Toward an ecology of environmental education and learning


  • Corresponding Editor: C. D'Avanzo.


Environmental education traditionally has focused on changing individual knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. Concern about environmental education's lack of effectiveness in instilling an understanding of human's role within ecosystems has led us to an exploration of the relationship of learning and education to the larger social-ecological systems in which they are embedded. We draw from socio-cultural learning theory and from frameworks developed by long-term ecological research, hierarchy theory, and social-ecological systems resilience to suggest an “ecology of learning” and an “ecology of environmental education.” In so doing, we hope to open up new research and practices that consider possibilities for environmental education to act in consort with other initiatives, such as local stewardship efforts, to foster social capital, ecosystem services, and other attributes of resilient social-ecological systems.


Reflecting on the first 17 years of the National Environmental Education Act (NEEA), Ginger Potter of EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection and Environmental Education writes: “The NEEA was not written to accomplish systemic change; it was written to introduce thousands (10 people in a canoe at a time) to environmental issues in their communities and, hopefully, to engender a desire to protect and a willingness to act to preserve our country's natural resources. In that way, it has succeeded; more individuals know something about the environmental issues in their communities, nationally and globally.” Nevertheless, according to Potter, the public's environmental awareness has not been accompanied by a commensurate understanding and ability to solve problems. “The public wants environmental protection, but they simply expect the federal government to provide that protection by going after business and industry's big environmental polluters. In that sense, the legislation has failed. The message of personal responsibility, involvement and action, exhibiting stewardship behaviors, and ownership of the major sources of pollution (nonpoint source) in this country today has not been widely received and understood” (Potter 2010, p. 25). This is in spite of a significant evolution in environmental education pedagogies (Hungerford 2010) accompanied by the development of guidelines for environmental literacy (Simmons 2004), which—similar to guidelines for ecological literacy (Berkowitz et al. 2005, Jordan et al. 2009)—go beyond factual knowledge, and incorporate understandings of ecological processes, scientific reasoning, and the relationship of individual actions to the larger ecosystem.

Several researchers and policy makers have questioned the emphasis on changes in individual understandings and behaviors that has dominated environmental education practice and research, and have proposed as an alternative directly examining the impacts of environmental education on environmental quality (Potter 2010). For example, Short (2007) proposed a general measure to assess the impacts of environmental education programs on habitat and other aspects of environmental quality, and Duffin et al. (2008) examined the effectiveness of air quality education programs on reducing air pollutants. Although some scholars have expressed concern about the potential instrumental use of environmental education at the expense of outcomes that foster youth development and learning (Jickling and Spork 1998), others have demonstrated that instrumental and intrinsic or emancipatory outcomes are not necessarily contradictory and both can be achieved within an environmental education program (Wals et al. 2008, Schusler and Krasny 2010, Sterling 2010).

Whereas a consideration of environmental quality outcomes offers an intriguing alternative to a long-standing focus on behavioral and knowledge outcomes (UNESCO 1975, 1977), it risks succumbing to the trap of linear thinking (e.g., environmental education will directly lead to a change in water quality) while ignoring more recent scholarship on integrated social-ecological and complex systems. For example, Wimberley (2009) has proposed that environmental education consider four levels of nested ecologies, starting with a personal ecology that includes our relationships with material goods, people, and other life, and which is progressively nested in a social, environmental, and finally a cosmic ecology. According to Wimberley (2009), rather than taking as a starting point the natural environment, educators should begin with an exploration of how lifestyle habits contribute to an individual's overall health and well-being, and then move into the realm of community relationships prior to addressing our place in the environment. This work is perhaps most significant in helping us to envision how humans are nested in, rather than apart from, larger social and environmental systems. Whereas Wimberley (2009) critiques current forms of environmental education as prescriptive and focusing on changing behaviors without regard to human and community needs, he does not address specific pedagogical approaches or environmental education programs that are consistent with his nested ecologies worldview.

