formal education

"One result [of formal education] is that students graduate without knowing how to think in whole systems, how to find connections, how to ask big questions, and how to separate the trivial from the important. Now more than ever, however, we need people who think broadly and who understand systems, connections, patterns, and root causes."

David Orr
Earth in Mind

EDUCATION AND THE INFRASTRUCTURE ON WHICH IT DEPENDS SHOULD reflect the rest of the world and be holistic systems. This chapter and the following one focus on formal and nonformal education as distinct activities, but only for the purposes of study and analysis. Ultimately, education is a seamless lifelong process. Similarly, all forms of education must focus on interconnections: the linkages found in nature and those connecting economic systems, environment, and society.

Formal Education

Ensure that the interconnections between the environment, economy, and social structures become an integral part of formal education, starting with kindergarten and continuing through elementary and secondary school and on through training at the college, university, and professional levels.

Action 1: Green Schools

Design and support opportunities for integrating the concepts and principles of education for sustainability into formal educational programs from early grade school through the university level.


Sustainable development requires much broader public awareness and understanding of the natural resource and economic challenges facing the world in the 21st century. The 3,000 institutions of higher education in the United States are significant but largely overlooked leverage points in the transition to a sustainable world. Not only do they prepare students who will become teachers and leaders in the educational field, they also educate the students who will become leaders in other fields. These institutions also influence their alumni, many of whom constitute our nation's current leaders.

In primary research published by the Worldwatch Institute, a survey was conducted of more than 715 universities that are members of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. The survey revealed that only 13 percent of the universities that responded offer a required course in environmental education. Generally, interdisciplinary courses with an environmental focus are increasing in colleges and universities, but they remain under-utilized. According to the United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), only about 7 percent of institutions of higher education offer degrees in the environmental sciences.

Faculty members can play a strong role in education, research, policy development, information exchange, and community outreach. They can contribute new ideas, engage in bold experimentation, as well as contribute to new knowledge. Institutions of higher learning should place a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary, systemic, and strategic ways of thinking.

Students, parents, alumnae, prospective employers, organizations that fund research and education (government, industry, and foundations), and the public are all consumers, clients, or supporters of education's services. Individually, they have varying degrees of influence on academic direction and programs, but collectively they have great potential to encourage innovation in education.

State boards of education should be encouraged to consider the importance of education for sustainability and to include it in licensure, standards, and guidelines for program approval developed at the state level for K-12 teachers and principals.

In today's press for educational reform, environmental education overlaps with other priorities, such as the education of diverse learners, use of integrated or comprehensive services, incorporation of advanced technologies in the classroom and parent involvement. Therefore, education for sustainability presents an opportunity to meet more goals of education reform.

There is not one state where environmental education or education for sustainability programming has been fully incorporated into formal education institutions.13  The states that have moved toward comprehensive programs in environmental education have formed partnerships and secured support leading to the adoption of legislative mandates and other formal guidelines. Growing public support for literacy on sustainability will serve as a catalyst and incentive to encourage educational leaders to invest in the infrastructure needed to insure the infusion of accurate, timely content on sustainability in K-12 curricula.

Lessons Learned in Washington State

"Environmental education is a powerful tool for school improvement," reports Marcia Siam Wiley, program supervisor for the Model Links Program in the State of Washington. In 1993, a cadre of Washington public schools initiated an effort to place environmental education programs at the center of school improvement efforts. Together, this network of schools has moved steadily forward while documenting what is being learned.

Strategies pivotal to the program's success include the following:

  • Start small by working at a project scale that is realistic; not all teachers and classes need to be involved initially.

  • Focus on using education for sustainability to improve instruction and enhance what is already being done.

  • Explaining why you are doing what you are doing, and discuss the program with parents, teachers, feeder schools, the school board, and administrators.

  • Invite community participation in specific ways; let others know what is needed, and in return, what the school can offer.

  • Allow time to organize information and assess what is and is not working.

  • Recognize that change takes time: "go slow to go fast."

  • Involve key players, such as librarians, educational assistants, and community experts in curriculum design.

These and other lessons learned are described in on-line process portfolios.

"Each year we see more clearly the pivotal role education plays in preparing our society for the challenges of today and of the future. Matters related to the environment are at the forefront of these challenges."

