Learning by doing : Getting by with a little help from the Curriculum

For most of my life I have been a hands-on person. I grew up on a farm in the Magaliesberg where, apart from the from the farm-work (driving tractors, milking cows and generally mucking in), I was left pretty much to my devices over weekends and during school holidays. Because it was then in a pretty wild part of South Africa I developed an interest in birds (mentored by people such as birdman Ken Newman for whom I used to find birds’ nests) ) which later grew into a passion for bird-watching. And as I grew in my professional life, first as an educator and later as a writer/publisher it was a natural progression to go and grow in the field of Environmental Education. (A field that most people, myself included, now refer to as Sustainability Education.)

As part of my journey to adulthood I spent nearly a year in the Okavango Swamps – then only accessible by a 4-wheel drive – where I met and sojourned with naturalists, ecologists and hunters. It was there that I met Ken Tinley – then from the University of Natal – who had been commissioned by the Okavango society to produce a Guide to the ecology of the area. Ken has probably had the most influence of anyone that I have met along life’s path in terms of what you can SEE when in the wild, and what you should feel and RESPOND to as a result of your observations. He was a man who had a true vision for environment. He not only saw with his eyes what was before him, he also “saw” with his mind the interplay of the natural forces, long past as well as current, that had created the eco-landscape. And importantly – how current forces (including human interventions) might start to affect the way in which the landscape might be altered.

Ken was a man whose passion for discovery was matched only by his unique ability to record all that he saw – using detailed texts that were accompanied by immaculately drawn diagrams and sketches that would provide classic resources for all who cared to use them, not only environmental scientists but business people and teachers as well.

With today’s environmental imperatives pressing ever more tightly into our collective consciousness there are few people who not concerned about the issues that climate change is bringing to every corner of the globe. For those who are aware of the science the awareness may bring thoughts and actions to mitigate against changes, and for those (the vast majority) who are unaware of the science – the effects of changes that cause floods or droughts are lessons in themselves unadorned by explanations.

Which brings me to the purpose of this article.

Consider this : Section 24 of the South African constitution states, inter alia, that everyone has the right to a healthy environment. Strand 3 of the National Curriculum for Grade 10 Life Sciences stipulates that EVERY learner will participate in compulsory fieldwork in an ecosystem close to the school.

So – Fieldwork presents a rare opportunity for learners to both SEE and to RESPOND to environmental issues. It has the potential to play a critically important role in motivating positive behaviors amongst young citizens, and one would think that teachers would grab the opportunity with both hands. Instead, not only are many schools not connecting ecological fieldwork with real environmental issues facing local learners and their families, there are MANY schools who simply do not involve the learners in any fieldwork at all.