Designing a Teacher Capacity-Building Program for EVS

In terms of the larger insights and learning, this course gave a big picture of EVS to teachers. They could see the importance of taking children out and using the outdoor environment as an effective approach for developing appropriate EVS skills and sensitivities.

EVS 2

Introduction

It’s good to witness teachers’ interest in language and mathematics during the interaction. However, we need to give similar attention to Environmental Studies too as children seem to lack basic knowledge and skills in science,’ said the inspecting officer while interacting with teachers online during an English certificate course. The course was organised as part of capacity building for primary school teachers on subject principles and pedagogy during the pandemic when schools were not closed.

Therefore, a plan for organising an online course on Environmental Studies (EVS) was framed and proposed to the inspecting officer, which he readily agreed to. During a discussion, he emphasised the need for this, saying that he has seen many kids who do not know something as basic as gender classification in class VI. He also reiterated the fact that children must be instilled with scientific curiosity and skills at an early age, which will enable them to argue and question before believing anything at face value or because it is a common belief. This reminded me of what Anurag Behar had mentioned in his column about the epistemic capacity of a person in believing something, i.e., validating truth with his/​her own knowledge.1

Encouraged by the inspecting officer and by our existing belief in the importance of environmental education, we designed an online course for teachers. This article discusses the process involved in designing and transacting this online course and the importance of EVS in the primary school curriculum.

Background

Puducherry is a small town with a 25 km radius in all four directions. There are five educational blocks in the district with a total of 271 schools including primary, higher primary, high schools and higher secondary schools. There are 1006 teachers who work in the primary grades (I – V) in 151 primary schools and 33 middle schools. Our work, primarily, lies with these teachers.

The District Institutes (DIs) of the Azim Premji Foundation which work towards the goal of developing teacher capacities, create online forums for teachers. We, at the Puducherry DI, encouraged by the inspecting officer and by our existing belief in the importance of EVS, designed a course – Teaching Environmental Studies. This was organised in collaboration with the education department under a series of certificate courses run for government primary school teachers and organised by the Foundation.

Need analysis

We started by talking to the teachers to understand what they felt about the existing EVS textbook and the areas they found difficult or challenging to teach. These conversations were carried out over the phone with teachers from one block. Puducherry has five educational blocks, and each block has around 30 – 40 primary schools. There are around 200 primary school teachers in each block. The need analysis was based on two kinds of interaction with teachers – face-to-face talks at school that took place before the pandemic and phone conversations that happened just before designing the module. While the former involved more than 100 teachers, the latter included less than 10. The phone conversations confirmed our existing knowledge of teachers’ beliefs about the subject that they had conveyed in the face-to-face interactions. Here are the responses:

On Textbooks

  • Too many lessons
  • Very lengthy lessons
  • Contents are not contextual
  • Words from other Indian languages2
  • No content related to Tamil Nadu or Puducherry
  • No textbooks for grades I and II

On Pedagogy

  • Full of stories. How to teach?
  • Students do not know English so how to transact the textbook?
  • How to use school/​community as the environment?
  • No exercises in textbooks
  • How to prepare students for exams?

Based on the responses, we decided to frame the content of our online course for teachers in two areas: 1) Why EVS? and 2) How to teach EVS?

Content and implementation

It was clear that teachers have a very limited understanding of the subject and the purpose it serves. Below is the framework we developed to focus on the objectives of EVS and the pedagogy that can be used.

Why EVS? – Objective

  • Awareness of our immediate surroundings
  • To develop skills like observation and recording, discussion, questioning and map reading
  • To develop sensitivity

How to teach? – Pedagogy

  • Outdoor learning – making students observe, record, discuss and raise questions.
  • Field visits to create awareness of and sensitivity towards our surroundings

Design of session

Four sessions were developed based on the framework mentioned below. Each session was of one and a half hours and was transacted online using the Google Meet platform.

