Evolution of Environmental Education: Historical Development

April 11, 2011, 3:37 pm
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Evolution of Environmental Education: Historical Development

Editor's Note: April 11-17, 2010 is National Environmental Education Week in the U.S. The following article, originally published in May 1997 by the Environmental Education and Training Partnership Resource Library, provides a look at the historical context of the development of environmental education. It based in large part on a classic article titled "Environmental Education's Definitional Problem" written by the late John F. Disinger, Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University, School of Natural Resources, and published by ERIC/SMEAC as Information Bulletin No. 2, 1983.


A continuing dilemma for those concerned with environmental education lies in the matter of definition. There are some who strive to achieve universal agreement as to a precise meaning and discrete set of descriptive parameters, but others who prefer not to expend energy on what they perceive as an inherently non-productive exercise. There also exists a third population, a potpourri of groups and individuals who have independently or semi-autonomously forwarded a variety of definitions and descriptive statements, on occasion demonstrating strong overlap and, on occasion, equally virulent disagreement.

The need and desire for definition has existed for at least two decades and attempts have been made to clarify elements and parameters of environmental education. It is useful at this point to summarize a representative selection of definitions for the purpose of comparing and contrasting them. Attempting to identify commonalities among them, concurrently highlighting disparities and inconsistencies could define boundaries.

Origin of the term

Some of the early as well as evolving application of the term environmental education is listed here in chronological order.

1948 -- Thomas Pritchard, Deputy Director of The Nature Conservancy in Wales identified the need for an educational approach to the synthesis of the natural and social sciences, suggesting that it might be called environmental education.

1957 -- Brennen used the term in an article in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

1964 -- Brennen applied the terms in his address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

1979 -- Brennan acknowledged his early use of the term but disavowed any intention of using it other than as a synonym for conservation education.

The term eventually established itself as environmental education and is continuously evolving in its meaning and implementation.


It is frequently acknowledged that the primary antecedents of environmental education were nature study, outdoor education, and conservation education. Nash summarized:

The roots of environmental education lie in the same area and mentality as the beginnings of reaction against the university ideal of compartmentalization of education - Ed. As early as 1891, Wilbur Jackman's Nature Study for the Common Schools launched a nature study movement which took students outdoors to explore an indivisable environment with an integrated academic approach. Outdoor education, as it was called by theorists such as L.B. Sharp and Julian Smith in the 1920s, has a very similar purpose. Nature study and outdoor education forced an appreciation of the multiciplicity of factors that the classroom tended to isolate. Knowledge was integrated by an integrated environment.
The "Dust Bowl" mentality of the 1930s gave rise to conservation education. Its primary objective was to awaken Americans to environmental problems and the importance of conserving various natural resources. Because conservation education focused on problems which themselves were products of many interrelated factors, students exposed to such programs pursued a more integrated learning program.

Concurrent Movements

Several other educational movements have been identified as forerunners and/or concurrent companions of environmental education, such as:

Resource-use education, a social studies "twin" of conservation education, focused more heavily on economics and geography than the natural science.

Progressive education. The original purpose of this movement related to making education more responsive to the needs of children; among its accomplishments were "some curriculum reforms toward a more holistic approach to learning".

Resource management education has represented the professionalization of certain distinct man-land relationships: soil conservation, water management, game management, park management, urban and regional planning, landscape design, architecture, environmental engineering, metropolitan management and so on.

Population education became "a part of the environemtnal quality movement when it was recognized that the issues of population and environmental impacts were interwoven".

A few "newer" elements such as energy education and marine-and-aquatic education may be viewed as education responses to specific, environmental-related concerns and are perceived by many as subsets of environmental education. Using the same reasoning, it is possible to speak of environmental education as a necessary component of citizenship education and a primary consideration of global education.


Bowman, building on earlier work by Hone, has taken the position that environmental education began as an outgrowth of conservation education. Kirk has approached the transition from a different perspective. He feels that the pressures of the 1960s, which were felt by the leaders in both outdoor education and conservation, were caused by an increased public awareness of the problems of air, water, noise, and landscape pollution and excess energy demands. The reaction produced a new product, philosophy and approach which was labeled environmental education.

Definitions of enviornmental education began to appear, perhaps because of identified needs such as those express by Helgeson et al.:

With the recent interest demonstrated throughout the nation in environmental problems, there is a band wagon effect which tempts many individuals and groups to delare that their particular interest is at the heart of environmental problems...It is absolutely essential that any problem area that is to be studied seriously, be limited in scope...

This debate continues to date and in the opinion of Hungerford et al:

It is disconcerting (to say the least) for those in the implementation of environmenal education goals to  hear again the question: "What is environmental education?"...We submit that environmental education does have a substantive structure that has evolved through the considerable efforts of many and that the framework has  been documented formally in the literature.  The question asked... has most certainly been answered. One would dare hope that this question could, at long last, be laid to rest...the field is quite definitely beyond the goal setting stage and into the business of implemention.

Further Reading

Brennan, M.J. 1957. "Conservation for Youth." Bulletin of the Massachsuetts Audubon Society, May.

Brennan, M.J. 1964. "Total Education for the Total Envrionment." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Montreal, Quebec. Reprinted in Journal of Environmental Education, 6(1):16-19, 1974.

Brennan, M.J. 1979. "Where are We and What Time Is It?"  Journal of Environmental Education 11(1):45-46

Bowman, M.L.C. 1972. "The Development and Field Validation of an Instrument to Assess College Students' Attitudes toward the Determinants of Environmental Issues." Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University. Dissertation Abstracts International, 31:5329-B.

Helgeson, S.L., N. Helburn, R.W. Howe, P.E. Blosser, K.B. Wiley and others. 1971. A Review of Environmental Education for School Administrators. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Research Foundation. ED 059 915.

Hone, E.B. 1959. "An Analysis of conservation Education in Curriculums for Grades K-12." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles. Dissertation Abstracts International, 20:1642.

Hungerford, H.R., R. B. Peyton, and R.J. Wilke. 1983. "Yes, Environmental Education Does Have Definition and Structure." Journal of Environmental Education 14(3): 1-2.

Kirk, J.J. 1977. "The Quantum Theory of Environmental Education." In Current Issues in Environmental Education III. ed. R.H. McCabe. Columbus, OH: ERIC/SMEAC.  ED 150 018.

Nash, R. 1976. "Logs,Universities and the Environmental Education Compromise." In Current Issues in Environmental Education II, ed. R. Marlett. Columbus, OH: ERIC/SMEAC.  ED 135 665

Roth, C.E.1978. "Off the Merry-Go-Round and on to the Escalator." In From Ought to Action in Environmental Education, ed. W. B. Stapp. Columbus, OH: SMEAC Information Reference Center.  ED 159 046

Schoenfeld, C. 1979. "Guest Editorial - A Ten Year Prospective." Journal of Environmental Education 11(1):2-3

Swan, M. 1975. "Forerunners of Environmental Education." In What Makes Education Environmental? eds. N. McInnis and D. Albrecht. Louisville, KY: Data Courier.


Environmental Education Web Sites

Environmental Education and Training Partnership

Foundation for Environmental Education

International Directory of Environmental Education Institutions

National Environmental Education Foundation

North American Association for Envrionmental Education

U.S. EPA Office of Environmental Education



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Environmental Education and Training Program. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Environmental Education and Training Program should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2011). Evolution of Environmental Education: Historical Development. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152701


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