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Educating about the environment in schools: why and how?

16 December 2011

Environmental education, Guatemala. Photo Credit: atitala.org

Laure Malchair

Today, more and more schools participate in environmental education projects, from kindergarten to high school.  This concern is new, and it is the result of the ecological emergency that we face today.  Since environmental and crisis experiences are intrinsically linked, it is logically consistent for schools, acting in the social sector, to address environmental issues.  Such projects respond to the fundamental mission of the school, namely to help children and young adults understand the world and then act in and with this world.

The history of education on environment is rooted in the Enlightenment.  We find a first trace in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education, where “nature,” “men,” and “things” are evoked as the “three masters.”  During the 20th century, numerous educators developed educational practices in respect of nature and the environment and have contributed to nourish the reflection and practices in this regard.  We may think of Célestin Freinet from France or Ovide Decroly from Belgium.

Lapalala Wilderness School achieves eco-school status, South Africa. Photo Credit: sasix.co.za

The term “environmental education” however had to wait until the 1970s, and the growing concerns about the future of the planet, to be practically used and disseminated widely.  Society as a whole was faced with new and urgent questions which required social actors  in all sectors, including education, to rethink their relationship to the planet and humanity.  Thus the school is just one of the places where environmental education must take place.

But even if everyone today agrees in recognizing the importance of environmental education, it is still far from becoming a reality.  Even critically aware citizens today show a considerable lack of awareness of environmental issues.  However, the teacher who engages in a new educational project certainly does not lack reference points.  Project reports, reflections, accounts of best practices, and other educational tools exist in large numbers.  We can draw some guidance from these.

Environmental education, Rishi Valley, Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo Credit: : Mark Edwards, hardrainproject.com

A first element is that any project of environmental education should ideally go beyond the frame of the single class and become a project for the whole school.  Ecology-related projects are major opportunities to work together with multiple class levels.  Students, once introduced to action, can intervene to improve their school environment and they can teach and challenge the younger ones and creatively initiate related activities.  This creates synergies and strengthens consistency.

Before launching a project involving several groups and a large number of students, many prefer to begin with smaller projects.  The key word here is “experimental.”  Little by little, the organisers should test collaborations with associations, use educational tools from  different systems, take external advice, and others.  Gradually, the enthusiasm of one pupil can inspire a “healthy rivalry” with others.

High school environmental education course, USA. Photo Credit: Tristan Brand, earthhealing.info

It is, however, important that projects in schools are not limited to “environmental management” but should help students to ponder their relationship towards the environment.  Ecology is indeed not only a matter of technical mastery, but a space of reflection on the relationship between nature, humanity, and macro-technical systems.  As an integral part of this general debate, the political dimension must not be avoided.  Even modest eco-friendly gestures learned in school can offer the starting point for a broader reflection, questioning the behavior and choices of everyone at school and beyond.

Education on the environment is multi-faceted.  All ages are appropriate, provided that a few essential ingredients are integrated, such as creativity, consistency, and the active involvement of students.  In the future, it will be decisive that the dialogue between different actors (school, region, associations, and other groups) will be strengthened to create links and to discover best their complementary aspects.  In other words, it will be necessary to articulate the educational goals in view of the broader aims of our society.

Laure Malchair

The author is a member of the Centre Avec in Brussels, Belgium, a Jesuit research centre for social science.  Laure Malchair has a degree in Romance Languages and Literatures (UCL) and completed her studies for a Masters in European Studies (UCL) and a Master in Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC).

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