SessionTopicContent/​Outcomes
1Nature and scope of EVS in primary gradesTo develop a holistic understanding of the immediate environment

To develop a multidisciplinary perspective to the understanding of our environmental issues/​problems and appreciate the impact(s) of our daily activities on the environment
2Thematic approach – Plants and animalsExploring and understanding the thematic approach in EVS teaching-learning process

Demonstration of activities for grade IV lesson that are contextual and meaningful for children

Activities and project ideas for handling the given themes
3Thematic approach – Travel
4Thematic approach – Family

Implementation

Session 1 dealt with the objectives of EVS along with the purpose of assessment. Teachers often confront us with the question of exams when we talk about learning outcomes and purpose of a subject. Examinations are memory-based and have facts rather than questions testing the understanding level of a learner; therefore, teachers’ teaching practices are also focused on those aspects. They teach facts, give drill exercises to memorise those facts and train the learners to face the examinations. Now that the EVS textbooks do not have facts, teachers have no idea what to teach. Hence, it is evident that teaching practice is directly related to student assessment. Teachers must know what students need to know and do, once they have figured it out, they can plan on what needs to be done for that (Helen Timperley, 2008).

The next three sessions dealt with the pedagogy under thematic areas. The content in the EVS textbook has an integrated and thematic approach towards the teaching-learning process as recommended by the National Curriculum Framework, 2005. It is to bring together insights from different disciplines (science, social, language, mathematics) in an interconnected manner that is basically child-centred. There are six themes in EVS, of which we selected three – Plants and Animals, Family and Travel – for each session focusing on both the why’ and the how’ part.

  • Plant and animals are exciting to know, observe and interact with; also, they share a close relationship with us, humans.
  • Family, being a complex theme, is very challenging to transact in classrooms.
  • Travel is an important theme where children learn about other places that are different from their own and also how to use a map which is an invaluable resource.

It is always interesting to know how things around us are interrelated, which is the larger goal of EVS. While it attempts to start with letting children know about their surroundings, be it plants, animals, family, food, water, shelter, travel etc, the curricular expectation of the subject is to develop sensitivity, appreciate natural and social settings, understand the existing issues around us, raise questions and think about the possible solutions, working in groups (Learning Outcomes, 2017).

Pedagogy

As mentioned above, the how’ part is a key to EVS teaching. To understand that we need to go back to our objectives, which clearly state that children need to learn skills such as observation and recording, expression, discussion, questioning and so on. How do we help children learn those skills? What kind of approach can be used?

Kolb (1981) says that interaction with natural settings or environment cultivates skills and knowledge and the process, according to him, should be experiential. However, experiences do not automatically lead to learning. It is up to the teacher to ask questions, make students think, argue, and discuss so that the learning is discovered by the children themselves and not transferred by teachers (Dewey, 1933). The latter is what you can see in most of the classrooms.

We recommended activities that had been tried out for each theme during this course. All the suggestions we made were tried out with children and hence, were very convincingly communicated to teachers. They are as follows:

ThemesPedagogyProcess
Plants and AnimalsOutdoor activities like Nature walk, bird watching. Indoor activities like picture description and storytellingPre discussion: Setting the context with pictures, stories, etc and setting norms for the group (by the children).
FamilyProject workDuring discussion: Adhering to their norms, filling observations in data collection sheets
TravelProject work

Map activity
Post discussion: Data collation by teacher and discussion amongst children, raising questions and arguments

Transacting the course online

The course was transacted online on the Google Meet platform. Interactive and engaging PowerPoint presentations were used for each session for discussions with teachers. In online sessions, PowerPoint presentations play a central role in keeping the participants engaged as the facilitator cannot see the reaction of participants and the participants cannot see the facilitator (Gowthama & Naveen, 2020).

Besides this, we did a rehearsal of each session among our members and refined the modules, incorporating the feedback. We used a variety of resources, like sounds, pictures and videos to make the session more enriching.

An illustrative example of how the Plants and Animals theme was transacted in grade IV classroom

Lesson: Busy month

Pre-discussion with children before going to a water body near the school for bird watching.

Discussion on birds seen in the surroundings

Pre-discussion

Q: Why is the beak of the duck flat and not sharp?
Replies: So that it can make the buck-buck’ sound. 

