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France - Environmental Education, its features and their educational implications

Monday 18 November 1996, by D.I.R.E.S. Association (Didactics, Innovation, Research in Scientific Education)


The importance of environmental education (EE) no longer escapes anyone. Ever since the early seventies, and especially since 1975 with the launching by UNESCO of IEEP (International Environmental Education Program) on the occasion of the Belgrade Conference, given the conceptual thinking on this type of education, of the teachings resulting from numerous pilot projects, of the multiple proposals of activities and teaching aids of all kinds, one might consider that everything is gathered for success! In most countries, however, real integration of EE into the educational systems remains to be completed.
The purpose of environmental education is action in favor of the environment and the search for solutions to environmental problems, and the ensuing objectives were specified very early on. Today the essential features of EE are well established: when presenting them, it is easy to understand the specificity of EE and in particular to position it with respect to and within general education, as much for children as for adult citizens.

1. Essential EE Features

These can be determined in various ways:
1) By the definition of EE and of the delimitation of the sphere in which it is practiced. A formal definition of EE is difficult; in practice, two simple remarks make it possible to propose an answer:
a) In the word Education, there is more, much more, that in the word Teaching: this needs to be taken into account with strength and determination, because it entails important differences in choices of educational methods, in the definition of objectives, in the inevitable reference to values, in the use of adapted strategies and tools.
b) In the word Environment, there are often both far too things and too much imprecision. Is it enough to say that the environment is that which surrounds us? Where do we place the limit of the environment in which we are interested at a given moment? How can we avoid that the word be no more than a fashionable term, a pretext for rhetoric and good intentions?
Facing these difficulties, we can consider the following approach: to define EE by its «objects,» that is, by the spheres that it takes into account.
EE has two «objects»: environmental problems and resource-management problems. It is easy enough to get a list of environmental problems from the man on the street: various types of pollution, nuisances such as noise, deforestation, desertification, landscape degradation, etc. This gives you the first object of EE. But where do these environmental problems come from? The answer is simple: they are the consequences of human economic activity, which is based on the utilization of resources. The second object of EE therefore deals with the problems relative to resources. It is obvious that among the solutions to these problems, those that are preventive rather than curative are essential; therefore among the alternatives to put forward in an EE perspective, the most interesting are those referring to the respect of nature, to non-wasteful attitudes, to protection, to conservation, etc.
2) By what this sector of education means. Some people prefer Environmental Education to mean education through the environment, which would only be an excuse work in a bit less scholarly fashion than usual, while others prefer it to mean education for the environment, which marks a decided commitment.
3) By its objectives: priority is given to changes of attitudes and behavior, even though the acquisition of skills is also part of EE objectives, and this depends on access to certain knowledge.
4) By a mandatory reference to values: the three essential values in EE being Solidarity, Tolerance, and Responsibility.
5) Thus by placing EE in terms of an Education to Citizenship, a civic education based on the analysis of situations, learning the issues, and taking responsibility. EE must also be considered with regard to various "issue-specific" educational sectors, oriented both toward school and toward the general population, such as:
– Education on consumption,
– Education on population,
– Health education,
– Risk education,
– Peace education.
UNESCO recently reviewed its Environmental Education (EE) program by reorienting it into a broader perspective of Environmental and Population Education and Information for Development - EPEID: a cross-disciplinary inter-agency cooperation project.
These general EE features - which reflect a certain conception of EE - have consequences on the educational practice itself.

2. Consequences on the educational practice

These are expressed in several ways:
1) In the choice of the strategy for the implementation and progress of activities.
In EE the choice of topics is generally made in two ways:
- either on the basis of a case study, a specific situation, if possible involving learners directly;
- or in the framework of a broader, comprehensive topic, (relative to water, the forest, or desertification, for instance), referred to as such because it highlights relations among several disciplines.
The implementation is often organized around an educational of project, which is therefore integrated into active educational methods.
In short EE is designed in a perspective of action that can include various forms: communication of the results of the activity to other groups (learners, parents, community, authorities, etc.); search for alternatives; entering into a debate; concrete action (e.g. cleaning up a river).
2) In the use of tools that are more or less linked to the specificity of EE:
a) The systemic approach is necessary for the analysis of the complex situations involved. The idea is to get a description and an analysis of an environmental problem from an economic-type perspective. What really happens? Who are the actors? What mechanisms are involved?
b) The compilation and the utilization of the initial conceptions of learners is a general process in educational methods that makes it possible to prepare, among others: a more precise access to various concepts and the reference to values, with the objective of acquisition of attitudes and skills.
c) Conceptual analysis, which can be used to analyze forms of expression from various sources (learners, the media, reference manuals, etc.) is aimed at «knowing what you are talking about» and how concepts are linked together, and with what implications.
d) The relationship to information, which we can hopefully expect to be a reasoned control of information on environment, is extremely important: the idea is to acquire the means to collect and to use information, which is often abundant, often contradictory, or even conflicting.
e) Assessment techniques, which, in EE, must be adapted to the particular fact that the objectives aimed for are attitudes, behavior, and the implementation of skills.
f) Teaching aids, which as starting points, examples of proposals, and «case studies» to be assessed, can contribute to a fast implementation of EE projects.


To promote environmental education is to hope in it, not only from the angle of generous and utopian projections, but in view of the implementation of concrete and adapted educational methods. The main objective in the immediate future is to get governments and ministries (in particular ministries of education) of the different countries to promote a real penetration of EE in the educational system. A lot of exemplary cases are available and the methodology has been sufficiently tested for the commitment of teachers and facilitators in EE to be developed, and to do so in good conditions.

NOTE: This file is included in the document “MADERE” (Remote Self-learning Module in Environment-related Education), produced by the Association D.I.R.E.S.
KEY WORDS: Environmental Education; Training; Manual; Methodology.
AUTHOR: Association D.I.R.E.S., c/o Christian Souchon, 23, rue des Fossés St Jacques, 75005 Paris, France, Tel. / fax: 33 / 1 / 43 54 30 41, E-mail: