In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Environmental Education
  • Examples of Key Ideas Influencing the Focus of Environmental Education Provision
  • Visions of Environmental Education: Foundational Documents and Their Critique
  • Major Frameworks for School-Based Environmental Education: Taking a Sideways Look at the International Environmental Education Programme
  • Examples of What Shapes Environmental Education Provision at National Levels
  • Developing a Critical Perspective in and on Environmental Education—20th-Century Examples
  • Developing a Critical Perspective in and on Environmental Education—21st-Century Examples
  • Insights into Political Considerations Shaping the Field of Environmental Education
  • Expectations that Environmental Education Educates the “Whole Person” and “Whole Community”
  • Where Might You Find a Classroom for Environmental Education?
  • Environmental Education and Sustainable Development
  • Evaluating Environmental Education
  • Reviews of Research and the Research Field of Environmental Education
  • Examples of Knowledge Syntheses about Environmental Education
  • Scholarly Journals, Portals, and Databases about Environmental Education

Education Environmental Education
Alan Reid, Nicole M. Ardoin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0312


In broad terms, environmental educators provide educational activities that foster meaningful learning about challenges to the flourishing of communities of life on Earth. They nest this work within diverse understandings of the ways that human activities shape life on this dynamic planet—a situation that also underscores that the potential subject matter for environmental education (EE) is extensive and evolves. To illustrate, EE provision might address historic to contemporary qualities of environment-related consciousness and experience, the strengths and limitations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing about people-environment relations in particular places, the roles of citizens and other actors within different levels of environmental governance, and models and aspirations for ecosystem health across multiple scales. Given the breadth of possibility for EE, environmental educators may engage and/or redirect the practices of related fields of scholarship. These typically include—but are not limited to—the principles and priorities of environmental appreciation, conservation, and restoration; “learning beyond the classroom”; and sustainability-related education. Unsurprisingly, significant challenges emerge in determining what (not) to support or do as EE, topics we consider throughout this bibliography. Key considerations include the factors and intricacies that influence a person’s environment-related awareness, knowledge, understandings, motivations, decision-making, and commitments within and across the life span. Another layer is the multiplicity of contexts for—and limitations on—the ways we might live and learn. Put differently, research shows there are various barriers and enablers to becoming “environmentally educated” that individuals and groups will need to be aware of. Many of these become clearer as we consider the capabilities of educators and learners, alongside their constraints, readiness, and priorities. Each of these, and more, influence the effectiveness of environment-related teaching and learning, whatever point of engagement one proceeds from. In this, reflections on the field’s roots, mainstays, and innovations return us to a series of questions. These questions examine the value of education in addressing a plethora of concerns arising from how people relate to their environments in ways that avoid damaging all parties historically, now, and into the future. As questions of what to prioritize as EE are subject to debate, those working to provide and develop EE often tackle a range of considerations that may prove equally contested. In this, scholarly discourse usually centers around questions of the quality of provision, including: Is this expression of EE educationally rich, and to whom is it most relevant, and why?

General Overviews of Environmental Education

Since the field’s inception, environmental educators have been routinely encouraged to see EE as fundamental to any lifelong and lifewide process of education (Schoenfeld 1970). To help realize this expectation, environmental educators draw on various ideas about, and settings for, education. Yet EE remains primarily understood via the language and grammar of school-based educational experiences (Smyth 1995). Thus, provision for EE is typically categorized by way of curriculum activities (e.g., academic subjects and/or cross-curricular provision), co-curricular activities (e.g., environmental clubs that complement and/or strengthen curriculum-based instruction), and extracurricular activities (e.g., optional learning opportunities, such as community or service-focused projects). Some approaches to EE have tried to integrate these possibilities. Community tree planting within school grounds, for example, is typically uncontroversial and may draw on single or multiple curriculum areas supported by co- and extracurricular activities to ensure a holistic, coordinated, systems-thinking type approach (Meadows 1989). Other attempts at integration may receive pushback because of the implications or optics of provision, such as an EE that surfaces the importance of civic participation as a key step in any action-focused educational process that directly addresses environmental challenges. An important point here is to consider the distinctiveness of EE when compared with related forms of education. Its locus, culture, and values usually have questions of environmental quality as its North Star, regardless of the channels used to explore them, within or outside of schooling (Clark, et al. 2020). This can inevitably present challenges to pluralistic approaches to education; some educators, for example, including environmental educators, champion certain activities, frameworks, or models largely to the exclusion of alternatives (Öhman and Östman 2019). Thus, a caution that has sat alongside the first recommendations for a strategic approach to developing the field is as follows: forming cliques and/or engaging in partisanship on key priorities is usually counterproductive to ensuring the field’s inclusiveness, growth, and impact (Reid and Dillon 2016). This is not to say that members of a field cannot learn from its failures or mistakes (Sterling 2001); identify better approaches for particular contexts or audiences (Sauvé 2005); or shift its horizons as particular challenges endure and dissipate, and/or new ones emerge (Jickling and Sterling 2017). It does, however, speak to (a) questions of how plurality of provision is cultivated as a field professionalizes and diversifies; and (b) the focus of intergenerational dialogues, be those of a field’s roots and contemporary problems, if not its short- to longer-term ambitions (Braus, et al. 2022).

  • Braus, Judy, Joe Heimlich, Nicole Ardoin, and Charlotte Clark. 2022. Building bridges, not walls: Exploring the environmental education ecosystem. Applied Environmental Education & Communication 21.4: 319–330.

