"Spreading the Word" - Nick Young reports on BP & WWF's Environmental Education Programme in China

Posted on 01 September 2006

NICK YOUNG, Editor of China Development Brief, reports on the initiative from Beijing, with photography by FRITZ HOFFMAN of the Network Agency.

BP’s largest social investment in China is The Environmental Educators Initiative conducted in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and the Ministry to Education. Dating from July, 1997, the project is unique – the first time a government department, an environmental non-government organization and a foreign company have worked together on a shared objective in China.

Eleven year old Kang Le insists he has identified China’s main environmental problem. It’s “Rubbish” he announces, in tones that brook no contradiction. “The way people are always throwing out things like wooden chopsticks and plastic bags and the rice boxes made of . . . what’s it called?” It’s called styrofoam, and the outskirts of Chinese cities are often ankle-deep in the stuff.

Kang Le and his class-mates from the Miyun No. 1 Primary School, in a small but thriving city some 70 kilometres north east of Beijing, are keen to do their bit to resolve the rubbish problem. Several times last term they went out into the community on rubbish reduction missions.

These are not litter-collection sessions, but direct action as Kang Le explains. “We go to the restaurants and to people who sell food on the street, and we tell them they shouldn’t use throwaway chopsticks because it wastes wood, which comes from trees - and we need trees, don’t we? And everyone’s responsible for the environment, aren’t they?”

The kids also visit fruit and vegetable markets, urging stallholders to go easy on the plastic bags they give away with most purchases. Do the restaurateurs and market vendors listen? “Some do, some don’t,” reflects Wang Miao, another fifth grader in the school. “Some places we’ve been to have changed what they do because of us talking to them,” she says. “But sometimes less educated people don’t pay much attention -- or they say we’re only children.” Classmate Peng Siyang adds that in handicraft classes Miyun school students design and make cloth shopping bags that they encourage their parents to use so that “our family can set an example.”

These children are exemplary in another sense. They are among the first to have been reached by The Environmental Educators’ Initiative (EEI) – a unique partnership between BP, the World Wide Fund for Nature International and the Chinese Ministry of Education. EEI promises to have a lasting impact on environmental education in China as government seeks public acceptance of water and energy pricing in the face of widespread water and air pollution and land degradation.

Liu Yunhua has overseen the EEI programme for WWF since it began four years ago. She describes its aim as being “to strengthen China’s capacity for delivering environmental education in schools – in ways that don’t just transfer knowledge but also encourage school students to participate and to take action.”

In China this is no small challenge. It addresses two issues that central government is determined to tackle but where it welcomes outside help:

  • The need to raise environmental awareness as part of a process of ecological modernization. Anyone who has travelled by train in China, and watched the unabashed innocence with which passengers tip personal debris through the windows, will sympathise with Kang Le’s view that rubbish lies at the heart of the problem. Industrial and agricultural development over the last four decades has similarly treated the environment as a free good, with unlimited capacity to absorb waste.
  • The need to develop educational methodologies that will ensure China’s future competitiveness as a knowledge-based, rather than a smoke-stack, economy. The Ministry of Education, having worked hard to universalise nine years of compulsory, basic education, is now turning its attention to quality through the concept of “learner-centred education,” according to director of the Basic Education Curriculum Reform Department, Zhu Muyu.

To achieve these goals and introduce China to enquiry-based, student-centred learning techniques will mean overturning some very deep-seated traditions. For thousands of years Chinese pedagogy has emphasised the magisterial authority of the teacher. Whether learning Chinese script, gong fu, music or philosophy, students of any age are expected to concentrate their efforts on imitating the masters. Originality and creativity are deemed to belong only to the highest plane of learning, once the basics have been fully mastered.

Against this background, The Environmental Educators Initiative already seems to be having an impact at local level. In Miyun recently a dozen children, separated from their teachers and selected at random, took part in an informal focus group discussion. For over an hour they considered some tough questions.

Miyun today is developing on the edge of a reservoir that supplies the bulk of Beijing’s drinking water (in another out-of-class activity, several children conducted tests of the water quality). To protect the water source, farmers in the area are not allowed to use pesticides or fertilisers on their land and this disadvantages them when it comes to selling fruit and vegetables to Beijing’s lucrative markets.

So do the children think that the city of Beijing should compensate the farmers for their environmental restraint? A stormy debate ensued. Wang Miao pointed out that “the water is not only for Beijing people; we need to protect it for our own sake too.” Another girl, Zhang Xingyu, felt that “we are all Chinese, and people in Miyun should be proud to provide this service for our capital.” Kang Mian countered that the farmers should be “given money or helped to find another way to make a living.”

