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«REPORTS & RESEARCH Evaluating the Environmental Literacy of Israeli Elementary and High School Students Maya Negev, Gonen Sagy, Yaakov Garb, Alan ...»

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Evaluating the Environmental

Literacy of Israeli Elementary

and High School Students

Maya Negev, Gonen Sagy, Yaakov Garb, Alan Salzberg, and Alon Tal

ABSTRACT: The authors conducted a national survey of 6th- and 12th-grade students in Israel

to evaluate their environmental literacy, including the dimensions of environmental knowledge,

attitudes, and behavior. In this article, the authors present the results of the survey, the correlations

between these different dimensions, and their associations with demographic and experiential data.

The authors did not find a significant correlation between knowledge and behavior. Ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics were moderately associated with environmental literacy, whereas the presence of an adult who mediated children’s relation to nature was strongly related to environmental attitudes and behavior and weakly related to knowledge. The results suggest that the intended objectives of environmental education in Israel have not been achieved. The authors call for additional research to identify ways to improve environmental education in the Israeli public schools.

KEYWORDS: environmental attitudes, environmental behavior, environmental knowledge, environmental literacy, Israeli national survey O ver the past 20 years, researchers have explored the status, delivery, and effects of environmental education (EE) using various types of national surveys. These surveys have primarily related to curriculum needs in K–12 programs in public schools. In several national surveys, researchers have assessed the level of environmental knowledge or attitudes of children in primary and secondary schools (e.g., Barraza & Walford, 2002; Makki, Abd-El-Khalick, & Boujaoude, 2003; Tuncer, Ertepinar, Tekkaya, & Sungur, 2005). Reviewers of research and evaluation studies have pointed out the limitations of surveys that narrowly focus on environmental knowledge or Maya Negev and Gonen Sagy are PhD candidates at the Albert Katz School of Desert Studies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Sde Boker Campus, Israel. Yaakov Garb is a lecturer in the Department of Man in the Desert, Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Alan Salzberg is president of Quantitative Analysis, Inc., in New York, NY. Alon Tal is an associate professor in the Mittrani Department of Desert Ecology, Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Copyright © 2008 Heldref Publications WINTER 2008, VOL. 39, NO. 2 specific dimensions of environmental affect (e.g., Hines, Hungerford, & Tomera, 1987; Hungerford & Volk, 1998). In response, researchers have developed broader models of environmental literacy (Marcinkowski & Rehrig, 1995; Simmons, 1995). Relatively few efforts thus far have been made to assess students over this wider range of environmental literacy components (e.g., Chu et al., 2007;

Kuhlemeier, van den Bergh, & Lagerweij, 1999). With the present research, we join several ongoing efforts to conduct national-scale comprehensive surveys of environmental literacy1 with the common objective of identifying strengths and weaknesses in ongoing EE programs.

The environment in Israel is under remarkable pressure and is the subject of increasing public knowledge and concern. The country is located at the meeting point between three continents and contains both desert and populated regions. It is a tiny country2 characterized by diverse habitats, including arid, semiarid, temperate, Mediterranean, and subtropical climatic conditions. During the last 60 years, Israel’s population has grown dramatically, from 1 million to 7 million residents, mostly through immigration. Furthermore, while the standard of living has reached European levels of prosperity (Orenstein, 2004), the population growth has resulted in a broad range of environmental hazards, notably urban air pollution, massive contamination of ground and surface water, and loss of open spaces to urban development (Tal, 2006). Furthermore, the immigrant adult population of Israelis is likely to have a lower level of familiarity with the local environment and, more broadly, a lower level of environmental literacy.

In response to the growing environmental crisis, the government declared 1994 the national Year of the Environment, during which leaders in Israeli education made a formal commitment to expanding EE in public schools (Israel Ministry of Education, 1999). Following the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, this commitment was renewed as part of a cabinet decision to have all its ministries integrate sustainability into their operational activities (Israel Ministry of Education, 2004b).

In Israel, compulsory education begins in kindergarten and continues through Grade 12, with elementary school ending after Grade 6. Israeli children attend schools within a system that is largely divided into four fairly autonomous tracks: (a) Jewish secular schools, (b) Jewish “national religious” schools, (b) Jewish ultra-Orthodox schools, and (c) non-Jewish schools (Muslim, Christian, and Druze).

Regardless of educational track, the Israel Ministry of Education recommends that elementary school teachers conduct 6 hr of study in the area of science and technology each week, which includes the topic of the environment. This curriculum includes such diverse topics as basic chemistry, earth sciences, biology, and physics (Israel Ministry of Education, 1999, 2004a). Reports from the 2005–2006 school year indicate that, in practice, only 2% of schools meet this standard, with the majority reporting 1.5–3.5 hr of weekly classroom time devoted to sciences. Additionally, although social aspects of environmental issues are officially part of the primary school educational program, the emphasis appears to be heavily on the scientific aspects of environmental issues.

The Israeli high school curriculum is driven by intensive matriculation exams administered at the end of all 3 academic years, with students generally selecting a major in which to focus their studies.

The exam results constitute a key criterion for university acceptance. Environmental matters appear peripherally in majors such as biology, but on the whole the ecological emphasis in the curriculum is minimal. At the same time, some Israeli high schools have an environmental sciences major. Students majoring in environmental sciences receive 5 hr of classroom teaching in each week and are expected to participate in an environmental project, which often involves a cleanup activity. Students can choose a more demanding track in which they conduct a field study for which they characterize an ecological system. Although the environmental-sciences major is not yet considered to be among the more prestigious majors for university placement, some 5% of Israel’s 100,000 secondary students


select this major (Yisrael Visenshtern, Israeli Central Inspector for Environmental Sciences, personal communication, February 13, 2004).

