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Assessing the Value of an Exchange Visit to the Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden

Contributed by Nkopane Moteka, Witwatersrand National Botanic Garden, South Africa.

Introduction

The legacy of the past system of government has left education within black communities in a state where teachers are chasing a specified syllabus. A rigid system of monitoring adherence to the syllabus through regular inspection and assessment has left teachers very little or no scope for exercising their own initiative. For most teachers, completing the syllabus meant using text books written according to the requirements and topic-sequence of the syllabus, so leading to an uncritical dependence on the text books.

Exchanging Ideas

It therefore becomes something of a tall order to change to a situation where you have a measure of freedom to use one’s imagination in attempting to make learning an experience of discovery and fun for the students. To encourage this among teachers, Mary South, Education Officer at the Sir Harold Hillier Garden and Arboretum, UK was invited to South Africa to share some of her experiences at a number of workshops. The outcome of the workshops were as follows:

  • only 30% of the participants in Mary South’s workshop attempted the activities,. However, 90% agreed that the activities were possible to implement in their own situation without much adaptation. All participants agreed with and saw value in the activities
  • Almost all environmental centre officers that attended used the activities at their centres
  • 30% of the participants used the ideas presented, with some teachers adapting them for implementation in schools
  • Pupils were keen to do more activities and a lot more questions were raised. It was felt that the pupils had a better understanding of the concepts when working on activities

In many cases, back in the schools other members of teaching staff became curious about the results, and in some cases negative criticism was made:

  • pupils were noisy during such lessons
  • it took a long time for all the pupils to understand and grasp the concepts – finishing the syllabus is still a factor. 60% of the teachers who attended the workshop did not attempt the activities because they could not plan their lesson to fit the 30-minute periods. 10% of the teachers were already following a programme agreed to earlier. This entailed using worksheets and writing a common examination in general science. To many teachers, environmental education is something new that needs extra lessons in the school timetable
  • 80% of the workshop participants used worksheets rather than activities. The worksheets were mostly developed by non-government organisations and tested in workshops with the teachers to refine their suitability. 40% of the teachers have been teaching for periods ranging between two and five years and 30% between five and ten years. The rest more than ten years. All teachers hold recognised teaching qualifications at various levels.
  • teachers in pre-primary classes used activities all the time, however few of the activities presented in the workshop were adaptable to their level.

NBI’s Goal for its Education Programmes

The mission of NBIs Education Directorate (EEDU) is to use the gardens and resources of the NBI to inspire and enable people to take responsibility for their environment.

The feel that by engaging teachers and pupils in experiential learning it will lead to the discovery of their place and role in the environment and therefore result in a positive change in attitude to the environment. The approach to teaching, as in the methods demonstrated by Mary and used or adapted for use by EEDU, places NBIs programme among holistic and cross-curriculum development forums in South Africa.

The education system in South Africa is committed to the development of an outcomes based system, around which guidelines for learning programmes and corresponding assessment will be drawn. At the garden we are working to create a core of educators who will be committed to facilitating learning situations. The aim of these situations is to give pupils an opportunity to discover knowledge, think creatively and look at life with a critically enquiring mind, as well as work with others to achieve set goals.

Mary South’s visit coincided with my arrival in this organisation as outreach officer. Needless to say, it sparked a lot of debate and helped clarify the direction of the programme. While worksheets are still held in some esteem, learning through activity is better suited to environmental education.

Conclusion

In a democracy of the type South Africans are trying to build, consultation and discussion on issues are important. The citizenry of South Africa is undergoing a learning process of doing things for themselves. The development of thecurriculum mentioned earlier is one such process where teachers have an input in order that they become stakeholders in education rather than unconcerned channels of “knowledge”.

Our contact with teachers is to ensure their participation in making environmental education the backbone of all subject areas of learning.