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Opinions on Environmental Education

By Michael Sanera

One consistent theme runs through the critiques of environmental education: Many materials misinform children about environmental issues. Children may be led to make personal lifestyle decisions and to engage in personal and political actions based on poor information.

To address these and other problems, in 1996 the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) published Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for Excellence. These guidelines provide teachers, curriculum writers, parents, and others with information that can be used to review existing EE materials or develop new ones. They identify six key characteristics of good environmental education materials: fairness and accuracy, depth, emphasis on skills building, action orientation, instructional soundness and usability.

The fairness and accuracy guideline, if it were fully implemented, would do the most to rectify the problem of biased materials. It states that educational materials should "reflect sound theories and well-documented facts about subjects and issues" and "where there are differences of opinion or competing scientific explanations, the range of perspectives should be presented in a balanced way."

However, unless more specific content information is provided along with this guideline, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for a parent or teacher to review the fairness and accuracy of a given EE material. Without information about what constitutes fairness and accuracy, the reviewer has little idea whether "competing scientific explanations" are fairly and accurately discussed. However, once armed with a description of what "fairness and accuracy" means in the treatment of specific issues, the guideline can be useful.

One example (out of many) illustrates the problems with many texts and the kind of supplementary information that is needed. World population growth is covered in many science, geography and environmental science texts. Scientific discussion of this issue revolves around the Neo-Malthusian theory and an alternative theory based on economic analysis. To pass the NAAEE guidelines for fairness and accuracy, a textbook or curriculum material must include both positions.

The table on this page is based on content analysis of 23 textbooks that discussed population issues. (This analysis was part of a larger study of texts used in Wisconsin. See Sanera 1996.) Key elements of the theories are identified, and the treatment of those elements by the 23 texts is indicated. As this table demonstrates, key concepts of the Neo-Malthusian theory are covered in the texts, but critics’ arguments are largely missing. Coverage of world population by most of these texts would not pass the NAAEE guidelines.

Due to the limitations of space, I mention only this example, but I have reviewed the treatment of numerous other issues, including acid rain, global warming, and others. On many of these issues the leading textbooks do not meet the standards of the NAAEE.

Table 1

How 23 Texts Treat Population Issues

How Texts Explain the
Neo-Malthusian Theory





World population is increasing at rates faster
than the Earth’s ability to produce food.

12 10 0 1
Overpopulation causes poverty

6 5 0 12
Overpopulation will cause depletion of fossil
fuels, metals, and minerals.





How Texts Explain
the Critics’ Arguments

Population growth and rate peaked in the
late 1960s and is decreasing

1 2 0 20
Applying the concept of "carrying capacity" to
humans is inappropriate.

1 0 0 22
High population levels do not
cause poverty:
Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore

0 2 0 21
Source: Sanera (1996).

In Arizona today, there is an active effort to improve environmental education. This program may offer a model for other states. According to Arizona statute, environmental education programs must teach knowledge of the environment based on a balanced presentation of current scientific information. The Arizona Advisory Council on Environmental Education (AACEE) is providing three grant programs, funded from a special environmental license plate fund, to encourage such teaching. (For FY 1997-98 the AACEE can spend nearly $900,000 on EE in the state, making Arizona a national leader in EE spending.)

To hold potential grantees accountable to high standards of objectivity, the AACEE adopted, with minor modifications, the NAAEE’s fairness and accuracy guideline. Clearly, however, supplementary information of the kind indicated above must be available for the guideline to be useful. Arizona has the potential to move from the constant bickering over the politicizing of children on environmental issues to a reasoned discussion over the content and methods of teaching the science of environmental issues. I welcome that refreshing possibility.


NAAEE. 1996. Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for Excellence. Troy, OH.

Sanera, Michael. 1996. Environmental Education in Wisconsin: What the Textbooks Teach. Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Report 9(5).


Michael Sanera is a teacher and a political scientist who taught at Northern Arizona University for 17 years. He was president of the Arizona Institute for Public Policy Studies, and was founder of the Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Studies.


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