Gateways to Environmental Literacy and Ethical Models of Citizenship

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The following is are excerpts from a thesis written in 2009. I am revisiting this work as I pull together ideas around the significance of modeling and relationships in education, and the power they hold as tools for social justice shifts within the larger scope of humanity. No revisions have been made at this time. There are many aspects of this project I still value and some perceptions of the work that have completely changed for me. Rather than work in isolation, I invite friends and readers to share their response to help direct the revisions. The entire thesis is not included here, but the important segments have been included for a process of discussion and feedback with peers:


This research looks at Elementary educators views on sustainability, the future state of the environment, and its impact on education, and the lives of our students. As a theoretical framework, the literature review focuses on the need for environmental and ethical fluency, and reflects upon sustainability as a social justice issue. The aspects explored are the ways in which classroom and environmental educators construct gateways to environmental literacy for children in the primary grades, provide ethical models of citizenship and responsibility to the environment in their teaching practice, as well as the ways in which those practices are disregarded. This research draws upon a sample of interview data across a population of urban and suburban educators, which integrates the theoretical research with “real-life” experiences, and provides a snapshot of the challenges and successes of the environmental movement in education.


Dwindling resources, contamination, pollution, extinction, global economics, food shortage, renewable energy, these are some of the buzz words saturating the “Current Events” section of my local bookstore. In fact, a few recent titles on the New York Times Best Seller List for 2009 are: In Defense of Food, The Next 100 Years, and Meltdown. The state of the environment continues to be one of the most pressing issues we are up against, something we must all foster responsibility for, and according to these sources we must do so with haste. While today’s educators are occupied with the task of keeping students motivated and accommodating the legislation of No Child Left Behind, they are left with little time to address issues of the environment. I walked over to the education section of the store in search of Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, and Environmental Education in the 21st Century: Theory, Practice, Progress and Promise, hoping to investigate what some of environmental education’s leading scholars aimed to achieve, only to find that these titles are not regularly stocked in house. There was no “ready-made” panacea or counter-solutions waiting around the corner from the hectic dance of doom-and-gloom.

The issue of time weighs heavily on all of us, particularly in our day- to-day lives where many are hard pressed to meet their own needs. Environmentalists and journalists have hit the panic button and it feels as though we must now jump to “beat the clock”. In reality, today’s environmental problems are so complex and have been created over such a long period of time, we must think critically about the factors at work in order to develop a realistic, long-term solution. Contemporary scholars and environmental educators alike recognize that developing long term change requires a dedication to analyzing our individual behaviors and cultural habits, fostering environmental literacy, and modeling a commitment to the common good (Beairsto,2009, p.1). “The real challenge is not merely to enable students to understand threats to the biosphere, but to prepare them for the individual and collective behavioural changes that will be required to survive them.” (Beairsto, 2009, p.1) Developing a sense of what is “good or bad” for the biosphere, “the life zone of the Earth and includes all living organisms, including man, and all organic matter that has not yet decomposed” as defined by Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky (University of Florida, 2009), seems a sophisticated concept in itself, one that perhaps science educators can address more granularly. Surrounding that is the notion, as Beairsto points out, to prepare students for change. Given the complex and political nature of indentifying and acting upon what should change, it may seem overwhelming to address these issues in early education with any singular ideology. In this regard, constructing a productive plan of action applicable to young learners requires an investigation and synthesis of several theories in order to bring any movement to the classroom. This may require a long-term effort on the part of many, a global movement, whose results may not be evident or measurable for several generations. Therefore, the responsibility for “fixing things” does not rest solely on the shoulders of today’s children, or their teachers, or their families for that matter.

