Course:CONS200/2023/Does environmental education work? Impact on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours

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Introduction to Environmental Education

A method of Environmental Education: Learning outdoors about the environment

What is Environmental Education (EE)?

Environmental education (EE) focuses on educating people about the world and its natural resources. Increasing EE enhances understanding and allows individuals to explore issues, develop problem solving skills and can lead to the preservation of our environment. By recognizing everyday interactions between humans and the environment, we can gain a deeper understanding of how our actions impact the world around us. This recognition is a key component of conservation as it educates those who experience the environment daily and reveals how the environment is a crucial part of the development and advancement of society. This knowledge allows us to make more informed, better decisions and encourages sustainability, environmental stewardship, and environmental protection which is why it is so important to provide it within our global education systems (Mora et al., 2021).

Key goals of Environmental Education

Environmental education can be used for a variety of purposes including to help preserve and protect the environment and the natural resources contained within the environment (Grossman & Chernoff, 2017). Key concepts that environmental education promotes include the advancement of knowledge and compassion towards environmental protection and sustainability. When reinforced, this can lead to behavioural change and eventually encourage actions to be taken that will protect the environment and increase sustainability and overall conservation. When environmental education receives enough exposure and recognition, it can lead to transformative change within societies that allow the preservation of environments, and the overall advancement of society (Fang et al., 2023). As citizens create achievable action plans which will change the way societies develop and improve, the environment will improve, be protected and be sustainable. Environmental education will also allow individuals to recognize and understand the impact of their actions on the environment and reveal how individual choices can negatively or positively impact the environment - individual actions combined together can impact society (Fang et al., 2023).

Current methods of Environmental Education

Environmental Education Settings

An example of informal environmental education, this family on a hike is spending time in nature deepening their relationship with and understanding of the natural world.

Education is an incredibly diverse concept as it takes on a multitude of forms based on its intended purpose [1]. Environmental education is no exception as sources of environmental knowledge can range from formal education in the form of classroom learning to non-formal education in the forms of communication, media, and lived experiences.[1]

Informal environmental education

With one of the key goals of environmental education being to instil within individuals a sense of care and responsibility towards the wellbeing of the environment, each interaction that brings a sense of appreciation towards nature is a form of environmental education [1]. In order for learners to develop environmental literacy and a functional understanding of the complex relationship between humans and our environment, interdisciplinary learning experiences are invaluable [2]. The media has a responsibility to make environmental dialogues available[1] and interactions with nature should be encouraged within society at large[2].

Formal environmental education

Another of the key goal of environmental education is to provide individuals with the technical knowledge and skillset to play a productive role towards improving and protecting the environment. This more technical knowledge base often requires an academic learning environment where the learner is exposed to theories and frameworks to help make well informed decisions [2].

Social Strategies Used In Environmental Education

The diverse interdisciplinary forms of environmental education can be best characterized through the social strategies they fall within [3]. The most common social strategies used by the WWF for their environmental education initiatives are information, communication, education, and capacity building.

Information Sharing

This technique is employed in order to increase awareness and understanding of a certain environmental issue. The process of information sharing often involves a variety of media forms being used in an informal education setting. Oftentimes the audience of information campaigns are very general [4].


Communication is used as a strategy to facilitate environmental education when the objective is to establish a dialogue in order to deepen understanding of a known environmental issue [4]. Facilitation of two way communications allows for experiences and plans to be shared. Communication takes place in informal and non-formal settings [4].


Education encompasses activities that are focused on creating both knowledge and understanding of conservation principles. Education often utilizes an integrated mix of information and communication with additional learning experiences that allow for a more holistic understanding of concepts to develop [4]. This social strategy is applied to many forms of activities that exist in non-formal and formal environments [4].

Capacity Building

The social strategy of capacity building is employed with the intention of increasing the capacity or ability of civil society to support conservation efforts through policy development within social and institutional structures. Community development training, organizational reviews, and policy development are all examples of capacity building initiatives which generally occur in non-formal settings [4].

