Education On Environmental Issues Education Essay

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2.1 Introduction

Human history must have been characterised by an ongoing learning experience of the surrounding environment and thus humans have always been concerned about the environment and their role in it. Public awareness of the state of the environment and concern about the effects of our activities emerged.

The field of environmental education has sometimes been compared to a thriving robust tree with the tree's many braches representing the diversity and variety in the field. Given the differing definitions, the many programs, the plethora of materials and the fractal like growth of the field, perhaps the comparison with a tree is apt. But, what lies underground? What are the roots of the field? (McCrea, 2006).

Environmental Education: Where do we come from?

Various environmental issues together with an improved means of communication served to develop, among the various world populations the concept of a global village. An EE programme, known as Nature Study, took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. The nature study movement helped students develop an appreciation of nature. In the US, a new type of EE, Conservation Education, emerged as a result of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era during the 1920s and 1930s. The movement included many education approaches that are important aspects of EE today…learning by doing, lifelong learning, integrated and interdisciplinary efforts and so on (McCrea, 2006).

During these years, there was a vast mobilization leading to the formation of associations and societies for the defence of nature. The creation of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1961 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN, itself established in 1948) marked a critical point in the history of conservation (Orellana & Fauteux, 2007). The 1970 IUCN definition of EE, is still considered by many the best definition to date (see page 3). During the 1970s, the ecological movement gained strength through the creation of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (Orellana & Fauteux, 2007). A series of conferences and workshops on EE were set up. Internationally, EE gained recognition as a result of a number of United Nations conferences on the Human Environment. These conferences produced important declarations that have guided the course of EE.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Stockholm conference (1972) considered the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the people of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment (UNEP, 1972). The conference acknowledged the place humans have in their environment and the effort needed to promote EE. The Stockholm declaration was made up of 7 proclamations and 26 principles. Principle 19 declared that:

Education in environmental matters, for the younger generation as well as adults, giving due consideration to the underprivileged, is essential in order to broaden the basis for an enlightened opinion and responsible conduct by individuals, enterprises and communities in protecting and improving the environment in its full human dimension. (UNEP, 1972)

An international workshop on EE held in Belgrade (1975) produced the 'Belgrade Charter - A Global Framework for Environmental Education.' This charter outlined the basic structure of EE and acknowledged the need for a collective effort to improve the quality of life and of the environment (UNESCO-UNEP, 1975). The world's first intergovernmental conference on EE was held in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia (USSR) from October 14-26, 1977 (UNESCO-UNEP, 1977). This conference updated and clarified The Stockholm Declaration and The Belgrade Charter by including new goals, objectives, characteristics and guiding principles of EE that many environmental educators still use today (McCrea, 2006). The declaration noted the unanimous accord in the important role of EE in preserving and improving the global environment and sought to provide the framework and guidelines for EE.

One of the three main goals of EE identified by the Tbilisi conference was, 'to create new patterns of behaviour of individuals, groups, and society as a whole towards the environment.' (UNESCO-UNEP, 1977). This corresponds to what Tanner thought about the importance of EE where one of its main objectives was that of, 'fostering an informed citizenry which would work actively toward the ultimate goal of maintaining a varied, beautiful, and resource-rich planet for future generations' (Tanner, 1998b). And this is what this study is all about as it tries to identify those significant formative experiences which have shaped our local environmental activists.

The Moscow Congress, 1987, ten years after the Tbilisi Congress, addressed the general public and invited them to take concrete action towards sustainable living (UNESCO-UNEP, 1987; Lahiry, et al., 1988). Following the Moscow Congress, various nations studied and adopted plans to include EE in their strategies to achieve a better relationship with the environment. It was during the 1980s that the proposal for sustainable development emerged as this decade has been marked by a number of environmental disasters such as the Bhopal pesticide plant explosion, the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power station and the confirmation of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

The Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro Brazil in 1992, appealed to end the fragmentary method of organising EE. It recognised the role of every individual in the struggle to find a balance between quality of life and quality of the environment. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 focused on the future of our planet, 'the future of the planet is at stake if we not reverse the process of abusing it', and on 'reorienting education toward sustainable development; increasing public awareness; and promoting training' (McCrea, 2006). In the following years, various EE projects were promoted as a result of the application of the principles of the Summit (referred to as Agenda 21). As a result of this popularisation exercise, there has been a renewed interest in environmental adult educators, indigenous knowledge and the eco-feminist perspectives of EE. Nevertheless, the delegates attending the UNESCO International Conference on Environment and Society held in Thessaloniki in 1997, noted that the recommendations of the Belgrade, Tbilisi and Moscow Conferences were still not fully explored and that insufficient progress has been made five years after the Earth Summit in Rio. The Thessaloniki Declaration noted that EE has evolved as education for sustainability which included not only the environment but also issues regarding poverty, population, health, food security, democracy, human rights and peace. Thus, it may also be referred to as 'Education for Environment and Sustainability.' The Declaration recommended action plans for formal education for environment and sustainability and schools were encouraged to adjust their curricula to meet the needs for a sustainable future (UNESCO, 1997). 'The growing interest in Environmental Education has led an increased demand for its impact' (Scicluna Bugeja, 2003).

The ever increasing demands for food, water, shelter, sanitation, energy, health services and economic security led the participants of the Johannesburg Summit, held in 2002, to adopt a resolution declaring 2005-2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. There has been an increasing recognition of the critical role of education in promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns in order to change attitudes and behaviour of people as individuals, including as producers, consumers and as citizens (U.N., 2002 ; 2005). The 2003 Kiev Conference, thus, invited all countries to integrate sustainable development into education systems at all levels in order to promote education as a key agent for change.

We recognize that education is a fundamental tool for environmental protection and sustainable development and that environmental education has increasingly addressed a wide range of issues included in Agenda 21. We invite all countries to integrate sustainable development into education systems at all levels, from pre-school to higher education and non-formal as well as informal education, in order to promote education as a key agent for change. (U.N., 2003)

The participants taking part in the 4th International Conference on EE held in 2007 at Ahmedabad, India, reiterated the importance of education in producing 'alternative models and visions for a sustainable future' (UNESCO-UNEP, 2007). The Ahmedabad Declaration is committed to action and supports research in order 'to identify effective methods of learning and sharing knowledge' (UNESCO-UNEP, 2007). Correspondingly, the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) held in 2009 at Bonn, Germany, issued a strongly worded statement with regards to the unsustainable production and consumption patterns which are creating ecological impacts. The Bonn Declaration, stated that 'investment in education for sustainable development is an investment in the future' and that 'education is a significant factor in improving human well being.' (UNESCO, 2009).

This emphasis on education and identification of alternative models for a sustainable future corresponds with the aim of this study which focuses on developing a better understanding of the formative influences of Malta's leading environmentalists especially those who have demonstrated their informed and responsible activism.

Figure 2.1 summarises some of these trends in EE over the past decades (Palmer, 1998). The past five decades show an ever-growing list of publications, international meetings and initiatives. Nature study has moved forward to promote sustainability and quality of life for all on our planet. Over the years there has been a refinement of the language used. Initially, there was the emphasis on outdoor education where young people were exposed to new experiences in which they engaged with the environment. This was the idea behind nature study, fieldwork, adventure education and field study centres. Later on, a wider vision of environmental issues promoted the study and understanding of the social, physical and natural aspects of the environment. Questions about poverty issues, peace, human rights and diversity were incorporated in this new vision of EE. Today, all stakeholders are partners in resolving ecological problems and understanding the effects of one's actions to foster a sustainable future.

1960s Nature study

Learning about plants and animals, and the physical systems that support them


Led by 'experts' with a particular academic focus - biology, geography, etc

1970s Outdoor / Adventure education

Increasing use of the natural environment for first-hand experiences

Field studies centres

Growth of field and environmental / outdoor education centres - centres for developing awareness through practical activity and investigation

Conservation education

Teaching about conservation issues

Urban studies

Study of the built environment, streetwork

1980s Global education

A wider vision of environmental issues

Development education

Environmental education has a political dimension

Values education

The clarifying of values through personal experience

Action Research

Community problem-solving.

Pupil-led problem solving, involving fieldwork

1990s Empowerment

Communication, capacity-building, problem-solving and action, aimed at the resolution of socio-environmental problems

Education for a sustainable future

Participatory action. Relevant approaches to changing behaviours and resolving ecological problems

2000s Community of partners?

Pupils, students, teachers, NGOs, politicians - working together to identify and resolve socio-ecological problems?

