Green at 15

Posted on April 19, 2009


PISA Sustainability reportAt the UN DESD conference I was at the launch of the “Green at Fifteen?, How 15-year-olds perform in environmental science and geoscience in PISA 2006“.  Andreas Schleicher and Pablo Zoido  presented the examination of the competence of young people, every three years.   In the 2006 survey the focus is on science, and in this report they focus on environmental science.

An environmentally competent generation of young people will need both to understand the science of the environment and to have the interest and willingness to address the problems that it raises. There is huge scope for education systems to help develop such competence.


I am impressed that the report focusses on competence of science:  can they extrapolate? can they separate scientific information from non scientific aspects? can they distinguish between competing explanations? and so on.   I’m also impressed that science is not seen as something for the elite, while we need well-trained geoscientists, biologists, environmental scientists, and environmental policy-makers to take a leading role in confronting environmental challenges in every country, the rest of us also have a role:

Equally important are informed and motivated citizens that understand and can interpret sophisticated scientific theory and evidence and act upon this knowledge.

The questions were designed to identify the level of competence on a scale of basic proficiency (or less) through to proficiency.   The basic proficiency (Level D) indicates the extent to which education systems are giving young people at least some of the tools they will need as citizens to approach scientific and environmental issues. A basic understanding of such issues by voters, taxpayers and consumers would create crucial incentives for enterprises and public bodies to adopt environmentally-responsible behaviour.

At the other end of the scale, proficient students can handle the most complex tasks, they have high level of understanding of the environment and make a difference in helping to address environmental issues.




The results are presented by country.   New Zealand is consistently in the top group, along with Finland, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong. When ordered by ascending order of percentage of 15 year olds below Level D, NZ is 8th in the OECD (its 12% not significantly different to Australia, Netherlands and Korea), much better than Sweden (16th), UK (17th) and better USA (24th – below than the OECD average).    

The USA is consistently below the average,  its average score is below the OCED average and the average student is only just above basic proficiency.   


There are interesting country specific variations meaning there are few consistent trends.   This can be seen in the ratio of A:D, male/female (Jordan’s girls hugely outperformed  the boys – the opposite in the UK, Germany and Chile), immigrant status and so on.

There’s an interesting graph showing the spread within each country according to socio-economic status.  


Analysing the distribution of student performance by socio-economic background can reveal areas of strengths and weaknesses in education systems. For example, a wide distribution of performance across different levels of socio-economi background points to areas where more effort is needed.




Finland achieves its high performance (543)  irrespective of socio-economic background (a narrow spread from top and bottom quarters of 29 on the environmental score – remembering  a mean of 500 points).  New Zealand has a mid range spread (513, spread of 47), USA a wider spread for a lower performance (486 spread of 68).   Although a wide spread consistently lowers the average, it is possible to perform poorly overall with a close spread.  Norway is just below the average with the smallest spread in the OECD (491, 26) while in partner countries Kyrgystan, Qatar and Azerbaijan everyone performs very poorly (399, 9).

School remains the main driver for environmental understandings and competence.    There’s a mine of data about what different countries are doing in terms of environmental curriculum and delivery.  The United States, for example has the highest proportion of students taking a specific course in environmental studies (55%).   The authors don’t make this connection – but it doesn’t seem to be working for the US does it?    A graph (p68) shows where students get there environmental knowledge – the US stands out in having very low “part of geography”.   Perhaps the integrative nature of geographical thought is what is missing (disclaimer – I’m a  geographer!).  PISA Sustainability report

There’s also no strong relationship between student performance and out-of-classroom and extra-curricular activities (field trips, museums etc).     This seems counter intuitive, as the authors argue, environmental studies is particularly suited for “hands on learning”. While it may be that these activities are not effective in promoting learning, the authors point to varying interpretations as a possible explanation.   


Here’s my three take away messages:

1. Perhaps the most important finding of the report is that students’ optimism regarding environmental issues is negatively related to the environmental science performance index.  The lower students perform in environmental science, the more optimistic they are that the situation will improve over the next two decades.

2.   I like very much the approach taken by the report.    On top of this environmental awareness, in order to be a useful contributor to a sustainable society, the crucial part of science is not the knowledge of science (earth and space, physical and living) but rather scientific competencies:

– identifying scientific issues

– explaining phenomena scientifically

– using scientific evidence

– knowledge about the processes of science as a form of enquiry.

3. Environmental science is not for the elite:

While only a very small proportion of the population can be expected to become, specifically, environmental scientists, a much greater number will have jobs that interact with the environment, ranging from those involved in technological innovation to regulators and public officials. Ensuring that such knowledge workers and decision makers are proficient in addressing  relevant scientific issues makes it more likely that environmental considerations are soundly addressed in the future.


Because I’m never satisfied,  I do have some issues with the report:

1. Scope of sample, while the report proudly claims to have covered 90% of the world’s economy, it excludes all of Africa and most of Asia (India, Nigeria, China, Indonesia…). It certainly doesn’t cover 90% of the world’s children, not even nearly.

2. Environmental sustainability. Although the report canvasses the relationships between environmental science and sustainability (ie inclusion of socio-political aspects) (p17), it returns to a physical science stance for the analysis. This table, for instance, has a really nice scale dimension, but then makes some strange distinctions about what constitutes environmental subject matter.

3. Assumptions are made in reporting. For example: Q24 asks “do you see the environmental issues as serious concern for yourselves and/or others?”. But this “serious concern” is reported as “sense of responsibility”, “sense of personal and social responsibility towards these environmental issues” and “students say that they and others in their country must take responsibility for…”. Being concerned is not the same as having a sense of personal responsibility. This confusion is unfortunate as a major finding of the survey is the weak relationship between “the students’ sense of responsibility for environmental issues and their environmental science performance index”.

4. I’m not convinced geographical variation is fully taken into account. Andreas described a cultural preference process with countries voting on the their question preferences. Yet there is still clear geographic variation: New Zealand, for example rates lowly on concern (aka “responsibility”), pulled down by a lack of concern about nuclear waste despite a high level of awareness. Similarly, NZ has the lowest level of concern about air pollution. As anyone arriving in NZ will attest, air pollution is not what greets you here, perhaps if the question had more positive slant “Are you concerned about clean air…?”.

5. Some strange relationships, especially in the school chapter (4).  A very inclusive definition of environmental education still has a large number of schools reporting no environmental curriculum.     There’s  also a box giving examples of “opportunities for environmental education…from the school infrastructure, with with the school building itself seen as a source and environment for learning about the environment”.   Unfortunately, this seems quite out of place in the report, being unconnected to data presented.  

Unfortunately, we do not know the career aspirations of the students, so we can’t say anything about the environmental science skills of potential computing students. I asked Andreas Schleicher about this, and he said they would look into it.