Learners and learning in environmental education: a critical review of the evidence

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Recent analyses of the field of environmental education research have highlighted its rapidly expanding size and increasingly diverse nature (e.g. Hart & Nolan, 1999). This article reports on a review of a particular part of this field - namely, recent empirical studies of learners and learning in primary or secondary school environmental education. The review focuses specifically on the nature and quality of the evidence generated by the work in this area. The concern with evidence is motivated by the tendency of previous reviews to focus on methodological trends more than research findings. Claims have also been made that environmental education theory and research have overlooked 'the children who are the subjects of environmental education' (Payne, 1998a, p. 20). This review contends that efforts to address such shortcomings need to be informed by a thorough and grounded understanding of what studies have, and have not, been undertaken on students and learning, and what is known, and not known, from the evidence that these studies have generated. In its methods, the review seeks to be systematic, comprehensive and analytical. Its findings are based on careful scrutiny of over 100 journal articles, books and reports, published between 1993 and 1999. It proposes that the current evidence base on learners and learning can be understood in terms of six concentrations or nodes of evidence. Three of these are well established (students' (i) environmental knowledge (ii) environmental attitudes and behaviours, and (iii) environmental learning outcomes), while three can be regarded as emerging (students' (i) perceptions of nature, (ii) experiences of learning, and (iii) influences on adults). The recent research evidence and key messages associated with each of these nodes are discussed in successive sections of the review. Overall, the review suggests that the evidence base on learners and learning, while considerable in size, is less diverse in terms of methodological and theoretical approaches than the wider environmental education research field within which it is situated. The evidence base also provides more information about students' environmental knowledge and attitudes than about their educational experiences and preferences, and more about learning outcomes than about learning processes. These characteristics, however, are not static. The research and evidence base on learners and learning is developing and changing as new foci emerge, bringing with them different methodological and conceptual approaches. The review identifies issues and challenges arising from the recent evidence on learners and learning for research users, researchers and future reviews of the field. As well as highlighting possible practical implications of the research, it makes a case for studies focused more explicitly on learning and the role learners play within this process. It also suggests a need for user reviews as well as academic reviews in the field of environmental education.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-320
Number of pages114
JournalEnvironmental Education Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes

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