Environmental Education — The Way Forward

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A case study and reflection by K. Ramnath Chandrasekhar, EWC Innovation Fellow 2020–21

The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the existence of all lifeforms, including us. It is time to reconfigure our education systems with nature, conservation, and sustainability as the critical pillars of learning. With us being the last generation to save our future before it’s too late, how far can traditional environmental awareness programs move the dial of the climate crisis? What are some ways we can create solutions that benefit both the ecological and education movement? This article provides insights into these questions after a decade of interacting with thousands of children and youth in India while introducing them to the natural world through films.

Inspiring environmental awareness programs have initiated numerous people to care for the planet. They have gone on to lead movements, save species from extinction, restore forests, lobby with the Government, develop environment-friendly ideas, all of which have made the world a better place for us and other lifeforms to live.

Dr. Pilai Poonswad said,

“I was curious. I am grateful to the people who helped me. I had a thirst for knowledge, and I have been doing this for forty-five years.”

Admired as the ‘Great Mother of Hornbills’, she has dedicated her life studying and empowering ex-hunters to protect hornbills and their nests in the forests of Thailand.

“I once saw a poster on turtles during a talk. I was so curious, and I wanted to know more. That’s how it began,”

said Arun, a teacher at Marudham school in Thiruvannamalai, India. Affectionately called Arun anna (Brother in Tamil), he has been an active crusader for more than two decades for Olive Ridleys, a species of an endangered sea turtle. My passion for environmental education too began after watching numerous wildlife and conservation documentaries by filmmaker Shekar Dattatri and listening to him speak about an individual’s role in wildlife conservation.

With a relentless conviction in the power of well-curated awareness programs, the organization I’m affiliated with has been producing numerous natural history and conservation films during the last two decades. Outreach campaigners and educators like myself have been using them to raise ecological awareness among thousands of middle school children and youth in India. Most of the sessions receive an overwhelming reaction — in the same instance. Some people who helped convene the programs self-organize later to engage with an environmental issue and take action. A decade later, a few students would say,

“Thank you for being a core inspiration for me in college. I would like to think of myself as one of the few people you educated.”

— a recent message to me from a girl who went on to become a marine conservation biologist. With ecological destruction accelerating every day, a few such individuals are no more enough. We need every one of us to enable conservation locally and lead lifestyles that reduce humanity’s impact on the planet. Are these possible today through the same approach to environmental education that uses awareness programs as a vehicle for impact? The chances are slim because the world has changed, and our interaction with nature has changed too.

Erratic development in towns and villages and mindless expansion of cities have been shrinking the islands of green spaces and protected areas like wildlife reserves. These have led to ecological collapse and reduced outdoor opportunities for children. Furthermore, their attention span has shrunk because of various factors that include increased screen time on tablets and phones. Forty years ago, Dr. Pilai’s father said to her, “There is a tiger in the forest that has set up a campfire. Don’t go out late in the night.” Today’s example would be “If you don’t eat properly, I will change the Wi-Fi password!”

In addition to this is a long list of cultural, economic, societal, educational, and environmental changes that have flipped the way we interact with the natural world. Hence, there are fewer chances for students to get inspired and pursue a path on their own to become an environmentalist unless they have an early mentor, community support, or a school that nurtures environmental values. While a few of them might get such a supportive ecosystem, millions of students in India complete their fifteen years of school life without understanding their relationship with the natural world. They lack opportunities to learn environment-friendly ways of living and active citizenship.

We can move the dial by reconfiguring the school education system with nature, conservation, and sustainability as the critical pillars of learning. Every school should be treated as a green learning centre offering place-based education through a community garden and an urban wildlife space like a pond or a butterfly park. The can practice waste segregation and make compost. Non-biodegradable waste can be turned into products in upcycling labs that can be run with the parental community’s involvement. Schools can host environmental problem-solving hackathons. They can appoint a nature educator to facilitate such initiatives. When we systematically implement them, the environmental movement will be strengthened by people who reduce their ecological footprint and take part in addressing local environmental issues. With India touted to have the highest population of young people in the world in the coming decade, bringing this shift in environmental education will determine the future of our country.

