Textbooks Mislead Teachers on Environmental Issues

Published March 1, 1998

Although professional environmental educators have established nationwide standards of fairness and accuracy for evaluating environmental education materials, a new study finds that all but one of the university-level textbooks used at eight University of Wisconsin system campuses fail to meet those standards. As a result, teachers are ill-prepared to provide their K-12 students with an unbiased and balanced approach to environmental issues, free of advocacy, dogma, and indoctrination.

“Environmental education should begin to prepare children to accumulate scientific facts about their world, not to be blindly ideologically driven,” stated James H. Miller, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which issued the study. “Our children should be educated, not indoctrinated,” he added.

Teaching Environmental Education to Wisconsin Teachers: A Review of University Course Materials considers whether Wisconsin teachers are being provided with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver balanced and unbiased environmental education, which is a requirement in some form or other in grades K-12 in 30 states. Prospective teachers in Wisconsin must demonstrate competencies in seven areas of environmental education, including knowledge of natural resources, methods of conservation, methods to examine environmental problems, and teaching how citizens can participate in resolving environmental problems.

To evaluate the content of teacher education about the environment, the study’s author, Michael Sanera, a senior fellow at the Denver-based Center for the New West, subjected course materials to the professional standards developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education, the nation’s largest group of environmental educators.

Sanera found that only one of the nine textbooks used to train teachers about environmental issues met the NAAEE guidelines. Six texts contained misleading information and conclusions that are not scientifically based, and two contained information that is not scientifically balanced.

“In discussions of environmental issues, from global warming to endangered species, these textbooks fail to educate future teachers about competing scientific views,” said Sanera. “The majority of these textbooks indoctrinate rather than educate. Unfortunately, future teachers are getting biased information.”

In his evaluation, Sanera applied the following NAAEE standards:

  • Environmental education materials should reflect sound theories and well-documented facts about subjects and issues;
  • Where there are differences of opinion or competing scientific explanations, the range of perspectives should be presented in a balanced way;
  • Materials should encourage learners to explore different perspectives and form their own opinions.

Sanera found that discussions of environmental issues in the textbooks he evaluated mislead prospective teachers by mixing science with advocacy. While material is presented in the texts as environmental science, he noted, the texts more often presented only a selective use of scientific information to lead future teachers to predetermined conclusions.

Sanera also noted that, while the texts claim to be multi-disciplinary, they for the most part exclude a balanced and fair treatment of economic reasoning. Normal standards of citations for data and opinions taken from other sources–are almost entirely missing from all of the texts.

Whiled intended to teach prospective teachers how to present environmental education to their students, warned Sanera, the texts largely fail to communicate the ethical responsibility teachers have to educate, rather than propagandize, students.

Sanera is director of the Center for the New West’s Environmental Education Resource Center in Tucson. He is also coauthor of the widely acclaimed Facts Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment. The book is in its seventh printing, with 50,000 copies in print. (See “Saving the Planet Without Scaring Kids to Death,” School Reform News, October 1997.)

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The complete text of Dr. Michael Sanera’s report, “Teaching Environmental Education to Wisconsin Teachers,” is available from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, P.O. Box 487, Thiensville, WI 53092.