Judith Billings
Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Implement partnerships to help institutions of higher education achieve the transition to education for sustainability.

Participants from all sectors -- education, government, NGOs, and business -- should explore the intellectual, institutional, and operational changes that are needed to make the shift to sustainability. Implementing the changes will require innovative and cost-effective and approaches to leverage additional resources. University presidents, deans, faculty members, students, as well as individuals outside academia, should participate in identifying strategies and building partnerships to pursue them.

Support exemplary models of "green campuses," that is, operational practices that engage the learning community in planning and decision-making for achieving sustainable educational environments.

Interest in providing programs of study that emphasize education for sustainability is growing at schools and universities across the United States. Demand for these institutions to reduce the environmental impact of their own operations is increasing as well. Initiatives in this area can encourage successful efforts by school administrators, building managers, teachers, faculty members, and students by helping publicize university projects as models of sustainability that could be replicated by communities, businesses, and homeowners. One approach is the Clinton Administration's proposed School Construction Initiative, which is a $5 billion dollar school construction and renovation program and could potentially offer opportunities for energy efficiency and other sustainable practices.

A useful resource for models is a 1995 report by the National Wildlife Federation, Ecodemia, a compendium of success stories achieved by colleges and universities that have launched creative management practices.14   This guide highlights the numerous partnerships on campuses across America that have resulted in economic and environmental victories.

There are additional examples. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Carol Browner, and The George Washington University President, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, signed a landmark public-private partnership on December 12, 1994. Under that agreement, The George Washington University and EPA formed a partnership to enhance leadership and stewardship in environmental management and sustainable development -- the GreenU Initiative.

The Center for Environmental Education, a nongovernmental organization published, Blueprint for a Green School,15  which addresses school operations and adds a wealth of ideas aimed at curricula and instruction. Many similar resources are available, paving the way for educational institutions to emerge as community leaders and exemplars of innovative environmental and economic practices.

Action 2: Professional Development

Encourage the incorporation of education for sustainability in pre-service and in-service professional development activities.


Professional development is the bridge between the present and the future as educators work to meet the new challenges of guiding students in achieving higher standards of learning. Understandably, the rising interest in environmental literacy and education for sustainability has created expectations that timely, accurate content will be taught.

Lack of attention to preparation for teaching environmental literacy and sustainability results in missed opportunities to incorporate these basics into the curricula of educational programs. Most educators recognize a sense of responsibility for preparing students to live and work in a global society. The question remains as to how to deliver adequate training and staff development.

The nation's K-12 public and private schools employ 2.8 million teachers today. At least 3.3 million teachers will be needed by the year 2003.16  Yet the implications of preparing new teachers and those already in the profession for teaching the principles of sustainability have not been given serious consideration. Making the connection between the education of teachers and the environmental literacy of students as an outcome of education is a key step toward sustainable development.

Helping teachers incorporate education for sustainability effectively into the learning process not only will advance scientific and environmental literacy, but also will assist students in developing critical thinking skills.

Oberlin College
Environmental Design Center

As part of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio, students, faculty members, and outside experts are working together to design a new building on campus.

The building will be a state-of-the-art structure aiming at achieving zero emissions and advanced energy and materials efficiency, and using non-toxic and recycled materials, ecological waste water systems, applications of solar and other renewable energy technologies, and ecological landscaping.

Oberlin's new Environmental Center is intended to be a hub for interdisciplinary education, research, and action on the complex array of problems and opportunities facing humankind in the 21st century. It is hoped that this project will influence other colleges and universities that are building or renovating structures. The aim is to reduce environmental impacts and a substantial portion of the billions of dollars spent annually to operate physical facilities.

Leadership by federal and state governments, institutions of higher education, professional societies, and the private and nonprofit sectors is needed in support of pre-service professional development in education for sustainability.
Most new teachers graduate from teacher preparation institutions with limited knowledge of education for sustainability and ways that it can be incorporated into their teaching. In fact, most university professors who offer core courses in educational methodology have not themselves had the preparation necessary to infuse sustainability concepts into their courses and the internships they oversee.