The psychological impacts of Environmental Education

'Dragons of Inaction'

The way in which people think - whether that be attitudes people hold about the environment, or about how people perceive the level of impact they can have on the world - is critical to determining if EE can be successful in encouraging people to lead sustainable lifestyles and make environmentally-conscious decisions. Current studies have highlighted that there are seven key psychological barriers that stand in the way of individuals developing an attitude that reflects belief in individual agency (in light of having a positive impact on the environment), as well as impacting behavioural choices; these barriers are named 'dragons of inaction.'[5] These dragons are defined as a compendium of psychological barriers that can significantly hinder a person's desired actions:[5]

  1. Limited cognition: The idea that humans have limited cognition which acts as a barrier to mitigation and adaptation.[5]
  2. Ideologies: Belief systems (such as religion and politics) have a significant influence on a individual's life and decision-making process.[5]
  3. Comparison to others: Humans are incredibly sociable and this causes people to compare many aspects of our lives with others, such as: social norms, our behaviour, and levels of income.[5]
  4. Sunk costs: Some individuals desire change and spend time and money to do so, but this is only useful if they are not harming the environment with these changes.[5]
  5. Discredence: Humans are prone to viewing other individuals in a negative light, and this can have substantial consequences including a lack of trust.[5]
  6. Perceived risks: When a person changes their behaviour patterns, this can lead to some potential risks, including: physical risk, financial risk, social risk, and many others.[5]
  7. Limited behaviour: Many people actively attempt to limit their impact on the environment yet are hesitant to engage in high-impact behaviours that require substantial lifestyle changes.[5]

In attempts to maximize the impact of EE in encouraging people to lead sustainable lifestyles and make fewer anthropocentric decisions, there is a need for EE to actively engage with these psychological aspects and work to overcome them through different methods.[5]

Various studies have revealed that it is possible for EE to influence the decisions individuals make with regards to their actions and the environment.[6] In Germany, a school situated close to the Wadden Sea conducted a study whereby the goal was to identify whether teaching kids about the Wadden Sea ecosystem would change the psychological constructs that the students had towards that ecosystem.[6] The study predominantly focused on a concept known as 'connectedness to nature'.[6][7] This concept is incredibly important in determining ecological behaviours since it demonstrates whether a person thinks of themselves as a part of nature or as an external entity.[6] The results of this study found that 'connectedness to nature' was a particularly strong indicator of an individual having a willingness to act in environmentally-conscious ways, and the findings of this Wadden Sea study revealed that the students were more inclined to make positive ecological decisions towards that specific ecosystem they were taught. Importantly, teaching the students about this ecosystem found that students developed positive environmental attitudes, which is a key precursor to developing pro-environmental behaviour.[6]

Another study, conducted primarily in the UK, found that outdoor learning is more effective than indoor classroom teaching of environmental phenomena and processes; this is because it provides a more engaged and close experience with nature.[8] Many people in a range of countries are taking action towards changing and dismantling their own psychological barriers, and this, combined with implementing improved methods of communicating environmental knowledge in EE has been found to provide a promising way to generate positive change and sustainability in the global society.[5]

This is an example of how environmental education can have an impact on how we perceive our environment and help shape a better society

Measuring psychological impacts of Environmental Education on students

There are three main tools used for measuring of psychological impacts: self-reported behaviours, observed behaviours, and ecological indicators.

The Environmental Learning Outcomes Survey (ELOS) focuses on students aged six to eleven and helps identify and measure the students' environmental learning by handing out different types of questionnaires depending on their age.[9] Kids aged six to seven were given an oral questionnaire to described what they had learnt and identify the feelings they experienced during certain environmental activities; they were also asked whether or not they would change their actions and behaviour towards the environment.[9] Alternatively, for the kids in the group aged ten to eleven years old, they were given a self-administered questionnaire where the questions were more focused and direct, and asked how could they respond to scenarios about issues related to their environmental experience.[9] Ultimately, this survey analysed the thought process of children to help advance knowledge in the field on the extent to which EE impacts decisions made by kids from different age groups.

