Learning for life

Environmental education resources for the teacher

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Sunita Rao

Instead of dwelling on the questions, “What do I need?” and “How can I get it?”, ask “What is my place in the world?”. Rather than deriving machine like standards for optimal functioning, ask “What human qualities does a healthy ecosystem require?” Sustainability is a key concept, in the sense of both how we as a species, can live sustainably on the earth, and how we as individuals can create sustainable lives and relationships.Larry Robinson, Ecotherapy

While the Supreme Court of India directive to make environmental education compulsory in schools brought cheer to some groups, agencies and individuals who had been trying for decades to make the system endorse the worth of environmental education, it also brought with it, its own baggage.

The teaching community now has one more subject to deal with, to teach, to grade. More textbooks on environmental studies, each vying with the other in complexity and density, have made their way to the market, and into the lives of teachers and students. More meaningless cramming goes on. Sadly, the very basis of environmental education and ethics has been misunderstood. Teachers are often at a loose end about how best to bring this subject across to students in a way that will have a lasting positive impact.

Conservation education (CE) is often seen very narrowly as tree planting activities (one lakh trees planted, no one cares how many perished post-planting!) and painting competitions. It is also viewed by many as a vague and largely theoretical subject, not really leading to the development of any life skills.

Ground rules and needs
What do you as an educator or teacher need, to try and put in place a conservation education module that addresses the following basic needs of a good learning programme:

  • An approach that is not just exam, or text book geared, but takes into account basic ethics and philosophy that one will have to engage with, in the sharing of environmental learning with students.
  • A focus on developing localized material that fits in well with the vernacular context of the place – not just the linguistic context, but also cultural and social. Often an alienation from one’s immediate surroundings results in very poor learning happening, and consequently little or no environmental stewardship.
  • Something that challenges the students’ imagination, ability to question, engage with civic society and local communities, and arrive at real-life solutions to real life problems.
  • Experiential learning, outdoor observation, and field trips as part of the CE modules being prepared.
  • The inclusion of sustainable or appropriate livelihood options to be provided to students through the education system – something which is just not happening now.
  • All this without taxing the teachers too much, and making them run around for material and engaging ways to teach.

What is the primary purpose of environmental education? Is it important that the student be able to identify 30 different birds and trees, or know that habitat loss will make us lose species even before we can identify what is impacting them? Do we need to insist on Master’s level textbooks for Class 11, and yet not know how to grow even a few garden vegetables with our heads, hands and hearts? At the end of the day, do we want a student with a sense of pride about his/her ecological roots, willing to identify issues or problems and use the requisite tools and the mental and emotional energy to work towards a resolution, or someone who has just passed an EVS (environmental studies) exam?

What can you do as part of conservation education?
Often the resources around us provide a rich learning ground for CE – the school campus, a leaky tap, an old neighbourhood tree, a corrupt politician, a wonderful craftsperson or story teller, etc. It is better to use what is around us and accessible, rather than look at faraway and harder to obtain resources. A trans-disciplinary approach is also useful, though it takes some effort. So while bridging math or language skills, one could employ art, ecology or even play.

As a teacher, it is a useful exercise to build up a menu for an academic year of conservation education work. Themes, focus areas, activities and co-curricular links will have to be built in. What you can do depends on

  • how enthusiastic you are
  • whether you are in government or private service
  • working in a rural or urban area
  • the number of hours per week that can be given to CE (either in the classroom or outside – say 2 hours per week at the minimum with a field trip once or twice a year)
  • the sort of peer group you have around you
  • resources available and the attitude of the school administration. By resources, do not feel that money is the only criterion. Often an open attitude is your best resource!

Draw up a schedule, see how you can organize an academic year of activities and lesson plans. Try and reach out to any local agency that is involved with CE and see if they can help. Each session or activity also needs to have some advance planning for the materials you will need to get together.

The topics you pick may already exist in the textbook you are using, which you may want to supplement with other information or activities. Textbooks prescribed by the system tend to be rather general, and often far removed from the peculiar graces of your local context and needs. There are several handbooks for teachers that explain how you go about carrying out a full fledged, localized environmental education programme in your school – the listings given may be of help. With a bit of tweaking you can build up a sensitive, very doable programme for your own situation.

Some helpful resources
Most teachers are victims of a system where the syllabus has to be covered before the exam, and there is pressure to achieve good “results”. Even if these compulsions exist, there are some ways in which you as an individual can make a big difference to the sort of environmental values that are instilled in a child.

Given below are some resources that you may find useful.

  1. Organizations like those listed below have been working on CE and environment education.

    They have produced a lot of material and teachers’ handbooks on various environmental themes, complete with useful information and activities. Numerous other agencies, especially smaller ones have been doing excellent work in their own areas.

  2. There are innumerable field guides available to go bird-watching, identify frogs, butterflies, snakes and other creepy crawlies. The Bombay Natural History Society (www.bnhs.org) has some of the best guides in the country. Unfortunately there is still a great paucity of information about local areas. But if you can locate a nature group within your city or town and ask for help, there are often volunteers or resource people who would come out for a session or two.
  3. If you can lay your hands on any articles or books by David Orr especially those related to the greening of education, do read them. They will give you a good perspective and overall philosophy.
  4. Books by David Sobel like “Childhood and Nature – Design Principles for Education”, “Into the Field – A Guide to Locally Focussed Teaching” and others are also very valuable.
  5. Jospeh Cornell is also a much loved author of nature education, and although written for a typical American situation, the core ideas can be used for work in India.

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The possibilities are too numerous to list here. With some adaptation, a little effort and imagination, you can put together a wholesome, fairly easy to carry out conservation education package for your class. Getting any of the localized manuals from the groups listed above will help, if there are none for the area you are from.

Like it or not, the internet does seem to be a good resource with all kinds of material that you can very effectively use with your students. Whether it is calculating one’s carbon footprint or setting up a rainwater harvesting system, or beginning a food garden in school, there is a wide range of good quality information available. Books, articles, periodicals, films (U tube seems to have it all!), games, activity ideas, posters, music, quizzes, work sheets… what you can download is endless. Exercise caution here though. It is tempting, especially for city kids with free access to the internet, to live virtual lives with little or no connection to ground reality. While we used to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower during our childhood….. now it is all seen on Facebook!

Sunita Rao is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and a member of Kalpavriksh. She can be contacted for further information and dialogue at sunitasirsi@gmail.com.

  1. The environmental crisis and education

  2. Children and their environment