Environmental Education Today: How to Teach Facts, Not Fear: an exclusive interview Jane Shaw

Published June 1, 1998

Jane Shaw is a Senior Associate of PERC (the Political Economy Research Center) in Bozeman, Montana, a research and educational organization that explores market solutions to environmental problems. She is coauthor with Michael Sanera of Facts, Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children about the Environment (Regnery Publishing Inc., 1998)

Shaw became personally aware of distortions in the teaching of environmental issues a few years ago when her 7-year-old son told her to stop using Styrofoam. However, she is coauthor of Facts, Not Fear because of her background as a writer and editor.

Before joining PERC in 1984, Shaw was an associate economics editor at Business Week, and previously a reporter in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Today, she supervises PERC’s outreach program, which involves informing a wide range of audiences about PERC’s research. For awhile, Shaw also directed PERC’s environmental education program, and she frequently directs conferences for journalists and business executives.

Cohen: What is your assessment of the state of environmental education in the U.S.?

Shaw: Because education is decentralized in this country (a good thing!), environmental education varies widely, from state to state and from school to school. But the sad fact is that many children are taught about the environment in ways that exaggerate the threats, create the impression that people are evil, and emphasize political activism.

Cohen: Does the problem lie with the curriculum, the textbooks, teacher training, or some combination of all of these?

Shaw: There are problems with all of these.

Michael Sanera and I reviewed more than 130 textbooks and more than 170 environmental children’s books for our book Facts, Not Fear. We were appalled at the absence of scientific data about such issues as acid rain and global warming, the one-sided representation of complex issues such as the use of pesticides, and the emphasis on personal behavior and action (“recycle now!”) rather than on knowledge. We can’t blame teachers for using these textbooks, since they are published by such prominent firms as Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, Simon & Schuster, Scott Foresman, and others.

Often, what is taught in classrooms mirrors the front pages of the newspaper or television news. Our children’s texts reflect views that are widely held in our society: Disaster is around the corner; business is evil because it pollutes; our forests are dying; species are disappearing at a rate of 100 a day; pesticides are causing cancer. Such fears are based on misinformation, not fact.

Cohen: The role of science in environmental policy has been hotly debated for many years. Last year, an independent study commissioned by the George Marshall Institute found, among other things, that science is inadequately incorporated into environmental education curricula. How can this situation be improved? Shaw: Good science is desperately needed in our schools. However, a publisher’s representative told us that as long as teachers are happy with textbooks that ignore or dismiss scientific data (the commission called them “science-lite”), the textbooks aren’t going to get much better.

We need parents to express their concerns to teachers, so that teachers will scrutinize materials more carefully. In Facts, Not Fear, we urged parents to look at what their children are learning about the environment and provide teachers with alternative views on issues from global warming to forest preservation.

Many teachers want to be fair, but they lack the background. My coauthor, Michael Sanera, has studied the kind of environmental college courses that future teachers are required to take in the state of Wisconsin. He found that many courses mix science and advocacy and avoid economics. Most disturbing, these college texts frequently fail to meet normal standards of scholarship, which require citations for data, for example. If the Wisconsin case is typical, and I suspect it is (a leading university center for environmental education is located there), there is little hope for better K-12 education until the college-level courses improve.

Cohen: Legislation addressing environmental education is pending in Congress. Is this bill going to bring about the changes you think are so important?

Shaw: No. The bill you are referring to would re-authorize the Office of Environmental Education in the Environmental Protection Agency. Why should EPA, a monitoring and enforcement agency, be overseeing our children’s environmental education? It makes no sense to me. Unfortunately, once a federal agency is created, getting rid of it is almost impossible.

What the office does, primarily, is provide funds for a small group of people who claim to be the leaders in environmental education. By and large, those individuals are environmentalists first and educators second. Located in colleges and universities and environmental groups, they write model curricula and try to get state legislatures to pass laws mandating more environmental education. (About 32 states have some form of environmental education mandate.)

With a few exceptions, such as Arizona, these mandatory programs promote one-sided treatment of environmental issues and political action based on limited information. EPA has done nothing to insist on objectivity.

