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Why Conduct Research in Environmental Education?

Number 15 - December 1997

J. Palmer


Surely there can be little doubt about the urgent need for promoting change in attitudes and behaviour in relation to the environment; for encouraging people to appreciate and enjoy the world around them and for equipping policy-makers of both present and future with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will encourage them to adopt environmentally responsible approaches. Around the world there is active debate on how best to achieve these goals and on the most appropriate strategies for developing and implementing programmes of environmental education.

Contributors to a chapter on 'The Global Scene' in environmental education for a book I have recently completed (Palmer 1998a) write very positively and optimistically about the general state of environmental education. For example, from Canada we hear that 'there is evidence to support the notion that environmental education-related activity is thriving within elementary schools; in Spain 'the prospects are good for collective effort and achievements'; in Australia 'the prospects remain bright ... teachers find a way of engaging in environmental education even in circumstances where this is against the grain'; in Uganda there is a new National Environmental Education Strategy for the Formal Education Sector; in Slovenia it is envisaged that environmental education will form part of the national curricula for all schools; in South Africa, there are recently introduced environmentally related requirements for teacher education, and so on.

At a global level, debate and activity in the field of environmental education is indeed healthy; yet there remain numerous ongoing issues to resolve and serious challenges ahead. Despite the optimistic tone adopted, quite rightly, by many environmental educators, it is nevertheless clear that education is far from realising its maximum potential in terms of helping people understand and appreciate the environment and their role as producers and consumers within it. In this brief article I shall focus on one of these many challenges recognised around the world, namely the need to increase the environmental education research base and broaden approaches to research in this field.

Does Environmental Education Matter?

Perhaps a useful starting point is with research itself - a description of some research which endorses the point made above, that formal education programmes are nowhere near as successful as they might be in terms of developing ecological thinking and pro-environmental behaviours. In the limited space available, three studies will be referred to that the author is engaged in. The first, on the development of concern for the environment and influences and experiences affecting the pro-environmental behaviour of educators (Palmer 1993; Palmer and Suggate 1996), examines the relative importance of various categories of influence and formative life experiences on the development of environmental educators' knowledge of and concern for the environment. The motivation for this study was the belief that if a fundamental aim of education is to help pupils and students understand, appreciate and care for the environment, then those responsible for this area of the curriculum should know the types of learning experience that help to develop active and informed minds.

The study was distributed in the first instance to environmental educators in the UK and later in various international locations. Subjects were asked to provide details of their age group, gender, and demonstration of practical concern for the environment. Then they were asked to write an autobiographical statement identifying those experiences and formative influences that led to this concern, and to state what they considered to be their most significant life experiences and to write a statement indicating which, if any, of the years of their lives were particularly memorable in the development of positive attitudes towards the environment. As the outline and proformas gave only the aims and purposes of the research, the participants were able to provide original responses unbiased by any examples. We aimed to confirm the sample as a group of active and informed citizens: that is, those who know and care about the environment in their adult life (by asking subjects to give details of their demonstration of activity and practical concern for the environment), and indeed this was duly done.

In the UK sample there were 232 responses, 102 from male subjects and 130 from female subjects. Of the respondents, 55 were in the under 30 age group, 124 in the 30-50 year group and 53 in the over 50 year group. The autobiographical statements giving details of formative influences and significant life experiences leading to a commitment to environmental concerns were analysed, and the results were coded into categories of response. The number of subjects identifying with each major category of response is shown in Table 1.

Table 1
Formative Influences on Environmental Concern


Influence Number Respondants (%)
Outdoors 211 91
Education/ courses 136 59
Parents / close relatives 88 38
Organisations 83 36
TV / Media 53 23
Friends / Other individuals 49 21
Travel Abroad 44 19
Disasters / Negative issues 41 18
Books 35 15
Becoming a parent 20 9
Keeping pets / animals 14 6
Religion / God 13 6
Others 35 15


The category 'outdoors' includes three substantial subcategories: childhood outdoors (97 respondents), outdoor activities (90 respondents) and wilderness/solitude (24 respondents). 'Education/Courses' refers to two subcategories: higher education or other courses taken as an adult (85 respondents) and school courses (51 respondents).