In this paper, we build on previous work on systems thinking as a component of ecological literacy (Jordan et al. 2009, Center for Ecoliteracy 2010), as well as calls for environmental education to look beyond a focus on changing individual behaviors, to suggest conceptual models for environmental education and learning that place the behaviors and interactions of individuals within a larger system (Krasny and Tidball 2009a, Wimberley 2009, Tidball and Krasny 2010). We draw from the social-ecological systems literature, and attempt to integrate environmental education into conceptual models describing hierarchical ecology, feedbacks, and resilience (Grimm et al. 2000, Walker et al. 2006, Liu et al. 2007, LTER 2007). Further, we draw on socio-cultural learning theories (Wenger 1998, Engeström 1999, Bouillion and Gomez 2001, Hogan 2002) to propose that not only environmental education but also environmental learning among individuals participating in an educational program can be viewed from an ecological perspective. We consider learning systems composed of individuals interacting with each other and with their biophysical environment as embedded in the larger system of an environmental education program, which in turn interacts with natural resources management practices, environmental policies, and other elements of a local social-ecological system. By exploring these two ecologies—the “ecology of learning” and the “ecology of environmental education”—we hope to suggest educational practices that help learners view themselves as part of nature, and that have the potential to contribute as one component of a larger system of practices and policies that positively impact community and environmental well-being.

In a Nutshell

  • Throughout the past 35 years, much of environmental education has focused on how humans negatively impact their environment, and has implied that humans are separate from rather than part of nature and ecosystem processes.

  • Nested ecology and social-ecological system resilience are two conceptual frameworks that view humans as integral components of the ecosystem.

  • Ecological theories of learning help to link learning at the individual level with changes at the community and ecosystem level. Integrated social-ecological systems frameworks provide a lens through which to examine environmental education as part of a larger system. Ecological perspectives on learning and education focus on transformations at different levels.

  • An “ecology of environmental education” examines environmental education in relation to dynamic processes of growth, decline, and reorganization, nested systems, and feedbacks. It suggests new lines of research, as well as educational practices that help learners view themselves as part of an integrated social-ecological system and that may directly contribute to resource management practices and policies (Table 1).

    Table 1. Key concepts and explanations.Thumbnail image of

Ecological Theories of Learning

Before turning to a discussion of how environmental education might be viewed as playing a role in larger social and ecological systems, we first explore learning as an interactive process. We view learning as having parallels to Wimberley's personal ecology, which entails interactions of individuals with the human and non-human components of the system surrounding them. Personal ecologies are in turn nested within a larger social ecology, consisting of the interactions of individuals within human communities. Social ecologies are then nested within environmental ecologies, which include the non-human components of the system. In addition, there are interactions that cut across these ecologies, a concept that is explored in Gunderson and Holling's (2002) notion of panarchy.

Whereas both environmental and ecological education scholars have assumed cognitive views of learning that focus on how students acquire certain types of knowledge or habits of mind (Simmons 2004, Berkowitz et al. 2005, Jordan et al. 2009), another group of learning theorists has focused less on the process of acquisition of a body of knowledge, and more on the interactions of the learner with the social and biophysical elements of his or her environment (Sfard 1998, Illeris 2007, Alexander et al. 2009). Prominent among learning scholars who adhere to interactive learning theories is Etienne Wenger, who describes learning as changing levels of participation in authentic “communities of practice” (Wenger 2003). For example, learning occurs when a person interested in urban community forestry moves from being an observer of others planting trees (urban forestry community of practice), to a peripheral participant (someone who participates but has not yet mastered the practice), to a full participant able to plant and care for trees (cf. Rogoff et al. 2003). One can imagine any number of environmental education programs that encompass similar conservation activities, often in collaboration with a community of more experienced practitioners, and that thus provide opportunities for environmental learning defined as increasingly more skilled participation in stewardship practice. For example, Chicago Wilderness is a long-standing urban restoration initiative that includes opportunities for students to collect and plant native seeds with experienced adults 〈〉, and Garden Mosaics provides opportunities for youth to work alongside and learn from adult community gardeners 〈〉.