Additionally, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, US, conducted a survey to evaluate the success of an environmental program in the national park.[10] Students from different schools were gathered in the park for a multiday program and were evaluated pre and post-experience of the program by the staff who monitored any changes in the children's behavioural patterns after the environmental program; this included whether the students were more conscious of the energy they were using (and whether this meant they would turn off light sources more frequently) and reducing their water consumption.[10]

Limitations of current studies

A key barrier to current studies that investigate the psychological impact of EE and whether knowledge of environmental phenomena and processes translates into action is largely conducted in North America and on white populations; only 8% of global surveys are conducted in Latin America.[10] It is evident cross-cultural studies into the role of psychological impacts and influences in EE needs to be conducted to assess whether place and cultural differences have an impact upon the extent (and type) of environmental behaviour people engage with.

Environmental Education and Pro-Environmental Behaviour

An example of 'public-sphere' activist environmental behaviour: engaging in a protest against polluting corporations and governments which fund the climate crisis.

In 1977, representatives of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education established five key objectives of EE initiatives: awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and participation. In the following year, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) highlighted how ‘participation’ (i.e., behaviour) is the final pillar of EE programs, and can only be achieved once communication of environmental knowledge is done. Thus, EE is a form of communication, and effective communication is the precursor for behavioural change (whether that be at the collective or individual scale). Therefore, the literature has come to the normative conclusion that higher levels of environmental education and knowledge will lead to environmentally-responsible actions and behaviour.

Pro-environmental behaviour

Engaging with individuals and whole communities to increase their knowledge of environmental processes, functions, and phenomena can impact peoples' values to become more oriented towards biospheric and altruistic values; this, in turn, theoretically translates into responsible and pro-environmental behaviour.[11] Pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs) can be defined as a type of behaviour that actively aims to limit the negative impacts on the environment that may unfold from one’s actions.[12] Importantly, PEBs are usually divided into three main categories based on whether the behaviour and actions happen privately or publicly, and whether the behaviour directly or indirectly benefits the environment:[13]

  1. Private-sphere behaviour: Actions that directly impact the environment, done more so in ‘private’ spaces (e.g., consumer choices, using less electricity in one’s home)
  2. Public-sphere behaviour: Actions that indirectly impact the environment that are displayed in public spaces (e.g., environmental activism and protests)
  3. Public-sphere non-activist behaviour: Actions that indirectly impact the environment but not through activism, more through showing supporting or dissent for public policies (e.g., voting).

From this, PEBs are often placed into two further categories based on the level of positive impact an individual’s actions can have on the environment:[14]

  1. Low-impact behaviour (e.g., switching off the lights; recycling, etc.)
  2. High-impact behaviour (e.g., sustainable modes of transportation; limiting consumption of energy or meat)
Recycling household materials: an example of 'private-sphere', low-impact behaviour

Evidence that Environmental Education can lead to pro-environmental behaviour

It is commonly agreed that whilst environmental knowledge does not necessarily directly foster pro-environmental behaviour due to a range of external contextual factors, it is certainly a strong predictor.[15] This is because a higher level of exposure to information on environmental processes and the importance of safeguarding the environment has found to be foundational to increasing people's environmental awareness.[16] Alongside this, EE aims to either change or enhance an individual’s attitudinal factors (mainly values) in favour of biospheric ones that demonstrate a concern for the environment and natural world, and it has been found in numerous studies that positive environmental values is positively correlated with PEB.[17][18]

Considering the importance of environmental values, in 2013, a study was conducted in five, well-populated, urban neighbourhoods in Malaysia to examine whether there is a significant relationship between environmental knowledge and pro-environmental behaviour.[19] The authors of this study highlighted how a city’s ability to engage in, and maintain, high levels of environmental sustainability is largely dependent upon the sustainability of firms situated in the city, but also the level of active environmentalism (particularly private-sphere behaviour) carried out by their residents. The results of this study found that there was a significant relationship between adequate environmental knowledge influencing environmentally-conscious values, in turn influencing PEB; these results were in line with results from previous studies.[20]

Alongside this, it has been found that, if EE frames environmental phenomena (such as climate change or the loss of natural resources through ineffective conservation strategies) in a way that demonstrates the significant impact that they will have on people’s livelihoods - including their own, and whether that be at the present moment or near future - then individuals are more likely to engage with high-impact PEB.[21]

Evidence that Environmental Education does not always lead to pro-environmental behaviour

