What is Environmental Literacy?

Karen Hollweg, Former PI, NAAEE 

From climate change to loss of biodiversity, the environmental issues of our times are indeed wicked ones. And educating upcoming generations to understand and make informed decisions about them is a challenging responsibility. Increasingly, educators, parents, and the public at-large expect the education system to address these issues. But, what is needed to enable students to become environmentally literate? And what is environmental literacy?

In 2011, with support from a DRK-12 grant, I worked with a team of environmental and science educators, assessment experts and researchers on Developing a Framework for Assessing Environmental Literacy. Our goal was to present a comprehensive, research-based description of environmental literacy and to guide developers of large-scale national and international assessments of environmental literacy in developing assessments for gauging progress in transforming our preK-12 education system to achieve that end.

Our research provided many useful constructs and showed that defining environmental literacy is a dynamic undertaking, changing over time, and that individuals develop a continuum of literacy over time – they are not either environmentally literate or illiterate at any one time. For our project, an environmentally literate person is “someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life. Those who are environmentally literate possess, to varying degrees:

  • the knowledge and understanding of a wide range of environmental concepts, problems, and issues;
  • a set of cognitive and affective dispositions;
  • a set of cognitive skills and abilities; and
  • the appropriate behavioral strategies to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make sound and effective decisions in a range of environmental contexts.”

The essential elements of the entire domain are shown in Figure 1 (see image), which is on page 3-2 of the report.

Clearly no single assessment can include all dimensions of environmental literacy. However, each one must include a range of items and tasks that cover the domain and also reflect an appropriate range of difficulty.

Similarly, no one project or curriculum on its own can hope to enable students to achieve this end. Any learner will build environmental literacy over time through many diverse learning experiences. And to enable that outcome, consistent goals among and across education initiatives in all disciplines are needed to enable learners to develop their understanding of environmental concepts and issues, to build their confidence, competence, and ability to communicate and collaborate with others to address environmental issues.

If we are to continue making progress in achieving environmental literacy, I believe that we must all agree on our goal and be aiming in the same direction. In addition, we need to be asking ourselves: What do we as researchers, curriculum developers, practitioners, educators of all sorts need to be doing to enable teachers and learners to delve into science, social studies, language and cultural learning in ways that cross disciplinary boundaries, engage in real-world experiences and enhance their environmental literacy? And if we could transform our preK-12 education system and provide such diverse, multi-disciplinary learning experiences throughout the careers of all learners, could we create an environmentally literate citizenry?