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Environmental education finally finds a place in India's school textbooks

By Shilpa Shet

Thanks to a two-year study that identified the gaps and anomalies in environmental education in India, 800 schools now have a new and improved syllabus that promotes an understanding of environmental issues

More than 100 schools in the state of Maharashtra, and 700 more around India, now have a syllabus that aims to improve children's understanding and knowledge of the environment.

This change stems from a World Bank-aided study, undertaken by the Indian government since 1999, with the objectives of strengthening environment education in the formal school system. Apart from Maharashtra, seven other states -- Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa, Punjab and Uttaranchal -- were selected for the pilot implementation of this project.

The project was designed in two phases. In the first phase, a critical content analysis was undertaken in order to find out the status of environmental content in the textbooks currently being used in the schools. On the basis of the findings, the second phase of pilot implementation was designed, to ensure that environmental education is covered through infusion in existing subjects and not as a separate subject. Practical, hands-on activities, field experiences, work experiences etc are important components of environmental learning. These need to be planned and operationalised with inputs from NGOs and learning centres like museums, zoos etc.

The eight states were selected for the project on the basis of their geographical spread, existing environmental content in textbooks and willingness of the state to participate in the exercise. Eight hundred schools in these states (100 schools in each state) were selected for the initiative.

The Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research (BVIEER), Pune, did a two-year content analysis of more than 1,800 textbooks from all over the country, studying their handling of environmental subjects. Textbooks in General Science, Geography and Languages were analysed to assess the environment education inputs.

The BVIEER content analysis identified 99 environmental concepts including Natural Resources, Biodiversity, Pollution, People and Environment, Energy etc. Each concept was assessed for accuracy, relevance to the text, appropriateness to the age-group, consistency, bias etc. Once the matrix was complete it was easy to identify the lacunae or 'gaps' in the curriculum.

While most of the Geography textbooks did discuss the importance of the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere in detail, and focused on the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion etc, the researchers found that there is little effort to interlink environmental concepts and real life experiences. This means that most students learn the subject by rote and do not identify or believe in the cause of environmental protection. There is a serious absence of locale-specific information and several gaps in the appreciation of ecosystems, their structure, functions, uses, degradation and conservation. There is hardly any information on sustainable lifestyles and what individuals can and should do for environmental preservation as a part of personal day-to-day activity.

Several simple environmental topics such as the variety of plant and animal species in the world, in India and in each state, do not find appropriate representation in the curriculum. Very often, information provided is dated. For instance, DDT in most books is mentioned as a common pesticide, even though commercial production and use of DDT is banned in India.

While solar energy is frequently focused on, other sources of non-conventional energy are not dealt with adequately. In most instances it is observed that the complexity and frequency of each concept does not progress over the years.

Comprehension and the will to teach these topics seemed dismal amongst most teachers. Most put this down to lack of time, lack of sufficiently locale-specific environmentally relevant educational material, lack of institutional and parental support and a host of such explanations.

The researchers subsequently suggested changes in the textbooks. Dr E K Bharucha, director of BVIEER says, "Based on the analysis we made of the textbooks, the textbooks of standards 6, 7 and 8 have been redrafted in eight states of the country." In Maharashtra, BVIEER actually sat with the textbook writers to bring about changes in the curriculum.

For the pilot implementation of Phase II, textbooks of science, social sciences and languages at middle school level (standards VI to VIII) were targeted. The concerned textbooks in these states have been modified to strengthen the infusion of environmental concepts and have been introduced in the selected project schools in six states. The remaining two states are in the process of introducing these modified textbooks. The project also involved orientation for all the major stakeholders. This was done through workshops for the Educational Administrators, concerned officials of the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) Textbook Bureaus and state education departments, besides school principals and parents of students. At the same time, workshops were also conducted for textbook writers and illustrators, where experts from the field of environment education provided inputs and helped the writers revise the existing textbooks.

Model textbooks have thus been created by each state for standards 6, 7 and 8. The 'good' lessons that need to be replicated across states were retained and the poor or incorrect concepts and identified gaps that need to be addressed in future textbooks were corrected. At a larger level, there is increased interaction between textbook writers, NGOs and government bureaus. "They are now more aware of what issues to handle and how," says project coordinator Shamita Kumar.

As Dr Bharucha says, "The change has been different in different states, but you cannot expect everyone to react in the same manner. The report is so complex and large that it will take some time for the changes to register properly."

(Shilpa Shet is a Pune-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003