ERIC Identifier: ED351201
Publication Date: 1992-11-00
Author: Disinger, John F. - Roth, Charles E.
Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Environmental Literacy. ERIC/CSMEE Digest.
The creation of an environmentally literate citizenry is the bottom-line goal
of environmental education. This goal does not mean, however, the same thing to
everyone. Although the term environmental literacy has been used for more than
two decades, it continues to lack precise definition. It has received a good
deal of attention since 1968 and creates positive images while conveying little
in the way of substantive information or direction. Renewed interest in
environmental education affords an opportunity to reconsider and highlight the
interrelationships between environmental education and environmental literacy
and to define the latter so it can be a useful term and concept.
The 1990 National Environmental Education Act (Public Law 101-619) has
brought environmental education back to the attention of many educators and most
environmentalists (Marcinkowski, 1990-91), though how much impact this will have
on educational decision makers remains to be seen. At present, as in the past,
educational leaders show little direct interest in education about the
environment, except as it may be subsumed by traditionally defined curricular
areas. The 1970 Environmental Education Act, for example, received essentially
no priority from the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where
it was housed. Over the years, significantly greater interest has been
demonstrated by conservationists and environmentalists. Environmental quality is
their priority, and they see education as a mechanism for promoting it. For this
reason, the 1990 Act is receiving significant attention from its host unit, the
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, and from conservationists and
environmentalists, in general.
The promotion of citizenship education, often for adults as well as school
children, is typically identified as the primary task of schooling. A continuing
assumption is that the success of the formal education system is essentially
defined by its ability to prepare individuals to be citizens--i.e., to function
effectively in today's and tomorrow's society (America 2000, 1991). To achieve
this goal, the development of both general and specific literacies is essential.
HOW IS "LITERACY" DEFINED?
In its earliest uses, the term
literacy referred solely to the ability to read and write; one either could or
could not. In point of fact, the term "illiterate" predated the positive term
with respect to general literacy, as literacy, mathematical literacy, computer
literacy, visual literacy, cultural literacy, and so on. As described by
Michaels and O'Connor (1990):
an inherently plural notion. We each have, and indeed fail to have, many
different literacies. Each of these literacies is an integration of ways of
thinking, talking, interacting, and valuing, in addition to reading and
writing...Literacy then is less about reading and writing per se, and is rather
about ways of being in the world and ways of making meaning with and around
Although environmental literacy is not identified by direct reference in most
discussions of educational goals, it may be inferred from considerations of
specific literacies such as those identified in America 2000. This Digest deals
with environmental literacy as a specific literacy. Most of its content is
derived from a 1992 monograph by Charles E. Roth, the 1968 originator of the
concept. His monograph, available from ERIC/CSMEE, traces the roots, evolution,
present status, and future prospects of environmental literacy.
ARE STANDARDS POSSIBLE?
Since 1989, an environmental
education task force of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
has sought the establishment of consensus standards for environmental education.
ASTM assumed organizational leadership at the request of the Federal Interagency
Committee on Education's Subcommittee on Environmental Education (FICE/SEE).
Professional leadership and participation comes from individuals who are
experienced and active in environmental education. A first task, on which
advancement of other tasks depends, is defining environmental literacy.
Most literacies are defined in cognitive terms. Knowledge is a necessary
pre-condition of thoughtful behavior and action. Educational systems usually
limit their operational objectives to the attainment of knowledge and skills
related to their effective and efficient acquisition; they do not actively
promote the pro-active development of "responsible environmental behavior," as
described by Hungerford (1987). Individual and societal environmental behavior,
however, belies the assumption that behavioral change follows directly from
development of necessary knowledge and skills (Iozzi, 1989).
Since the term was coined, a distinguishing characteristic of environmental
literacy has been its "action" perspective:
literacy is essentially the capacity to perceive and interpret the relative
health of environmental systems and take appropriate action to maintain,
restore, or improve the health of those systems...
literacy should be defined...in terms of observable behaviors. That is, people
should be able to demonstrate in some observable form what they have
learned--their knowledge of key concepts, skills acquired, disposition toward
issues, and the like. (Roth, 1992).
