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Linking with Schools for Joint Interpretive Processes

Contributed by Abel Barasa Atiti, National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi Botanic Garden, Nairobi, Kenya


This paper draws on some recent research that I carried out in collaboration with a group of teachers from two Kenyan schools, in a review and development of interpretation resources and materials. In addition to being used to meet the requirements for a postgraduate course at Rhodes University in South Africa, the research has laid a strong foundation for a new outreach programme at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Nairobi Botanic Garden. Through the programme, NMK is forming partnerships with schools to help them to transform their grounds into sites for environmental learning. This is being undertaken within a critical perspective in which teachers are developing skills and motivation that are needed to bring about changes in the way environmental education is taught in schools.

The theme of this paper is the formation of non-formal and formal education partnerships as a better way of combining environmental interpretation and environmental education efforts which can realise environmental literacy and action competency in schools. The concept of ‘environmental interpretation and education processes’ is introduced here as a departure from viewing interpretation and environmental education as separate fields. To this end, some educational ideas are suggested that can be drawn on by teachers and non-formal educators in order to understand interpretation as a process of meaning and critical reflection.

To enable teachers to become ‘transformative intellectuals’ (Huckle 1996), a critical form of educational inquiry that enables them to investigate their own practice is required (Robottom 1987). Such an approach entails developing interpretation resources and materials with teachers and not for them. The important thing is to help teachers help themselves by sharing with them ways of developing the tools and skills of interpretation (Uzzell 1989); these may then be drawn on in educational processes. I describe how I engaged teachers in a process of mobilising ‘interpretive capital’ within the non-formal education organisations, through a participatory action research approach. The mobilised interpretive capital was made available for the development of interpretation resources and materials in two schools. A case study of the development of a school-based botanic garden and of interpretive materials in order to foster environmental learning in one of the schools is presented. This case study highlights the potential role of teachers as transformative intellectuals in schools.

Sharing the Tools and Skills of Interpretation with Teachers

Non-formal education organisations in Kenya play a crucial role in enhancing interpretation and environmental education with schools. These organisations include non-governmental environmental education centres and government conservation organisations such as the National Museums of Kenya where I work. A variety of interpretation resources and materials have been developed in these organisations. The development and use of these resources requires skills and knowledge of interpretation. These tools and skills of interpretation are referred to as interpretive capital. At the moment, this interpretive capital is mainly found in the non-formal education sector. My argument is that the time has come for us non-formal educators and interpreters to start sharing this capital with teachers in ways that enable them to design their own interpretive experiences for schools.

However, this should not imply imposing our agenda and mission on schools. Rather, it requires the formation of genuine partnerships between schools and non-formal education organisations. This will ensure the creation of professional competencies that can support sustained materials development in schools. It is on this premise that I engaged a group of teachers from two schools in a process of mobilising the interpretive capital within five non-formal education organisations. Non-formal educators from NMK, Kenya Wildlife Services, the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, the Giraffe Centre and the Butterfly Centre shared their interpretive capital with teachers. By drawing on features of participatory action research, I created forums for teachers and non-formal educators to meet and collectively understand how interpretation resources and materials can be developed and used. These forums provided opportunities for partnerships to develop between the two schools and the other involved organisations.

Through a series of workshops, focus groups, guided tours and critical reviews of textual interpretive materials, non-formal educators engaged teachers in examining their understanding, skills and values relating to interpretation resources and materials. The practical methods and educational perspectives underlying interpretive practice in the non-formal organisations visited were explored. In this way interpretive capital was mobilised and then made available for actual development of resources and materials in the two schools (as discussed later in this paper).

The review visits revealed the existence of a number of interpretation resources that had the potential to foster environmental learning amongst school groups. These were nature trails, live exhibits on animals, a national park, a botanic garden and a museum. A variety of interpretive materials – interpretive signage, worksheets, trail booklets, interactive displays, teachers’ packs, exhibitions and interpretive brochures – were used to support environmental learning. A review of how these materials were developed and used provided useful insights on the role of interpretation in enhancing and enabling environmental education. The relationship between interpretation and environmental education became evident. In addition to the development of partnerships between schools and non-formal organisations, an active partnership between environmental education and interpretation (Ballantyne 1998) is needed to address the often perceived differences between the two fields.

