by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
As the threats to the environment become ever more urgent, are our children learning what they need to know to make environmentally responsible decisions now and later on? The latest issue of PISA in Focus finds that while most 15-year-olds have some understanding of environmental issues and feel responsible towards the environment, those without some scientific knowledge consistently underestimate the amount of time needed to find solutions to pressing environmental problems.
When tested on their understanding of the science of environmental issues, and when asked about their attitudes towards these issues, large majorities of 15-year-olds across OECD countries not only knew about such issues as air pollution, the loss of plant and animal species, and water shortages, but also felt a strong sense of personal and social responsibility towards these issues. For example, an average of 92% of students believes that air pollution represents a serious concern for themselves or others in their country, and over 80% of students feel the same about energy shortages, the extinction of plants and animals, and the clearing of forests. Some 78% and 76% of students, respectively, feel the same about water shortages and nuclear waste.
But the numbers were nearly inverted when it came to students’ sense of optimism that solutions to these problems would be found in the next 20 years. On average across OECD countries, only 15% or fewer of students believe that there will be improvements with respect to nuclear waste, the extinction of plants and animals, and the clearing of forests for other land use; 16% of students feel the same about air pollution, only 18% are optimistic about tackling water shortages, and 21% feel the same about energy shortages.
The majority of students across OECD countries reported that school was their main source of information about the environment, although families also play a key role in forming students’ attitudes and opinions about environmental issues. Students’ often share their parents’ sense of responsibility and optimism towards the environment, although the strength of this correlation varies across countries, and is stronger when it comes to feelings of optimism than with a sense of personal responsibility.
Interestingly, the extent to which students feel optimistic that solutions to environmental problems will be found over the next 20 years was negatively related to student performance in environmental science: the lower their scores in environmental science, the more optimistic students were that the situation will improve over the next two decades. This may be due to the fact that students who lack a deep understanding about environmental issues may be more optimistic, or that students who are optimistic about the future of the environment have less incentive to become more knowledgeable about environmental science.
In short, PISA finds that making the link between environmental science studies at school and how they apply to the “real world” can help to foster a sense of responsibility towards the environment. But undue optimism—or pessimism—about the environment could stymie students from using their knowledge and understanding to positive effect.
PISA in Focus No. 21: Do today’s 15-year-olds feel environmentally responsible?