Instead of reinventing the wheel (Palmer, 1998), we must assist those already at work creating a momentum around a cultural mind shift and helping to breakdown what Kincheloe identifies as “a general inability on the part of Western peoples to conceptualize a system of meaning- i.e. an ethical sense on which they can build humane and evolving institutions.” (Kincheloe, 2003) Through economic conditioning, Westerners’ have been placed in a position to view themselves singularly, and pursue success as such, which now weighs heavily on our ability to create collective change. This is not to imply that the current environmental crisis stems solely from the Western culture. In fact, looking past Western values allows us to embrace a more global view. For the purposes of this research, I will analyze the impact of the Western mindset upon our environment, that which is comprised of our source of air, water, food, and land, and its relevant sustainability. Haynes points to education textbooks, and teachers who abide by them, as the source for perpetuating our country’s unsustainable values. “Because the disciplinary framework that shapes the standards and the textbooks is neoclassical economic theory, according to which people are essentially self-interested utility maximizers and values are personal preferences. Economics, in other words, has nothing to do with ethics.” (Haynes, 2009, p.3)

Due to our country’s industrial momentum and culture of convenience, we stand far removed from the source of our food, energy, or what is required from our environment in order to sustain the needs of our increasing population. The connection is made by environmentalists and educators that a lack of ethics, or the action Gardner describes as an individual’s ability to step back and reflect upon “his or her role as a citizen of a region, a nation and the planet.” (Gardner, 2006, p.8), has created generations of environmentally “illiterate” citizens. The concept of literacy is a long-standing term in education that initially defined an individual’s ability to read or write. “In point of fact, the term ‘illiterate’ predated the positive term with respect to general literacy” (Roth,1992, p.1). Over time, educators have developed the concept of specific literacies as propensities or ways of thinking, talking, interacting and valuing (Michaels and O’Connor, 1990) an individual may have in given subject areas such as mathematical literacy, computer literacy, and cultural literacy (Roth, 1990, p.1). As an evolving concept within environmental education, environmental literacy has been defined by Charles E. Roth as “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.” (Roth, 1992, p.2) Its sister term, ecological literacy, focuses on developing perception toward the interaction of living things within ecosystems (Center for Ecoliteracy, 2009). Rooted in constructivist philosophy, in which human learners construct meaning from experience, and tracing its origins back through “eighteenth-and nineteenth-century thinkers, writers and educators, notably Goethe, Rousseau, Humboldt, Haeckel, Froebel, Dewey and Montessori” (Palmer, 1998, p.4), environmental education employs learning methods that engage students in scientific inquiry, hands-on exploration, and field study. Through this model, students work in context with various environmental systems and are incited to learn about its relative health. This notion seems novel today given our trend in classroom based learning, but in fact stems from an old ideology. Moving “out of the field” and into the classroom has only increased the existing gap between ourselves and the natural world.

Based on the need for environmental and ethical fluency, how can we construct gateways to environmental literacy for children in the primary grades and provide ethical models of citizenship in our teaching? Approaching this question means we are convinced it is necessary to do so and we have integrated these fluencies into our own lives. As Kincehloe, Gardner, and Beairsto have noted, this requires self-reflection upon the price we pay for our current way of life by an examination of the methodology and ideology that may have falsely served us in the past, and a willingness to encourage a new self-wisdom, one that values the interdependence of life, and is cognizant of an individual’s macro and micro effect upon the whole. Upon this basis, teachers can effect by example, and function open-endedly as a “work in progress”, co-creating inquiry with students in an attempt to soften finite definitions and generate the new views necessary for survival and long-term sustainability.

Literature Review

Capitalism’s Assault on the Environment

Capitalism’s assault on education may be easier to indentify by educators than those upon the environment, particularly when reading the works of Jonathon Kozol, John Dewey, and Sonia Nieto, but a step back may reveal that the initiative of environmentalists and educators should be interlinked putting each on the same side of the cause, actively working toward equality and equity for the good of our children. This equitable distribution would provide equal access to clean air, water, food and land as well as a high-quality education.

In the 1960’s, scientist Rachel Carson shocked the industrial world with her unprecedented critique on pesticides, Silent Spring, when it was discovered that the use of DDT was swiftly killing off bird populations. Carson’s underlying theme sought to confront capitalisms’ destructive agenda while creating a voice for environmentalists in the main stream:

As the tide of chemicals born of the Industrial Age has arisen to engulf our environment, a drastic change has come about in the nature of the most serious public health problems. Only yesterday mankind lived in fear of scourges of smallpox, cholera, and plague that once swept nations before them. Now our major concern is no longer with the disease organisms that once were omnipresent; sanitation, better living conditions, and new drugs have given us a high degree of control over infectious disease. Today we are concerned with a different kind of hazard that lurks in our environment- a hazard we ourselves have introduced into our world as our modern way of life has evolved. (Carson, 1962, p. 187)

Like a sounding bell for a generation, Carson’s work sparked the eco-awareness movement of the Sixties. Carson forewarned of the human created disasters that have now become as common place as the books on our current events shelf. From this point forward, Americans and global citizens are faced with the heavy burden of consequences generated from our consumption of resources and disregard for our impact upon the environment’s delicate balance in what Carson suggests is “for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible.” (Carson, 1962, p.6) This burden can be so overwhelming that many of us fail to act in favor of our environment and continue to sustain ourselves on a loop of convenience and consumption.