The many professional organizations serving teachers, teachers' unions, and college and university accreditation programs can contribute to the leadership needed to focus college and university teacher training programs on incorporating sustainability concepts. In addition, initiatives funded by the private sector should serve as examples for ensuring adequate pre-service training. In particular, the private sector could exert influence through its investments in university partnership programs related to teacher development.

The need for pre-service teacher training in environmental curricula can hardly be overemphasized. Substantial background and expertise, along with necessary resources, is needed to impart skills and attitudes effectively. According to a recent study, the majority of teachers feel that they are not prepared for conveying the broad spectrum of issues and content related to the environment.17 

Whether in elementary, middle, or high school classes, infusion of the concepts and skills of economics, natural resources, and the global environment into existing curricula, rather than a separate class, has proved to be the most frequently selected approach to teaching the concepts of sustainability.

In-service training will be most effective when a school district's recommendations regarding "scope and sequence" preparation includes, but are not limited to: (1) learning environmental concepts, (2) acquiring educational methods and professional skills, and (3) receiving guidance during initial classroom applications. In addition, a way to measure student progress is essential.

Cooperative efforts and partnerships are necessary to insure that all in-service teachers receive training and support in classroom applications of a range of education materials addressing the concept of sustainability.

Empowering teachers to create opportunities that will enable all learners to be educated for sustainability is the challenge for successful professional development. In-service training requires the cooperation of state departments of education, institutions of higher education, leaders in school districts, professional education organizations, private and nonprofit sectors, and most importantly, community members. Opportunities for professional growth must respond to real needs faced by teachers every day. Acquisition of the resources necessary to plan and implement responsive opportunities in educational settings, whether they are rural or urban, first-grade science, or 12th-grade economics. The U.S. EPA has funded the Environmental Education and Training Partnerships which brings 18 nonprofit organizations and universities together to deliver in-service training to more than 35,000 teachers.

States should be encouraged to provide incentives to align teacher licensing and certification standards to include education about sustainability. Partnerships among those involved in the development of effective professional standards are essential.

Action 3: Essential Learnings

Identify and formalize a set of essential skills and knowledge for all students that reflect a basic understanding of the interrelationships among environmental, economic, and social equity issues.


Education about the environment and sustainability should be an integral part of every student's schooling. When infused throughout the curriculum, education for sustainability supports the high standards set by the traditional disciplines. Currently, however, the advancement of environmental education nationwide is inconsistent, achieving a high profile where the state -- or even individual teachers -- have made a commitment to it and being practiced at a minimal level or not at all elsewhere.

Education about the environment and sustainability, as recognized by leading practitioners, goes well beyond the biological and physical sciences to encompass economic, political, and social systems that draw on and impact the natural and built environments. Environmental and sustainability education deal with these systems at the local, national, and global levels. Good education is based on inquiry, critical analysis, and presentation of a variety of perspectives.

Because education about the environment and sustainability is interdisciplinary, previous efforts to define discipline-centered standards have not fully captured it essence. Although largely based in natural science, environmental education touches on geography, economics, history, and civics. Standards for each of these disciplines have environmental content, yet there is no umbrella document that describes the integration of these disciplinary standards to create curricula that will produce environmentally literate citizens.

Currently, educators at the state and district levels are struggling to define new statewide learning standards based on the voluntary national standards certified under the Goals 2000 program. Educators have called for a set of essential learnings in environmental education that could be integrated into these standards. Funders of environmental and global education projects also have expressed a need for a set of peer-reviewed, widely agreed-upon learning standards that could guide them in assessing programs. Additionally, many states have adopted mandates to teach environmental education. However, without a generally accepted framework of skills and concepts, these mandates can be difficult to implement and evaluate.

A Story of Success

Wisconsin has trained hundreds of environmental education leaders, who are having an impact on thousands of students throughout the state. The program's success is attributable to partnerships among public and private entities committed to a systematic in-service program. According to Rick Wilke, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, "The critical element is cooperation among agency, university, school district, and nonformal educators in achieving common goals." Wilke believes other states can be just as successful. The following chronology highlights Wisconsin's key accomplishments:

1988 An environmental education center is created to coordinate in-service teacher training.

1989 Four sequential in-service courses are designed to be offered throughout the state by 25 adjunct faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

1990 A National Science Foundation grant is received to kick off the program, and legislation is enacted to create the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at the university.