Levels of literacy are generally assumed to exist but are not often defined.
With respect to environmental literacy, Roth proposed the identification of
Nominal, indicating "ability to recognize many of the basic terms used in
communicating about the environment and to provide rough, if unsophisticated,
working definitions of their meanings";
Functional, indicating "a broader knowledge and understanding of the nature and
interactions between human social systems and other natural systems"; and
Operational, indicating "progress beyond functional literacy in both the breadth
and depth of understandings and skills."
WHAT ARE THE ATTRIBUTES OF THE ENVIRONMENTALLY LITERATE?
expansion of the above, Roth specifies that:
at the operational level routinely evaluate the impacts and consequences of
actions, gathering and synthesizing pertinent information, choosing among
alternatives, advocating action positions, and taking actions that work to
sustain or enhance a healthy environment. Such people demonstrate a strong,
ongoing sense of investment in and responsibility for preventing or remediating
environmental degradation both personally and collectively, and are likely to be
acting at several levels from local to global in so doing. The characteristic
habits of mind of the environmentally literate are well ingrained. They are
routinely engaged in dealing with the world at large.
For educators, a complication is the interdisciplinary nature of
environmental literacy. Many educators apparently assume that environmental
literacy is equivalent to, or a subset of, scientific literacy. There is good
reason for making this assumption: "...environmental education has not been
infused equally within the curriculum, but tends to be treated mostly as an
enrichment of the science program." (Simmons, 1989). Beyond that, science
educators have demonstrated more interest and involvement in environmental
education than have others. The danger, Roth argues, is that scientific literacy
appears to be built on a mechanistic paradigm, whereas environmental literacy
builds on an ecological paradigm. More simply, environmental literacy derives
its focus from four basic issues that take it well beyond the typical boundaries
of science education, or any of the traditional disciplines:
the interrelationships between natural and social systems;
the unity of humankind with nature;
technology and the making of choices; and
developmental learning throughout the human life cycle.
Thus, environmental literacy draws upon six major areas: environmental
sensitivity, knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, personal investment and
responsibility, and active involvement. In Roth's descriptions of the specifics
of literacy level, environmental sensitivity and attitudes and values are
subsumed under the term "affects," while personal investment and responsibility
and active involvement are subsumed under the term "behavior." This creates four
strands--knowledge, skills, affect, and behavior--to be addressed in education
for environmental literacy.
More work remains to be done to refine the
components of environmental literacy. These refinements need to be keyed to
general developmental levels in formal education and to the opportunities
provided by nonformal education. Effort needs to be extended to encourage each
component of the broad educational system, formal and nonformal, to accept as
part of its mission the fostering of environmental literacy. If each does a more
effective job of nurturing environmental literacy, more individuals will achieve
higher degrees of competency on the environmental literacy continuum.
U. S. Department of Education. (1991). America
2000. Washington DC: Author.
Hungerford, Harold R. (1987). Environmental education and student behaviors.
In J. F. Disinger (Ed.), Trends and Issues in Environmental Education: EE in
School Curricula (pp. 25-38). Columbus, OH: ERIC/CSMEE. ED 292 608
Iozzi, Louis A. (1989). What research says to the educator: Part one,
environmental education and the affective domain. Journal of Environmental
Education, 20(3), 3-9.
Marcinkowski, Thomas J. (1990-91). The new national environmental education
act: A renewal of commitment. Journal of Environmental Education, 22(2), 7-10.
Michaels, Sara, & O'Connor, Mary Catherine (1990). Literacy as reasoning
within multiple discourses: Implications for policy and educational reform.
Newton, MA: Education Development Corporation.
OERI (1991). OERI establishing new literacy institute. OERI Bulletin, Summer
1991, pp. 1,11.
Roth, Charles E. (1992). Environmental literacy: Its roots, evolution, and
directions in the 1990s. Columbus, OH: ERIC/CSMEE. Roth, Charles E. (1968). On
the road to conservation. Massachusetts Audubon, June 1968, pp. 38-41.
Simmons, Deborah A. (1989). More infusion confusion: A look at environmental
education curriculum materials. Journal of Environmental Education, 20(4),