Exploring the environmental aspects of locality as a response to curriculum change in Mongolia

In the academic year 2014 and 2015, a major modification of the core curriculum of primary education has been introduced in every school in Mongolia. It has strong emphasis on encouraging different learning approaches, opposing traditional classroom teaching where didactic teacher instruction is the dominant style. It promotes the enabling of equal learning opportunities for the individual child, making sure each of them is not left behind. Previously, the classroom setting was one directional from teacher to student, as a whole group of children, but now it promotes children working in pairs or teams, building their team player skills.

The main content changes were to directly prepare children with practical life skills; not only the mastering of mathematics and Mongolian. To fit with these curriculum changes, our engagement with the Pathways Project, involving walking with children around their favourite places and a virtual interchange with a school in The Norfolk Broads, was considered a planned excursion in the autumn of that academic year.

Two classes of thirty-nine students at 4th and 5th grades (aged between nine and eleven years), in Mungunmorit soum, had chosen their destinations in discussions with their teacher. They walked with teachers and researchers for about 7km in approximately 3-4 hours. The visited places were quite familiar to them; one or two new students were visiting for the first time. Surprisingly they enjoyed it very much, despite the fact they live literally beside those places. They had lots of energy to run around and explain the history, myths and their understanding of questions raised by the researchers and teachers. Weather conditions were quite wet and cold. Once we returned, they insisted they would do the walking again.

Teacher Narantsatsral (whose class went on the walks) shared her observations about the main learning from the experience. In general, children seemed to express themselves freely. Last spring, children had to write several essays as part of graduation exam preparations. Many of them had written about the walk and their learning. Through the walk, they revisited and learned many stories, such as the ‘Lonely Tree’, which they were not aware of or interested in before. Also, they shared their wish to visit Burkhan Khanldun Mountain, a sacred site, when they are older. They even worried that their English teachers may not be permitted to get there due to recent changes in the law of who can access the site. The children’s sense of the future was shaped by the issues which they had linked with global warming: they believed that the land would become drier and that herding would be increasingly difficult, and told us about rivers drying up. They took us to sit under the lonely tree (gants mod), where they gather to greet the rising sun at the lunar new year (tsagaan sar) – a tree that stands alone is sometimes said to have a powerful spirit that causes the tree to flourish where others have not. Interestingly, frequent visits to this and other places offered the opportunity for children to observe environmental changes; commenting, for example, that the gants mod seemed not to be growing as well as it once had, and telling us along the way that they believed the grass was no longer as green as it had been in past years.

For the children, there seemed to be a clear sense of the significance of their lives, and the lives of those who live in the countryside, for Mongolian national identity. They had a keen sense that the health of the countryside – their countryside – was indicative of the health of the nation, and so their observation of local changes gave them the opportunity to comment on issues facing Mongolia. The children certainly thought of global warming as a threat to the nation.

The walking experience did not end when the walk finished but continued having a direct impact on the children’s thinking. Since the walk, they started asking questions such as “what are the main pollution or causes for environmental damages?”. Some of them accessed the internet, searching for other countries’ experiences. One boy learned about overseas examples of environmental damages caused by oil spills. Based on that, the boy concluded: “once I become an adult, we will not let other people build mining industry here.” It shows not only positive learning outcomes, but also an impact on how they think about the future.

Now, those participating children are entering secondary education at the same school, but with a new teacher. The students have asked their new teacher to place a world map in their new class because they would like to see where countries are on the map. Their English teacher discovered their eagerness to learn English after the whole experience. They do their homework very well with great enthusiasm. She assures her students of the advantages of learning English based on her personal experience of not being able to communicate in English. Also, Narantsatsral herself has decided to learn 200 words every week to master English.

Teacher Narantsatsral identifies that the learning from the whole experience, including the walk and the interchange with the school in Norfolk, had an impact on the children’s behaviour at home with them appearing more caring towards their environment.

This year, some parents reported their children stopped littering during summer family trips and collected all their garbage when they returned home. They told their parents that littering around river banks is one the reasons for river shrinkage. The experience of the interchange had an impact across the whole school. As a result of it, they organized cleaning of the river banks last spring and planted trees. Teacher Narantsatsral feels the whole activity encouraged children to be proud of their environment and their own home place. The experience of sharing their thoughts, feelings, knowledge and ideas about the place where they live with each other, and with adults and children from a different culture, appears to have had a significant impact on these children, encouraging and supporting their pride in their natural and cultural heritage.

Profile: Mungunmorit soum, Tuv aimag (province), Mongolia

  • 6 bagh (the lowest administrative unit); 354.3 thousand ha. land
  • 1171 households (total population of 4101)
  • 180km from Ulaanbaatar (capital city); 188 km from Tuv aimag centre; 56 km from Baganuur district
  • 1000-1500m above sea level
  • Khangai region, Khentii mountain range, forest steppe zone, Kherlen-Tuul-Onon river basin

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Amarbayasgalan Dorj is a lecturer at the National Academy of Governance in Mongolia.  Narantsatsral is a primary education teacher in Mongonmorit soum school, Tuv Aimag in Mongolia.  Richard Irvine is a key member of the Pathways Project team who travelled to Mongolia to work with the teachers and children.

This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.