:

  • appreciate the resilience, fragility, and beauty of nature and develop respect for the place and function of all living things in the overall planetary ecosystem;

  • appreciate that human life depends on the resources of a finite planet;

  • appreciate the role of human ingenuity and individual creativity in ensuring survival and achieving sustainable progress;

  • become mindful of perspectives other than their own and be prepared to modify their ideas and beliefs when appropriate (e.g., understand and respect First

  • Nation, Métis, and Inuit concepts of knowledge);

  • appreciate the challenges faced by the human community in defining and implementing the processes needed for environmental sustainability;

  • develop a sense of balance in decisions that involve conflicting priorities;

  • maintain a sense of hope and a positive perspective on the future.


Alternatively, another source (Omoogun et al., 2016) identifies three main goals of environmental education:


  1. to promote an awareness of, and concern for, the interdependence of human social/political/economic structures and ecological systems within rural and urban communities, in students; 

  2. to provide equal opportunities to access educational experiences promoting the acquisition of the “knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment” (p. 63); and 

  3. to nurture new attitudes and behaviours toward the environment.


They state that these goals can be supported and achieved through five core categories: awareness, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and participation (Omoogun et al., 2016). Essentially, EE students should, through their experiences, acquire: an awareness of environmental issues, knowledge and basic understanding of ecological concepts, protective attitudes and concerns for the environment, the skills required to identify and address environmental problems, and, the motivation to actively participate in solutions for environmental issues (Omoogun et al., 2016).


Regardless of what definition, framework, or resource you refer to, at the heart of EE, we educators aim to “increase environmental literacy in those we educate and to instill a fierce love for nature that will encourage our children to choose to protect nature for their children and their children’s children” (Kacoroski, 2015, p. 34-35). 

Environmental Education Overview


Dueck, C., & Rodenburg, J. (2017). Pathway to Stewardship & Kinship: Raising Healthy Children for a Healthy Planet. Peterborough: Trent University.


Kacoroski, J. (2015). Time for Change: A New Frontier for Digital Nature Experiences. Parks & Recreation, 34-35.

Ministry of Ontario. (2007). Shaping Our Schools, Shaping Our Future.

Ministry of Ontario. (2016). 21st Century Competencies: Foundation Document for Discussion.

Muthukrishnan, R., & Kelley, J. E. (2017). Depictions of sustainability in children’s books. Environment, Development, and Sustainability, 19, 955-970.

Omoogun, A. C., Egbonyi, E. E., & Onnoghen, U. N. (2016). From Environmental Awareness to Environmental Responsibility: Towards a Stewardship

     Curriculum. Journal of Educational Issues, 2(2), 60-72.


Otta, S., & Pensini, P. (2017). Nature-based Environmental Education of Children: Environmental Knowledge and Connectedness to Nature, Together, Are

     Related to Ecological Behavior. Global Environmental Change, 24, 88-94.

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