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A Plea for the Promotion of Environmental Education in an Education System

2002, by Christian SOUCHON

The text below was presented to the French Ministry of Education, with the purpose to improve the development of Environmental Education - EE - in the French system of Education. It was then very slightly modified to give a more general approach. For the moment, this process ended to the promise of a working group meeting!


We can consider Stockholm Conference (1972) as the formal date of birth of EE, since on that occasion was decided the creation of the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program).
Several UNESCO conferences followed: Belgrade (1975) - with the production of a charter and a list of objectives -, Tbilissi (1977), Moscow (1987), then Thessalonica (1997) - that tried to bring out an education to sustainable development, following Rio 1992.
But many debates came out in the educational community in EE, notably with the Canadians and the Belgians, who wished to keep the EE spirit that already included, since Stockholm, the questions of sustainable development - before the expression appeared - and of eco-strategies (for more details, see the historical background, in La educación ambiental: bases éticas, conceptuales y metodológicas, María NOVO, UNESCO, Paris and Ed. Universitas, Madrid, 1998).

Various conceptions

With regards to the methodology, there are a number of very interesting approaches (see Lucie Sauvé illustration file, "Education and Environment: building hope without naivety" Canada). Very schematically, there are three schools of thought:
A "pedagogical" school, that insists on the interest of EE for the use of active methods (in concrete domains of Society in the sphere of environment and the quality of life) and for the development of the individual.
A " sensitive " school, which preaches sensorial-affective and emotional approaches; it is today quite challenged, especially when its proposals are exclusive vis-à-vis the other schools of thought. In addition, the "sensitive" vision generally gives priority to activities carried out in the nature - therefore according importance to a "naturalist" trend, quite developed by the associations that organize outdoors activities of leisure out of the school schedule.
An " environmentalist" school that, without neglecting the educational aspects and the need to rethink the Mankind-Nature relationships in a modern context, circumscribes the EE approach according to its study issues: environmental and resource management problems (including the resources issued from Nature!), as well as life-quality problems linked to the above (therefore closely linked with other "appointed" educational domains: Health Education, Education to Consumption, Development Education., and even Peace Education). Incidentally, in pedagogical terms, this school of thoughts takes into account methodological questions that have led to researches allowing a didactic adaptation to the EE specificity (systemic approach, information management, conceptual analysis, etc.).

Possibilities and obstacles

EE was not absent from the concerns of the different ministries in the last thirty years (protocols of the Ministry of Education, of the Environment and of Agriculture ; balance sheets...). The foreign experiences are known ; in 1991, a European "outlook" was already made...
Within the EE community, there is virtually consensus on the idea that EE should not become a discipline, since this would denature it completely. In effect, the complexity of environmental situations remits to inter-disciplinarity and to a connection with knowledge (including scientific knowledge) that cannot be fixed beforehand; moreover, the immediateness of facts and contexts prevents from any preliminary discourse.

They finally decided to introduce it in the disciplines (in the case of high school education): it was not a great success, probably because most of the teachers have not received any specific training in EE.
Another difficulty lies in the fact that the exercise of the interdisciplinary approach was not prepared. In effect, for EE activities, it is necessary:

1) To have specific spaces and exclusive slots in the timetable (with the possibility of traveling out of the school premises, for inquiries, visits, etc.).
2) To have a team-based pedagogical support, and to accept the requirements linked to this practice.
3) To enable a non-classical pedagogical practice that could even lie on a tutorship model, but that involves at least a project pedagogy aimed at concluding with an "action", for example a action of communication (preparation of an exhibition, publication of a magazine for the parents, etc.), or even more definite actions (proposals for solving an environmental problem, field actions, etc.).

We can then conceive "workshops" enabling to carry out assignments of personal interest along with a tutor, and in which individual reports (short memories) would provide the elements of evaluation (providing a qualitative assessment, which remains indispensable in a "selective" perspective and the current classification school system). Such activities should ideally take place during the whole high school education, and would enable the young students mobilizing their more formal knowledge, being considered as adults and citizens, and valorizing their knowledge (know-how and know-to-be). We can also imagine the introduction of an "accounting memory" that would be taken into account during the exams.

The major obstacle for implementing such "Utopian" proposals (see René Dumont, Utopia or Else..., Universe Books, NY, 1974) is certainly the reticence of a teaching staff by and large based on a disciplinary corporatism which is not absolute but based on the confidence they have on their specific capabilities. Beyond it, the teachers feel uncomfortable, and the need for an appropriate training is obvious. The EE community can respond to that question in terms of design and pedagogical assets, including by accounting for the deontological problems that unavoidably emerge when concrete problems are examined.

A last remark: if a formulation in terms of a curriculum was needed, the accompanying directions would certainly be very important, because it is essential in EE to have the objectives in mind, the reference to some values, etc., rather than the contents themselves. Likewise, in terms of pedagogical documents, the assistance to authors and editors must be quite careful, in order to avoid some media-like drifting leading to superficiality. Let us remind that the pedagogical material should be located in the current scene (for instance the use of the press and the media in general).

At primary school level, the presence of a single teacher simplifies a great deal the approaches. Insofar, as higher and technical education is concerned, several cases can be envisaged:
- general training at the University;
- subsequent professional concerns: engineers, farmers, journalists, etc.

In any case, it is essential to set up specific training courses for teachers.