The very first time Environmental Education (EE) was discussed in depth on an international scale was at the Tbilisi conference in October 1977. This was organised by UNESCO and brought together delegates from 66 nations and representatives from U.N agencies and NGOs.
As a result of this conference a declaration was adopted, after a unanimous agreement, to the effect that EE had an important role in the preservation and improvement of the global environment. This was intended to constitute a framework, principles, goals and objectives for EE at all levels and for all age groups.
However if you were to search the internet for environmental education programmes right now you would find that most of the results you get are aimed at children in schools or those who teach them. But what about the rest of the age groups which make up our societies? In particular, there is a whole sector of education that seems to have dodged the attention of mainstream environmental educators, and that’s the further education (FE) sector. FE largely deals with students outside of compulsory schooling although with the recent increase in the UK of the education leaving age to 18, more and more students are finding that they have to attend an FE college to continue their education. But FE deals with vocational subjects: plumbing, construction, engineering, agriculture etc., so how does environmental education fit into that type of education?
My personal feeling is that an appreciation of the natural environment, which is something that all environmental educators should be striving for, can be developed in a number of ways, for example, by regularly taking part in outdoor activities that bring you into contact with nature and the environment, or educational programmes which can develop that connection and appreciation in you. This connection with and appreciation of nature occurs naturally to most people but does not automatically extend to the environment as a whole, but only to a very limited area where a person feels they have responsibility or interest. These feelings of responsibility and ownership may develop due to a particularly deep understanding of the environmental issues which affect a specific area, or a professional or personal interest in it, and these may prompt the kind of action and environmentally responsible behaviour which Harold Hungerford and Trudy Volk argued that EE should aim to promote. As Carla Kirts asked fifteen years ago, this raises the question as to how vocational further education can support effective EE.
In FE there is a captive audience of students who have already made a choice about their future careers, they have chosen to study for a qualification that will prepare them for employment in a specific sector of industry with its own, often unique, environmental issues to deal with. This is an excellent opportunity to help students who are about to enter industry develop an attitude of responsibility towards the environment. That might mean teaching agriculture students about environmental stewardship schemes, plumbing students about grey water harvesting, engineering students about alternative energy solutions and game keeping students about the environmental damage caused by non-native deer species. Such a list is a long one, but these students have already identified what their sphere of responsibility and expertise will be in society when they enter the job market, that’s why they are doing the course they are doing, and we should be able to take advantage of that fact as educators and help them move in a direction with their careers that will not only benefit them but move industries forwards in terms of their impact on the environment.
The specificity of vocational education also provides an excellent way to interpret the environment in a real-world context which people will understand and be able to relate to. Interpretation is a key part of education about the environment as, although we can see the ‘environment’ all around us, it is not always simple or immediately obvious what the local and global environmental issues are. Freeman Tilden argued for this sequence: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”
Tilden wrote specifically about the interpretation of national and natural heritage, and it’s this interpretation that provides necessary understanding. FE can provide this interpretation in a context that students already relate to and are already engaged by. FE can also take it a step further though. I would argue that Tilden’s definition is slightly over simplistic, particularly with regard to the word ‘protection’ which is too passive a word for me and can easily be misinterpreted. Rather, to preserve the environments of this planet for the next generations, we need to be actively engaged and sometimes need to actively manage it, for example the removal of non-native invasive species, or the removal of large veteran trees from a woodland which was managed historically but has become overgrown and now shades out the understory and rare woodland ground flora. The danger with the word protect is that it suggests we should be maintaining things as they are, keeping them the same, and that is a fairly uninspiring (and unrealistic) message.
Most FE colleges will have a slogan or mission statement to the effect that they will produce ‘industry leaders’, so wouldn’t it be great if those students who are going to lead their industries can do so from an environmental perspective as well as in business. If EE is delivered well in FE establishments, and fully embedded into each and every curriculum, maybe we will see students leading their companies to become more environmentally sensitive.
Geoff can be contacted at: geoff’@bushcrafteducation.co.uk
Hungerford, H. & Volk, T., (1991) Changing learner behaviour through environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 21(3), pp. 8-21.
Kirts, C. A., (1990). Linking Agricultural and Environmental Education By Integrating Environmental Concepts and Vocational Skills. NACTA Journal, pp. 31-35.
Tilden, F., (2007) In: R. B. Craig, ed. Interpreting our Heritage. 4th ed. s.l.:The University of North Carolina Press, p. 65.