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Environmental studies

Publication Date : 22-08-2014


Our tryst with environmental education is as old as our scriptures. The first major  step to weave such a system of learning into the fabric of our educational curriculum was undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi through his seminal scheme of nai talim or 'new education' in 1937. Though his radical approach lost steam in independent India largely due to the demand for a more westernised curricula,  his  emphasis on the role of environmental awareness in basic education is relevant to this day.

India was the first country to formally integrate the concept of education with the environment of the learner. The Education Commission recommended as early as 1966 that 'the aim of teaching science in the primary school should be to develop proper understanding of the main facts, concepts, principles and processes in the physical and biological environment.'

However, when it comes to maintaining the  initiative, we lack the wherewithal to convert pioneering vision into reality. The fact that the realisation of the Education Commission achieved little on the ground can be attested by the fact that two decades later, the National Policy on Education, 1986, stated that   "there is a paramount need to create a consciousness of the environment.

It must permeate all ages and all sections of society, beginning with the child. Environmental consciousness should inform teaching in schools and colleges. This aspect will be integrated in the entire educational process".

However, the observation remained largely confined to the backyard of our education curriculum until the Supreme Court directed on 22 November 1991 that "through the medium of education, awareness of the environment and its problem related to pollution should be taught as a compulsory subject". 

On 18 December 2003, the court further directed that NCERT prepare  "a module syllabus to be taught at different grades". The National Focus Group on Habitat and Learning (2004) set up by NCERT further fine-tuned the theoretical and practical elements of the curriculum related to environmental education. All national and state-level examination boards have adopted environmental studies as a compulsory course in school and first-degree level education.

In contrast, most countries had a viable environment education policy in place in the 1990s. The United States, for example, passed the  National Environmental Education Act in 1990, which stated that  "threats to human health and environmental quality are increasingly complex, involving a wide range of conventional and toxic contaminants in the air and water and on the land" and that "there is growing evidence of international environmental problems, such as global warming, ocean pollution, and decline in species diversity, and that these problems pose serious threats to human health and the environment on a global scale".

The Act paved the way for the setting up of Green Ribbon schools under the Department of Education which focuses on reducing carbon footprint in learning environments while encouraging and financing alternate energy initiatives in schools. In the United Kingdom, the National Association for Environmental Education, an organisation of teachers and lecturers, has been working for the last 50 years to provide academic and material support to learning initiatives in schools in an environment-friendly manner.

Even in Bangladesh, environment education has been linked to community development through the Comprehensive Village Development Programme, thereby diversifying the scope of environment education from the curriculum to real-life conditions.

Interestingly enough, the Seventh World Environment Education Congress held in Morocco in 2013, which had the theme 'Environment Education in Cities and Rural Areas: Seeking Greater Harmony', has called for the diversification of conventional environment education initiatives into sustainability issues such as "relationships among diverse cultures, ways of knowing and being in the world, literacy and oral tradition, education, storytelling and learning that is informed and linked to cultural heritage."

In other words, the conventional approach to environment education, which has involved mindless formulation of theories,  is beginning to experience a transition to the practical aspect ~ a transition that is meant to touch and transform more lives on a universal scale.

In contrast, the National Curriculum Framework, devised in 2005 by NCERT as an attempt to give a general national direction to school education in India and followed by most state boards of education is still stuck in the environment education scenario where theorising about the environmental precepts and rote learning of phenomena defines a child's awareness. 

A cursory glance at the syllabi and evaluation questions of environmental education across the nation will underscore the fact the students memorise selected theories and re-produce them in the answer papers. Clearly, this defeats the very spirit of the introduction of the subject in school.

In contrast, almost a decade back, United Nations Environmental Programme's   "Strategy for Environmental Education and Training" warned against such environmental pedagogy by asserting that "environmental awareness raising initiatives are often unstructured and do not follow the basic principles of environmental education. Often such initiatives target people with specific messages aimed at changing their attitudes and behaviours without an understanding of the context of their daily lives. Such approaches to environmental awareness-raising fail to achieve their goals and often hinder other environmental education processes."

Equally disconcerting is our general neglect of training teachers of environmental education. Apart from a few discussion papers, dense with vague generalisations and abstract theorising,  there is little at the policy level to devise appropriate training mechanism for teachers in environmental education. This, despite the fact that Unesco had published an exhaustive teacher-training manual titled  "Strategies for the Training of Teachers in Environmental Education" way back in 1987.

In contrast, the general practice, regrettably, in our educational institutions is to depute a teacher with a background in biological science to 'manage' environmental education classes in most schools across the country.  These teachers lack specialised training to handle environmental education holistically.

The United Nations had declared 2005-2014 as the decade of sustainable development. The decade witnessed landmark progress in the areas of environment and sustainability across the world. Theorising had given way to concrete environmental initiatives in the classroom.  Environmental education is an area that has evolved continuously over the past decade. However, our environmental education classrooms have lagged behind both in theory and in its practical aspects. Theoretically, the syllabi is outdated and has failed to keep pace with the times. On the practical front, our students have hardly any operative knowhow of the mechanisms of environment and sustainability.

Framing an effective environmental education curriculum in an era  of rapid evolution of the discipline requires agility, vision and the will to transcend red tape. Abstract theorising and devising of instructional strategies without considering local sustainability factors can undo the efforts towards universalisation of environmental awareness. Environmental education begins in the classroom but is sustained, fine-tuned and perfected outside its walls. The earlier we adopt this precept in terms of strategy, the better it will be for the quality of our existence and the onus lies on all stakeholders to move collectively towards this objective.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of English, Raiganj B. Ed. College,Uttar Dinajpur in West Bengal)


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