Fig.2.1 Key trends in environmental education (Palmer, 1998)

2.3 Environment Education in Malta

EE initiatives in Malta show several evolutionary steps. The study of the Maltese environment featured regularly within the Maltese primary school curriculum since 1853 but environment topics (or Nature Study) did not feature within the 1969 primary school syllabus which aimed for a more interdisciplinary approach (Ventura, 1993, as cited in Pace, 1997). In 1982, science was integrated with topics in geography, history and civics under a new subject called Social Studies. This measure was short-lived as, in 1985, science was introduced in the primary schools. Interest in the natural environment and other historical heritage led to the birth of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the 1960s. These NGOs had to focus their energies on promoting further research on the environment and making the results accessible to the general public. Campaigns focused on specific environmental issues and tried to achieve long term objectives. In most cases, these were school based, banking on the education of pupils as their ultimate long term goal where teachers started to integrate EE in their curriculum. The importance of the schools as a means of obtaining environmental information was shown by 65% of 447 students attending post secondary institutions in Malta (Mifsud, 2008). Schools were perceived by young people as being the most reliable sources of environmental information. The last couple of years have been marked by several successful attempts to co-ordinate such EE activities (Briguglio & Pace, 2004). This contrasts earlier years which have been marked by initiatives which often led to conflicts of interests and very little progress (Tanti, 2000). Two examples of successful attempts are EkoSkola and Dinja WaÄda projects.

The Ekoskola programme was launched in 1994 by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). Locally, Nature Trust (Malta) is presently co-ordinating more than 100 schools taking part in EkoSkola (Nature Trust, 2009). These schools have joined about 31,000 other schools around the world. This programme aims at mobilizing the whole school to empower students to adopt an active role in environmental decision making and action in the school and in their community. Successful schools are awarded a Green Flag - a prestigious eco-label testifying the school commitment. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), in collaboration with the Ministry for Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Employment launched the Eco Schools project in 2002. Nature Trust is also in the process of opening a field study centre as presently, local schools lack such a venue. The last field study centre in use was Villa Psaigon (limits of Dingli). It has been refurbished to improve its services but has been closed for a number of years (Ministry of Education, 2003). On the other hand, the Goverment of Malta is proposing the setting up of a permanent environmental science education centre in Gozo as part of the Eco Gozo proposed plant for 2010 - 2012 (Ministry for Gozo, 2010). Through Dinja WaÄda educational programme, Birdlife (Malta) reaches around 80% of the primary school children. This award scheme presented schools with activities promoting pro-environmental behaviour that varied from simple tasks to more demanding ones. Besides, Birdlife (Malta) organises educational visits at the GÄadira and Simar Nature Reserves and participates in Spring Alive - an international education campaign aimed at raising awareness of bird migration in secondary school students (Birdlife, 2010).

It is too early to analyse the long term impact of these initiatives on the present student population. This study is looking for those SLEs that have shaped the life of the current environmental activists as 'environmental educators should know the kinds of learning experiences which produce such persons' (Tanner, 1980). The impact of similar experiences on these activists will hopefully enrich these present practices and initiatives.

2.4 Environmental Education Research

Scientific research has tended to dominate the relatively new and evolving body of EE research. It was in the United States that the development of environmental research gained momentum during the late 1970s and 1980s. Studies reported in the Journal of Environmental Education had significant impact upon Australian, European and Asian EE curriculum development and research (Palmer et al., 1998a). As pointed out by Marcinkowski (1990), quantitative approaches dominated research in EE and the majority of research studies in the 1970s and 1980s in the Journal of Environmental Education reflected this quantitative approach. There was little or no attention to the feelings and self-understandings that transform knowledge and attitudes into action.

According to Palmer (1998), the field of EE research is dynamic and expanding at a rapid pace around the world. Qualitative research studies have increased considerably during the 1990s although quantitative research studies are still present in the field. EE research is putting more emphasis on the links between research and the improvement of practice. The increasing numbers of EE research, international conferences and a number of related journals are a proof of this.

2.5 Significant Life Experiences…a new research area in EE

As stated in section 1.3, some research focused on individual's SLEs. In the 1960s Tanner was eager to look for and understand the kinds of experiences present in the childhood of environmental activists (Tanner, 1998b). Consequently, in the following decades, there were a number of research projects looking into the SLE of environmental activists or educators.