More detailed descriptions of the data analysis and conclusions drawn will be found elsewhere - of both the initial analysis (Palmer 1993) and of a more fine-grained analysis which looks not only at patterns of influence across the whole sample, but also by age group (Palmer and Suggate 1996). The relevance of this work here lies in its illumination of the role of education in developing environmental awareness. As one might well expect, both the initial and fine-grained analyses of the data show that education, alongside the impact of parents, other close relatives, books, TV, media, the impact of environmental disasters, travel and so on plays a significant role in promoting environmental awareness and concern. Yet the single most important influence overall is childhood experiences 'outdoors' - in the natural world.

Other 'outdoor activities' are also highly significant. The apparent impact of secondary and higher education courses on environmental understanding is very encouraging - of the seven subjects who cited education as being the single most important influence on their thinking, five were writing about degree level courses. Of the 51 respondents citing school-based work as a significant influence, 38 referred to A-level courses and related fieldwork. Perhaps the most disturbing aspects of the education-related data are that 23 individuals chose to report that school programmes had had no influence upon them whatsoever, and there was not one reference to a school course below A-level as a single most important influence. All of the many accounts of the importance of childhood talked of such things as experiences outdoors, the influence of parents, friends, the media and so on; with very few references to school-based lessons.

Two other on-going research projects provide further evidence that education courses are not as influential as one might expect or hope for. First, a project on 'The Global Environment and the Expanding Moral Circle' (Cooper and Palmer, publications in preparation) aims to investigate recent changes in attitudes and feelings of responsibility towards the environment, animals and future generations. As part of the project, 182 individual subjects from the local community filled in questionnaires which probed their views and attitudes relating to the research agenda. In response to the question 'what would you identify as the single most important influence or experience which has affected your attitude to our responsibility towards (a) animals? and (b) the environment?; only 9 out of 182 subjects (5 per cent) cited education as the single most important influence affecting their attitudes and sense of responsibility towards animals, and 25 subjects (13 per cent) cited it as the single most important influence with respect to the environment. Figures for the assessment on a scale from 0 (not at all important) to 5 (very important) of the influence of education courses on attitude to environmental responsibility are as follows (Table 2):

Table 2 - Number of Respondents


Assessment 0 1 2 3 4 5
School Courses 9 43 34 34 32 18
Higher Education Courses 6 36 28 36 34 30

Analysis of this assessment of influence question, as a whole, shows TV documentaries to be the most important influence overall, followed by media images, personal experience with animals and nature, nature and wildlife films and intellectual argument - Higher education courses came sixth in ranking and school-level courses ninth, out of fourteen categories of influence.

Second, a project on 'Subject and Community Knowledge in Environmental Education' aims to investigate various forms of knowledge and awareness of environmental issues possessed by undergraduate students of education. Only nineteen of an initial fifty subjects interviewed (38 per cent) said that formal education (including books and TV) as opposed to knowledge acquired informally by living and interacting in a community, was the most significant way in which they had acquired environmental understanding and concern. This seems a surprisingly low number given the background of the subjects in the study - all university undergraduates and hence successful in terms of formal education achievement.

The overall picture emerging from these various projects is both interesting and crucial to anyone with an interest in environmental education in practice. Data suggest that formal programmes in this field are indeed playing an important role, both in the development of people's knowledge and understanding of the environment and in their formulation of attitudes and feelings of responsibility towards it. Yet the influence of structured programmes is certainly not as prominent as perhaps it ought to or could be. For many individuals ideas and experiences in other domains have had far greater influence upon their relationship with the environment.

