by Jayashree Ramadas and Dhanya K
Part 2: Trending a different path
Interestingly, the well-known success stories of environmental education come from outside of the formal school system: from homeschooling, out-of-school programs, and from the alternative education space. In the feature ‘Teaching as if the Earth Matters’ iWonder, a science magazine for school teachers, has featured alternative schools like Rishi Valley, Anand Niketan in Sewagram, Puvidham, and Marudam Farm School in Tamil Nadu. There are others around the country whose stories might be told.
A response to contradictions
One could trace back the roots of these
alternative initiatives to the contradictions that their founders and teachers noticed in the prevalent education system as well as in modern, urban lifestyles. Some of those very contradictions have led to today’s environmental crises: in brief, loss of biodiversity, over-exploitation of the earth's resources, hyper-consumption, unsustainable lifestyles, and imbalanced, out-of-control development. Many of the alternative schoolers responded by physically moving out or staying away from urban, built environments. They created school spaces that would embody values of equity, sustainability, ecology and conservation
through a more humane and inquiring approach.
Nature learning in alternative schools
Alternative schools strived to expose their students to nature: to develop connections with land and water, with plants, insects, and birds; to remain sensitive to the seasons, and to learn sustainability from the local communities with whom they shared a geographical space. Children in these schools practise farming, gardening, craft and art, and through practice, they seek to develop a lasting relationship with our planet Earth.
An obvious yet often missed feature of all these schools, which plays a role in meaningful environmental education, is their small class sizes. Today, in urban areas but also increasingly in rural areas, we are habituated to classes of 50, 60, or more students and we forget that meaningful education is possible only with meaningful communication -- which happens in small classrooms where teachers and students can listen and talk to each other and also allow for a more inquiry-oriented approach.
Student-teacher ratio is the quantifiable part of this interaction. If children's learning is to happen beyond their classroom, it needs support from the community. Such support may come from sympathetic parents or, in more urban areas, from professionals, academics, and activists concerned with environmental issues. All at once this move could bring more expertise and resources into the classroom, effectively increase the teacher-student ratio and lead to relevant professional development of teachers.
An alternative school in Chennai
Al Qamar Academy, an alternative minority school in Chennai, experimented with this model. In its brief 10 years of existence, the school demonstrated how explorations in nature could lead to a love of nature and thoughtful environmental activism. A background to environmental learning was created with the Small Science curriculum for primary science. Then, in a more focused way, the primary and middle school students participated in a three-year unique place-based field ecology program (2018-21), spending time in a restored wetland, and visiting riverfronts, salt pans, beaches, and forests all in their immediate environments. They experienced the enchantment of the wild and also came face to face with the consequences of rampant urbanisation. Their engagement deepened over the years through interactions with academics and environmental activists. Finally, their learning and activism found expression in the Earth Authors Program, conducted collaboratively by the Cogitation Club and Youth Conservation Action Network (YouCAN) -- in which a group of 5th-8th graders wrote and illustrated a set of 14 books that told their own stories about nature and conservation. A subsequent reflective study of this program describes in detail how the children connected with nature – the awe and wonder they experienced; the changes they found in themselves – in relating to nature, resulting in their urge for creating a change – advocating for nature.
Like many small alternative schools in the country Al Qamar led a precarious existence and finally closed down in 2021, morphing into an online program: Cogitation Club. Happily, some of its teachers and parents succeeded opening up two new schools - Scholars Academy and Sunnyside - which continue their quest for nature-friendly, experiential and self-directed learning.
Perhaps such intensive interactions of school students with experts may be achieved over a limited period of time. The question remains, how can one sustain a long-term program of environmental learning within any school?
Perhaps such intensive interactions of school students with experts may be achieved over a limited period of time.
The question remains, how can one sustain a long-term program of environmental learning within any school?
In the next part of this series let’s delve into some contradictions that beset our discussions about the environment.
What do you think? Is it easy to sustain a program of environmental learning, either in or outside of school?
Do tell us about the common activities that your school engages in to connect children with their local surroundings.
Share your responses with us by emailing to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: The images in the article were sourced from Al Qamar Academy, Chennai and Aksharnandan, Pune.
About the Authors
Jayashree Ramadas: Research and Development in Science Education; formerly at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education and TIFR Hyderabad.
Dhanya K: Researcher & Science Educator formerly Teacher at Rishi Valley School.