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Environmental education as the mountain--exploring Chinese-ness of environmental education.

 It is a ridge when viewed horizontally, or a peak vertically. It is
 not the same when viewed from afar or nearby, above or below. The
 true face of Mountain Lu is not known to me,
 Only because I am in the middle of it.

 --On the Wall of West Woods Temple
 by Su dong po (1037-1101)

This article aims at exploring the Chinese-ness of environmental education by uncovering and reflecting on fourteen Chinese environmental educators' life experiences that have impacted their environmental consciousness formation and have influenced their commitment to environmental education work. In doing so the author hopes to present another side of the environmental education "mountain" so that together our views on environmental education will be broader and hopefully closer to its true being, which is always evolving. On a practical note, the author hopes to not only "reclaim our own histories through 'acts of remembrance' but also to 'escape the automatic imprint of our own educational experiences', and to 'surpass them through acts of critical reflection and interpretation'" (Gough, 1999, p. 411).

In a sense, this study intends to continue the significant life experiences (SLE) research in environmental education, but with a slightly different purpose. Most SLE studies intend to uncover and "arguably foster" (Hsu, 2009, p. 497) the kinds of life experiences that have significant influence on someone's responsible environmental action, that is, most of the SLE studies operate within the "for the environment" domain of environmental education. Hsu summarized well both the mainstream goal for environmental education and the SLE literature saying that "one of the ultimate goals of environmental education is the creation of an informed citizenry that will actively work to protect the environment." The author agrees that globally we need to take immediate action to safeguard the natural environment, which we depend on for survival as a species. We need to defend it from our own greed, arrogance, and ignorance. The urgency of such challenge is particularly high in certain parts of the world, such as the People's Republic of China, due to its large human population and expanding consumerism among its increasing affluent residents. Also, we surely need to continue our search for the kind of educational experiences that can heighten people's environmental awareness and bring about responsible environmental activism. However, environmental education is education after all. Protecting the environment is a "personal commitment" and should not be blurred with the role of education (Jickling & Spork, 1998, p. 317). Because, it is "one thing for an individual to assess the range of available environmental alternatives then advance a case for a preferred option, it is quite another to insert this option into the heart of anything educational." As teachers and educators, it is our "ethical responsibility" not to "indoctrinate students" (Hart, 2007, p. xi).

The author argues that when we broaden our view on environmental education beyond the "deterministic" end of "for the environment" we can start to be more inclusive, because not all environmental educators share this ultimate goal for environmental education as protecting the environment through education (Gough, 1999, Ji, 2007; Jickling & Spork, 1998, ). Through active reflection and critique of our own experiences which have shaped our environmental consciousness we can better comprehend the various views and practices in environmental education. Doing so we can keep this young and vibrant field of environmental education open and continuously evolving.

Let us first look at what the author means by these terms used in this article: environmental education and environmental consciousness.

Environmental Education

In this article, environmental education is about how we human beings find out about the world, and about ourselves as human beings. That is, human beings use the environment to find out about ourselves. Sauve wrote that "the weft of the environment is life itself, at the interface between nature and culture. The environment is the crucible in which our identities, our relations with others and our "being-in-the-world" are formed (Sauve, 2002, p. 1). She further summarized the range of relationships between human and environment into the following overlapping categories. Environment is considered as nature; as a resource; as a problem; as a system; as a place to live; as the biosphere; and as a community project (Ibid).

Environmental Consciousness

Environmental consciousness refers to a state of awakening in one's relationship to the environment, where one is aware of /sensitive to and knowledgeable about the environment, and is committed to act in a way that demonstrates enlightened environmental responsibility and care. In other words, environmental consciousness encompasses our environmental awareness, attitudes, knowledge, skills, values, and actions (UNESCO, 1977).

