Research Summary

How do preservice teachers perceive ‘environment’ and its relevance to their area of teaching?

Lack of Environmental Education in Teacher Training Programs

Environmental Education Research

Teachers play a pivotal role in environmental education, but what are their own perceptions about the environment? The environment is not only an ecological entity, it is a construct influenced by social, cultural, and political domains. How it is perceived and defined influences how environmental education (EE) is taught and how we evaluate environmental issues. Mounting evidence indicates that lack of EE in teacher education is one of the obstacles to successful implementation of EE in schools. This study explores the environmental perceptions of preservice teachers at both the beginning and the end of their teacher education programs. It investigates perceptions of the environment and how these perceptions are related to the subject area they will teach, as well as human interrelationships with the environment. Results from this study provide insights as to whether graduates are well informed to teach EE and what might be done to bolster their environmental literacy.

To understand the environmental perceptions of preservice teachers, 215 undergraduate students from three teacher-education programs in Israel participated in pre- and post-tests both at the beginning and the end of their four-year bachelor and teaching certificate programs. The average age of the study participants at the beginning of the study was 24 years old, and the majority of participants were female (87%). These preservice teachers were assigned to one of two categories: The first included participants learning to teach subjects affiliated with the environment, such as environmental studies, life science, agriculture, and geography. The second category included participants planning to teach other subjects, such as history, literature, mathematics, art, and physical education.

The pre- and post-tests asked participants the same two open-ended questions: (1) “When you hear the word ‘environment,’ you think of …”; and (2) “In your opinion, how do environmental topics relate to the teaching area you chose to major in? Explain.” The pre-test was administered in the first month of the first academic year in the program, and the post-test was administered with the same students during the last month of their third (and final) academic year.

Through analysis of the responses from the first question, the authors identified a number of themes, reflecting a variety of common perceptions about what the environment is. Once these themes were identified, the authors noted how many responses made reference to each theme. Some responses contained references to many themes, whereas others made reference to only a few. The authors noted that 60% of the responses to this first question were comprised of lists of components or characteristics of the environment, and the rest were phrased in complete sentences.

The first theme identified was a romantic perception of the environment, meaning that nature is referred to in aesthetic terms, referring to a pristine paradise and refuge from the modern world (e.g., flowing rivers, serenity, pure water, a world isolated from technology). About a quarter of responses (25.6%) made reference to this romantic perception at the beginning of the program. By the end of the program, the number of responses that made reference to the romantic perception showed a significant increase (to 30.6%).

Environmental quality was another theme identified. The authors divided this theme into two categories: (1) responses that mentioned the adverse effects of human activity on the environment, such as pollution, soot, and environmental damage; and (2) responses that mentioned the need to protect the environment. At the beginning of the program, 40.2% and 20.1%, respectively, mentioned these two categories. By the end of the program, there was a significant decrease, to 36.0% and 15.2%, respectively. In other words, concern for environmental quality seemed to decrease over the course of the teacher-training program.

Another way the authors considered the responses was through the lens of various dimensions, specifically biophysical, social, economic, and political. The biophysical dimension refers to the environment as comprised of various living and nonliving objects, such as animals, fungi, oceans, rocks, and so on. This was, by far, the most common theme noted in the responses, with over half of responses referencing biophysical dimensions in the pre- and post-tests. The social, economic, and political dimensions of the environment are also considered critical for a holistic understanding of the environment. However, only a few respondents (fewer than 4%) mentioned any of these aspects in their responses both before and after the program.

Another theme the authors identified was a self-centered perspective. These responses expressed the environment from the point of view that it is something surrounding oneself, or that “I” am in the center of the environment. This perspective was exemplified in sayings such as, “the environment is everything outside of my body.” About 20% of the responses touched on this theme in both the pre- and post-test.

The final theme the authors discussed was different variations of the human-nature relationship. About 15% of responses mentioned humans as part of the environment. Fewer than 2% of responses mentioned humans as separate from the environment, and about 5% of the responses described humans and the environment as interdependent. All of these response rates showed no significant change from before to after the program.

Regarding the second question, nearly all the preservice teachers (95%) reported that environmental topics were relevant to their area of teaching. The reasons given for why environmental topics are relevant fell into one or more of these categories: (1) the environment is a universal issue that all are a part of (about 5% of both pre- and post- responses); (2) concern for the environment is an educational value and needs to be taught (33% pre; 22% post); (3) teaching about the environment is the responsibility of educators (22% pre; 15% post); and (4) as teachers, they need to be role models and demonstrate environmental behaviors (about 4% both pre- and post-program). In terms of how to put this into practice in their classrooms, respondents noted that their specific subject areas could be taught through an environmental lens or that they could use their teaching to promote environmental values. Overall, responses to this second question highlighted the interest that pre- service teachers have in teaching environmental topics. However, between the beginning and end of the program, there was an overall decrease in the number of responses that articulated why teaching about the environment is important or how to incorporate this topic in their teaching. This indicates a lack of preparation offered by their teacher-training program.

Finally, the authors also examined differences in the responses between pre-service teachers planning to teach in environment-affiliated fields (EAF) versus those planning to teach in non-environment- affiliated fields (NEAF). In terms of responses to the first question about how they view the environment, differences between these two cohorts were relatively minor and nonsignificant, both before and after the teacher-training program. With regard to the second question about incorporating the environment in their teaching, the biggest difference was that EAF students were much more likely to report that they see their teaching area as a framework for integrating environmental content. This was not surprising given that they plan to teach in environment-affiliated fields. Overall, the authors concluded that students in EAF and NEAF both seemed to be equally unprepared to teach environmental topics after the three-year teacher training program.

The Bottom Line

Although most teachers may feel a desire to incorporate environmental topics into their teaching, teacher-training programs may not be adequately preparing them to do so. Teacher-training programs should focus on developing a holistic and multidimensional view of the environment; this holistic view includes understanding that people and the environment are interdependent. In addition, teachers should understand that teaching about the environment means more than learning about the living and nonliving objects (animals, rocks, plants, and so on), but also includes social, economic, and political dimensions. It would also be valuable for teacher training programs to discuss why environmental education is relevant to any field of teaching (not just science) and also provide teachers with strategies for how to implement environmental education perspectives in their classrooms.