2.5.1 Early Studies

Cobb, 1977, was one of the first persons to study the meanings of childhood experiences of nature (Chawla, 1998a). Tanner (1980) invited selected members of four conservation groups to make available an autobiographical statement identifying the formative influences that led them to choose conservation work. Forty five usable responses were received from 37 men and 8 women. Asked about the influences which led to their passion to protect the environment, they all reported many hours spent outdoors in natural areas; parents or other family members; teachers; involvement in environmental organizations and the loss of a valued place (Chawla, 1999). The data supported Tanner's hypothesis that children must first come to know and love the natural world before they can become concerned with its care. Research suggested that appreciation began when young people were exposed to outdoor settings (Tanner, 1980). Table 2.1 shows some influences which were instrumental in choosing conservation work.

Table 2.1: Influences on Choice of Conservation Work


Respondents, %

Natural areas

Habitat: frequent contact




Other adults

Habitat alteration

Solitude outdoors


Travel abroad











Tanner (1980), N= 45 (37 males, 8 females)

Similarly, Peterson was interviewing 22 environmental educators attending a meeting of the North American Association of Environmental Education. She investigated environmental sensitivity leading to action (Tanner, 1998b). Peterson reported her results a year later and her work is now almost quoted as much as that of Tanner (Sivek, 2002). Her research makes a significant contribution to the understanding of motivations behind environmental concern and commitment which has formed the basis of various other studies. Similar to Tanner's, Peterson's results revealed the outdoors, family, the study of natural systems, books, habitat alteration and the love for the area in which raised, as factors affecting attitudes towards the environment. The following table shows Peterson's results.

Table 2.2 Influences on attitude toward the environment


Respondents, %


Family vacations

Childhood play

Youth groups / camp

Hunting / fishing


Study of natural systems

Love for area in which raised

Professional responsibility

Habitat alteration

Environmental organization


Peer sensitivity














Peterson, 1982, as cited in Chawla, (1998b). N= 22 (17 males, 5 females)

Tanner and Peterson published in close succession. They represent two parallel lines of research: Tanner investigated the backgrounds of active members of environmental organizations whereas Peterson, those of environmental educators. Tanner ensured activism by surveying only persons actively involved in national conservation organizations. These studies also represent the two main methods that this research has followed as Tanner used open ended surveys whereas Peterson went for structured interviews (Chawla, 1998c).

Further studies

With his 1980 paper, Tanner motivated a number of related studies (Palmer and Suggate, 1996; Chawla, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; Palmer et al., 1998a, 1998b; Sward, 1999). A turning point occurred when two senior researchers, Louise Chawla in the USA and Joy Palmer in the UK, entered the field of what was now being referred to as research in significant life experiences (Tanner, 1998c). The method of research varied from interviews, open-ended surveys and questionnaires (Chawla, 1998a; Tanner, 1998b). McKnight (1990) and Scholl Wilder (1983) have turned the results of preceding interviews into questionnaires that were administered efficiently to large populations. But SLE research was characterized by inconsistent questions, categories of analysis and the type of sample. Tanner reviewed ten studies in order to go through this diversity. He constructed a taxonomy of research dealing with SLE (Tanner, 1998a).

Table 2.3 A taxonomy, with example entries, of research dealing primarily, partially, or indirectly with significant life experiences.

Population samples

Primarily SLE

Secondarily SLE






Scholl Wilder…

Peters Grant…

Palmer et al.…

None reviewed here





Tanner (1998a)

Peterson (1982), Scholl Wilder (1983) and Peters Grant (1986) followed Tanner's study (Chawla, 1998b). They produced a considerable amount of information about SLE and formative influences in the lives of those who care about the environment. In 1981, Chawla, a senior researcher and an experienced school teacher, and Hart, a well known researcher of children's play in outdoor settings, published a study of how children develop concern for the environment (Chawla, 1998b). Some time later, in an open-ended survey conducted by Votaw, respondents were asked to list and prioritize the experiences that they felt contributed to their attitudes. The natural environment and an adult role model were two common previous experiences that contributed to the love and respect for the natural environment. (Votaw, 1983, as cited in Chawla, 1998c). Gunderson found that the predominant influences were the time spent in the outdoors and former teachers (Gunderson, 1989, as cited in Tanner, 1998b). Similarly, in a study by James, 50 environmental educators mentioned outdoor experiences together with adult role models (James, 1993, as cited in Chawla, 1998b).