Several scholars suggest that learning is more complex than novices becoming proficient members in an ongoing community of practice, and have instead explored two-way and multiple interactions within a learning system. For example, Alexander and colleagues (2009) use the metaphor of a stream and its surrounding landscape changing over time to describe the interaction of the learner and his or her environment. Referring to learning as change and as interactional, Alexander et al. (2009, p. 178) state, “change is invariably systemic. In effect, just as a river sculpts aspects of the landscape, even as aspects of the landscape shape the river, change that happens in the learner, be it dramatic or imperceptible, or immediate or gradual, exerts a reciprocal effect on the learner's surroundings.” An ecological view of learning further describes the nature of interactions that occur in learning. It suggests that the learner has access to a suite of facts, concepts, tools, practices, and people distributed across time and space that provide the context for, or “afford” learning, and which are referred to as affordances or affordance networks (Greeno 1998, Barab and Roth 2006, Chawla 2008). Examples of affordances that provide the context for ecological and environmental learning include such activities as habitat restoration, community forestry, creating green roofs, and other civic ecology practices (Krasny and Tidball 2009a, b, Krasny and Tidball 2010). In order to realize learning from these affordances, an individual must produce certain behaviors. These behaviors are referred to as the individual's effectivity set, and may in turn generate new affordances (Barab and Roth 2006). For example, participants in an urban forestry program plant trees, which in turn attract birds and squirrels as well as people who linger in the shade; together the animals, people, trees, and their interactions, which result from interactions of the participants with each other and with the trees, constitute a new affordance network. Similar interactive notions of learning are described in the ecosystems management literature; for example Pahl-Wostl (2006) states that social learning within the context of resource management “assumes an iterative feedback between learners and their environment, i.e., the learner is changing the environment, and these changes are affecting the learner.”

Similarly, activity theory focuses attention on the transformations of individuals and their social and biophysical environment, which result from humans not merely reacting but also acting to change the conditions that mediate their activities (Engeström 2001, Boyer and Roth 2006, Krasny and Roth 2010). Activity theory suggests that learning emerges through interactions among six elements of an activity system: the subjects (participants), objects (e.g., garden or other ecosystem that is the focus of practice), community (participants and the wider community impacted by their work), tools (e.g., seeds), rules (e.g., allowing removal of invasive species but not of native species), and division of labor (roles of participants and other community members) (Engeström 1987). Similar to ecological systems, the activity systems that afford learning opportunities have boundaries, which limit the interactions between the learner and other elements of the system. These boundaries may expand, as when learners are faced with a dilemma and respond by reflection and creating innovative means of solving the problematic situation, which in turn lead to new ways of interacting with the social and bio-physical environment (Engeström 1987, Engeström et al. 1999). For example, youth and adults engaged in urban community forestry may at first operate within a bounded “tree planting system.” However, through repeated tree planting and increasing awareness of the harsh physical environment and neighborhood vandalism impacting their trees, they may be faced with doubts about the efficacy of their efforts. In response to this resource dilemma (cf. Blackmore 2007), the youth and adults may seek out more effective methods of tree planting, devise means to involve local residents in the planting efforts, and continue to monitor their efforts. Eventually, such resource dilemmas, small innovations in tree planting, and monitoring of results may further lead to critical reflection that results in an expanded activity system; in this case, the activity system focused on urban tree planting transforms into a new activity system focused on influencing policy makers to support urban community forestry (Fig. 1). Thus, similar to components of ecosystems, various components of an activity system, as well as activity systems themselves, interact and may be nested in larger systems.

Figure 1.

Expansive learning cycle in learning situated in urban community forestry practice. Expansive learning cycle occurs as result of cumulative, iterative, smaller cycles that produce innovations to address dilemmas. (Conceptual scheme adapted from Engeström 1987, Barab and Roth 2006, Chawla 2008.) LC = learning cycle; D = dilemma; O = outcomes; F = feedback. LC-1a-1c. Tree planting activity provides context for learning, and interacts with participants' ability to plant trees. As a result of each challenge faced or dilemma, small innovations are added to the learning cycle, resulting in slightly different outcomes. O1a. Trees are planted according to instructions and participants learn to plant trees according to protocols. D1a. Participants observe that newly planted trees are dying. O1b. Participants plant new species of trees and learn about new planting protocols. D1b. Participants observe that people in the neighborhood are vandalizing newly planted trees. O1c. Community members invited to join in tree planting. Participants learn about collective action. D1c. Participants realize that government policies are unfavorable to community forestry. Expanded LC. A new, expanded learning cycle focused on advocacy for government support of community forestry emerges as a result of the accumulation of small innovations and reflection. O2. New governance structure supporting urban community forestry implemented. Participants learn about policy process. F. New governance structure creates more opportunities for tree planting.