During the last ten years (2009–2019), my team and I, along with partner schools, have tried many of these initiatives through pilot testing, prototyping, and Randomized Controlled Trials. In this process, we have received five critical feedbacks. They are:

1. An interaction and call to action must follow wildlife and conservation film-screenings. This helps the organizer build a community for solving an environmental issue.

2. Middle school students speak up for environmental issues when provided with real-world experiences on ecology and conservation such as book writing, game making, problem-solving, and field visits.

3. Schools are receptive to experiential learning engagements such as edible school gardens when they fulfill their curriculum requirement and learning objectives for students.

4. Young people between the ages of 18–25, who are interested in the environment, when supported to explore then interest in teaching through an eco-club, become active participants in solving environmental issues in their locality.

5. Having a physical space that anchors such initiatives nudge people to become environmentally conscious citizens and creates social capital for mobilizing citizen action in the region.

Achieving these at scale in the real world might seem utopian because of the current education system that is weighed down by its unending challenges. However, India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which is the first-of-its-kind in the 21st century, can be a silver-living to repurpose education.

NEP’s vision for a strong base of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) to promote the overall learning and well-being of children can be achieved when we adopt nature as a classroom. Green spaces like edible gardens created along with students and teachers can transform education in the foundational, preparatory, and middle years (5+3+3) in the NEP’s new pedagogical and curricular structure. These spaces provide opportunities to implement some of the fundamental principles of NEP such as multidisciplinary and holistic education across the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. NEP’s mandate to encourage life skills such as resilience, creativity, and critical thinking in children can be realized by enabling them to investigate ecological issues, experiment and innovate solutions, and articulate their concern for the environment. All in all, when we adopt nature as a classroom, it becomes a systemic solution. Like any systemic solution, it will solve multiple problems at the same time. Nature in education will not only develop the creative potential of each individual but also get ecological literacy in every classroom in India.

With rising sea levels and the world becoming a global hothouse, it is time we give ecological literacy as much importance as foundational literacy and numeracy. Such a paradigm shift is possible when a few individuals from diverse backgrounds come together to experiment and prototype new approaches; a few schools willing to act as innovation hubs; and a few visionaries, both in the civil society and Government, ready to support a new way forward in environmental education.

Our Theory of Change is created around these beliefs.

If we help develop green spaces (edible garden, butterfly garden, etc.) in schools along with teachers and students, and if the spaces are used for multidisciplinary learning and teaching,

Then

- Teachers will adopt innovative ways to apply nature as a classroom.

- Children’s cognitive abilities will be enhanced.

- Children’s academic performance will be improved.

- Children’s social relations will be improved.

- Children’s stress will be reduced.

- Children’s physical activity will be increased.

- Children’s creativity and problem-solving will be supported.

- Children will observe and document the natural world around them.

- Children will investigate ecological issues in their locality.

- Children will articulate their concern for the natural world.

- Children will experiment and innovate solutions for ecological issues.

- Children will tell stories about their experiences of ecology and conservation.

If we provide real-world experiences on ecology and conservation,

Then

- Children and youth will develop empathy towards all lifeforms and become compassionate individuals.

- Children and youth will imbibe the traits of an explorer.

- Children and youth will participate in environmental conservation.

If we create community learning spaces like nature centres,

Then

- People will be connected to nature.

- Parents will have opportunities to introduce their children to nature.

- People can see environmentally sustainable actions in real-time in one space.

- More people will adopt eco-friendly living and form communities for environmental conservation.

If we support and empowers youth to explore their passion for teaching and practice environmental stewardship,

Then

- Eco-clubs will be formed in schools.

- Children will be introduced to nature.

- Teachers will be supported to adopt nature as a teaching and learning medium.

- Youth will develop skills like empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, effective communication, and leadership that are needed for better employability and nation-building.

Because, participants will be provided with resources and guidance to connect, learn, act, and share.

Written by

Conservation Educator by passion. Documentary Filmmaker by training. Photographer by meditation. www.ramnathshekar.com

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