Review of Significant Life Experiences Literature

Significant life experiences (SLE), also known as formative influence, or significant life influences or sources of environmental sensitivity in the literature, referred to the kinds of life experiences which help to influence the development of someone's environmental consciousness. SLE studies were carried out mainly in the 1980s and 1990s (Tanner, 1980; Palmer, 1993; Sward, 1999; Chawla, 1998, 1999, 2001). The peak of interest in SLE studies was evidenced in the journal of Environmental Education Research special editions (Chawla, 1998a; Palmer et al., 1998a; Palmer et al., 1998b; Palmer & Hart, 1999; Sward, 1999; Tanner, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d, 1998e; Gough, 1999; Gough, 1999a; Gough 1999b; Payne, 1999) and an American Educational Research Association Special Interest Meeting in 2000. The major findings of SLE research studies are summarized in Table 1. The author echoes Chawla's critique (1998) that environmental activism needs to be broadened beyond the conventional focus on wildlife and conservation issues. Several researchers (Gough, 1999; Ji, 2007) shared the concern that existing SLE studies mainly reflected narrowly the ideology and values of the white male middle-class and often elite groups of conservationists and had no regards for the ordinary people whose daily life depends directly on the natural resources in their environment. Ji (2007) reviewed SLE studies and commentaries in the last three decades and concluded that almost all of the categories of analysis in the existing SLE research referred to the external environment of natural areas and altered habitats or social mediators such as friends and relatives, teachers, and books. Very few categories even begin to address the "silent side" of these experiences, which is the internal environment of the individual who receptively responds to these places and people.

Major criticism of SLE research is around these questions. Who to study-- environmental activist or environmental educators? What does SLE research really explore? What is the most appropriate research methodology? How about trivial (insignificant) life experiences? The forces of criticism of SLE research makes SLE seem like a politically incorrect subject to pursue (Chawla, 1998). However, the author agrees with Jickling's statement that "there is great power in the stories which we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others. directing attention to stories about sources of environmental interests and motivations, studies of SLE have in fact opened up an important field for study" (Jicking, 2000). Payne's (1999) article on the significance of experience in SLE research offered several insightful criticisms as well as recommendations for the SLE researcher, which Payne believes should "continue to refine their understanding of the ontological significance of the central category of human experience" (Payne, 1999, p. 365). Payne maintained that support for ongoing projects of SLE research is warranted. This research on SLE of a few Chinese environmental educators might shed light on some of the less addressed aspects of SLE research, such as the "ontological perspectives" of study participants, the "continuity of experience," and the "continuity of inner and outer experiences."

Environmental Education and Research in China

Environmental education in China has been following the international development in environmental education since the early 1970s, while maintaining its own unique characteristics. Over the last four decades, both the content and methodology of environmental education in China have broadened and diversified, as well as the people engaged in environmental education work, with the current goal for environmental education being developing an ecological civilization in China (Zhang, 2010).

Environmental education was formally established in China via a broad legislative mandate that provided for environmental protection in 1973. Since then, it has "grown steadily in sophistication" (Kwan & Lidstone 1997, p. 88). Environmental education entered the formal schooling in China at the tertiary level (Lin & Ross 2004, p. 5), with Beijing Normal University as the first higher education institution in China to offer graduate degree program in environmental education in 1993. The "green schools" promoted by the Centre for Environmental Education and Communication (CEEC) of the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China has played a key role in developing environmental education for elementary and middle school administrators, teachers, and students. In 2003, the Ministry of Education of China issued a memo titled "Outline for Environmental Education in Elementary and Middle Schools", It symbolizes a new era in China's environmental education by allocating school time for environmental education and education for sustainable development, both of which are expected to be integrated into existing school subjects as well as carried out in the weekly Comprehensive Social Practice Activities (Ministry of Education of China, 2003).

Since early 1990s environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGO) such as Friends of Nature, Global Village, and Green Rivers, etc. started to form and have grown in both numbers as well as their impacts on environmental education in China. They are the key to understanding China's environmental movement and education (Hong, Guo & Marinova, 2006, p. 324).

Ji (2010) concluded that environmental education in China, as a kind of "state supported public good", is mostly equated with environmental protection education and environmental awareness education, and is often treated as environmental science and technology and environmental law and regulation education (Ji, 2007; Hong, Guo, & Marinova, 2006; Tian, 2004; Lin & Ross, 2004; Jiao, Zen, & Song, 2004; Lu, 2003; Stimpson & Kwan, 2001; Lai, 1998; Stimpson, 1997; Zhu, 1995; Xu, 1995; Environmental Education magazine, 1995 to 2011). Environmental education in China operates primarily from the view that environment is seen as "problems' to be "solved" and "avoided, and as "resources" to be sustainably "managed" and "used.". In the formal education domain, environmental education primarily centered on views of environment as "nature" to be "appreciated", respected, and protected, and on environmental science knowledge accumulation. Views of the environment as a system or places to live, and as community projects to be actively involved are just starting to surface in the last few years, especially since the Environmental Educators' Initiative project was launched in late 1990s. At the turn of 21st Century, environmental education in China has gradually taken on the shape of education for sustainable development (ESD).

