Learn Local

Sujatha Padmanabhan

My first forays into understanding the need for what is today called “locale specific” learning was made when I visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands some eight years ago. The islands are unique in many respects. They support a variety of habitats – tropical rain forests, deciduous forests, mangroves, littoral forests and beaches and coral reefs. These habitats are a hotspot for biological diversity and support a number of endemic species of plants and animals. The islands are also home to the Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Shompen, Sentinelese and the Nicorbarese tribes. All these tribes, excepting the Nicobarese, face extinction.

As I travelled around the islands, I discovered how rich the place was in history, geography, culture and wildlife. However, our interactions with the school educational system (with department officials, Headmasters and teachers) and with school curricula and text books showed a sad disconnect between students’ immediate surroundings and classroom learning.

There was no exposure to the wealth of the islands’ species and the ecosystem diversity, or to the threats that the islands face. One may ask why all this is important enough to warrant inclusion into school-level curricula. The reasons are many. The tragic tsunami of 2004 threw up a stark reminder of how important learning could be for just sheer survival. One may recall reading how Tilly Smith, a young student, helped save the lives of scores of persons in Thailand because, having learnt about it in a geography class, she was able to recognise the receding tide as a sign of an impending tsunami. If this were common knowledge to coastal communities, then far more lives would have been saved.

The islands threw up many examples that showed that learning about the environment one lives in is linked to survival, safety and livelihoods: the knowledge that corals are living organisms and that coral reefs protect the coast and hence are not to be treated as stone to be used for construction purposes; that stands of mangroves are a first line of protection against a storm; or that species that are introduced to the islands from outside may cause a lot of damage to the habitat like the Spotted deer and the African giant snail have done, to mention just a few.

Children’s early reading and learning experiences must move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This facilitates success which is crucial in the early years of education. We often forget how strongly children relate to their immediate surroundings and their experiences. This was vividly illustrated to me by a child who lived in a small village in the Himalayas, who was very concerned when I told her that I lived in a city where there were no mountains. “How does the sun rise everyday if there are no mountains?” she asked – she was so used to seeing the sun rise from behind the mountains!

My subsequent travels to a very different bio-geographic region (the cold deserts of Ladakh) reinforced the case for site-specific learning. In one of my early trips to Ladakh I interacted with a group of class X students who were in an English Conversation class. Given my interest in wildlife, Isoon found myself asking them what wildlife Ladakh had. Pat came the answer: ‘Tigers.”

In all the formal years of schooling that this group had been through, their text books spoke of tigers and lions. The charts displayed on the walls of their classroom had pictures of elephants, zebras, rhinos and giraffes! Nowhere in their entire school learning did they hear of Snow leopards, marmots or blue sheep. Their education did not teach them to feel proud of the Ladakh urial, a species of wild sheep that is endemic to Ladakh! Nor did it help them feel concerned about the Tibetan antelope whose underfur was used in making shahtoosh shawls.

The problem with the text books is not limited to what they do not portray: what they do portray is equally problematic: trains, coconut trees, ships, road traffic signals, etc. Take for example, a class 4 EVS text book prepared according to national guidelines. The book has a chapter on “Care and Protection of the Environment.” Some of the activities that it indicates as wasteful are: each family member driving a car, the son bathing under a shower, a fan left on by the daughter. None of these will apply to a region like Ladakh, where most children walk to school, many rural houses do not have taps let alone showers, and where the only appliance used to regulate room temperature are room heaters in winter! The chapter on balanced diets will not help Ladakhi children to learn how they should make their diets healthy. The recommended list of foods does not include what they eat!

How does one expect primary school children living in the Himalayas, over 11,000 feet above sea level to relate to these with ease? Most textbooks had no reference to Ladakh at all. And if they did (usually only at middle and high school levels) they were full of erroneous facts: a desert region with no vegetation; a vast sandy desert; an area where all settlements are along the River Indus and so on.

The sad situation was partly corrected by an innovative collaboration called Operation New Hope (ONH) between the government in Leh and a local NGO called SECMOL. Under ONH, locally relevant text books for English and EVS were produced for the primary school level. The EVS text books for classes 4 and 5 were published by the Jammu and Kashmir State Board. These text books were produced for Leh district in 2003 and 2004. They are currently being used in all the government schools in the district.

A glance at the list of contents tells us how relevant and meaningful these are to Ladakhi children: they include chapter names such as Wild Plants of Ladakh; Making a Building Warm; Wild Animals of Ladakh; Life in a Farming Village; Some Historical Monuments of Ladakh and The Life of Nomads.

The examples that have been used to illustrate the need for locale specificity are from two ecosystems that harbour rich biodiversity. However, the need to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar and to enable children to observe, understand and feel for their local environment, are as important in any ecosystem, region, city, etc.

“How local should locale-specific be?” was a question that was posed recently at an environment education conference. There will be no simple answer to that in a country like India, which has such different regions, cultures, peoples, languages, lifestyles, etc. However, the challenge facing our policy makers, administrators, educationists, text-book writers and teachers will be how best to address such diverse needs. How do we make school learning meaningful to children’s present situations and to their future lives?

The author works with Kalpavriksh, an environment action group. She is a trained special educator and has worked with children with multiple disabilities in Delhi for 10 years. She can be reached at: kvedu@vsnl.net