Do teachers have a responsibility to make their students ecologically aware?


Just spent the last day or so writing up my final assignment for uni (yay!!) so I thought I’d share it. The unit is called “The Universe Story: A New Perspective!” (yes, exclamation mark included) and is described as:
“This unit challenges students to explore current research findings and scholarly writing in areas related to the “new” cosmology.  The aim is to help students develop a framework in which to explore emerging ideas that are currently questioning certain fundamental assumptions of the modern world, in particular the “consumer approach” to life.  The unit’s content is organised into modules dealing with the initial development of life, the primeval fireball, the universe, chaos and order, interdependence and fragility, ecological issues, the sacred story of life and care for the earth”

However in actual fact, the unit consisted solely of the lecturer showing us videos on environmental issues (including nuclear energy, renewable energy, waste disposal, water levels) and then endless class discussion on why it is important, for four hours a week. So despite the fact that it was an education unit, and had a comprehensive unit reader, both were barely mentioned except as topic for assignments, such as this one. Overall I found the unit quite irritating, more so in the way it was taught than in the content itself (and because of a horrific group assignment, but that’s another story!), which may have shown in my final assignment on “Teachers have a clear responsibility to develop an ecological awareness in their students”. Have a read and respond, I welcome the feedback!

Environmental consciousness represents one of the most decisive factors in the sustainable development of a society. As educators of the future decision makers of such a society, teachers have a responsibility to their students to ensure they receive the most complete education possible regardless of learning area. It is imperative that the social and emotional needs of students are met along with their academic pursuits. However because of the veracity at which ecological and social issues have become a part of social and cultural expectations, it is no longer purely up to teacher to instil ecological and social responsibility in their students. There is only so much that a teacher can do in making their students aware of social and ecological issues; part of developing an awareness involves not just listening to new information, but finding ways to implement that information in to their own lives. Students are entitled to quality environmental and sustainability education that develops the capacity to live sustainably, however this education can be received outside of the school environment as well as within it. Because of the fact that ecological awareness has become a prevalent mainstay of social culture, the responsibility for establishing education on the matter lies not just at school with teachers, but at home and in the wider community. The responsibility for developing ecological awareness in students lies not just with their teachers, but also with their home, their family, their community and themselves.

As the primary source of learning in a student’s life, teachers are an important part in how students become aware of critical ecological issues. Teachers provide an educational stimulus for students to embrace their own learning and structure it in their own way. “To address today’s geopolitically entangled world of large, complex eco-issues, students simply have to know more than they did 40 years ago” (Weilbacher, 2009). The syllabus and content chosen by a teacher will have an impact on their students and on what they take away in terms of their ecological awareness.  “Students are graduating from our schools thinking that green is good. But we haven’t given them the tools they need to become environmentally literate citizens” (Weilbacher, 2009). Mike Weilbacher in Educational Leadership illustrates this with reference to his own experiences:

“…Students’ exposure to environmental education depends on the luck of the draw and the amalgam of the interests of whichever teachers they happen to have throughout their school career. In my daughters’ school, there were two 5th grade teachers, one contagiously obsessed with birds and bird watching and the other in love with Broadway musicals. One class went on an all-day birding trip; the other performed a play for the entire school. Both are equally interesting and important activities, but why didn’t the two cross-pollinate and give all 5th graders equal access to both? My daughters caught the birding bug, but one-half of the 5th grade never saw a nesting piping plover” (Weilbacher, 2009).

Teachers are an important part of establishing ecological awareness in students through their own pedagogical choices; however they do not carry the sole responsibility for doing so.

The role of parents and guardians in shaping the lives of their children is an important one because they are the predominant role models in a child’s life. Parents have proven to be one of the most significant influences in the development of environmental interest. For students to retain the knowledge they learn from their teachers, they need to see that ecologically responsible behaviour modelled at home and in their local community. “It is adults who must first accept the responsibility for setting in train the changes that are needed for us to move to ecological and social sustainability” (Davis, 1998). As the initial and primary role models for students outside of school, parents and other members of the community have a responsibility in enhancing the environmental and ecological awareness of students through modelling their own interests in the environment and in their own behaviours. Davis (1998) also says: “Children are already being colonised by exploitative ideas and practices towards each other and the environment. Children are already learning to be avid consumers, to value the trivial, to be instantly gratified and entertained by their toys, computers and parents.” In a secondary context, students will certainly bring their own views and opinions to any discussion about environmental issues, shaped largely by their own experiences at home and with their parents, often mirroring their own parents’ views. The Islandwood Outdoor Learning Centre in Seattle, Washington places a high value on parental influence in environmental education, stating that:

“Parents can play a key role in introducing their children to the outdoors at an early age to help develop a deeper comfort level in nature, clearing their children’s minds of negative associations in order to foster the appreciation that environmental education hopes to create.  Not only do parents influence environmental interest at home, but students are often the ones to change their family’s attitudes after an environmental education experience” (Parents in Environmental Education, 2013).

Parents therefor have a significant responsibility in shaping the ecological awareness of their own children from an early age, instead of leaving the bulk of the process to their school teachers.

Environmental education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action (Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education, 1977). Because students have an increasing dependence on technology and social media, using it to learn outside of school, they themselves must take some of the responsibility for educating themselves and maintaining their ecological awareness. Students are able to expand upon what they learn in school and at home from their teachers and parents and explore areas of particular interest to themselves, giving themselves a more specialised understanding of a topic that they themselves make relevant to their own understandings. In particular in secondary education, where students have their own social networks and use technology on a daily basis, students have the tools at their disposal to further their own education and pursue areas of particular interest to themselves using their school education as a stimulus. Students are capable of guiding their own learning in particular with the technological resources they have at hand, and the increasing pressures to be socially and environmentally responsible in the eyes of their peers within a flourishing ecologically-friendly community. Teachers have a responsibility to ensure their students gain some understanding of ecological issues, a basis from with to start further study; however in an increasingly technological and socially dependent society, the burden of responsibility is more diluted to include students themselves.

Environmental education, with its major goals of ecological sustainability and social justice within and between generations, is of paramount importance. “Today’s children are the global citizens of tomorrow. They influence their families and shape their attitudes, and thereby society. So, children during their formative years, when they are most receptive to messages and information, need to be educated about the environment and the long-term impact of our present actions” (Stohr, 2013).  The responsibility for developing ecological awareness in students lies not just with their teachers, but also with their home, their family, their community and themselves. Ultimately, it is children, with the biggest stake in the future, who will bear the consequences of economic, social and environmental decisions and actions that are currently being made or avoided (Davis, 1998). As teachers we are given the responsibility of ensuring these children are given the best possible chance to uphold a strong value in the environment while extending upon the knowledge and understanding they gain at home and in their own social consciousness. As Stohr states: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught” (Stohr, 2013).


Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education. (1977). UNESCO. Tbilisi.

Parents in Environmental Education. (2013). Retrieved November 9, 2013, from Islandwood:

Davis, J. (1998). Young Children, Environmental Education and the Future. In N. Graves (Ed.), Education and the Environment (pp. 141-153). London: World Education Fellowship.

Stohr, W. (2013). Coloring a Green Generation: The Law and Policy of Nationally-Mandated Environmental Education and Social Value Formation at the Primary and Secondary Academic Levels. The Journal of Law and Education, 42(1), 1-110.

Weilbacher, M. (2009). The Window Into Green. Educational Leadership, 66(8), 38-44.


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