    DOI: 10.1080/1533015X.2022.2115226

    Building on Clark, et al. 2020, this essay emphasizes the importance of fostering and sustaining vibrant professional cultures for environmental educators in realizing the field’s goals. Key points include how various ecosystems for EE provision are enriched through partnership-based work toward shared ends-in-view. Examples include the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the Global Environmental Education Partnership (GEEP), key regional and international backbone organizations that help develop practice, policy, and professionalism.

  • Clark, Charlotte, Joe Heimlich, Nicole Ardoin, and Judy Braus. 2020. Using a Delphi study to clarify the landscape and core outcomes in environmental education. Environmental Education Research 26.3: 381–399.

    DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2020.1727859

    This report summarizes a survey of EE professionals in North America assessing the contemporary consensus on EE’s goals. Five core outcomes were identified, summarized thusly: “EE works to move people to action for the tangible benefit of the environment and humanity. To realize these benefits, people must connect experientially with the environment, learn needed skills, and understand the complicated social and cultural connections between humanity and the natural environment” (p. 381).

  • Jickling, Bob, and Stephen Sterling, eds. 2017. Post-sustainability and environmental education: Remaking education for the future. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-51322-5

    This collection articulates more complete visions of education better attuned to contemporary ecological challenges. Chapters offer critiques of efforts to embed sustainability into educational systems rooted in philosophical, ethical, and pedagogical analyses of the complex relationships of humans with nature. The overarching call is for better educational experiences that (a) circumvent the limitations of mainstream schooling, and (b) reconstruct imperatives for EE otherwise compromised by fixations on sustainability.

  • Meadows, Donella. 1989. Harvesting one hundredfold: Key concepts and case studies in environmental education. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

    UNEP’s collection of case studies illustrates a range of possible settings and activities for EE. Sourced from ideas and initiatives originating in the work of UNEP’s Environmental Education and Training Unit and its International EE Taskforce, Meadows, a renowned systems theorist, was tasked with sifting through various options. She recommended environmental educators prioritize systems thinking concepts and highlighted the value of particular activities that combine “thinking globally” with “acting locally.”

  • Öhman, Johan, and Leif Östman. 2019. Different teaching traditions in environmental and sustainability education. In Sustainable development teaching: Ethical and political challenges. Edited by Katrien Van Poeck, Leif Östman, and Johan Öhman, 70–82. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351124348-6

    This thought-provoking chapter shows why answers to the question of what constitutes good teaching in EE often depend on the tradition with which an educator aligns. The authors identify three traditions: fact-based, normative, and pluralistic. Each tradition affects (a) what students are socialized into as people-environment relations, and (b) associated barriers to effective provision. Key differences emerge in approaches to (i) facts and values and (ii) democratic principles in schooling.

  • Reid, Alan, and Justin Dillon, eds. 2016. Environmental education: Critical concepts in the environment. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Over four volumes, this reference collection illustrates milestone statements and diverse scholarship on foundational to cutting-edge expressions of EE. The editors provide a synopsis of central debates and unpack matters of intellectual context and pedigree. Entries serve to illustrate a wide range of ways environment and education have been connected; factors shaping EE principles, priorities, and practice; major and minor traditions in the field; and enduring to novel horizons for EE.

  • Sauvé, Lucie. 2005. Currents in environmental education: Mapping a complex and evolving pedagogical field. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 10:11–37.

    Sauvé’s article celebrates the creativity and richness of the field by mapping fifteen distinct currents in EE. Currents are ways of envisioning and practicing EE. They flow from distinct understandings of, and architectures for, relating environmental and educational concerns. This particular cartography charted each current’s historical emergence and characteristics. Although combinations of currents and critique are always possible, we note Sauvé also expected her analysis to lead to innovation.

  • Schoenfeld, Clay. 1970. Toward a national strategy for environmental education. The Journal of Educational Research 64.1: 3–11.

    DOI: 10.1080/00220671.1970.10884076

    Schoenfeld was the first editor of the Journal of Environmental Education. The launch editorial focused on what was new about EE, distinguishing it from conservation education, one of its parent disciplines in the United States. In this parallel editorial for a broader audience, Schoenfeld wrote that EE “views resources as a community of which man [sic] is a part, not as a commodity which man [sic] is to exploit” (p. 3).

  • Smyth, John. 1995. Environment and education: A view of a changing scene. Environmental Education Research 1.1: 3–20.

    DOI: 10.1080/1350462950010101

    In the first article published in Environmental Education Research, Smyth offers an insider’s perspective on developing international and national strategies for EE. Smyth’s reflections illustrate why promoting innovation in educational approaches is crucial, while to prevent “mission creep,” constructs associated with sustainability should be engaged carefully rather than automatically. For Smyth, the risks are twofold: the muddying of priorities regarding the “reform” of education that addresses human-induced environmental change, and relatedly, human nature itself.

  • Sterling, Stephen. 2001. Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Bristol, UK: Schumacher Briefings.

    In this influential monograph, Sterling contends that systemic changes in educational priorities and culture are required to realize both human potential and social, economic, and ecological well-being. While provision of EE is necessary in this project, Sterling argues it is simply not a sufficient means for transforming education as a whole. Rather, we must co-create an authentically ecological view of education capable of supplanting the “prevailing managerial and mechanistic paradigm.”

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.