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Teacher Capacity Building: Skills Development through Environmental Education

Contributed by Alexis Symonds, National Botanical Institute, Private Bag X101, Pretoria South Africa 0001


In its new education policy introduced in 1997, South Africa has adopted an outcomes based education approach. ‘This is directly linked to democratisation and the resulting effort to address the political injustices of South Africa’s past through the transformation of the national system of education and training’ (Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism 1998). Environmental understanding and skills are, for the first time, prescribed as key outcomes in all eight learning areas of the South African school curriculum.

South Africa’s most recent Government White Paper on Education and Training states that environmental education, ‘…involving an interdisciplinary, integrated and active approach to learning, must be a vital element of all levels and programmes of the education and training system, in order to create environmentally literate and active citizens to ensure that all South Africans, present and future, enjoy a decent quality of life through the sustainable use of resources’ (Department of Education 1995).

In addition to the above, teacher education has been described by UNESCO as ‘…the priority of priorities…’ in environmental education (UNESCO 1990). Despite the emphasis on environmental education, many provincial education departments do not have the expertise or funds to run development programmes to support teachers with environmental education.

The National Botanical Institute (NBI) is one of many parastatal and non-governmental organisations with an interest in environmental education to provide resources for teachers and learners. Our Teacher Capacity Building: Skills Development through Environmental Education Workshops are one such initiative. This is a two-year project administered and facilitated by the NBI and funded by the South African National Commission for UNESCO.

Scope of the Project

The project caters for teachers (210 primary and high school) over a two-year period. The schools participating in the first year were selected with the assistance of the provincial education department and came mostly from under-resourced schools in township areas close to the NBI’s Pretoria and Witwatersrand National Botanical Gardens. Teachers selected to join the project were requested to sign an agreement committing themselves to three workshops, a weekend field trip and a number of tasks and assignments. The principal of each school was asked to sign the same document as a pledge of support.

Aims and Objectives

The aims and expected outcomes of the project were identified jointly by the teachers, the education department officials and the NBI staff at the first workshop. These were to:

  • encourage and support the development of environmental education at schools;
  • demonstrate the practical links between outcomes-based education and environmental education;
  • introduce a process enabling teachers to identify and analyse local/school/community environmental issues and to develop learning programmes around these issues; and
  • provide the opportunity to implement activities that promote active learning.

An Issues-Based Approach

In our workshops we tried to move away from the traditionally held view that environmental education refers purely to the physical environment, to a view that links social, political and economic processes to natural systems. We initiated an issues-based approach in an attempt to deal with issues identified as important in the daily lives of the learners and also to encourage teachers to look beyond the confines of the classroom for teaching and learning resources and experiences.

Examples of some of the issues identified in the schools:

  • poor state of school yard and garden
  • poverty
  • dumping and littering
  • inability to establish a vegetable garden
  • vandalism
  • drug abuse
  • unhealthy sanitation at school
  • water wastage.

Workshopping the Issues

After the teachers had identified and submitted their issues, resource materials were collected from as many sources as possible. For issues such as vandalism and drug abuse, where we lacked expertise, we entered into partnerships with organisations or individuals that provided relevant literature and facilitated small working group sessions with the teachers. The teachers had the opportunity to discuss and workshop their issues and were introduced to many different types of resources. A list of addresses and service providers that produce inexpensive resource material suitable for future use in the classroom was drawn up.

Lesson Plans and Activities

The lesson planning phase was complicated by the fact that only a small number of teachers attending the workshops had received prior training in outcomes-based education. To build teacher confidence, we embarked on a step-by-step approach to lesson planning in the outcomes-based way, using the issues identified as the unifying theme.

At least 50% of the teachers successfully developed and trialled lessons based on their issues. Most of them reported that their lessons had been successful while some came back for advice on aspects such as assessment and the facilitation of group work.

In a number of schools, the teachers and learners initiated long-term actions or projects that have not only improved the quality of life of the learners at the school but have also impacted positively on the community surrounding the school.

Phatudi Primary School, for example, was concerned about the unhygienic conditions created by poor sanitation at the school. In Maths the learners determined the ratio of toilets to users and the cost of maintenance of blocked toilets. In Life Skills they looked at personal hygiene and contagious diseases. In Language classes they wrote letters to the education authorities using the data collected to motivate for renovations to the toilet block. In Art they made posters to create an awareness of health issues. The school has raised funds and obtained the necessary support from the education authorities to have the toilet blocks extended and renovated while the learners monitor the state of hygiene and cleanliness.

