- At present, Indian schools teach environment as an infused subject – i.e. it isn’t standalone but is ’embedded’ in all subjects.
- Several organisations are working to inculcate ideas about the environment and sustainable living among children.
- But the question remains: how far can these efforts go without the right policy?
Arnav Lihantu (15) and his family have been segregating waste in their household for a year now. A year ago, Lihantu took an online audit called ‘Audit@Home’, under the Green Schools Programme (GSP) by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.
Through questions like “how much water is used every day”, “what happens to the food leftovers”, “is waste segregated into wet and dry”, “are there any leakages in the house”, etc., Lihantu learnt to make sense of how his household processed its waste – and then learnt to improve.
Before the pandemic, Lihantu was one of many students taking the GSP audit at the Pinegrove School, Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Groups of students, guided by their teachers, surveyed the school’s use of natural resources and waste – and in return, the schools received suggestions to improve their current standing to become greener.
“After the first round of GSP audit in 2019, students started separating waste at the source,” Virendra Chauhan, a science teacher at the school, said. “The colour-coded dustbins for wet and dry waste were there earlier as well, but the support staff had to segregate the waste all over again. After GSP, it was not required.”
When the follow-ups became harder due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the audit was modified for students to take at home.
Involving children to find solutions, instead of just talking to them about the problems, leads to greater interest, involvement and understanding, programmes like the GSP have shown.
In another example, Teach for Green, an NGO in New Delhi, uses the DIY1 approach to promote sustainable lifestyles among children. One of its recent activities was to teach schoolgoers to make solar lamps.
“Merely donating a solar lamp would not succeed – if it breaks down, they wouldn’t know how to fix it,” cofounder Ajay Kumar said. So in a three-day workshop, the Teach for Green team familiarises students with the basics of circuits and then guides them each towards a self-built lamp.
The organisation primarily works with government schools in North India. But during the pandemic, when school visits and in-person workshops weren’t feasible, the NGO held online workshops for students to make paper bags, bird feeders and planters using waste items, continuing its work of ‘solving by creating’.
Members of these organisations say it’s important to catch people young to have a better chance of inculcating sustainable living practices and choices. But this doesn’t mean it’s too late for the children’s parents.
For example, the Akshar Foundation in Guwahati teaches underprivileged children – but instead of monetary fees, the foundation’s school asks for the plastic waste from the students’ homes, and teaches them how to recycle it.
But then if waste plastic is the fee, wouldn’t it encourage family members to buy more plastic items to be able to pay the fee? “No – we accept any amount of plastic that is consumed at homes” – high or low. “There’s no benchmark. We ask for waste plastic to be submitted to the school so that they don’t burn it back home to dispose of it,” Akshar cofounder Mazin Mukhtar said. “We teach them to reuse it.”
In addition, the school’s classrooms have mud walls and bamboo roofs. And in these classrooms, the students learn to make eco-bricks out of waste plastic that are then used to build other items in the school, such as fences for the gardens. There’s also an animal shelter the students maintain.
The Mumbai-based for-profit social enterprise Upcycler’s Lab makes flash cards and board games on environmental themes, using wooden dice and recycled paper. Games like ‘Sea Samurais’ and ‘Waste Warriors’ gamify the process of learning about the environment and why it’s important that we protect it.
“When the environment is usually taught to young children, it’s loaded with scientific information with a little fun element to it,” Upcycler founder Amishi Parasampuria said. She believes it’s important to introduce children to topics on sustainability early on.
Such initiatives are helping spread an environmental sensibility among children, but they also remain niche attempts. Institutional education policies could give them the leg-up to have more widespread impact.
At present, students in schools are taught about the environment as an infused subject – that is, environmental education isn’t a standalone subject but appears contextually in all subjects, as a part of an integrated curriculum.
Before India adopted the infusion approach, the Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi Environmental Education Centre (USNEEC), Almora, was teaching children about the environment and ecological balance using the village as their laboratory.
Since 1992, students in Almora have been taken on field trips for their lessons.
“The students were introduced to the quality and the quantity of natural resources available in the village – how much water is available v. how much is needed, how people and the forest depend on each other for fodder and fuelwood, how to identify the species of natural resources, etc.,” Ganga Prasad Pande, an active member of USNEEC, said.
After the trip, each student had to document their observations in a workbook. It was a practical and holistic way of teaching them,” Pande said.
This exercise happened in addition to regular school hours. The Uttarakhand state government adopted this idea for experiential learning in 2000, using it to augment a subject it had, called “agriculture and craft”.
And then, in 2016, Uttarakhand adopted the National Council for Education Research and Training’s infusion approach, in which the environment ceased to be a separate subject. “In chemistry, you study that fertilisers will boost crop production, and in biology you may study that fertilisers are not good for plants,” USNEEC chairman Lalid Pande said. “When you infuse ‘environment’ instead of teaching it separately, the students can get conflicting messages.”
“The intention behind an integrated approach for environment education was to embed it within a child-centric and constructivist way of learning, and to not burden students with more subjects …, say, on human rights or disaster management,” Anita Rampal, a professor and former dean of the faculty of education, Delhi University, said.
“Thus, at the primary level, though environmental studies integrates science, social studies and environment education, the primary textbooks in language and mathematics also consciously aim at dissolving the existing rigid boundaries within subjects to promote interconnected learning,” she added.
This said, according to her, viewing environmental education as a means to a pithy end – like jobs in the green sector – could only diminish the importance of what teachers are trying to do.
“If a student wants, she can choose to learn an environment-specific subject at the higher secondary level. What [we must] ensure is that these subjects are creatively developed and actually offered to students to choose from,” Rampal said.
The non-governmental Centre for Environment Education Himalaya (CEE-H) and the intergovernmental Commonwealth of Learning, for example, have been offering a ‘green teacher diploma’ course to impart knowledge and skills to teachers to deal with environmental concepts in the classroom and to develop low-cost outdoor activities.
Santosh Gaonkar, headmaster of Poira School, Maye Bicholim, Goa, won the National Award for Teachers in 2018 – and is a ‘green teacher diploma’ holder. “It was an extremely beneficial programme,” he said. “They took us outdoors and showed us how we can engage with children; they shared activity planning guides to help us curate interactive activities for students.”
“Initiatives like these run on government cooperation and require funding, which we have been seeing very little or nothing of since 2014,” said Abdhesh Gangwar, programme director at CEE-H.
It also doesn’t bode well that the new National Education Policy 2020 doesn’t include “environment education” under the relevant section (#4). It only says “curricular integration of essential subjects like environmental awareness will be done, curricular and pedagogical initiatives for environmental education will be done, and knowledge on India will include the environment.”
But how will it all be done? There’s little direction on that.
Vandita Sariya is a media fellow with the Earth Journalism Network and The Energy and Resources Institute, with whose support this article was written.
’Do it yourself’↩