The current EE program in Israel has been criticized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for its overemphasis on augmentation of knowledge at the expense of teaching environmental ethics and behavior. NGOs and the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection have recently introduced, on a pilot basis, supplementary enrichment programs that include outdoor educational components and other projects that aim to promote environmental ethics and encourage environmentally friendly behavior. However, although societal interest and investment in EE is substantial and likely to increase, no researchers have comprehensively assessed environmental literacy in Israeli public schools.

Several researchers have attempted to assess aspects of Israeli school students’ environmental literacy. Blum (1985) conducted the first survey of environmental knowledge and attitudes among school students in Israel in the early 1980s. He studied 9th graders by using a model based on the British National Survey of Environmental Knowledge and Attitudes of Fifth Year Pupils in England. About 15 years later, Ben-Hur and Bar (1996) assessed the influence of the Israeli government’s 1994 Year of the Environment program on the environmental understanding of schoolchildren in a national sample. More recently, Goldman, Yavetz, and Pe’er (2006) considered environmental literacy among students training to become teachers in three Israeli teachers’ colleges.

Environmental literacy is considered the paramount objective of EE programs (Disinger & Roth, 1992; Hungerford, Peyton, & Wilke, 1980; Iozzi, Laveault, & Marcinkowski, 1990). Although no formal universal definition exists for environmental literacy, Marcinkowski and Rehrig (1995) and Simmons (1995, 1998) have identified general principles common to most environmental literacy definitions. These include environmental and ecological knowledge, clear positions on environmental issues, cognitive skills to analyze environmental problems, and behavior patterns that are designed to limit individual environmental impact or contribute to broader societal efforts to protect the environment. Hungerford and Volk (1998) argued that EE is fundamentally different from other educational disciplines in that it aspires to influence the behavior of the pupils who study it. This is reflected in the behavioral component in most definitions of environmental literacy.

We drafted an operational definition of environmental literacy for this research on the basis of an integration of previous definitions (Hungerford & Volk, 1998; Marcinkowski, 1998a; Simmons, 1998). It included three primary categories: (a) knowledge, (b) attitudes, and (c) behavior. Table 1 outlines the components of each category reflected in our survey questions.

We based our research survey on the aforementioned functional definition. Marcinkowski and Rehrig (1995) and Simmons (1995) have suggested alternative approaches to characterizing TABLE 1. Components of Environmental Literacy Categories in the Present Study

–  –  –

WINTER 2008, VOL. 39, NO. 2 environmental literacy that include environmental sensitivity as a fourth category, one that contains both a behavioral component and a subjective component. In the present study, we largely integrated these elements into the categories of attitudes and, to a lesser extent, behavior. In addition, we characterized experiential aspects of students’ environmental encounters. For example, in the survey instrument, we included questions about the mediating role of adults in environmental activities, the extent and type of students’ nature outings, and students’ ability to show higher level cognitive skills in analyzing environmental problems. In our survey, a subset of shared questions, asked of both 6th and 12th graders, allowed us to directly compare the students in the two different grades.

Method Participants In spring 2006, 1,591 6th-grade students in 39 schools and 1,530 12th-grade students in 38 schools completed grade-specific surveys. Participants composed a representative national sample of the formal education system according to demographic data about each school that we obtained from the Israel Ministry of Education. The data was stratified into four groups: (a) town size (3 levels), (b) school quality (4 levels),3 (c) socioeconomic situation (3 levels), and (d) sector (3 types). We divided the country’s schools into 108 cells that reflected all the possible combinations of these four categories. We then determined cell weights by summing the number of students in each cell and dividing the result by the total number of students in the formal education system at the grade level.

To determine the number of schools to sample within each cell, we multiplied each cell weight by 40 and rounded. We combined cells that received a rounded score of 0, and we summed their scores.

In this way, the total sample size was 40 schools. We then randomly selected schools from each cell, with the selection probability proportional to the number of students.

Survey We collected data by using surveys that we developed for this research. We administered separate surveys to 6th and 12th graders. Although the two surveys had similar designs and overall frameworks, some of the specific questions differed by grade. In the pilot survey, we drew heavily from the Middle School Environmental Literacy Instrument (Wilke, Hungerford, Volk, & Bluhm, 1995), the Secondary School Environmental Literacy Instrument (Nowak, Wilke, Marcinkowski, Hungerford, & Mckeown-Ice, 1995), and Goldman et. al’s (2006) teachers–college-student instrument. We prepared the pilot survey in consultation with teachers, students, ecologists, and survey-research experts and modified it after review by an advisory committee comprising 20 experts from the Israel Ministries of Environment and Education, academic experts, NGO representatives, and school teachers. We then tested the pilot survey at four elementary schools and four high schools, resulting in further modifications, including the elimination of one question that contained an extensive case study because of the time constraints imposed by schools’ 45-min class sessions.

The surveys contained four sections. The first three sections consisted of closed questions (i.e., Likert scale and multiple choice). The fourth section had open-ended questions designed to allow for assessment of higher level cognitive skills in evaluating environmental issues. The four sections

were as follows:

1. Environmental background information and environmental behavior. Background questions asked about (a) the identity of an adult whose company the student enjoys when in nature or with whom the student enjoys studying about nature, (b) vegetarianism, (c) access to nature, (d) hours spent outdoors, and (e) ownership of animals. Topics associated with environmental


behavior included (a) water, (b) conserving electricity, (c) recycling, (d) activism, and (e) outdoor leisure activities.

2. Awareness, attitudes, and willingness to act. Questions included opinions about (a) nature and the environment, (b) development versus preservation, (c) consumption, (d) personal responsibility, and (e) other specific environmental problems.

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