Environmental Education
Learning to Teach

Mrinalini Vanarase

The author is a researcher of Philosophy of Environment based in Pune, Maharashtra. She has been working in the field of Natural Resource Management and Environmental Education for about a decade and is also pursuing an alternative lifestyle, with a view to lighten her own footprint.

The day Environmental Education was made compulsory in schools my 14 year old nephew declared that he hates environment!

‘You don’t have to hate it’, I said.

‘You know what follows compulsory’, he grumbled. ‘Projects, assignments, evaluation…and boredom! And whatever we do for fun, it is always against the environment. Coke, games, bikes…everything. How could anyone like it?’

I somehow convinced him that day that it doesn’t have to be so; he need not think about it just as a compulsory subject, he could still enjoy it all the same. However, I knew this was lame, so I kept on thinking about what could be a convincing answer and what I found was amazingly simple and scientific. Children want fun. Adults long for it too. And it is natural. Enjoyment is a ‘must’ for all of us. Adults and children alike. Also, we want it 24X7. And why not! Why restrict it only to weekend parties or holidaying! Can we not enlarge it to equate enjoyment prepare it for us) nor degrade our waste (microorganisms and weathering processes do it for us). If both these vital services are provided to us for free, then we can certainly enjoy the food provided by trees and let the microbes do their job. We can survive happily. But this brings in its trail the responsibility to ensure that there are trees that would provide food continuously and the microbes can work at their pace. Having taken just that much care, the only job for us is to find joy! The only condition is we should match our rate of enjoyment with the rate at which plants prepare food and micro-organisms degrade waste. Sustainability, in this perspective, is all about matching the pace of these two.

Can we then say that Environmental Education is about learning the intricacies of this matching that seems vital for sustainability? When the objective of learning is ‘effortless, harmless and steady enjoyment’ it becomes easy to convince and get convinced. Children know how to enjoy themselves without much external energy. However, as they grow up they imitate their parents, they see children to do exactly the same thing - practice restraint, and be away from the clutches of market. How is the child supposed to understand and overcome this dilemma? How do we teach this restraint? Can we really teach?

I have always found that ‘let’s find out more…’ (exploring) rather than ‘I know , so take down’ ( usual teaching) is the most appropriate approach. The teacher learns with the child. When the teacher is aware of the principles behind learning; s/he experiments and explores with the child.

The principle is - it is in our interest to know how plants function and how micro-organisms function, thus environment is not about everything that is scattered around us, but about the relationships - ecology!

The text book we create is a work of discipline. It consists of abstract ideas, concepts and systematized information. The child is new to such systematization. Many a times, there is no bridge between his/her world of experience and such systematization. The difference in the gap of their contextual reference is often too wide for the child to bridge.

Once I visited an Ashramshala (residential school for tribal children) in Jawhar Taluka of Thane District in Maharashtra. Its setting was picturesque, with a mountain range covered by a dense canopy of trees as the backdrop and a meandering river that rippled through the valley. Children go to the river three times a day for bathing, washing clothes, and to catch fish, crabs etc. ‘These children are lucky’ I thought in my mind, for they don’t have to ‘imagine’ an ‘ecosystem’. It is all in front of their eyes. An informal discussion was arranged with th grade students for whom environment is a compulsory subject. School teachers were keen on ‘testing’ their children in front of the guests. So we began with a question ‘what is an ecosystem?’

‘An ecosystem is a biological system consisting of all the biotic and abiotic components in a particular area with which the organisms interact.’ A bright eyed boy immediately replied.

Mesmerized by his command on scientific terms I asked him further, ‘Is there any ecosystem in your surrounding?’ The child perhaps was not prepared for this. ‘Not here’ he said after thinking for a while. ‘We don’t have such things here.’

I was astonished a second time. I realized that day that we need to work more with teachers than with the children. Teachers must understand that the text book is there only to help. Real life experience has to be the base of learning. We are substituting experience with scientific words. That would lead us nowhere.

No textbook would be able to encompass any child’s specific immediate surroundings. Only a teacher can help children read their surroundings. However, we can make their job easier, by creating educational material based on their own regions. Thus we are now working on preparing regional books for children. Children in Nandurbar (Maharashtra) will learn about the landscape, ecosystems, ecological history of Nandurbar in one book in the local language (Marathi). These will have familiar visuals, regional stories, poems and such things. It would also keep joy as a central principle of learning.

After all these years of working in the field of Natural Resource Management and Environmental Education I realize that it is ultimately the knowledge and understanding of local surroundings that is going to work for survival. In this light, I see that it is easy to work with an Ashramshala, far away from hustle and bustle of the cities, where there is no electricity, no higher facilities for learning, just a classroom and a blackboard. But there is a good watershed, a healthy river, and traditional wisdom to manage resources. It is very difficult working with city students in their posh environment where all the sophisticated means of teaching are at your service but no experience of a healthy landscape. It is difficult but it is necessary, perhaps, urgent.

One thing is for sure, the teacher gets to learn a lot in this process, the process makes it clear what we have lost and what we can leave and what we can create in this journey called life. That’s my take on Environment Education.

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