Education Commentary

Learning the Facts of Life About Planet Earth

By Kathleen Debettencourt — July 14, 1999 7 min read

In classrooms across the nation, students are learning about the environment through hands-on activities. They are picking up trash, recycling bottles, and waging campaigns to save the whales and the rain forests. But these well-intentioned and well-organized activities that take place throughout the year are an illustration of what’s wrong with the way young people learn about the environment and explain a lot about the woeful ignorance of students about the natural world.

In the 29 years since the first Earth Day, study of the environment has increased dramatically. We have doubled the number of high school students who are taking environmental science. In 1998, over 5,000 students took the College Board’s Advanced Placement exam in environmental science, the first year the test has been offered. Virtually every textbook now includes chapters or activities about environmental problems, illustrated with pictures of mounds of trash or dying forests. But in spite of the increased effort, students are still extremely ignorant when it comes to the basic facts of life on this planet.

A recent survey of students reveals that despite the prominence of global warming in environmental education materials, only 35 percent of 5th graders knew that many scientists believe the Earth may be warming because of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Just as many students incorrectly think that global warming is occurring because the sun is moving closer to the Earth.

Even among adults, numerous myths abound. A recent Roper survey, conducted for the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, found that 77 percent of Americans don’t know that paper is the greatest source of materials in landfills. Seventy-three percent don’t know how we generate electricity. More than two-thirds (67 percent) think aerosol cans still contain chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Even those who identify themselves as knowledgeable about the environment failed the basic-knowledge test.

What’s the problem? If we had the same standards for English as we do for the environment, students would be studying Gothic romances instead of Shakespeare. Today, anything goes in the curriculum. Environmental education is marked by frivolous activities, inaccurate materials, underprepared teachers, and needless controversies. There is little science in environmental science as taught by our schools.

Too much of what passes as environmental education is designed to persuade children that the environment is in danger, not to teach basic knowledge.

In the nature journal Orion, David Sobel relates a conversation he had with a mother about a project undertaken by her 8-year-old daughter. The child had worked diligently for more than an hour, and proudly showed her mother the poster she had produced to display at the local store. Beneath a carefully drawn and colored elephant, the child had written, “Save the Elephant. Don’t Buy Ivory Soap.” The girl’s recent school project on endangered animals had spurred her to take civic action, despite the ineffectiveness of boycotting Ivory soap to stopping poachers thousands of miles away.

We teach children to think globally, Mr. Sobel points out, but we do not do a good job of helping them understand the world around them. He asks, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have this child feel protective of the muskrats in the pond across the street?”

Far too often, environmental education materials introduce large, intractable environmental issues about which reasonable, thoughtful people wring their hands, and then offer simplistic suggestions so that children will feel empowered to effect change. Inculcating civic responsibility is important, but are we doing the right thing making children think they can solve the problems of poor farmers in Brazil by collecting a few pennies for the rain forest?

As we look to a new century, we cannot know what challenges the next generation will face, but we can be certain that natural resources and environmental issues will be at the forefront. The future of our prosperity and our leisure, our technology and our safety, all depend on how wisely we deploy resources and address constantly emerging environmental challenges.

It’s time to spend some time thinking not about saving elephants or the rain forest, but about what we can do to help young people become more knowledgeable about the environment.

We need to set standards in schools. The Environmental Literacy Council is working to establish clear standards for this field. From kindergarten through 12th grade, students generally are not taught about the environment in a structured way. Instead, environmental topics are usually added as supplemental activities, if a teacher has the interest or the time. Science, mathematics, and other subjects, by contrast, are taught in a sequence, with clear benchmarks for learning that lay the groundwork for a progressive building of knowledge. Teachers need more guidance if students are expected to graduate with more than a shallow understanding of issues relating to natural resources and the environment.

We also need to improve the quality of textbooks and learning materials. The council’s study of educational materials used in this field found that many are full of errors and misleading statements and are intended more to raise awareness about environmental problems than to teach students anything about the science of the environment. It’s obvious where students learn many of the myths they hold--in their textbooks.

Particularly egregious are the upper-level textbooks used for environmental science courses. Although labeled as science texts, they are superficial summaries of environmental problems and policies, largely devoid of science or quantitative analysis, and fail utterly to introduce students to the fascinating scientific research that is being conducted in this area, or to the economic and risk trade-offs that complicate environmental policymaking.

For many students, this will be the last science class they will ever take. Our future depends on having citizens who understand how to assess scientific evidence and the claims made by “experts” and special interests. We will not arm our children well with dumbed-down environmental-awareness courses.

Educators can focus on issues that affect the local community to teach the environment. Water quality and pollution of local streams and rivers are topics for schools to investigate as part of their geography, chemistry, and other science classes. The important thing is not to deal with the problem superficially, through a recycling program, but to include discussions on the larger issues of dealing with waste, rather than leave the impression that recycling is the answer.

The important thing is to include discussions on the larger issues of dealing with waste, rather than leave the impression that recycling is the answer.

Teachers might be encouraged to take students on regular 10-minute field trips near campus to observe the weather or encourage students to dig in the dirt. These simple observations can be linked to larger issues about the ecosystem or food chain or to a discussion on the carbon cycle, water cycle, or acid rain.

One program, Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE, is an international project that encourages students to collect data about rainfall, air temperature, and precipitation and to share their data with scientists and other students all over the world.

What is important is that the schools help their students connect with the environment around them and that teachers use student discovery as a way of introducing them to deeper scientific concepts and principles. Educators should encourage student projects that are multi-disciplinary, sparking interest in mathematics, biology, physics, and even writing. Encouraging students to keep notebooks and write extensively about what they observe is essential for affording them an opportunity to reflect on what they learn.

For young children, the Environmental Literacy Council and other experts urge that children be encouraged to take notice of their immediate environment. Can they name a species of tree in the yard or a songbird? What kinds of local trees and plants are in the area? Are they native, or how were they introduced? Where does electricity come from? Where does drinking water come from? How is it purified? The ELC cautions adults about exposing children to issues such as tropical deforestation before the students have developed a basis of knowledge that will make those discussions more relevant and meaningful.

We’ve got to do better than teaching children to think they can save the Earth by handing out grocery bags with recycling slogans. We need to encourage young people to take an interest in the environment, but educators must recognize that caring for our environment begins with caring about what students learn about their world.

Kathleen deBettencourt is the executive director of the Environmental Literacy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization established to help teachers inform students about interdisciplinary environmental issues.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Learning the Facts of Life About Planet Earth