by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
Anger over an oil spill off the coast of California prompted a US senator to call for a day-long national “teach-in” to raise awareness about the environment. More than four decades after the first Earth Day (22 April) was celebrated, in 1970, the day is commemorated around the globe as a time to draw attention to environmental issues and
(re-)commit to protecting the planet’s natural resources.
For this 42nd Earth Day, we wanted to find out how “green” today’s students are and where most of their information about the environment comes from. According to the latest issue of PISA in Focus, students who have high levels of environmental literacy are still the minority; but all students get most of their information about environmental issues at school.
Results from the PISA 2006 survey, which focused on science, indicate that an average of 19% of 15-year-olds across OECD countries perform at the highest level of proficiency in environmental science. This means that they can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge related to a variety of environmental topics. At the other end of the spectrum, an average of 16% of students perform below the baseline level of proficiency, meaning that they cannot answer questions containing scientific information related to basic environmental phenomena or issues. In four OECD countries, 20% or more of students score below this baseline level.
While PISA results indicate that schools are students’ main source of information about such crucial environmental issues as air pollution, energy, the extinction of plants and animals, deforestation, water shortages and nuclear waste, they also show that the vast majority of schools do not offer stand-alone courses in the environment. Most students acquire their knowledge about environmental science through related subjects, such as natural science or geography.
But PISA finds that, when the subject is the environment, teaching and learning methods are often innovative. For example, 77% of students in OECD countries, on average, attend schools that offer outdoor classes on the environment, 75% are in schools that organise trips to museums, and 67% are in schools that conduct visits to science centres. And better-performing students also use the media and the Internet to broaden and deepen their knowledge about the environment.
When “teach-in”s inspire teach-ourselves, we can say that some progress has, indeed, been made. Given the urgent – and informed – action needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss, not to mention the considerable estimated savings to the global economy that come from adopting low-carbon energy systems and from improving people’s health by ensuring that they have access to clean air and water, the greening of our students couldn’t happen soon enough.