Limiting Factors

Outcomes-based Education Training

We understood from the outset that although our focus was environmental education, the vehicle would of necessity be outcomes-based education. However, we did not anticipate that teachers would have had no previous experience or training in outcomes-based education. The result was that we spent a great deal of time introducing teachers to outcomes-based education before we could embark on our core business.

We intend overcoming this problem in the new year by targeting only Grade 7 teachers as they would all have undergone training in outcomes-based education. We believe that in this way we will have more time to focus on environmental issues and the development of learning programmes around them.

Drop Out Rate

Although we were disappointed at losing half our teachers along the way, we have learnt that other organisations have had the same experience. This situation was exacerbated by difficulties experienced with public transport in certain areas. Disagreements between minibus taxi operators resulted in violence in some areas and made the use of public transport to and from workshops unsafe. The threat of country-wide teacher strikes created uncertainty and resulted in workshops being repeatedly postponed.

Banareng Primary School - A Case Study

Banareng Primary School serves the informal settlement in the Attridgeville township about 30 km from the Pretoria National Botanical Garden. At the start of the workshop series, Banareng identified the lack of a vegetable garden at their school as their environmental problem. They pointed out that the chief causes were a lack of water and funds coupled with community indifference and inactivity. Their learners were hungry and unable to concentrate sufficiently to benefit from the education offered.

The first workshop introduced Banareng to an approach which enabled them to analyse their issue, break it down into manageable parts and start looking for solutions to the problems. The Food Gardens Foundation was approached for assistance and training and a committee of teachers, learners, community organisations and parents was formed. The principal of the school, Paulina Sithole, was so inspired by the training received from the Food Gardens Foundation that she was able to motivate her staff, the learners and their parents to start a vegetable garden. The garden now provides 520 children with a midday meal, prepared, cooked and served by women from the community.

As the principal, Mrs Sithole, says proudly: ‘We are feeding the child that is hungry, the community that is hungry and thereby feeding the nation. The nation shall never be hungry again, we empower people by teaching them sustainable food gardening to overcome malnutrition and hunger.’

The learners benefit directly from the project in that an attempt is being made to address the negative effects of malnutrition on their concentration and academic progress. It is also anticipated that absenteeism will be reduced as learners begin to feel the effect of a healthier diet.

The project has brought a number of additional benefits to the school and strengthened the relationship between the school and the community in the following ways:

  • Establishing a committee consisting of teachers, learners, parents, community members and organisations to oversee the project has fostered a sense of ownership and involvement.
  • Neighbours deposit all garden and organic waste in designated areas in the school yard and compost is made from it.
  • Glass, cans and plastic are deposited at the school for recycling and the proceeds used by the school.
  • Each household contributes their grey water which the children carry to school in two litre bottles each day. This initiative has significantly reduced the water bill at the school.
  • Surplus plants and vegetables are sold to the community.
  • Banareng has won a number of awards and garden competitions during the year. This has provided them with additional funding for their school.
  • Competing at a regional and national level has generated much interest in the project which has resulted in additional sponsorships.
  • The school has also been identified as a training venue for other schools and courses are sponsored by various organisations.
  • Vandalism and burglaries at the school are less frequent as the community members are quick to report suspicious behaviour to the police.
  • The school is able to employ regular gardeners from the community with the income that is generated.
  • Environmental awareness and action have been initiated in the community.

As part of the NBI/UNESCO workshop process, the teachers have developed integrated natural science and mathematics lessons using the garden as a teaching and learning resource. Further collaboration between NBI education staff and the teachers is planned to extend the scope of the existing activities and to facilitate activities covering other learning areas.


In South Africa, the integration of environment into all learning areas in the formal school curriculum provides a unique opportunity for environmental practitioners and teachers to form partnerships that explore environmental education within the context of human influences.

During our workshops the above process was facilitated by adopting an issues-based approach. This provided the opportunity to examine political structures, culture and social equality as well as natural processes and systems in an integrated, practical and useful way.

In addition to the above, the workshop process created the opportunity for capacity building, empowerment and participation, which are important stepping stones in helping to reorientate teachers towards a sustainable and just view of the environment.


Department of Education (1995) White Paper on Education and Training. DoE, Pretoria South Africa.

Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism (1998) Draft Discussion Document for the White Paper on Environmental Education. DEA&T, Pretoria South Africa.

UNESCO (1990) Environmentally Educated Teachers: The Priority of Priorities. Connect, 15 (1), UNESCO, Paris.