On several issues – such as whether Beijing or Miyun has the best environment, and what are the most important elements of environmental quality – the children displayed a capacity for debate that is central to the “critical thinking” which WWF’s Liu Yunhua says the EEI is trying to promote.

How is this being achieved? A central issue in any programme in China is how to maximise the impact of funding. How can the $1.5 million that BP has contributed to the project over the last four years be used to reach not just 1,400 children in the Miyun No. 1 school, but 300 million children across China?

The EEI answer is to educate the educators. Rather than delivering training directly to schools, the programme sets out to help China build a structure to integrate appropriate environmental education across national teacher training programmes in all subject areas.

This was one of the project’s major attractions for BP China Executive President Gary Dirks when he was approached by WWF with a funding proposal. “The company’s philosophy has been evolving towards building capabilities and supporting our business strategy by creating broader value for a range of stakeholders,” Dirks says. “We also made it clear from the start that we didn’t want to be passive. We wanted to be involved in the design of the programme and how it is implemented.”

As a result BP worked closely with WWF and the Ministry of Education to refine the project design. Since then it has kept in close contact during implementation, drawing on the company’s long experience of doing business in China to offer advice on management and human resource development issues.

The programme began by establishing Environmental Education Training Centres in three key teacher training institutions: Beijing Normal University, East China Normal University in Shanghai, and South West China Normal University in Chengdu. Each centre comprises a number of teacher trainers drawn from different subject areas since the project is intended to infuse an environmental dimension into all disciplines.

Coordinator of the Centre at Beijing Normal University, Tian Qing, points out that this approach reflects the indivisibility of the environment. It also helps to break down departmental divides which are often rigid in Chinese administrative systems. “Our university had long been probing how to relate arts subjects better to science and technology, but was having little success,” says Tian Qing. “The Centre has been a breakthrough in inter-departmental coordination.”

Teacher trainers attached to the Centres retain some of their normal teaching responsibilities but also build up their skills as environmental educators. This process includes workshops in China involving international educators, and training opportunities overseas. Twelve of the Chinese teacher trainers have enrolled in a Masters degree course in environmental education at London’s South Bank University while others have undertaken short courses elsewhere, or distance education courses.

One of the international trainers is the environmental educator and author, John Huckle. In his view, “the key issue is for environmental educators to engage learners in a process of critically reflecting and acting on technologies and forms of social organisation that may enable people to live more sustainably with one another and the rest of nature.” Huckle has found Chinese teacher trainers “welcoming and receptive to new ideas and, particularly, activities – but often reluctant to express their own opinions or ideas.”

This transition to critical engagement is not easy in the Chinese context. Another difficulty is that under the current educational system few teacher trainers have much hands-on experience of teaching children since their university posts depend more on academic distinction than on schoolroom experience. “They have a lot of theory, but not a lot practice,” says Liu Yunhua.

To try to address these issues each of the project centres works with a number of pilot schools, such as the one in Miyun, to introduce the new approaches and test-drive them with seasoned schoolteachers. Huang Yu, one of the teacher trainers at the Beijing Centre, says they work together with the teachers to develop lesson plans “that are specifically tailored to their own communities, looking at what are the most pressing, local environmental issues.”

In this way, over the first four years of the project the centres have developed an environmental educators’ training manual and a series of model lesson plans for grades 1 – 9 in twelve subject areas. These two documents have now been published by the People’s Educational Press, which has also attached staff to each university centre.

The teacher trainers involved in the project have also been working as consultants to the Ministry of Education to produce national curriculum guidelines for environmental education. According to the Ministry’s Zhu Muyu, a final draft of the document is expected later this year. It will serve as a resource material for teachers and also for local education officials charged with overseeing curriculum reform and development.

This could prove one of the most important means of spreading the principles and approaches of the Environmental Educators’ Initiative. Another will be development of the EEI itself which, since the beginning of 2001, has been scaled up to include a further nine universities across the country.

The new phase, says Liu Yunhua, relies less on international training inputs since it can draw on the capacity that has been developed in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. And it includes new components aimed at expanding and professionalising environmental education in China. EEI will also help the first three universities that participated in the project to develop certificate courses and Masters degree courses in environmental education.

Another new component, according to Liu Yunhua, is the selection of sites where environmental educators can “gain direct experience of community based education; by, for example, working with villagers in and around nature reserves to look at ways that they can be positive actors for conservation rather than marginalized by it.”