China’s Environmental Education: A Mandate Unfulfilled

Chinese schoolchildren in rural Sichuan province (photo by Rob Efird).

Memo #245

By Rob Efird – efirdr [at]

China’s environmental impacts are front-page news. We have all seen the pictures of smog-choked cities and fouled waterways, and many of us know that China is the single largest source of the carbon emissions that drive global warming. It is encouraging, then, that in 2003 China’s Ministry of Education mandated environmental education in every grade and every subject of its public school system, the world’s largest. In doing so, China joined the United Nations and the many other governments around the world that promote environmental education (or Education for Sustainable Development) as an effective means of fostering sustainable behaviour. Indeed, the Ministry of Education’s guidelines share many of the methods that are internationally recognized as best practices in environmental education. Yet one decade later, there is a vast gap between China’s environmental education policy and its practice in the classroom. In large measure, China’s environmental education mandate—and its potential to address both domestic and global environmental crises—remain widely unfulfilled.

Why has China’s environmental education initiative proved so unsuccessful? Discussions with teachers and administrators reveal two major reasons: standardized tests and student safety. In the first place, parents, teachers, administrators and students share a laser-like focus on standardized test scores. Since the all-important entrance exams for high school and college incorporate little in the way of environmental content, there is widespread reluctance to devote scarce class time to environmental themes when it might otherwise be spent on subjects that are more prominent (and consequential) in the exams. Moreover, school officials are averse to the kind of experiential learning that the Ministry’s environmental education guidelines explicitly promote. Not because it is ineffective, but because taking students out of the classroom for hands-on learning might involve student injury, and potentially devastating liability. In the age of the single child, student safety has become an obsession.

Given the reluctance or inability of most Chinese schools to deliver effective environmental education, the efforts of China’s domestic and international environmental NGOs are increasingly important. In the face of China’s daunting environmental challenges, however, they may not be enough.

Rob Efird is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work at Seattle University.

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Chinese schoolchildren in rural Sichuan province (photo by Rob Efird).

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