Environmental awareness, just like mathematics, can’t be learned in a day

“A new generation of civically and scientifically minded environmental population and experts will need to address environmental issues”

California wildfires emitted more carbon dioxide last year than in any other summer in nearly two decades, devastating both animal habitats and human dwellings. With this year’s Earth Day taking place during the American Education Research Association annual meeting, it is important to reflect on how investing in environmental education can help to “Invest In Our Planet”.

“Have you not observed that opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things? The best of them are blind,” observed Plato more than two millennia ago in The Republic. The same holds true today, for how can we discuss environmental issues without knowing the science behind them?

Scientific understanding is essential to taking the right environmental action. Mitigating the effects of existing environmental destruction will require environmental experts to match their social ethos and civic engagement concerning climate issues with scientific knowledge and skills that will enable them to propose new and unprecedented solutions. A new generation of civically and scientifically minded environmental population and experts will need to address environmental issues from a myriad of disciplinary angles.

To rise to the challenge of building resilient infrastructures to the benefit of humans and the environment for a sustainable future, we must foster environmental education as an interdisciplinary subject and even more so a multidisciplinary area of study that systematically integrates environmental topics into existing subjects in K-12 classrooms.

Grounding environmental education in internationally comparable data

Data trends from international large-scale assessments such as IEA’s ICCS and TIMSS can assist policymakers in aligning environmental education to curricula across different subjects, with country-level data providing much needed information on best practices and most urgent areas of improvement. IEA’s International Civic and Citizenship Study data reveals student attitudes toward and civic engagement in protecting the environment and Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the only international study that assesses students’ knowledge about environmental issues through its science assessment.

TIMSS 2019 Environmental Awareness Scales show great variability between the students’ ability to answer the environment items correctly across participating countries. For example, an assessment item which looks at the problem of plastic ending up in the ocean was internationally, on average, answered correctly by 65% of grade 4 students in 58 participating countries. On the country level, these percentages range from as low as 17% in Kosovo to as high as 86% in Sweden.

Nonetheless, the results for the grade 4 environment item on the effects of factory pollution on farms was answered correctly by 43% of students internationally, indicating that more needs to be done to educate students about the harmful effects of agricultural practices on the environment.

Similarly, students could benefit from additional education on the resources needed to produce electricity. Given the currently precarious global energy landscape, this education is needed more than ever. Only 23% of grade 4 students internationally evaluated the resources used to produce electricity appropriately in TIMSS 2019.

A total of 14 countries achieved significantly higher results on the environmental awareness scale, among them East Asian countries like Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea. Additionally, Northern European countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Ireland are among the countries achieving higher than the international average, as well as countries such as Australia and the United States. 52% of the students internationally could explain how algal bloom can be caused by human activity and 54% of the students could answer the item on the effect of the melting permafrost on Earth’s climate correctly. Only 38% of the students understood how planting trees benefits the environment.

The TIMSS 2019 science item at grade 8 on the impact of roof gardens on CO2 levels in the air was answered correctly by 48% of students internationally. The lowest environment-related science results at grade 8 are interestingly on the items that address efforts to offset CO2 emissions (planting trees and roof gardens), suggesting that curricula could be better aligned to environment topics such as the importance of plant life in absorbing CO2 emissions – an important lesson for students both as citizens and young scientists.

However, looking at the percentages, it is also clear that between 20% and 50% of students did not know the correct answer to the presented environmental questions. How can we assume that they would be able to take the right action? There is still a long way to go to bring the knowledge of the future generation up to the point where they can make informed decisions and take the right actions to preserve our planet.

The data from TIMSS 2019 Environmental Awareness Scales offer valuable national and international insights into the students’ scientific understanding of an array of environmental topics. As the only international large-scale assessment that provides reliable and robust data on the students’ scientific understanding of environmental issues and solutions, TIMSS is an excellent resource for policymakers as they reform the science curricula to integrate the most needed environmental education in their countries.

Given the urgent need for internationally comparable data on students’ environmental education, the upcoming TIMSS 2023 assessment framework invites participating countries to further explore the most important environmental topics to include in the science assessment.

About the author: Dirk Hastedt oversees IEA’s studies and services and drives IEA’s overall strategic vision. Moreover, he develops and maintains strong relationships with member countries, researchers, policymakers, and other key players in the education sector and is co-editor in chief of the IEA-ETS Research Institute (IERI) journal ‘Large-scale Assessments in Education.’