Essential Underpinnings of Environmental Education

The work of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education is guided by the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE)'s K-12 Environmental Education - Guidelines for Excellence, published in 2019 as part of the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education.  This project is committed to synthesizing the best thinking about environmental education through an extensive process of review and discussion involving hundreds of individuals and organizations representing all aspects of environmental education.   According to the NAAEE, "the goal of environmental education as a sustainable future for all where environmental and social responsibility drive individual, group, and institutional choices".  The NAAEE further describes eight core principles or essential underpinnings of environmental education:

1. Systems and Systems Thinking - Systems thinking helps make sense of a large and complex world. A system is made up of parts. Each part can be understood separately. The whole, however, is understood only by understanding the relationships and interactions among the parts.  Earth is a complex system of interacting physical, chemical, and biological processes.  Organizations, individual cells, communities or animals and plants, and families can all be understood as systems.  And systems can be nested within other systems. 

2. Human Well-being - Human well-being is inextricably bound with environmental quality.  Humans are a part of the natural order.  Humans, and the systems they create - societies, political systems, economies, religions, cultures, technologies - impact the total environment and are impacted by the environment.  Since humans are a part of nature rather than outside of it, they are challenged to recognize the ramifications of their interdependence with Earth systems.

3. Equity and Inclusion - Environmental education instruction is inclusive, respectful, and equitable, and designed to employ the talents of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. 

4. The Importance of Where One Lives - Beginning close to home, learners connect with, explore, and understand their immediate surroundings.  The sensitivity, knowledge, and skills needed for this local connection provides a base for moving into larger systems, broader issues, and an expanding understanding of causes, connections, and consequences.

5. Roots in the Real World - Learners develop knowledge and skills through direct experience with the environment, current environmental issues, and society.  Investigation, analysis, and problem solving are essential activities and are most effective when relevant to the real world.

6. Integration and Infusion - Disciplines from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities are connected through the environment and environmental issues.  Environmental education offers opportunities for integration and works best when infused across the curriculum, rather than being treated as a separate discipline or subject area.

7. Lifelong Learning - Critical and creative thinking, decision making, and communication, as well as collaborative learning, are emphasized.  These skills are essential for active and meaningful learning, both in school and over a lifetime.

8. Sustainability - Learning is future oriented, and focused on environmental, social, and economic responsibility as drivers of individual and institutional choices.  

“Schools should prepare us for the future, not the past. The future of the world will be built on sustainability. If we learn what sustainable technologies are available when we are in school, we will be able to help shape the future of global sustainability when we graduate.” 

- Quinn, student at Jasper Place high school in Edmonton