Environmental education research in China included in the Environmental Education magazine 1995-2011 (which is an academic journal in Chinese, currently issued twelve times a year, and is the only professional magazine specializing in environmental education in mainland China) is rather lacking in empirical studies. The existing research studies are predominantly quantitative (large scale questionnaires) in its methodological orientation and feature mostly theoretical/ conceptual speculations and commentaries, which reflects the overall reality of educational research in China.

The Research

The scope of this study was limited to the environmental educators participating in China's Environmental Educators' Initiative (1997-2007) project, which was a collaboration between Ministry of Education of China, World Wildlife Fund China Office, and British Petroleum. Twelve teacher education institutions and scores of elementary and middle schools all across China participated in this project, the overall objectives of which included capacity building for environmental educators, integration of environmental education into basic education curriculum, and sustainability of environmental education. This in-depth study aimed at uncovering what life experiences have impacted Chinese educators' environmental consciousness and their commitment to environmental education work. Specifically this study explored two questions. What life experiences or formative influences have contributed to these Chinese environmental educators' environmental consciousness? What life experiences or formative influences have led to these educators' involvement in/ commitment to environmental education work?

As Hart stated (1996, p. 59), "educational research can take a variety of forms depending upon the perspective taken and the questions asked." Methodology choice speaks much about the researcher's worldviews, values, and beliefs as well as is bounded by the limitation of the researcher and context of study. The overall methodological orientation of this study was under the qualitative, descriptive / interpretative paradigm, particularly along the traditions of life stories /life histories / autobiography. Grounded Theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, Glasser & Strauss, 1999) guided data analysis, while specific measures were taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the representations and interpretations in this study. A total of fourteen master environmental educators from twelve Normal Universities in China were interviewed. They were all teacher educators in their respective institutions and joined in the Environmental Educators' Initiative (1997-2007) program at various times. Majority of them were between thirty-five and fifty years in age. Participants' experience in environmental education was between two to over twenty years.


After comparing and contrasting the experiences of all fourteen study participants, several categories emerged as shown in Table 2. They are included here for comparison with previous "significant life experiences" study results. One category that stood out from previous SLE studies was participants' self knowledge. Here is an example.
 I have this strong tendency to critique ... Sometimes I feel this is
 part of me since I was born. Other times I wonder if it all comes
 from the books by LuXun whose books I read so many as a child ...
 Therefore I find a perfect match between my personality and the
 "critical thinking" aspect of environmental education.

Another participant expressed her interest in work that seems to benefit the common good.
 I think I have always been interested in things that would benefit
 the common good. Environmental education is for the common good. It
 exposes us to new ideas and thoughts and gives us the space to try
 out new teaching methods.

The life experiences of all of the fourteen study participants revealed three themes: serendipity, "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" attitude or mentality (meaning "since I am here already, I will make peace with it"), and a strong sense of responsibility for (the environment and for carrying out environmental education work).

Theme One: Serendipity--Circumstantial environmental educators

Twelve out of the fourteen participants became involved in environmental education work somewhat due to circumstance, either because of a job opportunity or their academic background as shown in the following quote.
 World Wildlife Fund people came to our university to discuss about
 establishing the Environmental Education Center (EEC) under the
 Department of Geography. Our Department Chair came to me because I
 majored in environmental studies and he gave me this opportunity to
 receive environmental education training. Without the Environmental
 Educators' Initiative project or my academic background in the
 environmental area I wouldn't have been involved in environmental
 education work in 1997.

Many of the study participants went to college majoring in something they did not intend to study initially. They were assigned to an academic field and expected to stay there no matter they were interested in the subject matter or not. Most of them got involved in environmental education work due to job arrangement or job opportunities. Involvement in China's Environmental Educators' Initiative program turned out to be a significant experience for many participants. These categories of SLE shown in Table 2 such as Job Opportunity, Academic Background, and By Chance all support this theme of serendipity.

Theme Two: "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" attitude or mentality (meaning "since I am here already, I will make peace with it.").