However, an individual engaging in environmental education does not necessarily mean that this will translate into an adoption of PEB, or that, if they do adopt PEBs, that EE was the only cause for this. This is because there are a multitude of factors at play that also have a significant level of influence over encouraging PEB, or that can be used to explain why someone is unable to act in environmentally-responsible ways.[11][22] This includes:[19]

  1. Contextual and situational factors (e.g., structural determinants such as one’s infrastructural and built environment)
  2. Factors that impact individual capability (e.g., income, age, etc.)
  3. Psychological factors (e.g., self-efficacy and traits that effect motivational qualities)

Age is certainly a relatively strong determinant of whether or not an individual can participate PEB. For example, a child’s agency is limited in certain decisions that translate into high-impact PEB, including their ability to invest in renewable sources of energy in their household, or being able to choose the form of transportation they take to school. Income is also a notable factor in determining PEB. High-impact behaviours in particular can often require a level of economic investment that is not available to all, including the cost of adopting vegan alternatives and shifting to renewables.[23]

Improving Environmental Education

A National Park in Switzerland. Effective modes of Environmental Education can help to teach people about the importance of conserving the environment and, if maximized to a global scale, could ultimately help to foster further support for pro-environmental policies that aim to increase conservation measures.

One of the key barriers of Environmental Education is its significant focus on the individual. Whilst this can work in a way that is empowering, it can also be counter-productive and overwhelm those engaging with EE, deterring them from enacting a shift in their behaviour. This is because much of the focus is directed at individual problem solving and highlighting what the individual can do to solve real-world issues. As such, EE needs to broadcast and make it extremely clear that these individuals can only help make advancements in sustainable development and enacting pro-environmental policies, and are not expected to solve such large issues such as global consumption patterns that are largely responsible for environmental degradation and climate change. Alongside this, EE must learn to strike the balance between highlighting how it is the large industries, corporations and governments that hold much of the power in enacting true global change, whilst also not causing people to become demoralized and learn that they have a level of agency (through boycotting and lobbying, for example) over influencing such change.[24]

Not only does EE need to become more popular within the education system for children, but it must be implemented within the day to day lives of adults. If EE is implemented within the daily lives of adults it will foster an advancement in sustainability within society as they will be able to make high impact choices. These high impact choices can look like making daily life changes such as creating campaigns that promote sustainability and conservation, but it can also look like change within your lifestyle such as your choice of housing, transportation, and habits. With the advancement of knowledge for older citizens they will be able to make more informed and educated decisions that will in turn advance and foster sustainability within society.


Environmental education plays a key role in sustainability and the development of stable, growing societies throughout the world. It provides insights into effective ways to develop the environment in a sustainable, reliable way that citizens of all ages and education levels can understand. It encourages individuals to make responsible decisions regarding the environment while raising awareness of key problems, and challenges regarding conservation and environmental sustainability. Environmental education can take many forms including classroom sessions, experimental investigation and outdoor projects and guide us in making smart, responsible choices which promote conservation and sustainability (Gross & Chernoff, 2017). Environmental education also not only shows societies how they can address environmental challenges that come with development of societies, it can allow us to persevere. The success of environmental education depends on a number of factors including the level of influence it has on individuals and collectives throughout the community, the resources that are available to activate change and improvement, and the accuracy of the educators providing the services. Looking forward, environmental education has the potential to provide accurate sources of information that allow us to create a sustainable, reliable society that can evolve as a result of the understanding gained from recognizing the impact that both individuals and society have on the environment - understanding and recognition that can lead to a positive future.


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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Walker, R (2017). "Embedding sustainability instruction across content areas: Best classroom practices from informal environmental education". Journal of Geoscience Education. 65: 185–193.
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Ballantyne, Roy; Packer, Jan; Everett, Michele (2005). "Measuring Environmental Education Program Impacts and Learning in the Field: Using an Action Research Cycle to Develop a Tool for Use with Young Students". Australian Journal of Environmental Education. 21: 23–38 – via ResearchGate.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bowers, Alison; Gaillard, Estelle (2020). "Environmental education outcomes for conservation: A systematic review". Biological Conservation. 241: 1–13 – via ScienceDirect.
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