Ecology Ecological Education
Paul Ganderton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0235


Ecological education is the process of creating an ecological understanding or literacy whose dimensions and parameters have changed through time both in regard to and in relation with the development of ecology as a science and the needs the user/learner. As such, it should be seen as a fluid and dynamic system of learning and information chosen to suit the specific needs of the situation. In this context, ecological literacy is defined as giving the learner such information as to allow for sound, scientifically based decisions to be made about a given ecological situation or context. The scope of ecological education is vast—it ranges from the most specific and detailed knowledge for researchers to limited and general ideas in primary school education. Likewise, the avenues through which it is disseminated are equally diverse—from university to business to local citizen group. There are no widely agreed models of ecological education; however, a structural look at the topic suggests four elements (the first three of which are reported here). The first, agency, refers to the capacity of individuals to actively access, gain, and benefit from a study of ecology. Thus, age, interests, gender, education, prior experience, etc. all play a part in constructing and constraining the individual’s access to ecological knowledge. Second, these individuals then need to access educational opportunities, i.e., context. Scales from local to global and formal to informal encompass the wide range of options with schools, higher education, business, pressure groups, media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) carrying the bulk of instructional work. Third, there is the content, namely, the actual ecological concepts seen as required learning for any given situation. This would range from a very general overview, as might be seen in a secondary school course, to highly specific and detailed information needed by a researcher. In addition, content could range from the most theoretical models through to applied ecology. All three elements are underpinned by a philosophy whose own roots are far from clear cut. At one level, standard positivist perspectives give way to far more phenomenological and structural ideas, such as queer theory, eco-feminism, and deep green ecology, that privilege and dictate the range of knowledge “permitted.” Finally, it is worth noting that Ecology as a term derives from the late 19th century. However, as an idea it can be traced back to Greek times if not before. Still, as a modern endeavor, it is best seen from the 1950s onward, as treated here.

On the Nature of Ecological Education

What should be the simplest of tasks, the defining of a subject area, actually turns out to be one of the most contested! This is due partly to the subject area and its links with environmental issues and, partly, with the relatively recent nature of the subject, which often blurs traditional academic lines. Initially, even ecology was defined as “what ecologists do” (Sheail 1987). Thus, ecological education was defined as the formal instruction of people into the burgeoning development of the separate discipline of ecology, the focus that is taken here. Since those early days, the idea of ecological education has been expanded. Hale 1993 and Judson 2010 argue that ecology should include the human-environment interactions, a view that updates ideas posited by Sheail. As interest in ecology and the environment grew, calls were made for a more widespread educational move, one that became commonly referred to as environmental education. This latter idea, as seen in Leal Filho and O’Loan 1996, is not the positivistic focus of ecology but rather the normative practice of environmental concern—a need to restore ecosystems seen as damaged by human action. It is instructive to see how the simple notion of education in ecology has been taken. For example, researchers have taken ecological education to mean the development of a community-based, adult education (Hautecoeur 2002), part of a lifelong understanding about the environment. Given the argument that current student generations are dissociated from natural senses of place by virtue of existing urban and economic conditions, Oberbillig, et al. 2014 proposes that ecological education be seen as an outdoors activity, connecting learning in the classroom with learning about a sense of space and place. The usual notion that environmental education has a broader remit than ecological education is challenged in Smith and Williams 1999. These are questions of content, to be dealt with more fully in the relevant section. Other researchers have focused on the essentially Eurocentric nature of ecology and the need to accept more culturally relevant learning (Zandvliet 2019). Another element comes from a small but significant group of writings from eastern Europe and Russia emphasizing the need to use ecological education as a way forward in national reconstruction (Deleanu 2013). Finally, calls have been made for ecological education to construct a more just and peaceful society (Gevorgyan and Adanalyan 2009).

  • Deleanu, M. I. 2013. Ecological education: Proposal of implementation programs in Romania. Earth Common Journal 3.2: 1–2.

    DOI: 10.31542/j.ecj.122

    An overview of how ecological education aids sustainable development in Romania.

  • Gevorgyan, S., and A. Adanalyan. 2009. A comparison of ecological education and sustainable development education. In Addressing global environmental security through innovative educational curricula. Edited by S. Allen-Gil, L. Stelljes, and O Borisova, 57–63. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-9314-2_7

    The use of ecological education to create a pathway for a more peaceful and sustainable society.

  • Hale, M., ed. 1993. Ecology in education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Key text in the development of ideas in ecological education and how it can be defined.

  • Hautecoeur, J.-P., ed. 2002. Ecological education in everyday life: ALPHA 2000. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    A collection of writings that outline the value of ecological education as a variant to conventional education.

  • Judson, G. 2010. A new approach to ecological education: Engaging students’ imaginations in their world. New York: Peter Lang.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-0016-1

    The book argues that few teachers have sufficiently deep understanding of ecological education and that what there is has too narrow a focus.

  • Leal Filho, W., and K. O’Loan, eds. 1996. Teacher education for the environment: European perspectives. Carnforth, UK: Parthenon.

    A study of a range of initiatives to put more ecological education into teacher training courses.

  • Oberbillig, D., D. C. Randle, G. Middendorf, and C. L. Cardelús. 2014. Outdoor learning in formal ecological education: Looking to the future. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12.7: 419–420.

    DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-12.7.419

    Argues that developments in ecological education are stymied by a lack of training in these fields.

  • Sheail, J. 1987. Seventy-five years in ecology: The British Ecological Society. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific.

    Outlines both the history of the world’s oldest ecological society and the development of all fields of ecology during that time.

  • Smith, G. A., and D. R. Williams. 1999. Ecological education: Extending the definition of environmental education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education 15:139–146.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0814062600002718

    Suggests that, contrary to many views, ecological education has a wider remit than environmental education.

  • Zandvliet, D. 2019. Ecological education via “islands of discourse”: Teacher education at the intersection of culture and environment. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 22: 145–157.

    DOI: 10.1007/s42322-019-00037-3

    Outlines how ecological education can be remade through sociocultural and other lenses.

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.