In short, interactive and ecological views of learning define learning as successful participation and increasing possibilities for action in a social-ecological system (Barab and Roth 2006). They refer to learning systems comprised of individuals interacting with each other and with elements of the biological and physical environment. Through these interactions, the individual, broader community of individuals with whom he or she interacts, and the biological and physical environment are transformed. Our discussion of interactive processes in learning is not intended to infer that other kinds of learning, e.g., acquisition of content knowledge, are unimportant but rather to introduce a perspective that is consistent with ecological thinking at other levels and that may be less familiar to our readers. (For a critical discussion comparing interactive and acquistional or cognitive learning theories, see Sfard (1998) and Paavola et al. (2004).)

Ecosystems Perspectives on Environmental Education

Building on the ecological view of learning described in the previous section, we can now define environmental education as a program or set of activities in which participants interact with the social, biological, and physical environment surrounding them, generally under a set of rules and the guidance of more experienced individuals. Such programs have as their goal not only to change individual behaviors but also to contribute to both social and ecological processes that foster social-ecological system well-being. They take place at sites such as community centers, nature preserves, community gardens, parks, urban riparian or coastal areas, city streets lined with trees, and schools that offer a field experience.

Any number of ecological frameworks might be used to understand the interactions between environmental education programs and other elements of a social-ecological system. For example, we have applied an ecosystems framework developed by scientists engaged in long-term ecological research (Grimm et al. 2000, LTER 2007) to propose a research agenda focusing on feedbacks among external system drivers, civic ecology practices (i.e., community-based stewardship practices linking social and ecological outcomes), environmental education programs, ecosystem services, and human outcomes (Tidball and Krasny 2010). In this framework, environmental educational programs that engage participants in civic ecology practices (Tidball and Krasny 2010) serve as a driver leading to changes in ecological and social system functioning and ecosystem services. This in turn creates opportunities for transforming humans' understandings and behaviors, and for engagement in the resource policy process. An example of this type of feedback among an educational program, natural resource management practice, and natural areas policy comes from Cornell University, where student participation in clean-ups, tree planting, and trail improvements in the gorges surrounding campus led to engagement in university- and city-wide discussions of gorge safety and access policy (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Conceptual Framework for Civic Ecology Education: Friends of the Gorge Student Organization. (Adapted from the Integrated Science for Society and the Environment Framework (LTER 2007); reprinted with permission from Tidball and Krasny (2010).) A. Concerns about dumping in gorges, student drownings and suicides, and University response (fencing and cutting off access to gorge trail) prompt formation of Friends of the Gorge student organization. Activities include gorge clean ups, trail improvements, meetings with campus administrators, and hikes. B. Improvements to gorge trails and habitat. C. Enhancement of ecosystem services provided by gorge, including erosion regulation and more rewarding recreational opportunities. D. Recreational activities foster social capital, understanding of gorge social-ecological system and related management issues, sense of place, and further stewardship and recreational behaviors. Although not shown in the figure, some of these human outcomes may be a direct result of the stewardship and recreational activities referred to as pulses. E. Students become involved in discussions of campus gorge policy issues. F. New policies regarding safety considered by University. Policies regarding stricter enforcement of dumping regulations implemented.