Sample differences

The shift between environmental activist and environmental educators persisted. In an early study of SLE, Scholl-Wilder(1983) selected 90 persons from the membership of two nature groups, asking about the formative influences in their lives. Tanner (1998a) was critical of this study as he did not see much evidence of activism on their part. Similarly, Tanner questioned Sivek & Hungerford's (1989-90) sample choices as they did not represent environmental activism. Tanner was disappointed because researchers have not kept fully in mind the rationale of the original study in which he selected environmental activists as his subjects. Tanner (1998a) considered this to be a fundamental error because it was the informed, responsible, environmental activists who were going to save the world. He believed that it was imperative to understand how the activists (informed, responsible activists) got to be the way they were. This study selects environmental activists trusting that they would be able to identify the formative experiences which have led them to activism. This would in turn enhance EE in leading people to take action. This is further explained in Chapter 3.

Chawla (1998b) pointed out a limitation in that none of the research was comparative. Do experiences that characterize environmentalists and environmental educators also distinguish them from the other members of the public? Other people who are indifferent or even antagonistic to environmental issues may have had similar experiences.

The first study with a comparison group was carried out by Myers who interviewed 25 undergraduates (11 males and 14 females) evenly divided between ethnic minority students and students studying environmental studies (Chawla, 1998a). They were questioned about how they came to decide their area of studies, their environmental attitudes and about whether they had any meaningful place. Results show that there were no differences in their ratings with regards to their environmental concern, but the environmental students reported a few more positive wilderness experiences, more family role models regarding nature and more spontaneous descriptions of positive childhood experiences of nature. Besides, they were more likely to describe meaningful identification with a natural place. Myers noted that these experiences by themselves, did not predict commitment to an environmental career and thus suggested that the ultimate target of research about SLE was to focus on how the significance of experience was constructed. Merriam (1993) suggested that for learning to be significant it must personally affect the learner and must be subjectively valued by the learner. Parents, other role models or other experiences may reinforce these experiences (Chawla, 1998b). According to Chawla (1998b), environmental sensitivity is "a predisposition to take an interest in learning about the environment, feeling concern for it, and acting to conserve it, on the basis of formative experiences."

Consistent results

Later researches have broadened the population samples in terms of age, sex, ethnic identity and nationality. The results have shown general consistency in the main category of responses. An ambitious mail survey has been that of Palmer (1993). Palmer directed the Emergent Environmental Research Project which was spread in 12 nations from 5 continents. Some of its objectives were:

to look for SLE in adult subjects

to investigate the children's acquisition of environmental subject knowledge and awareness

longitudinal studies to monitor development with children at age 4

to monitor knowledge, concern, and translation of this concern into positive action during students' passage through formal education service and into adult life

Responses were refined into 13 categories incorporating a number of sub-categories from the original list. Palmer's (1993) results are presented in Table 2.4 where "outdoors" like Tanner's category "natural areas", ranked highest in number of mentions. She concluded that 'the results confirm Tanner's findings that childhood experience in the outdoors is the single most important factor in developing personal concern for the environment' (Palmer, 1993). As with the Peterson's and Tanner's studies, time spent outdoors as a youth was cited most often as an important influence. The influence of outdoor experiences has consistently shown up as the most SLE on adult environment sensitivity or awareness in studies published over the past twenty five years (Sivek, 2002). Palmer (1993) introduced a new category when she identified negative issues - these could range from a global environmental problem such as greenhouse effect to a more local one, such as the loss of a favourite environmental spot. This category was completely absent in Tanner. She hypothesized that between the late 1970s and the late 1980s there may have been 'a marked increase in the influence of negative factors on individual thought and action' (Chawla, 1998b). Palmer and Suggate (1996) stated that, 'There has also been a growing awareness of the magnitude of the threat to the environment which has been spread by publications (books and papers) and organizations such as Greenpeace. This means that young people are likely to be influenced by the threat to and spoiling of distant habitats as well as those nearby in the English countryside.' (Tanner, 1998d)

Table 2.4 Influences on Practical Concern for the Environment


Respondents, %


Childhood outdoors

Outdoor activities

Wilderness / solitude




TV / media

Friends / others (including teachers)

Travel abroad

Negative issues


Becoming a parent

Keeping pets / animals



















Palmer et al.,(1998a), N=232 (102 males, 130 females)

Palmer (1993-99) has presented five reports with the same methodology and analysis (Tanner, 1998a). Like Tanner, Palmer conducted an open-ended survey with 233 environmental educators who were members of the National Environmental Education Association of the United Kingdom on their development of concern and formative experiences. Respondents were asked to fill out a checklist of environmental activities in which they regularly engaged (Palmer & Suggate, 1996). Results showed that more than 90% of the respondents took part in at least some environmental actions. Palmer then asked for an autobiographical statement identifying experiences which led to their practical environmental concern. They were also asked to identify their most SLE and the years which were particularly memorable in their development of positive attitudes toward the environment. 33 single factors of influence were identified and grouped into 7 related categories. Two of these categories, outdoors and education, were found to be represented in more than 60% of the autobiographical accounts followed by people (family, friends, teachers) and work. Organizations, media, travel and negative influences followed. The most mentioned single factors were childhood experiences of nature and countryside, tertiary education courses, work, family, influence of negative books and secondary education.