Cohen: Isn’t it true that we need to think about environmental education in a broader sense? Children are taught not only in schools, but also by environmental messages on television–Ted Turner’s Captain Planet, for example–the Internet, movies, and elsewhere. Returning balance and sanity to how youngsters are taught to view the world around them is a monumental undertaking, is it not?

Shaw: Indeed. “Captain Planet,” with its Hoggish Greedly and Dr. Blight characters, is a terrible distortion of reality. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that “Captain Planet” is by far the worst children’s cartoon, but that many cartoons treat scientists as evil people. Businessmen, too, are treated as evil in these cartoons. Other television programs, and movies such as “Free Willy” and “Ferngully,” also perpetuate environmental myths and treat humans as evil encroachers upon nature.

Underlying the problem of environmental education is a societal problem. We–all of us–tend to misunderstand the causes of pollution, and we are naive about how to solve environmental problems. We tend to have a romantic, “Garden of Eden” concept of the planet, and think that modern human beings are destroying it. But this is a misconception. Nature itself can be harsh and violent, and the planet is much more resilient than we think. Unfortunately, the media and the schools perpetuate the misconceptions.

Cohen: What’s the best way to turn things around? Could you outline some basic steps that need to be taken?

Shaw: I wish I had a silver bullet. One positive sign is that the media in general are becoming a little more sophisticated about the latest scares, such as electromagnetic fields and “hormone disruptors.” They are at least beginning to question some of the bogus scientific claims. If that attitude develops in the media, it should help others, including teachers, to look at problems more objectively.

As for specific steps, I would say that there are roles for parents, think tanks, trade and professional associations, and even politicians. Many parents may want to work at the classroom level, providing information to teachers. But some may want to do more, forming watchdog groups and trying to change the curriculum in their schools–or even in schools statewide. They may obtain help from associations that represent industries such as forestry, agriculture, and chemicals (to name just a few). These industries are being treated unfairly by environmental miseducation. Together, they can form environmental education committees that insist on science-based education.

Cohen: How can state elected officials help bring about sensible environmental education?

Shaw: If they serve a state that has mandatory environmental education laws, they should look at how the laws are being implemented. Some officials may already have been contacted by upset parents who want help.

In Arizona, with the support of a group of highly committed parents, the state legislature revamped the environmental education law to require that all teaching be balanced. The legislature even set aside up to $900,000 a year to provide grants to schools that initiated environmental projects that are scientifically balanced and objective.

Cohen: Do you think any progress is being made in convincing those responsible for developing environmental curricula that improvements are needed?

Shaw: For the most part, no. The North American Environmental Education Association (NAAEE), which claims to be the professional organization for the field, has been writing guidelines for environmental education materials. Some of these standards sound good (they endorse “fairness and accuracy,” for example), but they are toothless. The standards do not include useful criteria for determining whether materials are balanced or one-sided. They are full of platitudes and generalizations. The NAAEE is supposedly using the guidelines, but the organization does not attempt to evaluate whether materials pass or fail them.

Cohen: Could you tell us what PERC is doing in the environmental education arena?

Shaw: PERC is a research organization specializing in economics and the environment, so we are developing materials that bring economic insights into environmental study. We provide realism and common sense that are lacking in most of the materials we have reviewed.

One curriculum PERC developed has been published by the National Council on Economic Education. It’s called Economics and the Environment: EcoDetectives, and it helps middle- and high-school students think about environmental problems as mysteries. For example: Why are there so many chickens in the world–and so few whales? Why would people with supposedly good intentions try to keep endangered species away from their property? Why are people’s backyards usually clean, and public parks often dirty? These are lively, provocative lessons. We are presenting them to teachers in workshops around the country.

We have other materials, too, including a newsletter for teachers and high school students called the Environmental Examiner. Soon, Michael Sanera, who runs an environmental education project for the Center for the New West, and I will be working with Greenhaven Press, a publisher of books for school libraries, to produce books on topics such as global warming, pesticides, endangered species, and energy and natural resources. There is much to be done.

For more information …

about PERC, visit its Web site at http://www.perc.org. Or write to 502 South 19th Street #211, Bozeman, MT 59715; phone 406/587-9591; fax 406/586-7555; e-mail [email protected].