Another perspective on the ecology of environmental education is offered by hierarchy theory (Norton 1990), which examines how faster processes in smaller scale systems are constrained by, yet in the aggregate have the potential to overwhelm, slower processes in the larger scale systems in which they are nested. Applied to environmental education, hierarchy theory might suggest that we need to focus on a cohort of environmental education programs working in consort in order to change the larger environmental management system in which they are embedded (cf. Gunderson and Holling 2002, Wimberley 2009). Further, environmental education programs that include ecological data collection (e.g., citizen science) can address the critical need to monitor environmental trends in component and larger systems, which are used to determine which management actions are destabilizing overall ecosystem health (cf. Norton 1990, Dickinson and Bonney 2011).

We have found the work of Folke and other social-ecological system resilience scholars, which, similar to long-term ecological research and hierarchy theory, reconnects social and ecological processes particularly insightful in trying to elucidate an ecology of environmental education (Gunderson et al. 2002, Folke 2006, Krasny et al. 2010b, Resilience Alliance 2010). Much of current day resilience thinking can be traced back to Holling's seminal work on adaptive cycles in forest ecosystems that explains how ecological systems collapse and rebound in response to disturbance over varying temporal and spatial scales (Holling 1973). Resilience in the context of social-ecological systems refers to two separate but related processes: (1) the amount of change a system can undergo and still maintain its structure, identity, and feedbacks (Walker et al. 2004), and (2) the ability of the system that has crossed a threshold into a less desirable state to rebuild (Folke 2006, Gallopin 2006). An example of the first type of resilience, which emphasizes adaptation or adaptive capacity, would be an urban community that maintains civic organizations, low levels of crime, and green space in the face of a freeway being built through its core. The second type of resilience, which focuses on transformations or transformative capacity, is illustrated where a neighborhood in which a freeway has disrupted normal social and ecological processes resulting in high levels of crime and large areas of vacant land, is able to rebuild civic activity through restoration of green space (e.g., community gardening, urban agriculture, community forestry), which provide valued ecosystem services (cf. Tidball et al. 2010). Systems that are able to sustain important functions in the face of human-caused or other disturbances, and that are able to rebuild following threshold changes, are characterized by a number of attributes. These include: cultural and response diversity (Elmqvist et al. 2003, Turner et al. 2003) so that multiple forms of knowledge and perspectives are brought to bear in addressing resource management problems; self-organization or participation; capacity for ongoing learning in response to a constantly changing environment; ecological variability allowing functional groups to be sustained in cases where individual species are lost; ecosystem services; social capital, including social connections, involvement in community groups, and trust that enables stakeholders to work collaboratively; innovation in finding solutions to environmental problems; overlap in governance offering alternatives to top-down, often rigid forms of government (e.g., through participation of NGOs); and tight feedbacks of information so that management practices can be adjusted (Dietz et al. 2003, Walker and Salt 2006).

In our own work, we seek to understand how environmental education programs might foster these attributes and thus contribute to overall social-ecological system resilience (Krasny and Tidball 2009a) (Fig. 3). More specifically, we have focused on civic ecology education, or environmental education programs in which youth learn through participating in and reflecting on community gardening, community forestry, watershed restoration, and other civic ecology practices that result in measurable outcomes for the local community and ecosystem concurrently (Tidball and Krasny 2007, Krasny and Tidball 2009b). Ongoing research in the South Bronx has demonstrated that urban environmental education programs that contribute to civic ecology practices (e.g., oyster reef restoration, creating green roofs) can result in increases in some components of social capital among participants, including introducing youth to a more diverse set of friends and increasing their informal interactions with other youth and adults (Krasny et al. 2010a). Further, results suggest that such educational programs may result in youth attributing more nature-based meanings to their urban environment (Kudryavtsev et al. 2010). Currently, our Civic Ecology Lab is working with urban educators and youth to develop means to measure changes in ecosystem services as a result of civic ecology education programs (Kudryavtsev, unpublished report).

Figure 3.

Civic Ecology Education fosters resilience attributes. Civic ecology practices, such as community gardening, community forestry, and watershed restoration, foster multiple attributes of resilient social-ecological systems, including providing opportunities for sharing diverse perspectives and restoring biological diversity, allowing for self-organization or community-based management, providing opportunities for learning, providing ecosystem services, and fostering social interactions and other aspects of social capital (cf. Folke et al. 2002, Walker and Salt 2006). Civic ecology practices also provide a setting for educational programs. Educational programs situated in civic ecology practices engage youth in community gardening and other civic ecology practices, and thus further foster the resilience attributes characterizing desirable social-ecological systems (Krasny and Tidball 2009a).

