Over the past 10 years, environmental education has assumed growing importance in our curriculum and our schools. This reflects the growing centrality of environment in national policymaking and in the international arena.
A major reason for this increased emphasis on environmental learning is that, over the past 60 to 70 years, people around the world have become more concerned about our impact on life-supporting ecosystems. What is also becoming increasingly apparent is that many of our activities adversely affect not only the natural environment, but the social environment, affecting on the quality of life of the world’s human population.
South Africa has already made a good start at policy level. The environment was included as a phase organiser in C2005, and in the revised national curriculum statement (RNCS), an environmental focus has been built into each and every learning area. Some examples are:
- The Technology curriculum requires that learners focus on more environmentally sustainable options in design, and that learners consider the relationships between science, technology and the environment.
- The Natural Sciences learning area encourages learners to explore and learn about the rich biodiversity in South Africa and to consider other ecological processes and issues in the context of social justice and human rights concerns.
- The Social Sciences emphasise resource use, conflicts surrounding resource use, and more sustainable options for resource use.
- Life Orientation stresses the relationship between a healthy environment and human health.
- The further education and training (FET) national curriculum statement also reflects an emphasis on environmental health. For example, Life Sciences include a focus on sustainability issues surrounding biotechnology, biodiversity and life-support systems, while Agriculture introduces sustainable development principles. Even Home Economics encourages learners to consider environmental management and sustainability issues at the household level.
Apart from the direct benefits to learners’ development that environmental education is bringing, there are several indirect benefits that have implications for teachers’ engagement with the new curriculum. Chief among these is emerging evidence that working on the environmental focus in the learning areas seems to be helping teachers make sense of outcomes-based education and the RNCS in real, meaningful ways.
The environmental focus in the different learning areas, and the emphasis on local context that comes with exploring environmental issues, is providing teachers with opportunities to engage with the more open and innovative approaches to teaching and learning required by the RNCS.
Active learning approaches are commonly adopted when dealing with environmental issues in the curriculum. These encourage learners to find information, undertake investigations, participate in action projects and report to their schools and communities. Working on environmental concerns in the learning areas also seems to encourage learners and teachers to form partnerships at a local level, to draw on community resources and to work with parents and other members of the community to address local issues of concern to all.
There are many active, committed and innovative teachers who are leading the way with hands-on examples of how these policies can be put into practice. But while much progress has been made, the process has not been without its problems. Many teachers have still not received adequate orientation to the new curriculum, and few subject advisers and teacher educators have had experience of addressing environment and development issues in any depth.
Another area that needs attention is incorporating environmental education more substantially into teacher-education programmes. Only 16 of South Africa’s 30 teacher-education institutions are currently offering environmental education modules. The challenge is to ensure that the environmental focus in each learning area is adequately attended to in teacher-education curricula, and that teachers have a broader understanding of the local, national and global nature of environmental issues and risks. At a national level, the Department of Education has a programme in place to provide support to the learning-area committees, but this has not yet permeated the teacher-development sector in any meaningful way.
The emphasis in the RNCS on the relationship between human rights, social justice, inclusivity and a healthy environment is key to social transformation in South Africa. Strengthening environmental learning in schools has the potential to make sure that a better future is created for all.
Heila Lotz-Sisitka is an associate professor and holds the Murray & Roberts chair of environmental education at Rhodes University