1991 An initial group of 600 teachers from around the state complete the courses, and research on teaching practices in environmental education in Wisconsin is initiated.

1992 A network for disseminating information to teachers and coordinating planning is established, and teacher liaisons are recruited in approximately 1,000 schools. A master's degree program focused on leadership in environmental education is launched.

1993 Results from the 1991 research are used to guide planning. A three-year National Science Foundation grant is secured to support the statewide courses and master's degree program. An initial 25 teachers enroll in the master's program.

1994 Another 600 teachers complete the in-service courses, and an additional 25 educators enroll in the master's degree program. Research is undertaken to determine the effectiveness of the courses.

1995 Plans are developed for sustaining the statewide courses and master's degree program once the National Science Foundation funding ends.

1996 More than 70 teachers pursue master's degrees, and 22 statewide courses are offered. Tuition revenue supports continuation of the courses, and research continues to ascertain changes in teaching practices. Thirty-two graduates from the master's program are working throughout the state as environmental education leaders.

"We need to bring our educational programs a new ethic. Man is capable of care as much as he is of destruction....  If we can make conservation a national cause, we can raise generations who will learn that the earth itself is sacred....  Once that ethic is taught, beginning in our kindergartens, no more American wilderness bowls will be broken and turned to dust."

William O. Douglas, 1961


The North American Association for Environmental Education and its partners are following a critique-and-consensus process for development of learning standards in environmental education that are consistent with the recommendations of the National Education Goals Panel.

Standards provide focus and direction. By defining the content, these standards help facilitate the provision of quality education that is equitable, coherent, and efficient. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the World Resources Institute, Illinois University and others have begun a process to develop a set of learning standards that can be used at the state, district, or school levels to develop curricular benchmarks for environmental education in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The process of developing performance standards involves educators in the fields of science, social studies, geography, and environmental education; representatives from environmental organizations, business, and communities; and students.

The standards will stress the importance of scientific understanding and inquiry as well as critical thinking skills and the ability to express conclusions. These standards also will address the need for students to be involved in activities that promote and demonstrate responsible citizenship.

The development of environmental education standards is intended to be an open process, and opportunities for review and comment will be provided. When consensus has been achieved, application will be made to the National Education Goals Panel for certification of the environmental education standards as national standards.

The standards will be widely distributed through education associations to education officials, curriculum writers, and teachers. NAAEE emphasizes that its intention is not to duplicate work done by other groups, but rather to draw together existing standards and supplement them where necessary to present a coherent picture of the content of environmental education.

Education for Development

"During the environmental education conference, we learned about environmental issues in Gabon. But we also learned about how to incorporate environmental themes into the everyday curriculum. Environmental education offered a way to introduce new teaching methodology into the classroom and to make the lessons more relevant to students' lives."

Peace Corps Volunteer

Teachers worldwide are completing professional training delivered by Peace Corps volunteers and local colleagues from the countries where the volunteers serve. The goal is to enhance mainstream education as a tool for community development. The strategy for implementing this "Education for Development" philosophy is simple: Infuse environment themes into traditional subjects such as mathematics, science, and English.

Gabonese educators, for example, are learning to use environmental and natural resources themes as part of exercises for developing English-language skills. Teachers of math, physics, and chemistry use specific examples from the environment to teach basic concepts.

One objective is to solidify a connection between schools and communities. Raising students' awareness of local environmental issues encourages community service, involves parents, and provides a real-life context for students to use their knowledge. In Gabon, many of the lesson plans and activities developed by educators as a result of the Peace Corps training are being adopted nationwide. This type of teacher training is a component of Peace Corps education projects throughout the world.

Create a focus group which is representative of formal and nonformal educators, including those who teach adults as well as youth, to develop and continually evaluate indicators of essential learnings for sustainability.

Sustainable living is a current topic of discussion in many classroom and nonformal educational programs across the nation. A process for review, compilation, and assessment of these ongoing programs will serve as a reality check for education for sustainability. Assessment is an essential step for receiving input from professionals on the development of essential learnings for sustainable living.

The purpose of this focus group will be to articulate and refine a workable definition of sustainability, capture the essence of key concepts, and clarify the critical components necessary to convey the cognitive and affective aspects of sustainable lifestyles. Where appropriate, the group may then recommend changes in national environmental education standards.