Q: Have you noticed the hole on a duck’s beak? Why is it like that?
Replies: For the duck to breathe.

The correct answers were derived from probing questions. What does the duck eat? (It eats fish.) How does it catch fish? (With its beak unlike other birds that pricks their prey) When the duck dips its beak into water to catch fish, water must also get in with the fish, how is it let out? (It comes out through the hole on the beak).

Then, bird calls were played with pictures and the students asked to guess the bird. First, they listened to the sound, they the picture was shown. So, the students had two chances to guess the name of the bird.

Greater Caucal
After audio: Students guessed it to be ஆந்தை (owl, weaverbird)
After image: The appearance of Caucal was described, its reddish-brown wings to help them identify it.

Little Egret – சின்ன வெள்ளைக்கொக்கு
After audio: No guesses
After image: One boy said he had seen the bird and explained his experience. When he first saw it, he thought it was a snake and ran away. The s‑shaped neck had appeared like a snake but he observed it and found that it was a bird.

Field visit to a nearby waterbody for bird watching

Two boys identified Caucal by its brown feathers near the lake. And some saw the Black-winged Stilt and noted its sharp beak; recollected the discussion about beaks, claws and food habit. They said that the beak is long and sharp so it will eat fish and small insects from water. The legs are very thin and long so that they can walk on water.

Questions asked by children

1. A Tern observes the fish while flying and dives to hunt. But the Kingfisher sits on a branch, observes and dives to hunt.
2. Why is the Tern not named kingfisher’ because its hunting process is much more refined?
3. How can birds with long and thin leg survive without the legs broken?
4. How do bird walk on the water?

How exactly did the teachers gain – how did they begin to see the same lesson differently?

Teacher took children out but not for teaching. This idea of using immediate surroundings as a valuable resource for teaching was well received. And the fact that the planning involved designing pre and post field visit discussions were noted by the teachers. Usually they consider field visits as recreational activity and not as a learning activity.

Conclusion

Environmental Studies is often ignored or given less importance in primary grades by teachers and even education department functionaries. But it is a very important subject and the present pandemic is the best example of our ignorance of our environment. Let us, at least, educate the next generation, instilling in them the skills and learning necessary to be environmentally responsible citizens.

Through this course, we tried to convey two key points:

  • EVS is not about covering the syllabus and preparing students for exams; it is about making children gain the necessary skills and sensitivity that would enable them to become responsible citizens
  • EVS must not be taught within the four walls, but children must be taken out and made to experience nature. The teacher needs to facilitate learning by asking questions.

In terms of the larger insights and learning, this course gave a big picture of EVS to teachers. They could see the importance of taking children out and using the outdoor environment as an effective approach for developing appropriate EVS skills and sensitivities. The guidelines – what to do before, during and after field visits – for field trips as well as the contextual examples and situations made the subject come alive for them.

This course helped our DI team to develop an understanding of EVS and to realise how all subjects are interconnected. Since the EVS textbooks are in English and the medium of instruction in Puducherry is English, we could use the language pedagogy efficiently and it gave us a lot of interesting ideas to develop children’s language through EVS. It made us realise the importance of environmental education in the current context and how both language and mathematics can be integrated with it.

References

Anurag Behar.The tangled balls of untruths that too many Indians harbour. Mint, 2021
Dewey, J. How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: DC Heath, 1933
Gowthama Rajavelu & Naveen K. Online Teacher Professional Development: Lessons from Puducherry. University Practice Connect, December 2020.
Helen Timperley. Teacher professional learning and development. International Academy of Education (IAE). Education practices series – 18, pg-13, 2008
Kolb, D.A. Experiential learning theory and the Learning Style Inventory: a reply to Freedman and Stumpf. Academy of Management Review, 6(2), 289 – 296, 1981
Learning Outcomes at the Elementary Stages, 2017, NCERT, New Delhi
National Curriculum Framework for School Education, 2005, NCERT, New Delhi

Author

Gowthama Rajavelu, Resource Person, Azim Premji Foundation, Puducherry