Environmental Interpretation and Education Partnerships

Traditionally, environmental interpretation and environmental education have been viewed as separate fields, with many differences between them (Ballantyne and Uzzell 1994, Ballantyne 1998). For example, environmental interpretation is often associated with informal learning experiences for a wide range of visitors within a recreational setting. Such visitors are usually referred to as a ‘non-captive audience’ and are seeking an informative and entertaining experience at interpretive sites. On the other hand, environmental educational processes have been mainly directed towards school groups in diverse areas such as classrooms, outdoors and at interpretive sites. The school groups are expected to acquire environmental literacy, action competency and at the same time realise the needs of the school curriculum. Unfortunately, theoretical arguments that focus on the differences in design, content, audience, purpose and educational setting, have continued to separate environmental interpretation from environmental education.

Notably, both interpreters and environmental educators apply education ideas associated with how people socially construct meanings during informal interpretive experiences and formal environmental education processes. There is therefore a need to act on this commonalty rather than on the perceived differences. However, this requires creating active partnerships between environmental interpretation and environmental education processes. Through such partnerships, an understanding of interpretation as an environmental education process can be explored to help bridge the theoretical gap that exists between environmental interpretation and environmental education. Broadening the theoretical base of interpretation as an education process would enable interpreters and teachers to design interpretive experiences for school groups.

The collaborative research I undertook with teachers focussed on the relationship between interpretation and its potential for fostering critical and action-oriented environmental education processes. I have used the concept environmental interpretation and education in discussing this relationship. In this regard, environmental interpretation and education processes become acts of mobilising learners' cultural capital; this enables them to engage in investigation, social critiques, information finding, action-taking and reporting in order to participate in social change. Shedding light on this relationship requires consideration of theoretical perspectives on interpretation (Uzzell 1998) and environmental education processes. Very few interpreters have attempted to inform their practice with educational theories.

I have drawn on educational theory and social theory to provide a theoretical basis for clarifying the relationship between interpretation and socially constructed environmental learning experiences. I did this by engaging teachers in a critically reflective inquiry process to explore our understanding of interpretation as an environmental education process. To this end, a number of education ideas that can be drawn on to provide further insights on interpretation and environmental education processes through meaning making and critical reflexive educational processes have been explored.

Education ideas that deal with how learners socially construct meaning can be applied within theoretical frames drawn from symbolic interactionism (Charon 2001), social constructionism (Schutz 1967) Vygotskian social constructivism (Vygotyky 1981) and critical pedagogy (Fien 1993). Teachers and non-formal educators can draw on these theoretical frameworks to design interpretive materials and experiences that engage learners in critical reflexive processes of learning. Structuring and enabling such interpretive learning experiences required partnerships between schools and non-formal education organisations. We drew on these education ideas and applied the tools and skills of interpretation acquired from the non-formal education organisations to develop interpretation resources and materials to foster environmental learning in two schools. This development process followed a teacher-centred approach that challenged conventional top-down approaches that create a hierarchy of ‘developers’ and ‘technicians’ (Robottom 1987, O’Donoghue and Taylor 1988). This approach further strengthened the developed partnerships between NMK and the two schools.

Developing Resources Through a Teacher-Centred Approach

Those who work in the non-formal education sector are faced with the challenge of ensuring the availability of environmental learning support materials that can engage learners in critical reflection and action to respond to environmental problems. More often than not, the tendency has been for us to produce glossy materials that only emphasise conservation of the biophysical environment. These materials are usually intended to create awareness and change learners’ behaviour. In many cases, these materials are developed without the active involvement of teachers who form the majority of the end users. This reflects a top-down approach in which teachers are merely viewed as technicians expected to implement the materials for environmental learning in their schools.

In contrast, the NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden outreach programme is helping teachers to develop interpretation resources and materials on their school grounds. This shift from the top-down approach towards a teacher-centred one recently took place in two schools that NMK and Nairobi Botanic Garden supported to develop interpretation resources on their grounds. Central to this shift was the formation of partnerships between NMK and three other non-formal education organisations. These partnerships created an enabling environment in which teachers were empowered to change and improve on their own practice of interpretation resource and materials development in order to overcome constraints to the teaching of environmental education processes in their schools. I will now focus on the actual development of a botanic garden and materials in one of the schools.

