Environmental education is in the syllabus but teaching it is a battle

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

But this 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 across subjects and grades. But a 2019 study found that the curriculum has limitations. 

With no clear direction on what integrated environmental education is about, research has found that teachers are at liberty to pick and choose topics despite having little exposure to environmental learning in the classroom and field. 

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

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

The manual encourages critical thinking, which includes framing and the language of environmental themes. One practical example involves studying media reports on wetlands and points out possible implications for terming something a wetland rather than a swamp. 

“Say a developer wants to drain a muddy area to develop a golf course, and the town planner must decide whether this can be done. Would the planner think differently of the value and future use of a wetland area if it were called a swamp?” the teaching exercise asks. 

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

“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 must provide good quality, unbiased content, particularly in relation to renewable energy sources and nuclear energy, where those with strong interests are not above producing biased materials for schools,” according to the Sanbi manual. 

Case studies provide real examples of high schools participating in academic research by monitoring natural areas. At Macassar High School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, learners report on sand mining rehabilitation in the dunes. Other education projects show the benefits of community participation. 

Schools are also taking part in scientific field work and other environmental projects such as restoration and monitoring by private organisations in support of global efforts to align with the United Nations sustainable development goals such as working to end poverty and protect the planet. 

In light of the difficulties facing schools, other research and fieldwork suggests that integrated and practical environmental education across the curriculum, and in all schools, was almost impossible to achieve. 

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

In a case study, it was found that learners in Mamelodi, Tshwane, were environmentally aware as a result of studying subjects such as geography, life sciences and life orientation, but the other subjects had no environmental content. 

“​​Problems of air and water pollution and solid waste challenges appeared to be well known to most learners. However, not much was known about environmental problems associated with acid rain, alien invasive species, and deforestation, thus identifying shortfalls that need attention in the school curriculum,” the researchers said. 

Wessa runs the eco-schools programme, which is one of the largest global sustainable education initiatives. Since 2003, nearly 5 000 schools have been part of the initiative and hundreds of teachers have been trained in eco-education.

The Foundation for Environ-mental Education is the brainchild behind the global programme that combines environment and sustainable development education that is not limited to the boundary of the schoolyard and classroom.

Structured to include wider involvement outside the school grounds, the projects have benefits for neighbourhoods surrounding the school. 

Projects vary from beehives, soil restoration, gardens, clean-ups, eco-brickmaking, upcycling and compost projects to arts and culture shows. The projects have also included wetland monitoring and restoration initiatives over the past 25 years. 

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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