There was very little possibility for college students in China to change their major once they were admitted to a program or department. Or, in many cases people did not know what subject area they were interested in studying so they just took whatever major assigned to them by the universities. Half of the fourteen participants did not choose to study the discipline that they were assigned to, but developed an interest in it afterwards. A few participants' determination to learn kept them there long enough to make a career out of the subject they studied. Trying to adapt to the circumstance, especially among generations older than 40 years of age, reflected the greater cultural context of China. During the half century in which most participants lived so far, China witnessed one event after another--the June 4, 1989 Tian An Men Square Protest shared by one participant being the most recent one. These events had to a large degree shaped many people's lives in China. People learned to live and make peace with the situation they were in.

Theme Three: A strong sense of responsibility for the environment and for carrying out environmental education work

Many people shared their sense of responsibility toward the environment and toward environmental education after they learned about it and the significance of it. This finding is well illustrated by the following comment from one participant.
 I fully recognized the importance of environmental education when I
 started to work in the environmental management and regulation
 areas. Currently environmental management and planning are carried
 out by government officials. It's like [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN
 ASCII]." meaning "planning, planning,--it's good for hanging on the
 wall." ... So, I think we should have environmental education for
 these decision makers ... maybe it's impossible to educate them .
 then, we need to focus on our next generation--help them to
 gradually develop this environmental awareness and consciousness,
 so that they would have such awareness when they grow up and become
 governmental leaders ...

The more they understood what environmental education is the more they regarded it as meaningful work. Most of the participants shared a sense of urgency in carrying out environmental education work so that the environmental degradation trend could be halted or reversed. Such categories as Self Knowledge and Concern for Social Issues as shown in Table 2 support this theme in particular.

In terms of what led to these educators' commitment to environmental education work, an interesting finding was that environmental consciousness did not always lead to pursuit of environmental education work. In fact, only two out of the fourteen participants mentioned that his or her environmental consciousness led to his or her involvement in environmental education work. What actually got most subjects involved in environmental education work was because of a job opportunity or work expectation/ requirement. The Basic Education Reform of China came out as a significant context to understand these educators' involvement in environmental education work. It provided these participants a platform for action in environmental education; offered a way to formalize environmental education; provided a platform for people to apply theories of sustainability and environmental education and pedagogy /methods to teaching (such as inquiry learning, critical thinking, cooperative learning and experiential learning) and approaches to informal settings; and finally helped to sustain environmental education in schools.


One conclusion from this study was that study participants brought out various experiences in their life that have influenced their environmental consciousness formation, but no one experience is more significant than the other. It is the totality of their experiences that have contributed to their environmental consciousness. The possible breakthrough in SLE studies may lie in the work on "significance" and "experience", both of which calls for deep reflection. These study participants' active pursuit of self reflection reflects a long tradition of self reflection in China. Any event, including "outdoor experiences", can set off the "unsettling dis-equilabration/reequilibration processes", thus can possibly be "significant" (Payne, 1999, p. 374). This keen awareness of and active work on the self surfaced the most in one participant, who said that she is always searching--targeting one goal and reaching it and then setting the next target to go after.
 The feeling of impasse/ standoff in one's professional path is a
 bitter pill to swallow ... Once I reach a goal I look for the next
 and the next and the next. Always push myself a little bit more to
 see how far I can go and always look for breakthroughs ...
 Otherwise I will feel very uneasy.

Compared with the findings from previous SLE studies, this study did not find that outdoor experiences in natural areas (especially as a child or youth) was a major influence for most of the participants. Considering the agrarian context of China, most study participants have had experience living in the countryside, working in farm fields or pasture fields in the early years of their life. Eight out of the fourteen participants mentioned various "outdoor experiences" such as place of growing-up, field studies experience in college, but only three among the eight attribute much significance to these "outdoor experience" in terms of influencing their environmental consciousness or commitment to environmental education work. Indeed one of the study participants point out this difference between himself and the conclusions of most SLE studies.
 I have read some articles from American and European countries, ...
 which claim that childhood experience in nature has significant
 influence on someone's future (meaning environmental consciousness
 formation) ... You may find that the experiences of most
 environmental educators participating in the Environmental
 Educators' Initiative (EEI) project particularly disagree with that
 conclusion. We came together to engage in environmental education
 work mainly because of the EEI project work opportunity.