In addition to fostering changes among participants and local ecosystems, civic ecology practices and related environmental education programs may contribute to resilience attributes related to multiple forms of governance and to bringing diverse perspectives to bear on environmental problems. Importantly, given that many civic ecology practices are the result of actions taken by urban minorities and immigrants who may not otherwise be engaged in natural resource management, they represent a means for broadening the scope of discussions about effective practices and of the parties involved in environmental governance. Because such practices often entail partnerships among community, non-profit, and government actors, they may serve as “bridging organizations” that integrate varying perspectives and knowledge in resource management (Olsson et al. 2007).

However, given that processes in larger systems can be resistant to change, one cannot expect that environmental education programs acting alone will enable a system to adapt to ongoing stresses or to rebuild following a major disturbance. Virtuous and vicious cycles or feedback loops are foundational to social-ecological systems resilience thinking (Gallopin 2002, Powell et al. 2002, Matthews and Selman 2006, Selman 2006). They represent interactions that are typically self-sustaining and reinforce one another. According to Varis (1999, p. 599), if their direction of influence is negative, they are considered vicious cycles, and if their direction is positive, they are known as virtuous cycles. These virtuous and vicious cycles provide a means to visualize how environmental education might interact with other processes to help transform a social-ecological system (Fig. 4). For example, some urban systems may be characterized as experiencing vicious cycles of poverty leading to crime and environmental degradation, which in turn foreclose economic development opportunities (also referred to as poverty or lock-in traps, cf. Allison and Hobbs 2004). However, it is within these same impoverished neighborhoods that community members sometimes “self-organize” to restore trash- and crime-ridden vacant lots, transforming them into community gardens and pocket parks, which become sites that foster social capital and provide ecosystem services (Bolund and Hunhammar 1999, Barthel et al. 2005). Such civic ecology practices may be one factor that helps to “flip” these systems from a vicious cycle of urban decay to a more virtuous cycle of urban rebirth.

Figure 4.

Civic Ecology Education as part of vicious and virtuous cycles.

A traditional approach to environmental education might expose youth living in neighborhoods characterized by crime and lack of green space to “nature,” for example by taking a field trip to a city park or a camping trip to a wilderness setting. An ecological approach to environmental education suggests seeking out examples of stewardship and green space that are emerging within the “vicious cycle” neighborhood, and situating environmental education within these small-scale community-based stewardship practices. In this way, environmental education, rather than acting in isolation, helps to reinforce ongoing, self-organized efforts that are already moving a system from vicious to virtuous cycles.

In the parlance of resilience scholars, vicious cycles (Gallopin 2002) represent one stable state within a landscape (cf. Beisner et al. 2003). Any one landscape might also contain other possible stable states, such as virtuous cycles of people stewarding green space, which thus provides greater access to nature and contributes to community and ecosystem well-being (Tidball 2008). Depicted graphically, a vicious cycle can be imagined as a ball that is constantly swirling around one basin within a landscape, and our goal is to move that ball to a different basin that represents a virtuous cycle (Fig. 5). To move the ball to a different basin requires either moving the ball itself through making changes within the basin (e.g., increasing the magnitude of the stewardship activities) or by changing features of the landscape (see Scheffer et al. 2001, Walker et al. 2004 for a more thorough description of stability landscapes and basins of attraction). For example, one can envision a “ridge” or bifurcation zone, separating the two basins, and that by reducing the height of the ridge it becomes easier to move the ball from the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle basin. In this metaphorical model, the ridge could represent legal or policy barriers, unfavorable public opinion, competition for scarce resources, and so on. Altering the ridge might require an influx of resources from outside the vicious cycle, such as an influx of outside money or change in government policy (Fig. 6). When viewed from this perspective, it becomes increasingly more difficult to envision environmental education acting in isolation as playing a role in overcoming the bifurcation zone that separates the vicious from the virtuous cycle basin. Hence, the importance of an ecological view that attempts to ascertain how environmental education can work in consort with other initiatives attempting to change resistant feedbacks. These initiatives can come from within the community in which education is embedded, such as locally-organized civic ecology practices, or external to the community, such as changes in educational or resource management policy.