Current Trends in Environmental Education Research

The studies cited above form part of a rapidly increasing and broadening global research base in environmental education. It was in the United States that the development of a research agenda in this field gained momentum during the late 1970s and the 1980s. Studies reported from this era were, on the whole, firmly rooted in the scientific research paradigm as they sought to apply quantitative methodologies to investigate such matters as the identification, prediction and control of the variables that are believed to be the critical cognitive and affective determinants of responsible environmental behaviour. It would seem that two decades after positivism and the quantitative tradition steered the definition and development of a research base for environmental education, their characteristics continue to be dominant in the research literature of today. Nevertheless, the field is dynamic and increasingly influential. Many more environmental educationists are developing a research perspective in their work, and more researchers and research students are working full-time in the field than ever before.

There is an increasing number of major funded research studies being commissioned around the world, also of collaborative studies involving partnerships between individuals and research teams at both national and international levels. Along with this trend, we see an ever-widening range of themes pursued by researchers, with increasing emphasis being placed on the links between empirical research and the improvement of practice. My comments are based on evidence from a variety of sources, including the increasing number and size of international conferences devoted to environmental education research, the increasing number and global readership of refereed academic journals devoted to the field and the continually expanding range of themes appearing within such journals.

Furthermore, the range of methodologies and approaches to research is slowly but surely broadening to take account of the all-important social context of environmental education. The number of qualitative research studies including interpretative (such as those referred to above) and socially critical has increased considerably during the 1990s. Some of these are exemplary, but all too many appear to be based on methodologies that are either lacking in rigour or too poorly articulated, which raise serious questions relating to reliability and validity. Without doubt there is still a great deal to be done in terms of developing the field's qualitative research base, broadening the research base in general, and critically appraising the role of research.

Future Directions

The brief glimpse that has been provided into some of the fascinating research findings relating to significant influences on the development of people's environmental thinking gives some indication of the importance of such data for environmental educators and policy makers alike. If the single most important influence affecting people's long term concern for the environment is early experiences outdoors, interacting in and with the natural world, then surely our duty is to maximise such opportunities. Indeed, the importance of experiences outdoors, and of what might be termed spiritual and aesthetic experiences in the environment is highlighted over and over again, in data collected around the world as well as in the UK study. For example:

'The most crucial feeling in the forest is that there I feel at peace with myself, with the whole world. The wilderness seems to me like an "absolute" truth. In the wilderness I feel someone can find the real meaning of life'. (from Greece)

'As a youngster, I played in the forest open to its life and amidst that life I fell in love ... but I also learned, first with my heart and later with my head, that the purpose and goals of my civilisation were different from my love. They would show me that the price of this kind of bond, this fell-sense of kinship with all life ... would be spiritual violation, hurt, rage, and finally fear'. (from Canada)

'My teacher accompanied me to her residence ... in the garden I came to a little chamber where I began to feel that I was in a smooth, cool, green heaven. ... I felt that I was moving with my close beloved ones'. (from Sri Lanka)

Elsewhere I present an argument based on research evidence for a shift in emphasis in the field of environmental education theory and practice, to incorporate greater understanding of the role of aesthetic and spiritual experiences in the environment in the development of individuals' environmental awareness and concern (Palmer 1998b).

This is but one of various themes arising directly out of an empirical research base which have significant implications for future developments in environmental education. I would contend that if the global promise and potential of environmental education is to be realised in the next century, then the design and implementation of policies and programmes for learning in this critical area need take account of such things as:

  • The nature and importance of prior knowledge and of formative influences and significant life experiences impacting upon people's thinking and behaviour.
  • The importance of knowledge gained through living and interacting in communities; socially acquired knowledge, as distinct from 'formal' knowledge gained in classrooms.
  • The critical significance of the natural environment and 'in' the environment experiences.
  • The complexity of the teaching and learning process in relation to the environment.

Illumination of these and other related matters can only come about through appropriately designed and executed programmes of reliable empirical research. With the increase in collaborative projects and international networks, environmental education research has become a well-established and extremely rewarding field in which to work; without doubt it is one which really can make a difference to the impact of educational experiences upon people's understanding, thinking and actions in relation to the world around them.