Does Environment Education (EE) in primary and secondary schools merely mean a trip to the neighbourhood park? Or does it actually entail substantial understanding of ecological concepts such as biodiversity, natural resources, and pollution? Is the formal educational structure equipped to help school children imbibe important green lessons and grow up to be citizens who are conscious and sensitive to the threats to environment?

A two-year-long study conducted by the Pune-based Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute for Environmental Education and Research (BVIEER) set out to investigate just this – the efficacy of the school curricula at the state and national level in the field of environment education. Based on its findings and recommendations, a pilot study was initiated in eight states in the country, with revised textbooks. A year of implementation later, the BVIEER is embarking on the evaluation of the project, a report of which will be ready by April next year.

“The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) felt the need for such a study to be undertaken,” explains Shamita Kumar of BVIEER, who is the project co-ordinator. “Several well-known organisations in the country were asked to submit a tender for the implementation of this project, and BVIEER was finally selected based on the expertise of its faculty and its experience in EE,” she explains. The project, titled 'Study of status of infusion of environmental concepts in school curricula and the effectiveness of its delivery', is a small component of the India Environment Management Capacity Building Project of the World Bank. This project is funded by the WB through the MoEF. It commenced in October 1999 and was completed in July 2001, and this was followed by implementation in 100 schools in each of the eight states of Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Orissa and Uttaranachal. BVIEER is now evaluating the implementation of the project.

The project started out with the aim to not just study the status of EE in India, but also worked on methodologies of teaching them effectively. It also sought to investigate barriers in implementation of effective EE. Its consequent research, listing of findings, and recommendations to state textbook bureaus were in keeping with these objectives.

“Our first step was to identify the existing environmental concepts in the school curricula, and we chose the Languages, General Science, and Social Science (Geography and History and Civics) textbooks from all the states of India,” says Kumar. “The concepts were categorised into 108 codes which fall under the sections of Natural Systems and Resources, Biodiversity, Pollution, Energy, People and Environment and Others. The parameters for judging the quality of these concepts were: text content, case studies and examples, visuals, activities and questions for each lesson as well as accuracy, relevance to the text, appropriateness to the age group, comprehensiveness, consistency, bias and action links. An assessment of the language used was also included,” she continues.

Next, in order to meet the second objective, an analysis of the teaching methodologies was taken up. A set of 50 sample schools was selected from all across the country, and these included schools with no EE initiatives, schools with special initiatives, and schools where EE activities had been discontinued. Special attention was given to understanding the existing strengths and weaknesses of the present formal and non-formal systems of teaching EE. Teachers from these 50 schools were then interviewed to investigate barriers in implementation of effective EE both at the curricula level and related to teaching methodology.

The results of these studies were not too encouraging. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has made it imperative for the government to implement an appropriate EE strategy in the school programme, it has not resulted in any heightened concern for the environment. What the BVIEER found was the lack of a holistic approach that integrates teaching of environmental concepts into real life experiences. There was very poor infusion of information on sustainable lifestyles and what individuals could and should do for environmental preservation through their personal daily activities. As happens often with other components of the school curricula, EE too has become a subject to be learnt by rote, without the students understanding or caring enough for the subject matter.

From the content point of view, the researchers found a serious lack of locale-specific information. Even though the NCERT specifies a set of norms, this is not necessarily reflected at the State level. Adequate information seemed to be missing on topics such as the State's biological diversity, its biogeographic regions, its common and endangered species, how ecosystems can be sustainably used and how degraded systems can be restored. Further the need to limit resource consumption, wastage of water, energy etc. had not been highlighted.

According to Kumar, ‘gaps’ in information was another point to be rectified. She points to an example quoted in the BVIEER report. While air and water pollution have been frequently addressed, the other forms which include noise, oil, thermal, radiation are discussed cursorily. Solar energy finds ample space, but other sources of non-conventional energy have not been dealt with adequately.

The study has resulted in 800 schools nurturing the concept of environment and its preservation amongst their students.
 •  Debate: Environmental Education
Another important area where the BVIEER team suggested improvement was in the lack of updates in the information. For example, DDT, in most books, is mentioned as being used as a common pesticide, even though commercial production and usage of DDT is banned in India.

While the Geography textbooks were found to include information related to natural resource utilisation, lifestyles, occupations of people, description of flora and fauna of the various biogeographic regions, etc, the History and Civics textbooks had extremely few environmental concepts. Contrary to popular belief, the Language textbooks proved quite exemplary in their infusion of environmental concepts. They included chapters that dealt with endangered species, food habits and behavioural patterns of animals and birds, pollution, national parks and sanctuaries, and also contained animal stories with ethical or moral messages.

Having listed their findings, the next step for the BVIEER team was to make certain recommendations based on the lacunae they had found. Helping enhance the status of EE is no new job to the BVIEER team. Right after its establishment in 1993, it had set to work on preparing a Handbook for teachers of classes V to IX in Maharashtra, orienting them in the teaching of EE. In 1998, the Handbook was finally published, and though it was not adopted as the official resource material for teachers by the Maharashtra Textbook Bureau and the SCERT, it has proved to be beneficial for teachers who started using it.

In the World Bank-funded project, different recommendations were made for the three subjects studied. It was suggested that the Geography textbooks focus on the flora, fauna, endangered and endemic species, natural resources and environmental assets and problems of the various biogeographic regions. Important concepts related to conservation of resources and sustainable development needed to be introduced more frequently.

A historical perspective of natural resource use, sustainable life styles along with pro-environmental initiatives taken by traditional societies in our country were recommended for inclusion in the History textbooks, while the Civics chapters needed to highlight the environmental civic duties of individuals. It was also suggested that the names of regulatory bodies to be approached for grievance redressal should not be left out of the Civics books. The Language classes, it was felt, should work in tandem with the relevant Science and Geography curricula, so that the students first understood the ecological principles, and then discussed value-added concepts.

Along with the actual changes in curricula, the researchers considered it equally imperative to motivate the students to act for environmental preservation. This, they consider, is one of the main aims of EE. Biases need to be removed. Similarly, the urban-rural divide in terms of environmental problems needs to be bridged. “The findings were then submitted to the MoEF,” says Kumar, explaining the next step in the process. A meeting of the SCERTS was then called to discuss all the material on hand. Eight states were then selected for implementation of the pilot phase of the project. Their respective Textbook bureaus began to incorporate our findings in their Science, Social Sciences (Geography, History and Civics) and the regional language books of standard VI, VII and VIII,” she says.

One year has elapsed since the implementation of the project. BVIEER is now gearing itself for the evaluation. While statistics will be calculated later, the fact remains that the study has resulted in 800 schools nurturing the concept of environment and its preservation amongst their students.