Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Environmental Learning

  • Joe E. Heimlich
  • Alan Reid
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_447



Learning about an environment can be achieved through a wide array of senses, contexts, and situations. This entry explores what environmental learning entails, how individuals make meaning in that learning, and key contexts, intersections, and challenges in environmental learning.

Environmental Learning

We start our explorations by noting that an individual is not always cognizant of the environment around them at any given point in time. Yet one’s senses constantly take in data the body then processes, including on how an environment may become intelligible to them and others, and in what ways an environment may be “disturbed.” This fundamental automatic processing mode suggests that what is well learned and encoded in long-term memory in relation to “the environment” demands attention only when something is different, changed, or unusual. Indeed, lack of critical attention to a familiar environment can lead to assumptions and held beliefs or knowledge that are not necessarily true.

Why does this situation arise, and what does it mean for environmental learning? First, understanding self and self’s relationship to an environment is in great part learned through lived experiences and possibly reflections on those, starting with formative affect and the processes of adaptation involving the whole person (Kolb and Kolb 2012). For Bronfenbrenner (1977), this can be understood through a series of intersecting frames. The present setting of an individual acts as the microsystem for learning, with other concurrent settings in the person’s life suggestive of a mesosystem. Environmental learning amplifies the meaning of the setting as learning and setting are often intertwined and explicitly related. What Bronfonbrenner refers to as the exosystem is the formal and informal social structures around the individual, parallel to the notion of ecosystems of learning offered by Uden et al. (2007). Finally, the macrosystem refers to the overarching institutional patterns and values of the individual’s culture, a major determinant in one’s approach to human-environment interactions.

With this framework in mind, it is clear that regardless of one’s understanding of an environment, we understand that humans learn to exist within a particular environment through normed behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, people may learn about how things work through the trials and tribulations of experience, but also how to acclimate to and shape perspectives about an environment through the interaction of their culture and dispositions. Thus, the capacity for reflexive mobility should also be recognized: it emerges through a human’s sociocultural capability to weigh options, choose lifestyles, express identities, and compare alternative merits of places to live and visit.

An easy route into further considerations of such reflexive learning about environments, their conditions, and their affordances comes from recognizing that because the environment is always present, humans are prone to pay attention to what is outside their norm. For example, when traveling or vacationing, people may acclimatize or accommodate to the norm of the setting and scene around them. Taken together (as “acclimation”), an individual’s sensorium aids their scanning of the environment for things that are different or out of place. Thus, an unexpected stimulus of a smell creates a sudden awareness of hunger, while an odd sound in the background may force a change in focus to what had previously been ignored. In other words, we can recognize that a change in the usual is what triggers a sense of danger for the human brain in an environment (the automatic detection aspect in automatic/controlled process theory).

Natural Learning

However, while the natural function of being unaware to becoming aware of an environment can afford a complex system of ways to learn about a place, notions of reflexivity also flag that intentionality may be directed toward enabling a fuller sensorial engagement in a wide range of settings. These include experiencing a wide range of emotions in a natural environment – awe, fear, contentment, threat, happiness, connectedness, aloneness, and more. But is this all there is to how one comes to know about an environment and how an environment in turn shapes learning?

Many models of experiential modes in environmental learning can be readily simplified to three basic cognitive components: of data intake, processing, and retrieval. Data are taken in through the senses then processed through filters of prior experience to understand if the data are comparable to held understandings or expectations, challenge what we “know,” or are simply beyond comprehension because the data have no filter. Then, a choice is made to act or not use the data to further expand understanding the phenomenon, reject the information, or let go of the information as not relevant. In such models, learning is typically understood as a spiraling, generative process of creating and transferring meaning for stimuli and events from a person’s experience or understanding to other contexts (Wittrock 1974).

Yet because everyone has a distinct embodied, ensensed, and encultured way of taking in and processing information, the way one learns or makes meaning of information is unique. People see colors and things differently, taste differently, and have differing abilities of smell, touch, and hearing. This is not to suggest that there are no shared general processes or preferences for learning but that an individual’s unique sensory filters ensure any common environmental experience is felt and interpreted differently. Such differences increase over time as one’s filters amplify data recall through complementary, cumulative life experiences and challenges of reconstructed and reproduced memories and culture which lead to how one “chunks” data into preexisting filters.

Coupled to this, the ways in which one becomes aware of and respond to the world and human learning in general presupposes a specific social nature and process by which we grow into the culture around us. Fundamentally learning is a social act involving relationships between people and the modes and tools of communication between them (Boud et al. 2009). Shared meanings are socially constructed and contextualized using cultural lenses, and environmental experiences are interpreted through socially constructed mores, norms, and ideals. Such understandings are transmitted through modeling, stories, language use, and culturally approved play.