The Fetzer Vineyard Story
"The Fetzer Children's Program continues to be used as an example of what is possible when a business believes in the value of children's education and the environment."

Paul Dolan
CEO Fetzer Vineyard

The Fetzer Vineyard, which is located in Hopland, California, initiated the Fetzer Children's Garden & Culinary Arts Program in 1994 at the firm's organic garden and food education center. The Fetzer Children's Garden & Culinary Arts Program allowed children from the local community to use the Fetzer garden as a classroom setting. The children learned about how food is grown, how to make healthy choices in meal preparation, and how to see the interdependence between insects and the organic garden environment. Although the program was discontinued in 1996, Fetzer demonstrated that a business can create and fund a unique educational program for young children, teen leaders, and families. When preparation for the program began, the Fetzer staff, school district administrators, a teacher advisory board, the University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension personnel, 4-H Clubs, garden and culinary experts, environmental biologists, artists and poets, cultural docents, and teen leaders formed a partnership to design on- site and community experiences that demonstrate the connections from earth to the table and a healthy body.


Education is often identified as the key to a desirable future. Within the education arena, groups are committed to global education, economic education, cultural diversity, and environmental protection and improvement. The key is linking the expertise and activities of these groups and articulating a shared vision that encourages a new comprehensive approach to education for sustainability.

As society enters the era of transition to sustainability, educational systems also are undergoing a transformation. Educational institutions face the responsibility of preparing students for challenges and opportunities that will require the ability to do complex reasoning focusing on global issues. The actions proposed in this chapter are needed to help pave the way for professionals in the field to "lead the conversation."

Examples of Opportunities for Partnerships

National Wildlife Federation
1400 16th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
To order call: 1-800-432-6564, ($14.95)

"Ecodemia is the story of how America's colleges and universities are changing their day-to-day operations in response to a growing environmental awareness."

The Fetzer Childrens Garden & Culinary Arts Program
1621 Cedar Street
Calistoga, CA 95415
Phone: 707-942-4011
Fax: 707-944-8606

Model Links Program
P.O. Box 47200
Olympia, WA 98504-7200
Phone: 360-664-3684
Fax: 360-586-3894

The Model Links Program is a project creating 10 prototype projects to demonstrate that environmental education is a powerful tool for helping implement essential learnings in reading, writing, communication, and mathematics. Participating elementary and middle schools will develop and implement a curriculum integration plan with environmental education as the focus of their restructuring efforts. In 1993, this project was initiated with a $250,000 grant from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Environmental Educational Grants program.

National Education Goals Panel
1255 22nd Street, N.W., Suite 502
Washington, D.C. 20037
Contact: Ken Nelson,
Phone: 202-632-0952
Fax: 202-632-0957

The National Education Goals Panel is a bipartisan and intergovernmental body of federal and state officials created in July 1990 to assess state and national progress toward achieving the National Education Goals. President Clinton established the Goals Panel an independent federal agency in 1994 by signing the Goals 2000: Education America Act. The Goals 2000 Hotline is 1- 800-USA-LEARN.

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)
1255 23rd Street., N.W., Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20037
Contact: Ed McCrae
Phone: 202-884-8912
Fax: 202-884-8701

The North American Association for Environmental Education is a network of professionals and students working in the field of environmental education throughout North America and more than 25 countries around the world. The organization promotes and supports the work of environmental educators. NAAEE is also a major partner is the Environmental Education and Training Partnership (EETAP).

Peace Corps
1990 K Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20526
Contact: Jamie Watts
Phone: 202-606-3100
Fax: 202-606-3024

The mission of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and friendship by providing qualified volunteers to interested countries in need of trained manpower, by fostering a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and by fostering a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

World Resources Institute (WRI)
1709 New York Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006
Contact: Mary Paden
Phone: 202-662-2573
Fax: 202-638-0036

The World Resources Institute, a policy research and capacity building institute that works internationally on environment and development issues, maintains an environmental education project that produces secondary school and university level educational materials on issues such as sustainable development, water pollution, deforestation, urban development, poverty, population growth, and resources consumption. WRI's Environmental Education Project works with other organizations to promote quality environmental education in the United States and worldwide.

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