Given today’s alarming environmental scenario, with the obvious effects of global problems like climate change [1
] and the planet’s diminishing biodiversity [4
], a more acute environmental awareness must be fostered to guarantee responsible citizenship. The recently drafted Agenda 2030 proposes a worldwide plan of action to deal with interrelated problems and its seventeen Objectives for Sustainable Development (OSD) include one (the fourth, OSD4: Quality Education) that aims to reinforce the role of education in promoting responsible local and global behavior by citizens [7
]. It is important to remember, nonetheless, that calls for education in environmental practices began back in the 1970s with the development of what was termed “environmental education” (EE) [8
] and the subsequent adoption of a more holistic systemic vision in the form of education for sustainable development (ESD) [10
]. Our current environmental scenario only serves to confirm the need to foster competencies that aim to actively involve citizens in helping combat today’s environmental problems.
Among the other institutions, schools must play a key part in achieving this goal, with a fundamental role played by teachers as the group most strongly influential in guaranteeing the quality of education [12
]. This is why well-trained teachers are absolutely essential, with special emphasis placed on certain aspects of their professional development, in particular, their pre-service and continuous training.
Hence, it is important for teacher training institutions in charge of pre-service training to ensure that future teachers are proficient in teaching environmental education on the completion of their initial training. This calls for efficient pre-service teacher training programs with a suitable environmental focus; that is, programs that are able to provide future teachers with the necessary knowledge, attitudes, and skills to educate young generations in environmental issues. During this pre-service training stage, as the trainee teachers are not uniform blank slates, some sociodemographic characteristics, experiences, or educational factors prior to or during their teacher training studies may influence their training in environmental issues. This paper aspires to find these out, since it could help improve the environmental training given to future teachers.
1.1. Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development
EE’s origins can be traced back to a growing awareness, in the mid-1960s, of the need for a change in people’s approach to the environment. The end purpose, as indicated in the Belgrade Charter (1975) [8
], was to foster citizens with a close awareness of the environment and its associated problems, hence encouraging them to act both individually and together in helping combat existing environmental problems and prevent future ones [8
With the introduction of the concept of sustainable development (SD), and by extension, education for sustainable development (ESD), after the 1992 UNESCO World Summit [15
], EE became a component of a more complex globalized system focused on sustainable human development. This research study’s theoretical basis, which considers EE to be an essential component of ESD aimed at redirecting human relations with the environment, is supported by the different relational perspectives between EE and ESD as highlighted by diverse authors [16
Within this context, environmental literacy (EL) can help to define what training in EE/ESD should encompass. EL entails an awareness and concern for the environment and its associated problems, and it requires the necessary knowledge, skills, and motivation to work toward overcoming current and future environmental problems [18
], with end goals that coincide with those of EE [20
1.2. Variables that Can Influence Teacher Training in Environmental Education
The inadequate training in environmental education received by primary school teachers has been highlighted in different international studies, given the scant attention paid to the subject during their degree course [22
]. However, according to some studies, certain variables of training programs such as the inclusion of EE as a specific subject [26
] or other sociodemographic factors can influence pre-service teacher training in EE. In other words, a raised environmental awareness among pre-service teachers might not just be influenced by the training they receive during their degree course, but also by social and cultural relations or by the physical setting.
Some research studies have assessed future primary school teachers’ degree of EL, identifying a link between gender and the components of EL (environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors). For instance, women have been highlighted as having more positive environmental attitudes than men [28
], although in other studies, no significant differences have been found [29
]. Some research studies have analyzed the impact of the habitual place of residence on the environmental behavior of pre-service teachers [30
], finding that rural places of residence had a positive influence on certain categories of environmental behavior such as environmental citizenship, actions that denote an interest in nature, responsible consumption, and environmental activism. Other studies [30
] have highlighted the existence of significant differences between teacher training students who are preparing to teach scientific subjects and those specializing in social sciences in terms of their environmental knowledge and behavior, with the former achieving better outcomes.
Personal experiences of the natural environment might also help foster a raised environmental awareness among future teachers, although one study [28
] found no significant differences between leisure activities in natural surroundings and some components of EL like attitudes. Other research studies have explored the influence of the mother or father’s level of education on a person’s environmental education, concluding that there is a positive relationship between the students’ environmental knowledge and attitudes and the mother’s level of education [32
1.3. Research Aim and Questions
The purpose of this research study was to analyze the link between different personal and educational factors and the acquisition of environmental competencies (ECs) among students studying for a Degree in Primary Education (DPE) at two Spanish universities. To do so, two goals were defined based on the following research questions:
Do educational factors (like the educational pathway prior to university, taking a subject related to EE during the degree program or outside university, or the DPE student’s grade point average) influence the acquisition of ECs?
The initial hypothesis is that students who followed a scientific pre-university pathway and students with better academic results at university will have the best ECs. Additionally, studying a subject related to EE during the degree or separate from it will have a positive influence on the acquisition of ECs.
Is there a link between some personal variables (gender, habitual place of residence, leisure activities, and the mother and father’s level of education) and the acquisition of ECs by the DPE student?
We posed the hypothesis that there are significant differences in the acquisition of ECs depending on the person’s gender. Likewise, living in a rural setting, doing leisure activities in natural surroundings, and having a mother or father with a higher level of education will indicate students with better ECs.
2. Materials and Methods
This descriptive case study reports the results of a survey of pre-service teachers enrolled in a DPE program at two Spanish universities during the 2014–2015 academic year. Their responses to the survey were used to explain some variables that might influence the acquisition of certain ECs.
2.1. The Participants
The study was based on a sample of 274 students in their final year of a DPE at two Spanish universities. Under Spanish legislation, different competencies in the field of environmental sustainability must be contemplated in the curriculums of pre-service primary school teacher training courses in order to ensure adequate training in this area. However, the way the legislation is enforced leaves much to be desired, leading to universities whose teacher training curriculums take the environment into account to widely differing extents [33
]. More specifically, from our analysis of the environmental sustainability competencies included in the curriculums of the universities used in our case study and their integration in the subjects [34
], only one of the universities could be seen to have a training program with a strong environmental component, while the other only contemplated it to a low degree.
The DPE covers a total of four academic years and students admitted to the degree course can have studied experimental sciences or social sciences as their pathways prior to university. Regarding the gender of the students, 77% of the subjects were women and 23% were men, with a mean age of 23.19.
A questionnaire was used to gather the data. Through a series of open and closed-ended questions, the DPE students’ ECs were analyzed and compared in relation to a series of personal and educational variables.
To determine whether there was a link, the administered Environmental Competencies Questionnaire (ECQ) assessed six specific types of environmental competencies, based on a dimensional model of three components of EL: environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors (Table 1
). These competencies were described using projects developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education(NAAEE) as a basis through an analysis of the documents titled the Standards for the Initial Preparation of Environmental Educators [35
], Guidelines for the Preparation and Professional Development of Environmental Educators [36
], and finally, even though it is more strongly focused on what primary school students should learn, the Excellence in Environmental Education—Guidelines for Learning (K–12) [20
]. At the same time, an analysis was conducted of empirical models in different geographical contexts used to assess the pre-service teachers’ level of EL [28
The instrument’s contents were validated by a panel of five experts in EE, selected in accordance with the following criteria: (i) Close familiarity with the subject of the environment and/or education; (ii) Experience in the field of formal EE; and (iii) Researcher in the field of education and EE. The first draft of the questionnaire was evaluated to check its capacity to measure the defined dimensions, its length, the order of the items, the language, the instructions, the clarity of the items, and the appropriateness of the answers. An open-ended question was also included to provide suggestions, recommendations, or to express other observations. Later, a second version of the instrument was used in a pilot test with 54 subjects with similar characteristics to the population under study: final year students at one of the university’s Faculty of Education. Cronbach’s alpha was used to measure the reliability of the questionnaire. The values of the reliability coefficients (α) for each EC were EC3 = 0.711; EC4 = 0.523; EC5 = 0.735; and EC6 = 0.837. In the case of EC1, it was measured by using the percentage of correct answers for each question.
In the different sections of the questionnaire, the following dimensions were analyzed:
Personal data. Sociodemographic data and information on their personal and academic backgrounds were gathered to determine the influence of personal and educational variables on the acquisition of ECs by future teachers. The demographic data consisted of their age, sex, and habitual place of residence (rural or urban). To uncover the sample’s academic background, information was compiled on the educational pathway they had followed prior to being admitted to university, in accordance with the categories established in the Spanish legislation on university access, Spanish Royal Decree 412/2014 [41
], in addition to information about their university studies by taking the grade point average of their academic transcript, based on four categories ranging from pass to excellent.