This was the first research to compare the influences for different age categories. Family and education were important in all age categories (under 30, 30-50, over 50) where positive experiences of nature and the countryside were mentioned far more often by the older participants than by the younger (>50, 70%; 30-50, 62%; <30, 25%). This is understandable when the changes in society over the last 20 years are considered (Tanner, 1998d). It was found that the most influential factor in developing personal concern for the environment is childhood experiences of nature and the countryside (Palmer, 1993; Palmer & Suggate, 1996). Another recurrent theme was the role of the family and other adults in awaking and fostering such interest. Childhood experiences of nature were also an important influence in Slovenia and Greece yet the influence of negative environmental experiences ranked highly in these two countries (Palmer et al., 1998b). A study by Palmer et al., (1998b) among 1259 adults in nine countries also supported the importance of outdoor experiences and role models. This research was looking at the types of significant influences upon people's lives which led to the development of environmental awareness. 'Experience of nature' was the most frequently mentioned influence. Results show that opportunities for positive experience of nature and the countryside nurtured the attitudes of appreciation, care and concern for the world (Palmer et al., 1998b).

A study conducted by Chawla in 1995 of 56 American and Norwegian environmentalists with an even broader range of action revealed the same reasons behind their environmental commitment that is, the experience of natural areas; family role models; organizations; negative experiences like pollution, radiation or habitat destruction; education, friends and the influence of their job (Chawla, 1998b). The results of this study with American and Norwegian environmentalists are shown in table 2.5.

Table 2.5 Influences on Commitment to Environmental Protection


Respondents, %

Experience of natural areas





Negative experiences

Habitat destruction

Pollution, radiation




Sense of social justice

Book or author

Principles / religion

Concern for children, grandchildren
















Chawla (1995) as cited in Chawla (1998b), N=56 (35 males, 21 females)

Sward and Chawla extended the SLE research by interviewing 17 El Salvadoran environmental professionals coming from a broad range of environmental engagement (Chawla, 1998b). Outdoor influences and witnessing loss of environment were the most common influences. Formal education, activities organised by the Scout movements and the influence of their job were also mentioned. It is worth pointing out that 'witnessing loss of environment' corresponds with El Salvador's history of war and environmental destruction. The results of the research done by Sward and Chawla with El Salvadoran environmentalists are shown in table 2.6.

Table 2.6 Influences on Attitude towards the Environment


Respondents, %

Outdoor experiences

Environmental destruction


Scout movement

Environmental job

Raising animals / plants

Innate affinity toward nature

Teachers and peers

Concern for future generations










Sward (1996 as cited in Chawla, 1998b), N=17 (14 males, 3 females)

2.5.3. Recent developments and the way forward

Chawla (1988) called for more research on children's experience of nature and the development of pro-environmental behaviours. Studies show that positive outdoor experiences during childhood represent the single most important factor in developing a personal concern for the environment (Wilson, 1997). Research indicates that without these experiences, children tend to develop fears and discomforts about the world of nature. Wilson (1997) came across indications of ecophobia, that is, the fear of ecological problems and the nature world. To counteract, Sobel (1996) suggested ecophilia, that is, 'supporting children's biological tendency to bond with the natural world'. Sanger (1997) maintains that good education provides a meaning and value to places which in turn helps students grow into responsible citizens. Recent studies about SLEs have confirmed most previous findings. Results by Iverson (2000) show that outdoor experiences, positive role models, encouragement from practitioners in the field of EE and proper training opportunities are important life experiences influencing individuals to become environmental educators. Place (2004) points out a growing body of research that increasingly shows a relationship between outdoor experiences people have in their early lives and what they believe and value about the natural environment in their adult life. Place (2004) identifies various studies which show early life outdoor experiences as the most important factor in influencing environment concern (Tanner, 1980; Sward, 1999; Palmer et al., 1999a; Bixler et al., 2002, as cited in Place, 2004). A study by Furihata, et al., (2007), of the 'Potentials and Challenges of Research of Significant Life Experiences in Japan' also confirms the importance of 'hours in natural areas accessible on a daily basis.'

