Environmental Literacy: What have students learned that is not on the test?

by Janell Simpson and Susan Meyers
reprinted from the North American Association for Environmental Education

T3he intent of this article is to provide tools to the classroom teacher to document the impact of a formal environmental education program on the environmental literacy of students. Although standardized testing provides an objective view of skills and knowledge, integration of data from an evaluation tool will provide a more complete assessment—not only of the individual student learning, but also a larger picture of the classroom learning environment that nurtures the whole student.

Measuring environmental education outcomes is a step forward from anecdotes to reliable measures of student growth. A measurement tool that evaluates student attitudes about the environment will help the teacher design a formal program that includes practical ways that an individual can make a difference based on newly-developed environmental literacy. The tools offered seek to quantify environmental literacy both as observed by the classroom teacher and as self-reported by the student. Standardized testing may provide an effective assessment of knowledge and competencies detailed in a curriculum. However, competencies, knowledge, and dispositions should be expressed in behaviors; and environmentally responsible behavior is the ultimate expression of environmental literacy.

Environmental literacy

An environmentally literate person is someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life. Those who are environmentally literate possess, to varying degrees:

• The knowledge and understanding of a wide range of environmental concepts, problems, and issues;
• A set of cognitive and affective dispositions;
• A set of cognitive skills and abilities; and
• The appropriate behavioral strategies to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make sound and effective decisions in a range of environmental contexts.

This definition treats the primary elements of environmental literacy—the cognitive (knowledge and skills), affective, and behavioral components—as both interactive and developmental in nature. That is, individuals develop along a continuum of literacy over time—they are not either environmentally literate or illiterate.

There are four interrelated components of environmental literacy: knowledge, dispositions, competencies, and environmentally responsible behavior, all of which are expressed in particular contexts. Competencies are clusters of skills and abilities that may be called upon and expressed for a specific purpose. Measurement of competencies is the primary objective in large-scale assessments. They include the capacity to:

• Identify environmental issues;
• Ask relevant questions;
• Analyze environmental issues;
• Investigate environmental issues;
• Evaluate and make personal judgments about environmental issues;
• Use evidence and knowledge to defend positions and resolve issues; and
• Create and evaluate plans to resolve environmental issues.

The expression of a competency is influenced by prior knowledge and dispositions (Hollweg, 2011).

Measurement tools

The teacher rating tool (Table 1) can be personalized for different groups. It seeks to quantify both practices, such as recycling and gardening, and connections to larger issues, such as global warming.

Teacher Rating Tool Table

Other types of measurement tools to consider include: informal interviews, journal entries written in response to a prompt, surveys, pre- and post-tests, and student projects. Several Likert scale surveys are available examining student connection to nature, sense of place, and environmental stewardship (EE Outcome Measurement Tools, 2012). Additional outcomes might be observed in a typical environmental education classroom and could be included in such a tool. Do students actively conserve energy, tend a school garden, or participate in composting? Do students show awareness of environmental connections between current events and classroom discussions? Does the student’s artwork show an appreciation of the natural environment? Does the student report family dialog about nutrition or food security or visits to a farmers’ market?


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