To collect information on certain academic variables that might influence the acquisition of certain ECs, data were compiled on studies of EE or related subjects taken as part of the degree course or in other non-university contexts.
As for their personal backgrounds, data were gathered to investigate the possible influence of leisure activities relating to the environment on the acquisition of ECs during their university studies. These activities were divided into (i) activities in natural surroundings (“Nature routes”, “Sport in natural surroundings (cycling, climbing, canoeing, sailing etc.)”, “Camping”), and (ii) environmental awareness raising activities (“Bird watching” and “Nature photography”). A last category was added to include any activity not encompassed by the others.
Finally, information was gathered on the mother and father’s level of education by recording the highest qualification they had achieved. To define these categories, we used the classification system utilized by the Spanish National Statistics Office (the INE according to its acronym in Spanish).
Environmental knowledge. To assess this component of EL, two basic environmental competencies were established, only one of which (EC1) was contemplated in this study. The aim of EC1 was to measure the pre-service teachers’ understanding of basic ecological principles and processes and interrelations between social and environmental systems, in addition to associated environmental problems [18
], by using a scale of 15 items with closed-ended answers and only one correct option.
Environmental attitudes. Likert-type scales were used ranging from a value of 1 (“Totally disagree”) to 5 (“Totally agree”). The first of these competencies, EC3, measures the degree to which the students assume their responsibility for the environment through related individual, collective, and governmental actions. This scale is made up of eight items based on two previous studies [28
]. EC4 is made up of six items that assess the feelings and values associated with the environment [28
]. EC5 is made up of eight items that were used to assess how motivated the students were in helping to overcome socio-environmental problems [37
Environmental behaviors. Twenty-one items were used to assess EC6. These analyzed the frequency of a series of environmentally-friendly actions by the students by using a Likert scale where 1 represented “Never” and 5 “Almost always”. Its design was based on a previous study [37
] with the addition of some items of our own.
2.3. Data Analysis
To analyze the data, the degree students from both universities were treated as if they were a single population and only the scale-based competencies were taken into account. In other words, the second competency (EC2) was excluded from the analysis as it is qualitative in type.
Prior to analyzing the data, to guarantee the quality of the gathered information, the data from the questionnaires were filtered using the following exclusion criteria: (a) less than 50% of the questionnaire had been answered; or, (b) the unintelligibility of the interviewee’s answers.
The questions for EC1 (environmental knowledge) were re-codified, using 1 for a correct answer and 0 for a wrong answer. The minimum possible score was 0 and the maximum score 15. For the Likert-type questions (EC3, EC4, EC5, and EC6), values from 1 to 5 were assigned in accordance with the ratings that were given. For items answered with a negative statement, the codified answers were reversed.
To determine the extent of their environmental knowledge, distributions of frequencies and percentages were used. For the attitudes and behaviors, the mean values of the scales were taken.
Finally, to find out whether there was any association with the selected variables, two types of tests were performed. To assess the level of association between the EC under analysis and a dichotomous categorical variable (the educational pathway prior to university, training in EE during the degree course or in a non-university context, the students’ gender, and habitual place of residence), independent sample Student’s t-tests were conducted for the comparison of means. To assess other variables with three or more categories, an ANOVA was performed. In both cases, a significance level of α = 0.05 was taken and all data were processed using the SPSS 20 software package (IBM Corp., Armonk NY, USA).
The results of the analysis of the educational and personal variables that might influence the acquisition of ECs by pre-service primary school teachers at the universities under study gave rise to the following interpretations. First, prior research indicates that students who study scientific subjects during their degree course have better environmental knowledge and eco-friendlier attitudes [43
] or eco-friendlier behaviors [31
]. In the case of the DPE in Spain, there was no differentiation by branches of knowledge. However, in the stage prior to university, the students followed different educational pathways and, in this case, the obtained results confirmed that this variable did not play a determining role in the extent to which ECs are acquired by the DPE students. It seems that these differences could be influenced due to personal interests in environmental issues or by other formal training in environmental topics and EE.
