What is Environmental Literacy?

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What is Environmental Literacy?

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“Environmental Literacy” might be the phrase of the decade in educator circles. But what is it? What does a lesson that builds environmental literacy look like? And why does it matter for teachers like you?

Fifty years ago, in an Audubon publication, a founding member of the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society coined the phrase “environmentally literate citizen.” But only recently have educators and organizations tried to break down what environmental literacy really means—and to create frameworks, tools, and policies for accomplishing it through education.

Ecology Project International uses the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s and the North American Association of Environmental Education’s definition of an environmentally literate person as:

“Someone who demonstrates the knowledge, dispositions, competencies, and behavior to actively engage—individually or as a group—in addressing environmental challenges.”

How do those four key words—knowledge, dispositions, competencies, and behavior—translate into on-the-ground lessons, though? 

Let’s walk through a lesson from EPI’s Yellowstone Field Ecology program, Viewpoints: Wolf Conservation. We’ll highlight where the four general concepts of environmental literacy make appearances, and what particular skills students are gaining.

First, students are asked to pull from their own knowledge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by brainstorming environmental issues they know of in the region. Among these ideas, the issue of wolf reintroduction usually comes up, organically introducing the topic. 

Students are then given a set of cards with key events in the history of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—like the extermination of the last wolf pack in Yellowstone or when wolves were listed as an endangered species—but the cards are not labeled with dates. It’s up to the students to collaboratively create a timeline. Students have to dig into their personal knowledge, ask questions about other students’ event placements, and make a case for where they believe their own event(s) should go on the timeline. In the timeline creation activity, students develop competence in identifying relevant questions and critically analyzing both their own and others’ evidence. 

After reviewing the correct chronology of wolf history in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with instructors, students are asked to think about what groups may have played a role in these historical events. Who were—and who are—the stakeholders in this contentious environmental issue? Students then brainstorm stakeholders and their attitudes about the wolf conservation issue—often illuminating their current dispositions in the process. 

After explaining that students will be part of a “townhall discussion” on wolf management, instructors randomly divide the students into teams representing each of the stakeholders—from Wyoming ranchers to Yellowstone National Park staff. For an extra challenge and empathy-building exercise, instructors can ask students to represent a stakeholder with a different perspective than their own.

Each team of students is provided with their stakeholder’s viewpoint and supporting information to present at the townhall meeting. The goal of the townhall discussion is for all stakeholders to come to an agreement on how to proceed with wolf management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The townhall discussion works to build a number of environmental literacy competencies and behaviors—through modeling citizen participation, engagement in argument, and articulation and presentation of conclusions. (You can see that even grown politicians could use some of these skills!)

Note the progression within the lesson, too. At first, students practice constructivism, unearthing their previous personal knowledge and perspectives. But by the end of the lesson, they are listening to others’ opinions and experiences, and working collaboratively to weave those differing opinions and experiences into meaningful wildlife management recommendations. It’s a process that subtly reshapes their own dispositions.

Environmental literacy creates in students the ability to think critically about our relationship to the environment and act in responsive ways. The push for environmental literacy in our public education system has been strongest in California—last year, the state adopted the integration of five major environmental principles into its curriculum—but it’s vital and necessary wherever you live.

In your classroom or on field trips, environmental literacy builds relevance for students—through deeper understanding of their place in and relationships to the world. Environmental science ceases to exist as isolated textbook principles, but rather, works to illuminate and empower students as important stakeholders in their environment and world. Imagine what that can do for engagement in your classroom!

For twenty years, environmental literacy has been at the heart of all the educational programming that EPI does. If you’d like to see our methods at work, consider traveling with your students with us on course, or become part of a teacher cohort through our professional development opportunities. You can also find more resources through organizations like Ten Strands and the Environmental Literacy Council


Heather McKee is a science communicator and educator working as the Content Creator at Ecology Project International. She has an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and is a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association of Interpreters. Most recently, she helped create the award-winning Wings Over Water NGSS-designed curriculum with the Montana Natural History Center. 

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