By Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
“Never before have the stakes been so high for the role of science education in shaping how people interact with the environment. Human activities such as the generation of greenhouse gases, the accumulation of waste, the fragmentation or destruction of ecosystems, and the depletion of resources are having a substantial impact on the global environment.” These were the opening sentences of a report from one of the first PISA assessments, carried out back in 2006.
PISA 2006 offered the first international assessment on what students know about the environment. The results showed that fewer than one in five 15-year-olds on average across OECD countries could thoroughly explain environmental processes and phenomena. This included using evidence to compare and differentiate among competing explanations. Close to two-thirds of 15-year-olds had at least a fair understanding of the science underpinning environmental issues. For example, they could interpret the relationship between two charts showing carbon dioxide emissions and the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. But that figure ranged from 80% in Finland to below 20% in Qatar, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.
Students’ awareness and knowledge of environmental issues are linked
PISA 2006 also studied where students had gained their knowledge about environmental issues, what their attitudes were about them, and how these interrelated with their environmental science knowledge and skills. The results showed that students’ environmental awareness tended to go hand-in-hand with their scientific knowledge and skills. Students who reported the greatest familiarity with complex environmental phenomena also tended to score highest on PISA questions on environmental science. Of course, such results do not prove that greater scientific knowledge directly leads to interest in the environment, or vice versa. However, an association between the two suggests that a joint curricular emphasis on learning why the environment matters and understanding the scientific phenomena involved is important.
Why environmental science knowledge is crucial
Students with poorer knowledge and skills around environmental science often reported an almost naïve optimism that the environmental challenges will go away in the future. Better knowledge enables students to realistically assess the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead.
Most students learn about the environment at school
More than anything else, students in the 2006 PISA assessment cited school as the place where they learned about the environment. The great majority of schools included environmental science in geography and science lessons, although many also included it in other subject areas. Another way students learned about the environment was through trips and outdoor activities, but whereas this was common in some countries, it was rare in others. Outside school, the most common source of learning about the environment was through TV, radio and newspapers followed by the Internet and books, and lastly family and friends. The results also showed that higher-performing students were more likely to combine information from school, the Internet and other media, and books to find out about the environment.