Environmental Education

Environmental Education

by Michael Benedict

Seventh graders Laura, Kathy, Amy and Valerie are concentrating on making connections that may one day help preserve our planet.

They are building a model solar panel, joining the wires that run through a plate of 12 cells arranged in four rows, three across.

When all the wires are attached, Laura slides the protective glass covering into place, puts the panel under a light and measures the voltage.

The meter reads 6.5 volts.

“Let’s try it under the sun,” suggests Amy.

The four students are part of two Grade 7 science and geography classes spending the morning at a hands-on workshop offered by the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative (TREC), a non-profit group dedicated to promoting renewable energy and energy conservation. More than 4,000 Grade 5, 7 and 9 students participated in TREC’s schools’ program this year, but there will surely be many more in the 2009–10 school year, sparked by a recent revolutionary change in the Ontario curriculum.

Unveiled in February, the Ministry of Education’s new policy framework for environmental education is radical, ambitious and transformative. It calls for environmental education all day, every day, everywhere. According to the policy document, Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow, the Ministry will “embed environmental education expectations and opportunities in all grades and in all subjects of the Ontario curriculum.”

No other Canadian jurisdiction has moved so far down the environmental education path, and Ministry officials are unaware of any similar initiative in the United States.

In announcing the seismic shift that places environmental education on a par with the curriculum’s commitment to numeracy and literacy, Education Minister Kathleen Wynne set out the new policy’s formidable objective. “Our goal is to have all students become environmentally responsible citizens by the time they graduate high school,” Wynne told some 500 educators attending a two-day environmental education symposium on February 25 and 26.

But the new emphasis involves much more than educating young people about the state and causes of our fragile environment. “The policy framework seeks to move beyond a focus on symptoms – air and water pollution, for example – to encompass the underlying causes of environmental stresses, which are rooted in personal and social values and in organizational structures,” says Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow.

Not only that, the policy sets out to transform society from consumer to sustainable values. “It seeks to promote changes in personal behaviour and organizational practices that will allow us to minimize our ecological footprint, while also fostering greater community engagement in meeting that goal.”

Clearly, environmental education has moved beyond hugging trees, turning off the lights and recycling the trash. According to the Ministry policy document, it is “education about the environment, for the environment and in the environment.” Environmental education should promote an appreciation for the dynamic interactions of, among other things, “the dependency of our social and economic systems on these natural systems” and “the positive and negative consequences … of the interactions between human-created and natural systems.”

“It goes beyond saving nature to ensuring that the appropriate levels of development take place around the world.”

In short, sustainability has replaced nature studies. “Sustainability stresses the interconnectedness and breadth of environmental education,” says Kim Wallace, a co-chair of the Halton DSB environmental management team and a presenter at one of the symposium’s more than 70 workshops. “Sustainability embeds environmental education into learning. It goes beyond saving nature to ensuring that the appropriate levels of development take place around the world.”

Environmentalists attending the symposium enthusiastically welcomed the new direction. “This has been a long time coming,” says Tim Grant, a former high school teacher and now co-editor of Green Teacher, a Toronto-based quarterly magazine with nearly half its readers in the United States. “It’s taken years of effort to get the Ministry to bring environmental education from the margins to the mainstream.”

Grant credits the Ministry of Education for “taking considerable care” and consulting widely before announcing the new policy. “I think they got it right,” he says.

“This is a Ministry listening,” agrees Elise Houghton, the chair of Environmental Education Ontario, a lobby group that came into existence in 2000 when environmental education was dropped from the curriculum. “This is a breakthrough for Ontario; this is a breakthrough for the kids.”

For teachers, the impact will be felt from training to instruction. Speaking to the symposium’s opening session, Grant Clarke, an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry’s strategic planning and elementary/secondary programs division, promised guidance and support as required. “We will focus on teacher capacity,” he said. “It’s critical that you have the right tools and confidence to do your job in this area.”

Specifically, the Ministry promises lots of backup as teachers move from teaching English and math as stand-alone subjects to integrating an environmental twist into their course materials. “In math, a teacher can use problems related to environmental issues such as water flow or pollution measurement,” explains Clarke in an interview. “And in English, one does not have to look far to find stories and poems with environmental themes.”

Clarke says teachers can find more developed approaches in two Ministry documents, Environmental Education: Scope and Sequence of Expectations for Grades 1–8 and for Grades 9–12. These guides, to be updated annually, suggest ways in which environmental education can be introduced into all subject areas.


TREC school programs co-ordinator Erin Woods teaches Grade 5/6 students from Earl Beatty Junior and Senior PS to build KidWind turbines.

Ready, Set, Green! (PDF), a 2007 teacher’s guide that proposes practical tools and strategies for environmental studies, is to be updated in time for this fall’s start of the new policy. The current 63-page version documents some of the imaginative approaches to environmental education adopted by schools and boards across the province.

Take Enviroworks, a new business owned by the Limestone DSB and operated by Kingston-area students that sells used building materials gathered from contractors and landfills. The goal is to divert construction waste while teaching business skills.

Or the Community Environmental Leadership Program in the Guelph area. For one semester, Grade 10 and 12 students, study in a community-based, off-school setting. They take four accredited courses, but the environment is a central theme throughout. Depending on the time of year, the students experience a five-night canoe trip or a winter camp. (For more on current school-based initiatives, see Making It Cool to Care.)

The recently released new science curriculum introduces two Grade 11 courses in environmental sciences, one for students preparing for university or college, another for students preparing for the workplace. Among the course topics are the impact of the environment on human health, the role of science in addressing environmental challenges and issues involved in sustainable agriculture and forestry. Relatedly, boards can apply to offer environment-oriented Specialist High Skills Majors.

Meanwhile, Clarke says the Ministry is working with various stakeholders such as the Ontario Teachers’ Federation and environmental groups to offer environmental education training in summer institutes as early as this summer. As well, faculties of education will be encouraged to address environmental education in their pre-service curriculum.

Another one of those stakeholders is the College. The Ministry promises to collaborate with it in two ways: to ensure that environmental education is reflected in the College’s Additional Qualifications guidelines and to ensure that an Additional Qualification course supports environmental education.

“I expect that we will add an AQ course in how to integrate environmental education into the curriculum,” says Margaret Aubé, the College’s Teachers’ Qualifications Regulation project leader. “And when we look at accrediting future AQ courses, we will want to make sure they reflect the new environmental education guidelines.”

Teachers and students are not the only change agents envisaged by Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow. Both will be expected to work with their communities to promote sustainability. The same expectation is placed on schools and their boards. Indeed, one of the policy’s goals is to implement and promote “responsible environmental practices throughout the education system so that staff, parents, community members and students become dedicated to living more sustainably.”


Grade 7 students from Windfields Junior High School tour TREC’s model sustainable condo.

Here, as in the classroom, there will be flexibility in the nature of the program as well as its timing. “School boards,” says the policy document “will be expected to revise or develop environmental education policies, in collaboration with their community partners, that reflect their local circumstances.” In other words, “Environmental education must address the particular needs of students as they relate to cultural background, language, gender, ability and other aspects of diversity.”

Specifically, schools are being asked to “create opportunities for students to address environmental issues in their homes, in their local communities or at the global level.” Many have already seized the opportunity to qualify as an EcoSchool. The independent Ontario EcoSchools is a not-for-profit organization that certifies schools as bronze, silver or gold, depending on how well they meet criteria in energy conservation, waste minimization, ecological literacy and school-ground greening. In the 2007–08 school year, the number of Ontario EcoSchools more than doubled to 540.

The school board’s obligation is even broader. According to the policy document, school boards will be expected to:

  • maintain an environmental education policy that promotes environmentally responsible management practices
  • establish a system-wide environmental education and management committee
  • embed environmental education as a priority in its strategic plan
  • integrate sustainable environmental practices in all operational services
  • maintain an annual environmental action plan
  • recognize environmental leadership in all employment categories
  • integrate in-service opportunities related to environmental education into staff development for all employees.

Meanwhile, Joanna Slezak, the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative’s education co-ordinator, has ambitions of her own. Based at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds (CNE), her school workshops began two years ago by targeting Grade 5s with a wind-energy demonstration featuring a tour of the CNE’s wind turbine, the only one in Toronto. This year, the solar panel exercise was added for Grade 7 and 9 students, a supplement to environmental units in their science and geography curricula.

“It will be a chance to bring in students from other subject areas and teach more people about sustainability.”

Slezak, who initiated the tour program on her own time, is “very excited” about the new, all-courses, all-grades environmental education policy. “It will be a chance to bring in students from other subject areas and teach more people about sustainability,” she says.

Windfields’ Grade 7 science teacher Stacey Taylor, who organized today’s visit, also endorses a more integrated approach to environmental studies, no matter what the subject material. “It can be done,” says Taylor, who also teaches math. “There’s so much information out there. In math, you can measure energy efficiency. In English, you can look at advertising and its relation to the environment. Or even posters for art.”

If Taylor’s colleagues share her enthusiasm, such openness to change is likely to make the new policy a winner. Her students are certainly on track. “Making the solar panel was really cool,” says Laura. Adds Amy: “It was great to make it – and experience it. I got to understand the connections more.”

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