In contrast, Gough N (2002) was surprised by the extraordinary interest in SLEs and formative influences on the development of environmental awareness. He looks at ways of improving the practice of EE research. Gough N pointed out that between November 1998 and May 1999 the Environmental Education Research (EER) published nine articles on SLE research in EE. The November 1999 EER issue published five critical commentaries on SLE research in EE. He asked about the news value regarding the importance of providing opportunities for positive experience of nature and the countryside in order to develop environmental awareness. Gough N is of the opinion that educational research should be research for education rather than education for the environment. Thus, authors of education research reports have a moral obligation to explain how their work might improve educational practices (Gough N., 2002, 2004). Similarly, Gough A believes that 'good environmental education is really just good education' (Tasar M.F., 2009). This was also the rationale behind the study by Okada et al., (2008) where the SLE of 158 adults (19-32 years old) who had experienced an organized camp programme in childhood were examined. The results of this research show that organized camp experiences of childhood enhance the environmental behaviour in adulthood with 'direct experience with nature' having the most positive effects on 'understanding environmental behaviour.'

In three recent studies, Hsu examined SLEs affecting the cultivation of environmental activists. Hsu (2003) examined the life experiences affecting the environmental action on the part of active environmental organization members in the Hualien area (China). The research was also after establishing the life paths of these active members. Research indicates that the most SLEs were 'experiences with natural areas' (in childhood), 'environmental organizations', 'beloved place / habitat destruction', 'friends', 'experiences with natural areas' (in adulthood), 'principles', 'parents', 'pollution' and 'vocation'. In a similar study carried out in Taiwan, Hsu (2005) identified differences in SLEs between urban and rural environmental activists and intergenerational differences. Results from 198 activists indicated rural-urban differences in 'experiences of natural areas', 'student organizations', 'social justice', 'beloved place / habitat destruction', 'books' and 'other environmental activists'. Intergenerational differences were found in 'experiences of natural areas', 'beloved place / habitat destruction', 'concern about pollution' 'environmental organizations', life principles', 'tertiary education', and 'student organizations'. Hsu (2009) confirmed the previous study done in Taiwan. It was found that the SLE identified in the 2005 study could effectively distinguish environmentally committed people from those apathetic to environmental protection.

A study by Ewert et al., (2005) adds support to the idea that early childhood outdoor experiences are related to environmental views. This study suggests that participation in early life outdoor activities, exposure to media events focusing on environmental issues and witnessing negative environmental events are related to adults' current beliefs concerning the environment. A research on SLEs by Cahelin et al., (2009) once again confirms that outdoor experiences foster pro-environmental outcomes. Time spent outdoors is often identified as the source of pro-environmental behaviour more important than education. The study shows that, unfortunately, EE programmes are often evaluated on cognitive outcomes alone. The importance of outdoor and fieldwork activities was shown by the fact that responses suggest that field-based participants demonstrated greater cognitive understanding than classroom-based participants.

Chawla (2001) sees the debate surrounding research on SLE as healthy and commends Environmental Education Research for giving such space to this debate. At times, the debate was looking at the issue of focusing on formative experiences in the lives of environmental educators more often than in the lives of activists. With regards to this ongoing debate, Chawla takes up Stephen Gough's (1999) points as she disagrees with the systematic attack on environmental educators and activists. Chawla like Payne (1999), thinks that the environmental movement needs dedicated activists and dedicated teachers, and a large population of citizens who support the protection of the environment. Thus, it is important for EE research to understand what motivates all of these groups.

2.5.4 Strengths and Weaknesses of SLE Research

Despite different sample groups and differently worded questions, most studies have yielded similar answers regarding formative influences: positive experience in natural areas; family members who set examples of respect for the natural world; teachers, books and other media; environmental organizations and experiences of habitat loss (Chawla, 1998a). A large body of research on the construction of survey instruments shows that even slight variations in the wording of questions may have significant effects on the type of responses received (Schwarz & Sudman, 1993 as cited in Chawla 1998a; Cohen, 2004). The fact that research of SLE has elicited similar results despite variously worded questions, suggest that it is tapping valid results regarding formative environmental experiences (Chawla 1998a).

