competence as the goal for Health Education and Environmental Education
Discussion paper for Central Concept Seminar of the SEET
programme January 2002:
The evolution of Environmental Education concepts and approaches
By Soren Breiting
This paper can only take up a few positions related to the evolution
of EE. In this version I am not aiming at describing the historical
development of EE in Thailand. Such a work would be useful to have
done. In a number of countries there already exists papers to describe
the development of EE in the respective country (e.g. Great Britain,
USA and Denmark).
Reactions to the challenge of environmental issues
To a certain extent the background for EE is clear: Each country
is facing a number of changes in its environment. They become environmental
issues when they are regarded as unwanted by at least some of its
In the evolution of EE a kind of logic from this situation has
mainly been that because not everybody in each country (and internationally)
have taken the above mentioned situation serious, the goal of EE
in schools and other learning situations should be to increase the
learners' awareness of the seriousness of the environmental situation,
to get knowledge about different types of environmental problems
and their scientific background, and to pass their knowledge and
awareness on to other family members. It is hoped that this teaching
will make the learners willing and active in participating in the
immediate solution of some problems related to daily life and lifestyle,
like problems linked to the consumption of water and electricity,
and handling of waste (e.g. by helping recycling).
This general approach has often been a part of a rationale, where
EE should give the learner a positive attitude to nature and to
appreciate the beauty of nature before the introduction of the more
depressing environmental aspects. Some will express it like: Learn
first to love nature, and then the engagement in protecting nature
will come more or less by itself.
This entire approach has been criticised from a number of perspectives,
of which we can mention a few:
- It is very individualistic
- It is focussing too much on lifestyle and too little on living
conditions and how they shape the actual living of people.
- It induces a feeling of guilt, which is not justified - a "prosecuting
the victim" syndrome.
- It doesn't prepare the learners for problems, which are not already
identified, or to newer - for the moment unknown - solutions to
old environmental issues.
- It doesn't support the development of a critical and constructive
- It is quite apolitical, and might fuel an understanding of environmental
issues to mainly be rooted in bad individuals, or a simple na?ve
understanding, that the whole issue is due to a lack of knowledge
of the main stakeholders.
- It easily supports a "learn from nature" understanding,
that is not in accordance with how knowledge is generated and revised
by human activity, and which is counteracting the involvement of
people's involvement in sustainable development.
- The environmental problems are easily seen as problems between
nature and people, and not as issues between people about how nature
- The na?ve understanding of the root of environmental issues often
causes to a disappointing clash with people in charge of environmental
aspect which might give the learner an apathetic view on their own
possible influence on environmental issues.
- It is not linking the quality of human health with the quality
of the environment.
In its original (or extreme) version this understanding has been
labelled a "behaviour modification approach", as the main
idea has been to optimise the most efficient ways of having people
to change their attitudes to give the highest priority to environmental
concern (often setting the concern for Nature as the main issue),
and to act environmentally friendly to give a substantial contribution
to the solution of the current environmental issues in the community.
A substantial amount of research has been done to identify the
main factors, which generate environmental concern and environmental
friendly behaviour. The research has been used as steps to be better
able to develop instruction and campaigns to move learners (and
a population) toward a more environmental friendly behaviour and
A part of this has taken the point of departure in the concept
of "significant life experiences", originally developed
by Thomas Tanner, and in later years developed in an international
team with Joy Palmer as a key figure.
At college and university level environmental education has often
been the general label for environmental science. As long as these
disciplines, often several traditional science disciplines combined
in different packages as interdisciplinary education, are not integrated
with a clear and open-ended emphasis on the value loaded nature
of environmental issues, they don't deserve the notion of environmental
Alternatives to environmental behaviour modification
The above mention critics of versions of EE with elements of behaviour
modification have been supplemented with different approaches, building
on ideas like the following, but not restricted to these:
- Environmental problems are issues in the community, and not problems
in nature or problems between nature and people.
-Environmental issues are value-loaded issues without simple correct
or incorrect solutions, but with the possibility of different solutions,
which will be judged as better or worse by different people with
different beliefs and interests.
- The main goal of EE is to support the learner's understanding
of the complexity of environmental issues and to help them to be
able to handle controversial issues of the community and to develop
to be a reflective, critical, responsible, constructive and active
part of civil society.
- Environmental issues cannot be treated separately form other aspects
of human life and from other issues of the community.
One of the well-described and researched alternative approaches
to behaviour modification EE is the action competence approach.
This has been developed in Denmark, but through much interaction
with international co-operation including other Nordic countries,
researchers mainly from Australia and England, and in its roots
inspired especially by The Frankfurter school in Germany.
The action competence approach to EE
In the action competence approach to EE the main aim of EE is to
further develop the "competence" or capacity or ability
of the learner to be influential related to solving environmental
issues. By action we mean something based on decisions which you
have been involved in yourself, and not just some activities which
others (e.g. the teacher) has told you to do. This approach shares
a lot of thinking from education supporting democracy in a society
Democracy implies that disagreement is accepted and that each individual
should have the right and opportunity to voice his opinion. (It
can be said that democracy is a civilised way of handling disagreement.)
So in that way different from manipulation or the situation when
powerful smaller groups just push their own will and interests through.
In the action competence approach to EE pupils should learn to
analyse complex and controversial issues in the community and develop
their ability to make up their own mind of what they would like
to see in the future related to environmental problems. And - very
important - they should get experience with how to act towards their
ideas. This will typical happen together with other class mates
and may be even with others outside the school. The teacher shall
not be a person who delivers or teaches the children the "right
solutions", but a person who helps the pupils investigate the
issues and at the same time support their learning in relevant subject
matters. The core of the focus for "environment" in EE
is the conflicting interests in human's use of natural resources.
Some general pitfalls to avoid in EE - A personal view
- Avoid as a teacher to be a part of an environmental conflict
yourself. This means don't represent the side of environmental conservation
but get another spokesperson for that, even if your students are
not in doubt about your personal viewpoints.
- Don't look at your students as your target to persuade to be more
environmentally concerned but let them identify and investigate
environmental issues and let them develop their own position.
- Avoid activities, which are not stimulating the concept formation
of your students. If you find it useful to produce products from
waste material, be sure that your students are not believing that
to produce e.g. fancy hats of used plastic bags will solve any waste
problem. Instead let them understand that the distinction between
the concepts (= understanding) of "waste" and "resource"
depends on the actual situation. An empty can is a resource, if
you strand on an inhabited island, but waste in a modern big city.
- Be aware of the distinction between an 'activity' and an 'action'.
If your students are "acting" then they have a goal about
to change something by their act.
- If you want your school to be a more "green school"
let your students be the main driving forces in shaping ideas and
priorities and plan changes, so it can be a continued process over
many years and by that with many generations of learners involved.
- Avoid activities and actions with health hazards to students,
teachers or technical staff of the school, like handling hazardous
chemicals, liquids, waste water and waste in general.
- When you use creative activities be sure your students are in
fact in charge of the creativity and that they are not just modelling
some creation from the teacher or a source.
EE advisor, SEET Programme