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Tackling Environmental Challenges Through Education

 

Dr. Ambikavathi Periasamy,

Education Department,

Technical Teachers Training College, Kuala Lumpur

 

In an attempt to plan and manage the environment, various efforts and provisions were focused to handle the aftermath of the environmental issue.   Seldom is due attention given to preventive measures.   This article advocates attention to an effective environmental education as a preventive measure to meet the challenges posed by the environment degradation and the involvement  and commitment of all citizens to ensure a safe and friendly environment.

 

The planning, implementation and management of the environment in Malaysia can be visualized from two different perspectives: the preventive perspective and the curative perspective. Although many organizations, both governmental and non - governmental  emphasise the curative aspect, the education system tends to be  preventive in nature, that is, placing more emphasis on sustaining and maintaining the Earth and its resources.  This article traces the development of environmental education in schools, the process of curriculum design and the implementation of environmental education in the Malaysian context. 

 

Environment And Its Status In Malaysia

With the onslaught of environmental problems globally, the urgency to face this challenge is also felt in Malaysia. Furthermore, local environmental problem began to raise their ugly head with the rapid infra- structural development associated with the five-year economic development plans and the ensuing industrial development, urbanization, logging and regional land development.  The handling of issues pertaining to the environment, in terms of enforcement, monitoring, safe-guarding and maintaining the status of environmental quality to sustain life, dissemination of information, approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (established in 1974). However, in creating an environmental knowledgeable society in an organized and structured manner, neither the governmental nor the non-governmental agencies play a significant role except   for the Ministry of Education. Thus, the Education Ministry’s role in integrating environmental education into the school curriculum is to create an environment - friendly  society through the dissemination of environmental ‘knowledge, skills and values’ is of great significance.  

 

Education System and Curriculum Development

The rapid social and political developments  in Malaysia has led to a review of the national education system. Subject, or discipline based, curricula has changed in tandem with new advances in knowledge. Following the Cabinet Report (MOE, 1979), the Malaysian education system was revamped.  The old curricula for both the primary and secondary schools was replaced in stages beginning in 1983 for the primary school and moving on to the secondary level from 1989 onwards with the introduction of New Curriculum for Primary School(KBSR) and the New Curriculum for Secondary School(KBSM).             .

In Malaysia, curriculum development is centralized and coordinated by the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC). The CDC is involved in formulating, developing, implementing and evaluating curricula for schools throughout the country.  This centre designs the curricula and teachers’ guidebooks including syllabuses for all school subjects, at all year levels, both for the primary and secondary schools. The task of designing is streamlined by major guidelines and policies set by the Curriculum Consultation Committee headed by the Education Minister, the Director-General of Education, and Heads of Divisions in the Education Ministry. The CDC has focused on integration because of the growth in knowledge and technology. Integration is, therefore, seen as an ideal strategy which avoids expanding subjects in the school system because the focus is on general education for all (Ministry of Education, 1980).  The incorporation of these new components was felt essential to enable students to play a meaningful role in society (Ministry of Education, 1983, 1987). The CDC however, left integration to the discretion of teachers, for not all knowledge could be integrated, and integration does not take place at all times (Fogarty, 1993).  Furthermore, this flexibility was essential for teachers to integrate knowledge when and where appropriate, taking into consideration the students’ needs.  As the schools are still basically subject-based, minimal vertical or horizontal integration across subject curriculums occurs except for some overlapping content (Ibrahim, 1992).  Knowledge is integrated across all subjects but it is not always linked well (Beane, 1993; Jacobs, 1989).  However, environmental themes blend well with certain subjects such as science and geography.  Students can apply knowledge learnt in one area to another much more readily through cross-curricular connections.  Communication skills, reflective thinking and problem solving, extended from the thematic focus, are developed through instructional activities.  Integrated curriculum incorporates methods and skills more than the academic disciplines to teach and examine a central theme or topic.

 

Environmental Education in Schools

As the priority was the economic well being of the countries’ citizens, the long-term economic development’s impact on the environment was neglected, therefore, technological advancement has accelerated the destruction of the environment (UNESCO-UNEP, 1986).  However, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) began to pressure the governments in developed nations.  As the destruction and damages to Earth  increased manifold and became global in nature, pressures were increased to rectify this situation.  A call for environmental protection became inevitable and many nations and NGOs became actively involved in the preservation and conservation of the Earth and its resources.

Spearheading this movement, the United Nations(UN) hosted many conferences including those in Stockholm (1972), Belgrade (1975), Tbilisi (1977) and later Moscow (1987) and the Rio Summit (1992).  An important outcome of these conferences is the leading role of the UN in environmental protection. It initiated a special division – the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to coordinate and assist in environmental related matters at all levels amongst countries and NGOs. Even though the focus of environmental protection and preservation was preventive and curative in nature, education was identified as the key factor for human survival (UNESCO-UNEP, 1986). 

