Comment: Environmental education essential for students

The process of revising curricula for students is a serious matter. Developing high-quality curriculum is a wise investment, and that investment should include environmental education.

The B.C. Ministry of Education is asking for public response to drafts of core curricula for kindergarten through Grade 9. I have concerns about the drafts for science and social studies, and the overall direction of the revision process.

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Curriculum revision is complex and costly. If time and money are well spent, and taxpayers’ investment in education results in curricula that make clear what we expect students to understand and be able to do, I support the expenditure.

We expect students will become literate and numerate. We should also expect they will become ecologically literate and socially responsible problem-solvers. Students are going to need knowledge and courage to make intelligent decisions regarding future ecological health.

The ministry claims these expectations will be met, but there is little evidence of nature education in the current draft learning standards. Unless environmental education is included in prescribed curriculum for every grade, the best we can expect will be fragmented exposure to the natural world, study of ecological principles or a basis for developing ethics of caring and stewardship.

The ministry has responsibility to ensure all students are provided with a solid core of basics; environmental education must be one of those basics.

A ministry spokesperson was reported as saying: “It is hoped teachers will be able to bring in additional information as they see fit,” and they will be bound less by “prescribed content.”

I was dismayed to read that environmental issues will be among the “suggested interdisciplinary topics.” We cannot hope teachers will add information as they see fit or leave to chance the possibility they will implement what is merely suggested.

Teachers do not have an exclusive voice in determining what to teach. They exercise professional judgment regarding how best to teach prescribed curricula. Teachers have expertise related to brain research, child development and learning theories; they know their students well. They are obliged to apply their knowledge when designing curriculum-based learning activities.

With teachers, the public needs to agree upon topics and issues that are educationally important — those that address children’s needs and reflect societal concerns.

My apprehension grew when I read: “A strong core curriculum in the lower grades would better equip students seeking out elective courses in senior high school.”

The curriculum “push-down effect” is so evident. In the “lower grades,” teachers assess and evaluate children’s understanding and enable them to construct more accurate explanations for phenomena they observe. Kindergarten is not “boot camp” for Grade 1, any more than Grade 1 should be preparation for what students may elect to learn years from now.

Some content specifics and concepts in the draft standards are developmentally inappropriate. We can impart information about atoms and molecules, phases of matter, light and sound, or the cycle of rocks to young children, but it strikes me as artificial and an uphill slog.

Why teach these topics in the early years when children are so easily engaged in learning through their curiosity about the natural world and their place in it? They learn through sensory experience and challenges to their thinking. When children’s inherent interests are the starting point, teachers can help them hone their powers of observation, formulate and test hypotheses, and learn how to seek and use evidence to justify conclusions.

Change can be unsettling. It can also be refreshing. I welcome improvements to existing curricula. Curriculum is a social contract — between professional educators and the public — concerning what will be taught and standards by which learning will be demonstrated. Well-designed curricula should enable teachers to fulfil their responsibilities to students, parents and society.

The drafts indicate teachers’ work will be even more difficult because the content is vague and disjointed, and in some instances, developmentally inappropriate. These concerns and concerns about diminishment of environmental education need to be addressed.

The consequences of curriculum revision are profound. Thousands of children will be affected. In 10 years, students currently in grades 7 to 12 will be eligible to vote. If they are to make informed decisions about the circumstances they will face, the public needs to speak. Their futures and quality of life for all are factors dependent upon understanding complex natural systems, and the will to conserve and protect natural resources.

In the 21st century, environmental education is not optional; it must be prescribed as curriculum for students in every grade.

Daphne Macnaughton is a retired school principal.

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