According to this, a difference was noted in the students who had studied a subject deemed to be related to EE as part of the curriculum at one of the universities, when compared with their peers. These students stood out for their better environmental knowledge (EC1), more environmentally-responsible attitudes (EC3), and eco-friendlier behaviors (EC6). Prior studies along these lines also confirmed that students who received specific training in EE were more environmentally literate (in aspects like their environmental knowledge) than students without this training [25
Another hypothesis that was posed in this research study was the possible positive influence of specific training courses in EE given by other non-university centers. Due to the low level of DPE students with such characteristics, it was impossible to test this hypothesis empirically. However, as such a low percentage of students was found with some kind of non-university training in EE, this might indicate a general lack of motivation or time to boost their education in this field on a voluntary basis.
One last educational variable that was assessed in this study was the difference between the students’ grade point average and the acquisition of ECs. The hypothesis used as a starting point was the existence of a positive relationship between the grade point average and the acquisition of ECs. The results of the statistical tests rejected this hypothesis, and future primary school teachers with better academic results cannot necessarily be expected to have better ECs. This could mean that even though DPE students learn the skills established in the syllabuses of their subjects, they will lack the competencies of an environmentally trained teacher and hence will not pass these competencies on to students during the course of their teaching work.
Regarding the demographic variables that were assessed, in this study, the male students were shown to have more environmental knowledge than the females (EC1). In contrast, the female students’ behaviors were eco-friendlier than their male peers (EC6). However, environmental attitudes are not dependent on gender (EC3, EC4, and EC6). In keeping with the contradictory results achieved by other aforementioned studies [28
], there does not seem to be a clear pattern in the relationship between gender and the ECs acquired by pre-service primary school teachers during their initial training.
When it came to the assumption that the habitual place of residence (rural or urban) might play an influential role, the results of the study pointed to a positive relationship between living in a rural environment and environmentally-friendly behaviors. This was confirmed by the statistical tests that were conducted: future primary school teachers who lived in a rural setting were proven to have environmentally-friendlier behaviors than those living in urban areas (EC6). A previous study [30
] also demonstrated the existence of better practices in some environmental behavior categories of pre-service teachers living in rural environments. However, this situation could not be confirmed for their environmental knowledge or attitudes.
In accordance with the results that were obtained, leisure activities in a natural setting had a positive influence on environmentally-friendly behavior by pre-service teachers. People who undertook activities in natural surroundings or activities that implied a greater environmental awareness such as nature photography or birdwatching acted in an environmentally-friendlier way (EC6). No significant differences were found in environmental attitudes (EC3, EC4, and EC5), as was also the case of research carried out prior to the study by Tuncer, Tekkaya, Sungur, Cakiroglu, Ertepinar, and Kaplowitz (2009) [28
According to Goldman, Yavetz, and Pe’er (2006) [30
], the mother’s level of education influenced some environmentally-friendly practices such as recycling. This specific variable could not be demonstrated in our study because no in-depth analysis was made of the types of environmental behavior. The said authors also highlighted the positive relationship between the mother’s level of education and environmental knowledge: the higher the mother’s level of education, the greater the environmental knowledge. They also pointed to a positive relationship between the mother’s level of education and some attitudes: the more educated the mother, the eco-friendlier the student’s attitudes will be [32
]. This was not the case in our study. Our results coincided with those of Timur, Timur, and Yilmaz (2013) [40
] where the mother and father’s level of education did not influence the degree to which pre-service teachers acquired ECs.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the results and interpretations presented so far must be treated with some caution; first, because this study did not identify and assess all the possible demographic and educational variables that might influence the acquisition of ECs. The questionnaire gathered data on certain variables that should be used to delve further into the possible influence of non-university factors on future teacher’s training in EE, although other variables such as personal experiences relating to the environment might also be useful in taking the study one step further.
Evidently, in light of the obtained results, a wide variety of factors can influence the degree to which these competencies are acquired. The aim of this study was to analyze the important work that is carried out by teaching staff to introduce EE to education systems. University lecturers in DPE programs must be expected to play an influential role in the acquisition of these competencies, in addition to influencing the curricular development of the content of different subjects and methodologies used in the classroom: variables that were not exhaustively analyzed in this study.