Environmental Education - a fractured fairytale
There are certain elements of fairytales that I am encountering lately in my pursuit of effective Environmental Education.
Fairytales rely on a time and space notion that is 'long ago' and 'far away'. Similarly, in Environmental Education literature, there is still continuing reference to a future that will magically appear one day where the environment will be 'fixed'! So many reports and documents talk about the future - 'Into the future', 'Towards the future', 'Foresight for our Future' and it always represents some distant time. It is what we do today, in the ever present now that makes the difference to tomorrow. Our challenge, however, is to help people to understand that Environmental Education needs to be an everyday, local undertaking about how we choose to live our lives.
We are able to enjoy fairytales and, upon completion, put them aside with a sigh as we face the real world we live in. The same approach has been used in Environmental Education for years. Teachers have a lesson on saving water - the reasons to do it, some ideas on how to do it and then the students return to a world where paintbrushes are washed in the trough with the water running and the mess goes down the drain. How we manage our schools has to be a fundamental model of more sustainable behaviours.
Fairytales across all cultures are filled with magic equipment, magic powers, and magic folk that make the impossible become possible. The tales are also filled with helpless, passive people who wait in their towers to be rescued, like Rapunzel. Environmental Education has also waited for the genie of science and/or technology to resolve the dilemmas of resource waste, pollution and over-consumption. In reality we have no Aladdin's lamp or fairy godmother to solve these problems for us.
Similarly, Environmental Education is also seen as someone else's problem: government or industry needs to fix it, or add it to the formal education agenda. In fact, Environmental Education has to be personalised and localised so that everyone realises that they have a role to play, both individually and collectively, if we are to achieve the breadth of change needed.
The people in fairytales are kind and good, or bad and evil. Our students need to know the complexities and perspectives involved in Environmental Education. They need to understand that we are not advocating polarised views of baddies and goodies, but promoting environmentally sound and effective ways to manage the environment. We still need to eat, be sheltered, etc but within a growing understanding and compassion for the ways that our lifestyle is at the expense of others' needs on the planet (including animals and plants etc). Ecological Footprinting provides a useful tool for understanding how big our own and the national footprint is. The teaching of critical literacies in our schools will support student understanding of current environmental concerns. We need to build student skills, and encourage them to ask their 'too many questions' that challenge current assumptions about the world, in order to create a more sustainable and just society.
Fairytales involve isolated, one-off conflicts like dragon slaying, out-witting witches, and fighting giants. In our approach to Environmental Education, we continue to fragment the solutions into isolated initiatives and problem solving, rather than encouraging a holistic approach to more sustainable living. Curriculums around the country are also fragmented into learning areas, across-curriculum perspectives, and any 'extras' that need to be added to the formal school agenda! Environmental Education continues to be a fringe-dweller in many schools because of this continuous crowding of the curriculum.
Environmental Education does not fill the need for experiences in natural environments when it consists of isolated field trips considered as rare and daring adventures. How much more effective to use our school grounds, not as tamed and asphalted areas, but as learning environments where vegetables and native plants that attract birds and butterflies grow. Students need experiences that help them to understand that we are all a part of nature. Another impact of the disconnectedness from natural environments is the loss of knowing about systems and cycles in nature. We have a fundamental need to reconnect with nature, to be a part of natural environments and their systems, even within the boundaries of schoolyards. Our students need to know where water comes from and goes (not just out of the tap and down the drain), about climate changes and seasonal cycles and how energy from the sun can be stored and used.
Schools have previously existed as separate entities, disconnected from the 'real' world and the communities who created them. Effective Environmental Education promotes schools in active partnerships with their communities, aiming to achieve both educational and environmental goals. It took Sleeping Beauty a hundred years to wake up and a handsome prince slashing his way through the dense and dark forest to find her to do it - at least I have woken up faster than that to realise that Environmental Education is about now, not later and to the fact that it is up to me to do something if I want to see changes in Environmental Education in my school. At Aldgate Primary School we, as a community, are getting on with our own rescuing through many environmental initiatives that involve daily practices in the school and have input to community projects. All schools need to take on this challenge if we are to achieve the level of change needed to meet current sustainability goals.
Environmental Education is about our behavior choices now. If we do not capitalise on 'now', then we will always risk being a trend, a passing project; and something that is in, can soon be out. We have to teach and learn more sustainable behaviours now, and use them daily so that they can become 'normal'. The 'happily ever after' is a future that we create every day. We need to keep improving on the small, incremental changes in behaviour that we make.
We have a long way to go, yet, but we are in the improvement cycle that continues to add to our successes - and we are using our own 'magical' powers! We continue to have faith in people and nature's ability to heal (if given the chance). We can also keep implementing infrastructure changes as we go, so that as technology and science improve or offer some new magical gadget to help, eg energy consumption monitors, we can keep adding to the positive impact of the behaviour changes.
We are trying in our na and idealistic ways to make a fairytale future every minute of the day, by how we live and the choices we make. It isn't perfect yet, but we have the determination to improve and keep adding to our growing list of more sustainable behaviour choices both at school and at home. Believing in fairytales doesn't make them come true; the same applies to Environmental Education. If we want our tales to come true then we need to make it happen! If we reduce the air pollution, we may even be able to see the star we are wishing upon!
Sue is Principal of Aldgate Primary School in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. She is an enthusiastic advocate for sustainability education and a leader in the South Australian Sustainable Schools initiative. Sue is a former member of the National Environmental Education Council and is still a serving member of the formal schools group of the Council. Sue enjoys teaching and learning about sustainability with students, parents and school staffs to achieve both educational and environmental outcomes.
Subject HeadingsEducation policy