Education without borders


Environmental education in India is restricted by its curriculum. This despite India being one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with its rich cultural heritage and its profound and intimate relationship with nature, says Harshad Sambamurthy. He earnestly suggests that we utilise stories and the oral traditions of the past to bring about a shift.

Plainly defined, environmental education is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to raise awareness on environmental issues through science-based knowledge dissemination. As a space, it has had its fair share of criticism, with its detractors pointing to its failure in keeping pace with environmental degradation. It is significant to note that nature conservation — and environmental education alike — seem to have drowned in a culture of negativity and hopelessness; often, the result of depressing coverage and bleak portrayals of conservation issues. This might stem from the difficulty in communicating the immense relevance and importance of conservation and sustainability to the average person.

Creative education, the need of the hour
The fundamentally science-based, and cognitive-centric character of environmental education leaves little room for tapping in to the affective domain — the part of the brain which relates to moods, feelings and attitudes — and such constriction is perhaps what straitjackets our discourse on conservation and sustainability. To bridge this gap, the inclusion of creative educational and pedagogical tools like storytelling or mythology and symbology can realise a never-before-seen scope and potential in harnessing the strength of the affective domain in playing a decisive role in nature conservation. Such an approach – presently missing in conventional science-based environmental education – will help forge and re-imagine a newfound relationship with the natural world.

Storytelling particularly, helps highlight the interrelationship and interdependence of both nature and culture; how the conservation of one is intrinsically linked with – and perhaps requisite upon – the conservation of the other. Stories offer creative and empowering ways of strengthening education in a multicultural world. It is a crucial ingredient that helps people derive meaning and purpose in their lives. In a variety of literature spanning nations, stories appear in numerous forms; from novels, myths and fables, to plays, films, histories and biographies. Myths – as is true in many communities and cultures – “shape worldview and are truth-laden, often considered sacred and are set in the distant past”. Myths convey continuity with past values and lifeways, whilst offering contemporary messages and details. Myths are particularly “invoked during times of crisis, to help us affirm that our lives are indeed livable”. Stories invite teachers, practitioners, and students to consider how persons in any culture come to understand themselves as they do, how such understanding “determines behaviour and relationships, and how change in self-understanding occurs”.

Imagine a curriculum or educational system that weaves together stories and narratives to supplement learning in courses such as the natural sciences or environmental studies. Using folklore, symbology and storytelling as complementary educational and pedagogical tools could provide a holistic learning experience; by unifying scientific, cognitive-centric curricula with affective-appealing techniques to help spark creative strategies towards conservation.

The use of myths and stories for conservation
Historically, the tiger, India’s national animal, has played a major role in folklore as a guardian spirit, god or soul brother of humans, that demonstrates an early conservation ethic and innate belief in the balance of all beings. It is the most iconic of the big cats and is a symbol of strength endowed with longevity, known to be the steed of the immortals. The tiger’s longevity however, has since been jeopardised by human-induced threats.

As Valmik Thapar, the renowned tiger conservationist notes, before the “advent of the gun, tigers were killed only during ceremonial occasions, there was no mass or wiful destruction”. This is an interesting point; perhaps the progress of technology that has allowed for the exponential increase in human populations, urbanisation and human encroachment into many natural spaces, has diluted our reverence for, and relationship with tigers, and thus, contributed to their astonishing decline. It is remarkable, that amongst all the communities that shared the forest with the tiger, it was never feared as a bloodthirsty killer nor wantonly slaughtered, instead regarded as the protector of the forest. The interrelationship between culture and wildlife is noteworthy, and the conservation of one appears requisite upon the conservation of the other. By conserving myths, stories and folklore, can we indeed conserve our wildlife?

Many of the countries that fall within the tiger’s geographical range have recognised — in their education strategies — the importance of involving the local community in tiger conservation, and emphasise the need to highlight in their curricula and educational material, the significance of tigers as celebrated members of a rich cultural heritage. Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Russia in particular, explicitly make connections between nature conservation and cultural heritage. Although the usage of symbology or mythology as a means for conserving tigers are not explicitly mentioned, the educational strategies of these countries indicate enormous scope and potential for the incorporation of such tools. Drawing on the cultural heritage of a nation or of a peoples can transform conservation education into a pedagogy that is historically, personally, and culturally relevant. Thereby, the subsequent development of a cultural consciousness will not only appeal to the affective domain —creating a well-rounded and balanced education — but moreover, serve as a platform by which individuals can re-connect with their environment, and once again, regain their sense of place and identity.

List of references:
Gruenwald, D. (2003) “Foundations of Place” American Educational Research Journal. Vol. 40 Pg. 619-654. Print.
Holland, T.P. and Kilpatrick, A.C. (1993) “Using Narrative Techniques to Enhance Multicultural Practice” Journal of Social Work Education. Vol. 29. Pg. 302-308. Print.
Magoulick, M., (2017) “Telling New Myths: Contemporary Native American Narratives from Michigan” The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 130. Pg. 34-71. Print.
Sobel, D. (2006) “Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities” Orion Society. Print.
Thapar, V. (2002) “The Cult of the Tiger” Oxford University Press. Print.

There are pockets where environmental education in some form is being taught in our schools, yet for the larger part, our educational system is predominantly textbook, and this robotic rigidity and subservience to the syllabus makes the case for the inclusion of unconventional, creative approaches, complex. Broadly speaking, there is very little motivation or impetus, over and above the core syllabus, to encourage students to develop a more holistic view of their immediate surrounding environment. Familiarity and the eventual cognisance of local cultural and environmental heritage is paramount for a complete learning experience.

A place-based model for environmental education, where individuals are conscious of, and actively exposed to their immediate environment as places of learning, can help nurture an appreciation and love for one’s surrounding space. It is unrealistic to expect teachers and students, or even schools for that matter, to immediately find reason in these methods, and employ them within their classrooms. Rather, we must start small; for example, environmental education in the form of an extra-curricular activity can organically spur students to push for its inclusion in core curriculum. This could help catalyse a wave of fresh grassroots approaches to nature conservation outside of the classroom; that will drive and influence educational and environmental policy from the bottom-up.

What we, as educators, should strive towards awakening within each other is the significance of places, for otherwise, a lack of attention to these matters will undoubtedly lead to the impoverishment of one’s educational experience, and potentially lead to – in the words of educational researcher and scholar David A. Gruenwald – regrettable “biological and cultural extinctions”. Place-conscious education promotes the inclusion and immersion of experience that encourages students to, in addition to the predominating focus of a school’s syllabi, re-discover the wider natural and cultural environment to discern for themselves a new sense of place in rapidly urbanising regions alienated from nature. This notion will help demonstrate the urgency of, and substantiate the case for a place-conscious environmental education, which studies the world around us, to be superior to a standardised, generic and regimented education.

Harshad Sambamurthy

Harshad is an environmental educator with a strong foundational background in sustainability. A recent graduate of NYU’s Environmental Conservation Education Programme, Harshad is striving to develop an environmental consciousness that recognises the inherent link between culture and nature by using creative educational and pedagogical tools like storytelling and folklore. He is based in Chennai. He can be reached at: