Children in forest looking at leaves as a researcher together with the magnifying glass

Weekend Reads | Do Environmental Education Programs Work?

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s read is a look at the effectiveness of environmental education programs for children and adolescents. Here in Washington, State law requires teaching students “the worth of kindness to all living creatures and the land,” and the State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has interpreted that to require “instruction about conservation, natural resources, and the environment” at all grade levels. Many other governments have similar requirements. But do environmental education programs actually work?

The researchers did a “meta-analysis” of 169 separate evaluations of environmental education programs, looking at their effect on students in four areas: knowledge, attitudes, intentions, and behavior. The programs were from 43 countries on six continents, so the results weren’t specific to the United States. They found a measurable effect on all four categories, with a more pronounced effect on knowledge than the other three. Curiously, there was a larger effect on behavior than on intention: Environmental education programs seemed to inspire more environmentally friendly action than students consciously intended. Perhaps daily, personal environmental action is more opportunistic than planned; or perhaps students entered the programs already intending to be environmentally friendly (intent didn’t increase much), but the real value of the program was educating students on specific actions to take that would meet their intent.

“Fig. 3. Overall effects (Hedges’ g) of environmental education on students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes, intentions, and behavior. Note. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.” Judith van de Wetering, Patty Leijten, Jenna Spitzer, Sander Thomaes, “Does environmental education benefit environmental outcomes in children and adolescents? A meta-analysis,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 81, 2022,101782, ISSN 0272-4944. Used under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

The researchers also wanted to explore the different types of environmental education programs, including camps, field trips, classrooms, and investigation-based activities, to see which ones had the largest effect. To their surprise, they found that on average there was little difference between the four: They all generated about the same-sized effect. “Multimodal” programs that utilized more than one approach fared a bit better. But within each type, there was high variation: Some programs were much more effective than others. This was especially true for field trips and classroom-based programs (camps and investigative programs were a bit more consistent).

“Fig. 4b. Overall effects (Hedges’ g) of different activities on students’ environmental attitudes, intentions, and behavior (combined). Note. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Number of observations k camps = 53, field trips = 32, traditional classroom = 23, investigation-based = 22, and multimodal = 65.” Judith van de Wetering, Patty Leijten, Jenna Spitzer, Sander Thomaes, “Does environmental education benefit environmental outcomes in children and adolescents? A meta-analysis,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 81, 2022,101782, ISSN 0272-4944. Used under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

The researchers dove further into the data to try to understand whether there were other factors that determined the effectiveness of the program, such as demographics of the students, group learning or other program design characteristics, or how recently the program occurred (testing whether environmental education programs have improved over time). 

They came up empty: They found no correlation between any factor and the effectiveness of the program. On average, different types of environmental education programs all have about the same positive effect, but there is a wide range of effectiveness from one program to the next — and no one knows why.

The researchers conclude by pointing to two areas they believe are worth more attention. First, obviously, we need to figure out why some programs are effective and some are not, so we can replicate the good and revise the bad. Second, they suggest that more time needs to be spent looking at the resulting behavior changes, so we can find ways to increase the effects of environmental education on environmentally friendly behaviors but also to broaden our thinking about the different kinds of behaviors we want to encourage. “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” is a great starting point, but alone, it won’t allow us to reach our goals for limiting the disastrous effects of climate change.

Does environmental education benefit environmental outcomes in children and adolescents? A meta-analysis


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com.

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