Case study: Developing a School-Based Botanic Garden and Interpretive Materials

Many botanic gardens professionals would frown at the idea of developing a botanic garden in a school. In November 2000, two teachers and a group of Science Club students from a private school in Nairobi visited the NMK and Nairobi Botanic Garden for a guided tour with a focus on medicinal plants. What was a normal school visit became different when, after the guided tour, the teachers sought our assistance in developing a botanic garden in their school grounds as a club project. Previous similar requests had only focussed on support for creating teaching trails in school grounds. At the time of this request, I was still designing my research for a postgraduate course that focussed on resource development. After careful consideration, I decided to involve the school in my research project but within a framework of an outreach programme for NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden. The idea was then recast within a collaborative participatory research framework to fulfil the objectives of my research, the NMK outreach programme and the Samaj School project.

The Status of Environmental Education at Samaj School

Samaj School is a private school managed by a charitable trust. It is situated in the western suburbs of the City of Nairobi and has some 800 students, from nursery to sixth form, with fifty members of staff. An inquiry into the status of environmental education at the school revealed an emphasis on both teacher-centred and discipline-centred approaches to teaching and learning. There were no guidelines for implementing environmental education processes across the curriculum. To a great extent environmental education was dependent on initiatives from the non-formal education sector, from environmental clubs whose support originated elsewhere. None of the five teachers on the project team had received any form of in-service training on environmental education. Also, the teachers claimed that the pre-service training they had received in environmental education was inadequate for their teaching contexts. Thus the development of a school-based botanic garden aimed at raising the profile of environmental education at Samaj. The development followed a participatory action research model that involved a spiral of self-reflective cycles of planning, acting and reflecting.

Formulating Resource Development Plans

A team of five teachers was selected to work with NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden to develop the botanic garden and environmental learning materials. This was after the school management had adopted the idea that had initially been conceived at a club level. In collaboration with NMK, the teachers first formulated broad plans outlining project goals, subject themes envisaged, methods and financial implications of the project. Eight subject themes that reflected those at NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden were proposed: medicinal plants, succulents, wetlands, a rare plants area, a memorial area, a recreation corner, a butterfly corner and an orchard. Plans for specific materials that would support environmental learning at the ‘botanic garden’ were also collaboratively formulated. A publicity brochure, a trail leaflet, two worksheets, interpretive signage and interpretive labels were planned for. Throughout this phase, teachers contributed to the generation of plans. The plans were approved by the School Board and later implemented in collaboration with NMK and a number of other organisations.

Implementing the Formulated Plans Through Critical Reflection

Drawing on teachers’ theory and practice, and also the interpretive capital mobilised as discussed earlier in this paper, the formulated plans were implemented through a series of focus group meetings in the school. The teachers were engaged in a self-reflective process of examining the relationship between the ‘mobilised’ interpretive capital and the development of interpretation resources and materials for environmental learning, thus ‘mobilising’ further interpretive capital in the context of the school grounds project. The development of the school botanic garden entailed transforming an under-utilised area within the school grounds into a site for environmental learning.

To do this, one of the teachers designed the area on paper to indicate the proposed themes and pathways. The area was then dug up and filled with forest soil by applying landscaping skills. The availability of a qualified gardener and a member of the Board of Trustees who had some landscaping skills at the school made this exercise easier. In addition, NMK botanic garden staff provided useful inputs in these initial landscaping processes. Later a professional horticulturalist was invited to further evaluate and polish up the landscaping of the site. NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden, commercial nurseries and other non-formal education organisations provided plants as a result of partnerships that had been created.


Through partnerships with schools and other non-formal education organisations, the NMK–Nairobi Botanic Garden has started working with teachers to transform school grounds into sites for critical environmental interpretation and education. What began as a one-off project with two schools has turned into a reflexive process of learning by doing and learning with teachers, by changing the ways school grounds are used for environmental learning and the way materials are developed. By involving schools in collaborative research to investigate their own practices, the potential role of botanic gardens in enabling teachers to become transformative intellectuals has been highlighted. The participatory action research model that was applied during the NMK Nairobi Botanic Garden pilot outreach programme has proven to be a powerful form of professional development, because it grew out of the teachers’ own specific contexts. Professional development was not done on the teachers. Rather, teachers were allowed to be in control of the process of developing interpretation resources and materials by their collective planning, action and reflection. The role teachers can play as researchers, reflective practitioners, interpreters and materials developers through genuine partnerships became evident. Fundamentally, botanic gardens need to start viewing teachers as reflective practitioners with a significant contribution to make to environmental interpretation and education, instead of merely regarding them as 'target groups'.


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