Education has an important role to play in motivating and empowering people to participate in the protction and improvement of the environment. Therefore, as Bowen (1994) argues, environment and sustainable lifestyle concerns should be given a centre stage in education reform for a stable and confident future. Concern for the environment by organizations prompted the endorsement of environmental education as the ultimate goal of creating a livable Earth. One aim of this course of action is the altering of human behaviour to become one which is environmental friendly. However, scholars agree that formal environmental education is more appropriate for instilling all the ‘in, for and about’ components of the environment in schools and therefore, has a profound and permanent effect (Fien, 1988, Vinke, 1993). The task of developing environmental education was coordinated by UNEP with inputs from various countries and NGOs.  The key areas identified and developed are the curriculum, resource materials and training of teachers. However, UNEP recommends that all materials are to be viewed in the local perspective as each nation has different ideologies and is undergoing different levels of socio-economic development. The UNESCO-UNEP (1986) acknowledges that the philosophy of environmental education needs to be understood before it’s effective implementation.  It has both the environmental and education dimensions. Environmental education has various definitions, but the Malaysian Education Ministry states it as follows:

 

         

To create students who are sensitive and aware of environmental issues, acquire

            knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to sincerely work as an individual or group

            towards solving environmental issues.                             (Ministry of Education, 1996a: 6)

 

Introducing environmental education in schools without unduly burdening or upsetting the existing curriculum was a challenge. Using the knowledge and methods of many disciplines is usually termed  as ‘interdisciplinary’, to describe a course in which students deal with a problem, concept, skill or value.  The concept of an interdisciplinary approach is well taken up in environmental education as the environmental problems are issue-based and to separate them by subjects will render them ineffective.  The UNEP report on the study of nature through separate disciplines has not given a global view of its effect on nature (UNESCO-UNEP, 1986). Smyth (1995) acknowledges the UNEP Charter on environmental education, adding further that interdisciplinary approach is ideal, integrating the effective and cognitive domains.  He argues that this holistic approach is flexible and adaptable.  This approach focuses on the learner and can be localized to synthesise the content and broaden the students’ worldview.  Elliot (1990) reporting on environmental education in OECD  countries, endorses a problem solving approach incorporating the school and community in understanding, participating and appreciating the environment.  

Malaysia realizes the development and importance of environmental education.  The effect of global environmental problems was felt in Malaysia, in addition to local environmental degradation, which needs to be addressed.  Malaysia utilised the know-how disseminated through the UN organizations and NGOs.  Environmental education was incorporated as a component into the overall curriculum within the Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Baru (Ministry of Education, 1983) and Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Menengah (Ministry of Education, 1989).  The emphasis was on providing environmental education across the curriculum as in the content areas in science and   geography   which had ample examples but was implicit in other subjects (Jayatilaka, 1982; Othman, 1993; Ponniah, 1981). Towards this end, many proposals and decisions were made to strengthen formal education, as today’s students may be tomorrow’s saviours. Some proposals made by these organizations are integrating environmental components into the existing curriculum for both pre-service and inservice teacher education. Cooperation and coordination between government agencies and NGOs at all levels within the country and each region was stressed. Many local  environmentalist   advocated  for the inclusion of environmental education in the school curriculum to arrest further deterioration of the Malaysian environment. Many NGOs spearheaded environmental education in Malaysia (Gurmit Singh, 1993).

On the economic front, vast forest clearings, new settlements, major infrastructure developments, establishment of industrial estates, and an increase in vehicle toxic emissions were evident.  A drastic change of land use and human consumption led to the production of toxic waste, excessive trash, landslides, flash floods, pollution and depletion of natural resources (Malaysia, 1976) Gurmit Singh, 1993).  These factors were further exaggerated by climatic changes, haze, ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect globally.  As the call for a better quality of life and sustainable development was made, both local and international organizations were actively pursuing some form of action to eliminate, or restrict the destruction of  the earth and its  resources (Malaysia, 1996).

The Malaysian government acknowledges the importance of environmental protection in the planning and implementation of it’s  programmes since the Third Malaysia Plan (Malaysia, 1976).  However, in developing countries, such as Malaysia, economic well being and environmental protection are two ends of a continuum (Fien, 1992), as the majority of the population is involved in the production or industrial sector, which is in direct conflict with environmental protection (CAP, 1996).  To highlight the importance of environmental protection to the adult citizens is difficult because it often conflicts with their livelihood or economic activity.  As politicians champion the cause of eradicating poverty, environmental issues fail to have an impact on the population. Thus, the focus has always been on economic development while the environment takes a backstage.  The role of education in creating environmental awareness is imperative and so the foundation for environmental education rests with the schools. To ensure that a more meaningful reformation in individual behaviour takes place, many changes have to occur at an early age.  Changes tend to be permanent if they are internalized and practised by individuals.  

Besides these Government initiatives, many NGOs such as World Wide Life Fund for Nature (WWF), Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP), Environmental Society, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM) and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) were actively promoting environmental awareness.  However, these organisations were more active in stressing the state of the environment (degradation), environment-related issues of the day, and informal education than initiating a permanent solution as a preventive measure.  According to Ponniah (1981), environmental education through informal means was prevalent through the mass media.  Many incidents of pollution (air, water, and land), dumping of industrial toxic waste and other environmental issues of the day were highlighted in the media.

                                              

Summary

Although integrating environmental education through the education system was stressed theoretically, much can be done to ensure that integration is implemented effectively.  The education units on environment within the government agencies need to be coordinated and strengthen so that they function effectively reducing redundancy and duplication of activities. Co-ordination among the various governmental agencies and NGOs towards the environment issues will certainly strengthen its effectiveness and create a sustainable society in Malaysia in a holistic manner. Prioritizing the school going students is important but at the same time, adults and the community should be educated informally as much as possible to ensure that all environmental policies are understood and enforced through active community participation.  Thus, the role of the Education Ministry is complementary to others involved in creating an environmental friendly behaviour for the survival of humankind in this world.  

 

 

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