Most SLE studies cite the pioneering work of Tanner (1980). Nevertheless, there have been a number of variations in the aims and wording of key questions. Basically, studies with environmental activists have sought to understand the origins of committed action whereas those with environmental educators have focused their interest on the origins of feelings and attitudes. Tanner's work involved the qualitative analysis of people's autobiographical recollection and it stood apart from the great body of EE research which has been overwhelmingly quantitative (Marcinhowski, 1993, as cited in Chawla, 1998b). According to Chawla 1998a, this fact is an important strength in SLE research as qualitative research is equipped to explore the emotional and interpretative side of environmental experience that research has otherwise avoided. SLE research has become cumulative not only in its findings but also in its methodological development. For example, participants came from a variety of backgrounds, interests and country of origin.

This research depends on autobiographical memory and draws upon long-term memory and interpretations of life events. Research on memory confirms the inaccuracy with regards to detail, but they are usually accurate about the general course of events (Ross & Buehler, 1994; Ross, 1997, Neisser, 1981; Linton, 1982; Wagenaar, 1986, as cited Chawla, 1998a). Events are remembered better when they are rare or unique or when they were repeated so often that the different episodes blend together into one generic representation. Research conditions influence the accuracy of recall. People tend to remember more events from childhood and young adulthood than from more recent middle age (Rubin et al., 1886, as cited in Chawla 1998a). When people are given prompts or cues their memories increase in number and detail. This research suggests why questionnaires, which prompt respondents with cues, yield higher response rates than entirely open-ended questions (Cohen, et al., 2004). Neisser, 1988, a cognitive psychologist, has focused on the verity of memory. He argued that this emphasis missed memory's most important function, that is, its utility. 'As we move through our live, what matters most to us are not precise details about the past, but how we interpret and use the past in meeting the challenges of the present and in anticipating the future.' (Chawla, 1998a). Since the early research on memory carried out by Bartlett, 1995 [1932], it has been evident that people's interest and anticipations shape their processes of remembering; In asking people to recall a story at successive points in time, Bartlett found that people quickly selected particular details for emphasis. In effect, they change the story into a form of their own, and once their memory had made this transformation, it showed general consistency over time (Chawla, 1998a).

Chawla, 1998a, summarized some of the strengths and weaknesses of SLE research:

Table 2.7 Strengths in SLE research


• Qualitative, in a field dominated by a quantitative paradigm

• Cumulitive, building on a coherent tradition

• Lifespan perspective

• Complementary open- and close-ended methodologies

• New interest in sample diversity

• New interest in cohort differenves

• New interest inlongitudinal designs

• Coherent results across deivwerse methods and populations


Chawla, 1998a

Table 2.8 Weaknesses in SLE research


• Inconsistent questions

• Inconsistent criterion measures (attitudes, interest, action, etc)

• Inconsistent categories of analaysis

• Lack of testing for intercoder reliability

• Lack of control of multiple mentions per respondent

• Little recognition of memory's interpretive function

• Lack of comparison groups


Chawla, 1998a


Repeat or improve Significant Life Experiences?

Although many SLE studies have been conducted in other countries, none has taken place in Malta. There is a linear relationship between education and environment in which education is seen as a potential determinant of human behaviour (Tanner, 1980; Palmer, 1998). Consequently, the idea of mapping back from observed behaviour to formative experiences, in order to promote desired ultimate environmental results, seems only sensible (Gough, S., 1999). On the other hand, Gough S. (1999) identified a number of possible objections. Gough A. (1999) argues that the young people of today, 'want to be different and are different' from older generations. Therefore, the application of SLEs of the older generations to today's youth may be a questionable activity. Gough A. (1999) is not critical of the methodology of SLE research but feels the need to rethink exactly whose life experiences are significant when reconsidering the experiences to be included in EE programmes.

Gough, N., (1999), evaluates the research on SLE by comparing the ways in which these studies use retrospective accounts of experience. The logic of SLE invites environmental educators to repeat rather than to improve upon their own histories and for this reason, education should strive to generate new possibilities for educational experiences rather than merely replicating the experiences of a previous generation. Gough, S., (1999), feels that SLE research with environmental educators is generating enthusiasm and motivation among teachers which may subsequently be transmitted to learners. This study seeks to understand and identify those significant experiences which enhance the preparation of students for environmental citizenship and action keeping in mind the arguments made by Gough A. (1999) that the young people of today and their experiences are different from older generations.