Critical Thinking is Critically Important for Environmental Ethics

Ecological problems originate in how people think and so are first and foremost problems of education
— David Orr, State of the World 2010

The Critical Thinking community and other advocates of reason-based teaching believe that school has become based around models of regurgitation and indoctrination. Critics of the traditional classroom believe content seems to come and go as something independent of thought; dissociated from disciplined and actively engaged reading, writing, speaking, or listening[1]. Rarely do students learn to grasp the logic of what they are learning and consequently, intellectual paralysis sets in. The trance-like state that students typically bring to class becomes permanent[2]. The cost of learning what to think and not how to think is that students have little opportunity to grow cognitively and reason through important issues, especially urgent and relevant moral values, like environmental ethics.

Recently released New York Times article “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”[3] opened a discussion on if and how morality should be taught in school. The article exposed the problem of students being routinely taught that values are personal biases and that they should proceed scientifically in a value-free manner.[4] Eugene Hargrove at University of North Texas believes this value-free thinking has caused significant problems for environmental sustainability. “They are taught that values are subjective, biased, emotional, even irrational and have no place in their professional work. It is this anti-value indoctrination that is the single most serious inhibition to the application of environmental ethics in public policy decision-making today”.[5] In researching the gap between objective and subjective data, Hargrove found that subjective values aren’t seen as important and because they don’t always convert into objective terms, those who value the environment for ethical or moral reasons go unheard in advocating for environmental sustainability. In order to combat this, Hargrove prompts environmental professionals and concerned citizens to be more forthcoming in presenting value terms, which are equally as important as objective terms in finding environmental solutions. To influence this behavior, students shouldn’t be taught that subjectivity and values are irrelevant, but rather that they can find answers for themselves through critical thinking[6].

Building student knowledge on issues surrounding science, the interconnection between species, and the current environmental issues in local communities will prompt students to take action in environmental stewardship and advocacy, without reducing the conversation to value-terms.

One of the goals of an environmental education program is to help students develop the ability to think-both critically and creatively.[7] When it comes to teaching environmental ethics, efforts have been focused mainly on awareness to help students relate to the natural world. The belief is that building student knowledge on issues surrounding science, the interconnection between species, and the current environmental issues in local communities will prompt students to take action in environmental stewardship and advocacy, without reducing the conversation to value-terms. “Students are ready to talk ethics; environmental issues are front page news; good cases are bound to launch discussions”.[8] But, the problem with this awareness model is that if it is not structured through measures of critical thinking, it becomes blurred with the same concepts of indoctrination. Awareness of biology, the interconnectedness of species, and present environmental concerns stimulate student’s interest and engagement, an important first step in learning. But opinion, debate, and communication can act as a precursor to deeper involvement with the world around us, learning to listen and be flexible of mind[9]. The point of moral and ethical education through critical thinking is to help students think independently and openly, respect the opinions of others, evaluate their moral thinking, and reach their own judgments based on their own principles.

It is considered that children acquire knowledge and develop attitudes toward the environment as early as kindergarten.

Moreover, the case for environmental ethics teaching in elementary-aged kids is strong. It is considered that children acquire knowledge and develop attitudes toward the environment as early as kindergarten.[10] Younger participants are more influenced by interventions because they learn new pro-environmental behaviors more easily.[11] Additionally, environmental education programs in the school can influence the awareness, attitudes, and behavior of adults in the community.[12] Environmental education is inextricably linked to values. As children mature, the value system they develop influences the choices and decisions they make regarding all aspects of their lives, including environmental issues. Values also add consistency to a person’s life, which helps to build a better self-concept.[13]

5th graders explore a local nature area learning about watershed science.

5th graders explore a local nature area learning about watershed science.

Researchers in educational leadership acknowledge that critical thinking is the real catalyst propelling students toward environmentally responsible behavior[14]. Scientific knowledge alone doesn’t provide reasons for environmental protection, nor does it suggest that we should care, or how it should affect how we live. Instead, these values are something students must decide for themselves through their own reasoning. If students have opportunities to communicate their values with other students, many feel it can help them reach higher stages of moral reasoning where they are concerned about issues that go beyond their immediate self-interests and allow them to think more clearly about equality, social justice, and other complex social, political, and moral issues[15]. The motivation to become actively dedicated to improving and maintaining the environment can’t come from curriculums based onwhat to think but rather curriculums focused on teaching children how to think by working creatively to weigh options, identify alternatives, communicate, ask the right questions, analyze input data, find solutions, and make decisions.

What can your students gain from taking part in discussions involving controversial environmental issues? Here are just a few of the benefits[16]:

  • improved communication skills
  • improved ability to collect and interpret information
  • improved ability to detect bias
  • improved ability to differentiate between fact and opinion
  • ability to respect the views of others
  • ability to work cooperatively with peers
  • ability to make logical conclusions
  • chance to examine their values and beliefs and those of others
  • greater understanding of the subject
  • ability to make better decisions and come up with more effective solutions
  • ability to see different perspectives
  • greater commitment to the problem solving process

Critical thinking allows students to identify their own moral contradictions, distinguish their self-interest, and practice ethical principles toward the wellbeing of the environment and others[17].


  1. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ638004.pdf
  2. http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-art-of-redesigning-instruction/520
  3. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/why-our-children-dont-think-there-are-moral-facts/?_r=0
  4. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ638004.pdf
  5. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ638004.pdf
  6. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED338557
  7. http://www.cbd.int/doc/pa/tools/Environmental%20education%20in%20the%20schools%20-%20Creating%20a%20program%20that%20works.pdf
  8. http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hrolston/Collett-Karakashian.pdf
  9. http://www.ethicsonline.net/downloads/ethics_article.pdf
  10. Leeming, F.C., Dwyer, W.O., & Bracken, B.A. (1995). Children’s environmental attitude and knowledge scale: Construction and validation. The Journal of Environmental Education, 26(3), 22-31.
  11. Zelezny, L.C. (1999). Educational interventions that improve environmental behaviors: A metaanalysis. The Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 5-14.
  12.  Ballantyne, R., Connell, S., & Fien, J. (1998). Factors contributing to intergenerational communication regarding environmental programmes: Preliminary research findings. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 14, 1-10.
  13. http://www.cbd.int/doc/pa/tools/Environmental%20education%20in%20the%20schools%20-%20Creating%20a%20program%20that%20works.pdf
  14. http://www.cbd.int/doc/pa/tools/Environmental%20education%20in%20the%20schools%20-%20Creating%20a%20program%20that%20works.pdf
  15. http://www.cbd.int/doc/pa/tools/Environmental%20education%20in%20the%20schools%20-%20Creating%20a%20program%20that%20works.pdf
  16. http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/ethics-without-indoctrination/494
  17. http://www.cbd.int/doc/pa/tools/Environmental%20education%20in%20the%20schools%20-%20Creating%20a%20program%20that%20works.pdf