Environmental education is on the agenda but teaching it is a struggle

South Africa has a long history of environmental education, with wildlife conservation taking the lion’s share in private institutions outside the formal school system.

But that changed in post-apartheid education policy when the Constitution guaranteed citizens the right to a healthy and safe environment.

South Africa’s curriculum integrates environmental education in all subjects and at all levels. But a 2019 study found the program had limitations.

In the absence of clear direction on what integrated environmental education is, research has found that teachers are free to choose topics despite their low exposure to environmental learning in the classroom and in the field.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) now provides teachers with a free manual for educators at school and higher level which is a guide to noting appropriate environmental themes for various subjects. “People are inseparable from the environments in which they live and make their living, and we are affected when things go wrong in these environments, just like the other beings with whom we share the Earth,” the manual states.

Twenty-six topics are presented on two to six pages and provide links to other resources.

The manual encourages critical thinking, which includes the framing and language of environmental themes. A practical example is to study media reports on wetlands and point out the possible implications of labeling something a wetland rather than a swamp.

“Suppose a developer wants to drain a muddy area to develop a golf course, and the planner has to decide if that can be done. Would the planner think differently about the value and future use of a wetland if it were called a swamp? asks the teaching exercise.

The manual encourages teachers to move beyond common topics such as trash and provide grade-appropriate content in subjects such as high school physical science.

“They [learners] also study energy use, sustainability, and the environmental impact of various forms of energy. At this level, learners need to look beyond the obvious and teachers need to provide good quality and unbiased content, especially in relation to renewable energy sources and nuclear energy, where those who have big interests are not above producing biased material for schools,” according to the Sanbi Manual.

Case studies provide concrete examples of high schools participating in academic research by monitoring natural areas. At Macassar High School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, students talk about the rehabilitation of sand mining in the dunes. Other education projects show the benefits of community involvement.

Schools also participate in science fieldwork and other environmental projects such as restoration and monitoring by private organizations in support of global efforts to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals , such as the fight against poverty and the protection of the planet.

In light of the challenges faced by schools, other research and fieldwork suggests that integrated and practical environmental education across the curriculum and in all schools was nearly impossible to achieve.

To encourage young people to participate in innovation and awareness of environmental sustainability, organizations such as the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) hold annual competitions for school projects. Previous projects have included oil recycling in KwaZulu-Natal and the creation of anti-litter mascots in the Eastern Cape. Eco-schools also organize performance art shows to raise awareness about climate change.

In a case study, learners in Mamelodi, Tshwane were found to be aware of the environment as a result of studying subjects such as geography, life sciences and life orientation , but the other materials had no environmental content.

“Air and water pollution issues and solid waste challenges seemed to be familiar to most learners. However, little was known about the environmental problems associated with acid rain, invasive alien species and deforestation, thus identifying gaps that need attention in the school curriculum,” the researchers said.

Wessa leads the eco-schools program, which is one of the world’s largest sustainable education initiatives. Since 2003, nearly 5,000 schools have taken part in the initiative and hundreds of teachers have been trained in eco-education.

The Foundation for Environmental Education is the brainchild of the global program that combines environmental and sustainability education that is not confined to the confines of the schoolyard and classroom.

Structured to include broader involvement outside of school grounds, the projects have benefits for the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

Projects range from beehives, soil restoration, gardens, clean-ups, eco-brickmaking, recycling and composting projects to arts and cultural performances. Projects have also included wetland monitoring and restoration initiatives over the past 25 years.

Tunicia Phillips is an Open Society Foundation-funded Climate and Economic Justice Reporting Fellow for South Africa