Figure 5.

Virtuous and vicious cycles, basins of attraction, and bifurcation zone (Walker and Salt 2006).

Figure 6.

Can environmental education play a role in adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems?

In summary, since the mid-1990s, ecosystem thinking has broadened to incorporate humans not just as outside disturbances but as integrated within other biological and physical processes and structures (McDonnell and Pickett 1993, Pickett and McDonnell 1993, Collins et al. 2000, Grimm et al. 2000, Liu et al. 2007, Alberti 2008, Wimberley 2009). Although environmental education also has broadened to include issues of social and economic equity (Bowers 2002, UNESCO 2002), its practices largely have remained focused on the behavior of individual participants. We propose to draw from the work of ecosystem scholars to develop frameworks that view environmental education as part of ongoing social and ecological processes, including as part of virtuous feedback loops, and as fostering social capital, ecosystem services, and other attributes of resilient systems. Such a view has implications for practice; for example, it might suggest that environmental education programs contribute to and reinforce positive feedbacks represented by already existing stewardship communities of practice, rather than act independently of the surrounding social-ecological system.


The perspectives offered in this paper are exploratory and meant to stimulate discussion of how existing approaches to environmental learning and education might be expanded. Importantly, in viewing learning through the lens of interaction, participation, and stewardship action, we may neglect other important processes that may occur in the very same civic ecology contexts discussed in this paper. For example, the Garden Mosaics community gardening education program includes an extensive set of resources focusing on learning science content within the cultural and ecological contexts found in community gardens. Further, a challenge for both interactive and more content-driven approaches to environmental education is how to incorporate reflection, ranging from quiet reflection in peaceful surroundings to critical reflection on the outcomes of stewardship and other actions. Finally, in considering an ecology of environmental education, questions arise as to the importance of small-scale, community-driven efforts relative to broad policy initiatives, as well as how community-driven efforts might lead to policy changes at multiple levels of government and non-profit organizations.

Environmental education acting alone, in the absence of processes such as creating opportunities for a diverse group of natural resources stakeholders to discuss their perspectives and knowledge about resource issues, ecosystem monitoring, and adaptive resource management, cannot be expected to bring a social-ecological system that is in an undesirable state of diminished green space, limited opportunities to access nature, and declining social capital back to a desirable state. Thus, the need exists to view learning and education within the context of the larger systems within which they are embedded. An ecological perspective on learning suggests means by which learning opportunities can be embedded in and even transform resource management practices. An ecological perspective on environmental education suggests ways in which educational programs might become part of ongoing virtuous feedbacks, and in some cases help to transform ongoing vicious feedbacks to virtuous feedbacks, within social-ecological systems.

In much environmental education practice and research, an assumption is made that humans act as a destructive outside force degrading otherwise healthy ecosystems, and thus our goal is to teach people to become less of a destructive force. Given the limited effectiveness of environmental education in fostering an understanding of and sense of responsibility for environmental degradation (Potter 2010), and the fact that not only urban but arguably all ecosystems have been affected by humans to the point where we no longer can focus solely on protecting the “pristine” (McDonnell and Pickett 1993, Collins et al. 2000, Alberti 2008), we suggest a change in underlying assumptions as suggested by an “ecology of environmental education.” Such an ecological perspective views humans as nested within larger social and ecological systems, and who through their collective actions, have the potential to help rebuild the processes that are integral to healthy system functioning.


Funds for the work described in this paper, some of which first appeared at the World Environmental Education Congress in Montreal, in 2009, came from the Cornell Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, USDA Federal Formula Funds, and National Science Foundation Informal Science Education program (ESI 0125582). We also acknowledge the support of our colleagues associated with Mayor Bloomberg's MillionTreesNYC initiative, the Resilience Alliance and the Stockholm Resilience Center, and three anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this paper.