Why does this matter for environmental learning? Environmental data do not always mesh with the culturally grounded narratives internalized in childhood, including those messages about what to do in an environment or about environmental issues that are subsequently reinforced or challenged during the experience of everyday life. Indeed, as Henry (2009) suggests, interpretations can be biased, incorrect, or impossible to falsify, but they are learned “in the sense that they are assimilated as truthful knowledge and impact consequent behavior. Relatedly, consider also the transmission of ideas or knowledge with no empirical component whatsoever. Values can be powerful drivers of human behavior and must similarly be learned, whether at church, around the dinner table, or on the street” (p. 133).

In school, children learn both facts and cultural interpretations of “environmental facts” without distinction. Equally, changes in the natural world are not necessarily comprehensible or easily reflected in how the world is sensed or interpreted in everyday life. Consider the concept of cultural amnesia related to the environment wherein an individual assumes that the quality of the environment in which they moved through childhood is the baseline of a good, healthy, or quality environment. Through the lifespan, what one learned at one point is held to be constant, regardless of changes in the environment. Thus, while taking in data is constant, making meaning of these data can be intentional, tacit, or dismissed.

Contexts for Environmental Learning

Environmental learning can also be understood through a fraying framework of postindustrial, Western orientations which tend to assume that learning is largely limited to the formal arena of schooling (Strauss 1984). One reason for this assumption is that since learning is commonly and culturally defined as what happens in schools, it is logical to assume that what is learned or obtained outside of school is discredited or dismissed as inferior. Yet learning does not stop during the course of one’s life, even as interpreting the experience of life as learning may be dismissed, along with the understanding of learning as engagement with one’s environment.

What distinguishes learning from knowing is critical here, particularly for appreciating the significance of the contexts and preferred experiences for environmental learning, such as via outdoor education. A child’s earliest experience of the sky may change over time from questions of why is it blue (the social construct of color) to why the sky is crying (projecting what is known about self to another object) and then later, becoming enmeshed in a more complex understanding of gasses, water vapor, weather patterns, and climatic perturbations. Equally, knowledge can change temporal understandings of what one feels, experiences, and learns. Every new experience in one’s life has the potential to change who the person is and reshape how the individual remembers what was in the past. As an adult, for example, it is impossible to recall a memory of outdoor play from childhood without casting that memory through the alterations of repeated telling and adding to or taking away details by others who offer alternate elements to the story.

This blurring of the quixotic, exceptional, and abstracted and the associated meaning-making typically plays out against the backdrop of people being continually exposed to their environments and others sharing these environments in everyday life. Educators seeking to focus on everyday learning and its critique highlight that the scope and textures of people’s lived experiences are best understood through explorations of daily living and its parameters. For environmental learning, what may appear trivial or innocuous moments provide countless opportunities for interacting with and learning about the environment and environmental issues (Ardoin and Heimlich 2015).

This is because in daily interactions, people engage with natural and built environments, even as they find themselves talking about seemingly random things, memories, or events. But in every exchange, there is the potential for new data, insights, or connections made related to an environment. Whether at a farmers’ market or a restaurant, taking a walk in a park or walking down a crowded sidewalk, one never knows when an idea or experience with the environment will add to understanding an issue, challenge something considered known, or delight, surprise, or affect one deeply. In such contexts, examples of learning possibilities might be insights into the carbon load for different foods, challenges of quantity, and quality of food production for restauranteurs, an awareness of invasive species locally or a sudden connection to understanding heat islands.

This suggests that incidental learning is a key to understanding environmental learning too. We learn from those things around us that contain messages shaped by others, even if this is unintentional. Television, news programs, radio talk shows, movies, magazines, social media – there are many sources from which individuals take information and add to their chunks and networks of understanding. A key challenge of incidental learning for educators is that people pay attention to sources of information with which they are most likely to agree, and in that way reinforce rather than challenge held understandings, beliefs, or attitudes. Thus everyday and incidental learning are often sources of knowledge or affect with no specific source for the individual – they become things that are just “known.” Jarvis (2012), in writing about the inability of adults to realize present learning, notes that a great deal of such learning is “incident, pre-conscious and unplanned. In a sense we respond to events in a living manner – but then learning is about life” (p. 1).

Broadening this out, informal and nonformal learning and learning settings are often used to address how formal learning processes connect with incidental ones. In adult education, the nonformal and informal are usually defined by who sets the agenda and who determines the outcomes. In environmental education, informal typically refers to any out-of-school organized or structured learning. Other definitions suggest implicit, unintended, opportunistic, and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher, or establishing what the knowledge structure or tradition is and who holds primary agency (the teacher?).