To compound this issue, most Americans work to survive, enduring a day-to-day struggle of needs and expenses that few families are equipped to meet. Capitalism has conditioned us to pursue independent and individualized wealth at the expense of our environment and our fellow man. Derrik Jensen argues “The culture’s problem lies above all in belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.” (Jensen, 2006, p.XII) Jensen’s critique on present day industrial civilization suggests that the rate at which we consume and in turn destroy our resources is “not and never can be sustainable.” Like Carson, Jensen echoes an irreversible fate of our own creation and challenges us to consider that “Sustainability, morality, and intelligence (as well as justice) require the dismantling of any such economic or social system, or at the very least, disallowing it from damaging your landbase.” (Jensen, 2006, p. X), framing environmentalism as much of an economic issue as it is a cultural, and moral dilemma.

From this reference point, we can apply Jensen’s lens to the education system which makes visible the economic, cultural, and moral inequities that are busy at work damaging the landbase of our education system. “Looking around some of these inner-city schools, where filth and despair were worse than anything I’d seen in 1964, I often wondered why we would agree to let our children go to school in places where no politician, school board president, or business CEO would dream of working.” (Kozol, 1991, p.5) We must consider what we will do when there is nothing to distinguish the interior or exterior of our schools by way of filth and pollution simply because it was not addressed in time. Dismantling the systems, practices, and attitudes that threaten children from inside our schools is an imperative role of social justice. Like social justice, consideration of environmental justice, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2009) must also be pushed to the forefront of educational policy and social reform. Recognition of this overlap may help educators to become invested in the environmental movement and fight for its methodology to be adopted into mainstream schools for the well-being of students and their future.

Character Development and Ethics in Education

Many educators and scholars will argue that a human being’s ability to recognize and act with care and concern for others and their ability to demonstrate a “reverence for life itself” (Schweitzer, 1966) are based on moral and ethical character development. Ethical awareness is then applied to problem solving some of the very issues that have been defined by this investigation of environmental crises, economy, and education. The question arises whether or not it is the job of schools to teach character development or remain focused in subject based curriculum. “Elementary schools have been teaching values directly and proudly for years- respect, honesty, teamwork, peaceful resolutions on conflicts, and so on.” (Beairsto, 2009, p.2) Character development is in fact evident in schools, and points toward an expectation of compliance in student behavior to follow the rules and regulations of the school culture. How can educators be sure that today’s students are transferring the school values to their behavior in the outside world? With all of the influences of media, technology, family and friends, students often carry and interchange many value systems. We must first recognize that today’s children are inundated with mixed messages, and conflicting values.

Recent terror movements and economic crises within American culture have ramped up the push for nationalist values, putting schools on the spot as places in which to showcase and indoctrinate these values. “At a time when the United States faces unprecedented challenges at home and abroad, public schools must do far more to prepare young people to be engaged, ethical advocates of ‘liberty and justice for all’ Yes, reading and math are important. But what matters most is what kinds of human beings are reading the books and doing the math”. (Haynes, 2009, p.1) As a nation, we appear to be focused on the threats of our conflicts, generating a very “us against them” mentality, and implying that we have the kind of value system the rest of the world should adopt. What lies on the fringes needing to be addressed are the self-centered, individualist character traits that we have been conditioned to believe is right. The mass majority will continue to believe that “controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.” (Jensen, 2006, p. XII) From this justified stance we are unable to see that we remain in an aggressive and ongoing “Man vs. Nature” battle where nature is an opponent and not part and parcel of our existence.

Like Jensen, Haynes recognizes our culture’s tendency to be “preoccupied with self-interest and material gain.”(Haynes, 2009, p.2) He proposes that these are issues to be addressed by character education and civic learning in today’s schools which “should be the laboratories for acts of conscience” where teachers “inspire students to follow their conscience not in spite of what we teach and do in our schools, but because of what we teach and do.” (Haynes, 2009, p.3) The act of teaching alone serves to inspire on many levels:

Teachers serve as crucial role models. They introduce young persons to a vital (if often underappreciated) profession. Children observe the behavior of teachers; their attitudes toward their jobs; their mode of interaction with their supervisors, peers, and aides; their treatment of students; and most important, their reactions to the questions, answers, and work products of their students. (Gardner, 2006, p. 142)

In consideration of Gardner’s view of a teachers roles and impact upon students, comes a unique opportunity to model ethical behaviors that can come in many forms and may look like: representing a reverence for nature and the environment, creative problem solving, compassionate commitment to students and learning, sustainable practices in the classroom through the use of materials and resources. This is not to create a laundry list of requirements, but rather to incite consideration for teachers to develop their own model of environmentally ethical behavior through action rather than dictation. Gardner believes that “if we are to be ethical human beings, it is equally our job to use that understanding to improve the quality of life and living and to bear witness when that understanding (or misunderstanding) is being used in destructive ways.” (Gardener, 2006, p.142)

We can be justified in acting out our views, particularly those of sustainability and a reverence for life, when we have already considered we are doing so for the equity, and well-being of our students, and community at large.

The role of good ethical educators may also lead to helping students to develop their own sustainable mindset. It is the responsibility of helping students “to understand why they are learning what they are learning and how this knowledge can be put to constructive uses” (Gardner, 2006, p. 142) As experienced learners, we can work as guides to model how we work through complicated thought processes and problem solving in order to provide students a comfort and confirmation of their own strategies. Given the underlying urgency of environmental issues the need for “independent critical thought and ethical reasoning” (Beairsto, 2009, p.3) is imperative not only to lessen human impact but to encourage future problem solvers who can help to address these issues in an effort toward what Beairsto calls “Embracing the long-view”, which will encourage students to “challenge to status quo so that new sustainable practices will emerge.” (Beairsto, 2009, p.3) In reality, the world our students inherit will be theirs to negotiate and understand. We won’t be beside them to show the way, and we may realize our way is not the better way. Our job today is to do what we can to insure they have a healthy world to live within and make sense of on their terms, without the detrimental impact of our terms looming overhead. As students in the primary grades move through various cognitive stages, exposure to critical thinking and models of commitment may help to lay the foundation necessary for a broad-based cultural shift.

The Promise of Environmental Education

As educators and policy makers seek to revise and refresh American schools to meet the needs of today’s students, environmentalists sit on the fringes in hopes that sustainable imperatives will take a stronghold in mainstream education. “A major purpose of education is to provide people with the knowledge and skills to allow them to live successful, productive lives and to function as responsible citizens within society …The development and fostering of environmental literacy needs to be a key objective of any general education program” (Roth, 1991, p. 10-11). In an outcry for essential needs, environmental educators do not speak for “their” cause, but instead seek to equip every learner with the capacity to remain responsible and sustainable as an individual for the good of the world at large.

As a relatively new subject area by way of defining standards in today’s elementary school curriculum, Environmental Education (EE) has begun to identify benchmark stages and degrees of environmental literacy for assessment. The education field at large has yet to adopt this seemingly new trend, viewing EE as an isolated discipline. Rather, environmental educators base their pedagogy on a constructivist philosophy that stems back through the work and research of generations of scientists and naturalists, while employing an integrative, inter-disciplinary approach to learning. “It is necessary to dispel the illusion held in the minds of some contemporary educators that environmental education is new; a product of our growing concern for the environment, born out of recent curriculum initiatives. On the contrary, the environmental education movement around the globe has evolved for many years.” (Palmer, 1998, p.3) Though Palmer notes that we should not view EE as something that has recently cropped up to help “save the world”, current crises and a growing sense of urgency have prompted mainstream educators to turn to environmental pedagogy for “answers”.

Educators like Roth and Parker, know that there are no answers, per say and that the goal of EE is an evolutionary process that encourages learners to employ change and growth where it is needed and to evaluate the need for change from a balanced perspective.