This article presented the Chinese-ness of environmental education as reflected through fourteen Chinese environmental educators' life experiences which are influential to their environmental consciousness formation and involvement in environmental education work. It contributes to environmental education and research by extending the framework for significant life experiences (SLE) studies beyond protecting the environment through education. Self knowledge and concern for social issues stood out as new categories of significance. However, no one experience was more significant than the other. It was the totality of their experiences that had contributed to these Chinese educators' environmental consciousness formation. Unlike findings from previous SLE studies, outdoor experiences in natural areas (especially during childhood) was not regarded as very significant by most participants. Interestingly, for most participants environmental consciousness did not lead to their pursuit of environmental education work, but rather a job opportunity or work expectation got them involved. Three themes emerged: serendipity, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (making peace with the situation), and a great sense of responsibility for carrying out environmental education work.

As we respond to the call for this Special Issue on Australian-ness of environmental education, we should keep in mind that no one country or person holds the whole view on the environmental education "mountain" because we all are parts of the "mountain." Environmental educators and scholars from different countries and cultures would benefit from seeking to view the many other sides of the environmental education "mountain" by learning from their own and each other's experiences, perceptions, and understanding. As Confucius (551BC-479BC) said, what a joy it is to learn something new by reviewing the past, and what a joy it is to have friends come to visit from afar!


The author likes to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. This study was funded partly by the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) Dissertation Scholarship Award (2006).


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Xia Jif ([dagger])

University of Regina

([dagger]) Address for correspondence: Dr. Xia Ji, University of Regina, 3737 Wascana Parkway, Regina, SK, S4S 0A2, Canada. Email:

Author Biography

Xia Ji is an Assistant Professor of Science and Environmental Education at the University of Regina in Canada. As a President's Teaching and Learning Scholar, she works to integrate teaching, research, and community engagement in the areas of teacher education, deep pedagogy, environmental learning and leadership, and civic discourse in science and environmental education. She also works to advance the environmental movement and sustainability education in mainland China.
Table 1: Summary of Major SLE Research Findings

Influences Influences Influences on
on Choice of on Attitude practical concern
Conservation Toward the Env for the Env. (Palmer,
Work (Tanner, (Peterson, 1982) 1993)

Outdoors: Outdoors: Outdoors:
Interaction with family vacations Childhood outdoors
natural, rural, or childhood play Outdoor activities
other relatively Youth groups/camp Wilderness/solitude
pristine habitats. Hunting / fishing

Habitat: (frequent Family Education

Parents Study of natural Family

Teachers Love for area in Organizations
 which one was

Books Professional TV/Media

Other Adults Habitat alteration Friends/ Others

Habitat alteration Env. Travel abroad

Solitude outdoors Books Disasters/ Negative

Miscellaneous Peer sensitivity Books

Travel abroad Becoming a parent

Influences on Influences on Path to
Interest in the Work in EE (James,
Env. (Peters- 1993)
Grant, 1996)

Childhood Outdoor exposure:
natural areas: camping
Vacation trips Youth groups
Play outdoors Exposure to rural
Camp settings
 Parks and open space

Parents Job opportunity

Other relatives Mentors:
 family members

Natural Inherent interest

Teachers Community concern

 Spedific issues:
 Community health
 Social justice




 Cultural identity

Influence on Influences on
Attitude toward Commitment to Env.
the Env. (Sward, protection
1999) (Chawla, 1998)

Outdoor Experience of natural
experiences areas

Environmental Family:
destruction Parents, others

Education Organizations

Scout movement Negative experiences:
 Habitat destruction
 Pollution, radiation

Environmental Education

Raising animals / Friends

Innate affinity Vocation
toward nature

Teachers and peers Sense of social justice

Concern for future Book or author

 Principles/ religion
 Concern for Children,

Table 2: Significant Life Experiences of Chinese Environmental

SLE # of People Percent

Negative experience of
 environmental problems 12 85.7%
Work/job 11 78.6%
Education 11 78.6%
Self Knowledge 9 64.3%
People 9 64.3%
Outdoor Experience 8 57.1%
Media 6 42.9%
No SLE 6 42.9%
Social Issues 5 35.7%
By Chance 5 35.7%
BER * 4 28.6%
ZhiQin Experience ** 2 14.3%
Pets 1 7.1%
Arts & Aesthetics 1 7.1%
Teach in High School 1 7.1%

* BER refers to Basic Education Reform in China.

** ZhiQin--literally means "knowledge youth". It refers to a
movement in China in the 1970s when the Central Government of China
encouraged / forced school students to learn from farmers in the
countryside and from workers in factory. Massive number of youth
have responded to the call from government and worked with farmers
and workers.
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Publication:Australian Journal of Environmental Education
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Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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