Although the literature continues to debate the definition and scope of informal environmental learning, there is relative agreement on the contexts in which such learning might occur. For environmental learning, the long list of informal learning settings includes nature centers, parks, science centers/museums, natural history museums, zoos, arboreta, aquariums, botanical gardens, forests, nature preserves, animal refuges, and more. These often hold the status of cultural institutions too, and as such, are not passive repositories but places of cognitive and affective change where, for example, visitors are challenged to sense and question the status quo or are introduced to alternative ways of perceiving the world.

Learning at the Intersections

For most individuals, environmental learning does not consciously fall into categories of formal, informal, nonformal, incidental, or everyday learning. Rather, what one knows, believes, and values about the environment is a product of living life. An interesting and confounding variable is that of the subjects/topics/issues that exist in the margins of disciplines or foci. Consider health and the environment. What is good for the environment is often good for public health and vice versa. In work on the conceptual landscape of environmental education, the concept of bridging has emerged as an important metaphor. Bridges are where individuals as learners or participants can enter an exchange from two differing perspectives. Public health could focus on an issue such as brownfield sites and related programming from the perspective of reducing sickness, while environmental education could see the issue as related to cleaning the environment. An outdoor program for children could be intentionally driven by environmental learning, or it could be about getting children outdoors – a goal of the “children in nature” movement. Bridging suggests activity and learning may appear to be the same, but the intention is different depending on the desired outcome. Thus, some environmental learning may be intentional learning, but through a different discipline.


As suggested above, environmental learning is unlikely to be a clean, linear process but rather a function of being a person, a complex construct in itself. People are constantly exposed to stimuli and data, and as learning is cumulative across experiences and time, individuals are challenged to be meaning-makers of these experiences across contexts. The concept of a learningscape offers a way to bring environmental learnings together through focusing on how a person moves through the world and has the potential for meaning-making across, among, and between myriad experiences of one’s life, including in relation to the social roles through which the individual has those experiences.

Social role theory tells us the individual within the context will determine many of the behaviors one performs, including how one knows, thinks they know, feels and believes, values, and acts toward the environment. Equally, the role an individual plays at any given time greatly influences the lenses through which they interpret intake data. Consider the different experiences and outcomes for an individual when visiting a nature center with a small child as ward versus with friends out for a good time versus as a professional looking at the facility, programs, and interpretation. Thus we note, social role influences how an individual engages in institutions, structures, society, recreation, and what they take away cognitively, affectively, and skill wise from all their experiences, and then how they construct meaning, especially around understanding and action on environmental concerns. As Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasize, “learning is not merely situated in practice – as if it were some independently reifiable process that just happened to be located somewhere; learning is an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world” (p. 35).

Breaking Traditional Learning Constructs

What typically distinguishes schooling from other sites for environmental learning is that what is taught is not necessarily for the learner’s interest or immediate use. Additionally, environmental education has historically been reliant on the “knowledge leads to attitude leads to behavior” or “attitude leads to knowledge leads to behavior” constructs of behavioral learning. Even though the myth that knowledge or affect alone can lead to behavior change has been repeatedly challenged, the field continues to be overly reliant on cognition-affect-performance models and meaning-making that privileges one over the other, as if causality rather than correlation had been established too (see Heimlich and Ardoin 2008).

In brief, an oversimplified focus on behavior mistakes focusing on behavioral outcomes rather than (1) the steps required to reach those outcomes or (2) readiness of the individual to move toward an action or a change in a behavioral routine. The goal of any behavior may be met through multiple pathways and by varying motivations, not the single action being promoted by the educator. For environmental learning to be integrated within a person’s life, it is necessary to understand the grounds for that within the person.

To elaborate, the concept of conation highlights the importance of volition or the will/desire to do something. It merges what one knows, whether factual or held belief, with what one feels about something. Organizing environmental learning into cognitive, affective, and psychomotor outcomes is good for schooling and evaluation, but separating domains of learning does not resonate with how people naturally learn. Thoughts, beliefs, facts from assumed authorities, skills, values, passions, and so on are brought into learning, and their interactions determine what we take in and the meanings we make. Thus attention to the conative raises important questions for an environmental educator’s focus on behavior – whether as habits of mind or habits of the body. Can their work incorporate and teach both, and the intersection of both, while is integration more a matter of rhetoric than reality?


Environmental learning is a natural, human process. We live in and with complex systems and we interact with those systems constantly. Rethinking how we learn and engage with and within our environments, and how we learn to make meaning of that engagement, can facilitate more authentic learning about the world around us. Schools, informal institutions, media, and others conveying messages about the environment have an obligation to help the receiver of the information make meaning of the content/message within the individual’s life. Part of that meaning is through understanding how knowledge, affect, and behavior intersect to shape one’s environmental behaviors and learning.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation/Lifelong Learning GroupColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia