Environmental education groups look for ways to teach abstract concepts to children to increase their awareness

As India’s sustainability issues grow more complex with modernisation, one of the main challenges facing environmental educators is how to impart these difficult concepts to children and how to make sure they care about them beyond the test score. 

Environmental education groups and officials from the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) were recently brought together in a conference to address “those emerging trends and dynamicity changes around us”.

The event was organised by Toxics Link, an NGO in the environment sector which hoped that such interactions would improve the quality and effectiveness of children’s eco-education. “Environment has come a long way of time when it was the hostage of terms like trees, tigers and research conservation,” the release stated.  

While children seem to easily understand the importance of wildlife conservation, abstract concepts like the negative effects of toxic chemicals upon those animals and the environment can be more difficult for them to grasp, said Kartikeya V. Sarabhai, the founder director of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE). 

But it is important to teach children these challenging concepts early on, he added. “School children’s impact on their parents and what happens in their neighbourhoods should not be dismissed.” 

The fast pace of India’s industrialisation and the environmental problems that arise from it have also proven intimidating to teachers, who might feel ill-prepared to teach on the subject, Mr. Sarabhai said. Teachers should view their role as facilitators, he said, and become comfortable saying to students “I don’t know”. 

India embraced environmental education earlier than many nations, with the National Policy on Education naming environmental education as one of ten core areas of education in 1986. In 2005, schools moved from teaching environmental education as a standalone subject to an “infusion model” designed to incorporate aspects of environmental education all subject areas. 

The infusion approach “has led to huge problems in practicality”, B.M.S. Rathore, Joint Secretary of MoEF, said. “How do we get meaning into that approach? Then, how do you evaluate it?”

One key aim is to avoid the practice common to many subject areas: children memorising information solely to do well on tests, said Professor Jaishree Sharma, NCERT head. Though the practice was common to many subjects, she said it went against the true aim of environmental education. “Children when they grow up, they really are not practicing it,” she said. Beyond consciousness-raising to bring about more sustainable development in the future, “we aim to bring about habitual changes in children”.