We must begin, now, to educate a generation of “quality environment” conscious people who will, in the routine of their everyday lives, continually and logically balance the interests and needs of nature and human populations whenever decisions regarding Earth’s usage are to be made. (Peters, 1981)

Environmental educators take into direct account that this consciousness, which in order to be “achieved is largely a function of education and character development”, will translate into the daily actions of our lives as “consumers, producers, re-creators, procreators, and voters”. (Roth, 1992, p.11) In order to deepen environmental literacy, we must not categorize environmental literacy as an attribute of science, or scientific understanding. In recognition of everything that our human actions impact, we will be able to bring this need for understanding to an infinite number of disciplines such as economics, political science, philosophy, agriculture, manufacturing, and more importantly- education. Rather than stand outside the gates with isolated subject matter waiting to be let in, it has become the inter-disciplinary approach of environmental education that has allowed its survival, as its ideology seeps its way into main stream America.

Since EE has not been embraced into mainstream education practice, or that which is enforced at the same level of power as our current political agendas, it becomes the choice of teachers to seek out supplementary programs and enhancement degrees grounded in EE. Palmer defines the two point approach that would help to turn the tables on this power barrier which:

Argues for a continuation of the external pushes aimed at making the intellectual case for EE, within pre-service courses; it also argues for tutors within institutions and schools to continue, formally and informally, to press the case internally and to support this by carrying out persuasive research studies. (Palmer, 1998, p. 261)

Despite the walls built up in contrast to the concepts of environmental education and its philosophy, which are evident in our over-reliability on industry, environmental and ethical “illiteracies”, the collective vision and tenacity of environmental educators, who understand the need for industrial-cultural reform:

Aims to demonstrate how so many complex variable (back-ground history, content, concepts, ideologies, theories, research, practical constraints, and so on) have come together to shape the field of environmental education as it exists today, -and steer it into the new century.” (Palmer, 1998, p. xi)

Today’s environmental educators continue to shape and design these frameworks and goals into a well-rounded, global initiative.


Human beings cannot reverse what has been done to the environment, but they do have the opportunity to create a legacy that prevents further damage. Given the time it could take for policy makers to become invested in the notion of sustainability as necessity for education, we could be faced with an extensively long wait. Therefore it is left to the choice of individuals and communities, to act based on what they assess are in their best interests. Some, not yet offered an open door to an alternative other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe, may still chose to engage in destructive systems and practices. In fact, all of us are somehow engaged or responsible for perpetuating unsustainable lifestyles because society itself has become so entrenched in its dependence upon taking from nature. The choice now is whether or not to give back.

When it comes to the time-sensitive issues of sustainability, there is no longer time to analyze whose to blame but instead, focus on what we should we do about it. The intention of this work is to stimulate a personal investigation into the attitudes, dispositions, and practices that allow us to operate in unharmful ways with the Earth. This is the same insight we are asked to apply in pre-service teaching when we set out to serve diverse student populations. Embracing the model of unbiased and equitable teacher, we add a new layer for consideration in our recognition of the state of the environment and its impact on children.

Considering ourselves as models of “conscious” citizenship, will help take our investigations into the classroom and demonstrate critical thinking, sustainable behaviors, and commitment to our beliefs, and incite our students to gain literacies that will help them to carry a conscious attitude into the future. Considering ourselves as “conscious” educators, will help us to adopt the ideology and methodology that will serve the communities in which we teach, tailoring our practice to the needs of our students, and work on school committees to educate others in the importance of developing sustainable practices school wide. It is imperative that we continue to evolve thorough self-investigation, and self-research in order to reflect a model of change to our community, one that is not measured by material achievement, but rather a conceptual change in temperature or attitude toward collective work and human responsibility.

Research Questions

  1. Based on the need for environmental and ethical fluency, how can we construct gateways to environmental literacy for children in the primary grades and provide ethical models of citizenship in our teaching?
  2. How can we integrate environmental literacy into everyday learning without a formal Environmental Literacy Plan framing our state curriculum?
  3. In what ways can we prepare future problem solvers in the Elementary classroom?

* COPYRIGHT: (c) 2009-2016 Jennifer Dauphinais, All Rights Reserved, Image: jcdauphinais, 2009


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