(Dis)connection between curriculum, pedagogy and learners’ lived experience in Nepal’s secondary schools: an environmental (in)justice perspective

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Mohan Paudel Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Ashik Singh Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Sushil Sharma Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Ganesh Bahadur Singh Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Rachel Wilder University of Bath, UK

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This paper offers a novel analysis of how Nepal is delivering its commitment to secondary education provision that is advancing environmental sustainability, tracing a trajectory that begins with national policies relating to environmental sustainability and incorporating the national curriculum framework, textbooks, pedagogies used in classrooms, and learner experiences and anticipated actions. We consider Nepal’s education about and for environmental sustainability in the context of theories of environmental justice, and question if and how secondary provision might promote the behavioural change that Nepal recognises is vital for environmental sustainability. Qualitative data were generated through policy analysis, critical content analysis of secondary-level curriculum and textbooks, classroom observations, semi-structured interviews with 15 teachers and 4 headteachers, and a range of in-person activities with 24 students in purposively selected four community secondary schools in the three diverse locations across Nepal. The results illuminate pronounced disconnections across modalities that indicate incoherence and unresolved debates in the underlying narrative of what environmental sustainability is and the role of education in addressing it. Our findings suggest that learners’ ideas, opinions, thinking and experiences should be encouraged and celebrated in the classroom to aid learners in translating conceptual learning into practical, sustainable behaviours, as well as to contribute to environmental justice. The findings appeal to the concerned stakeholders for their consideration of future policy and programme development that promotes environmental justice through education and establishes a connection between classroom learning and students’ lived experiences through a participatory approach, collaboration, and critical and creative thinking.

Abstract

This paper offers a novel analysis of how Nepal is delivering its commitment to secondary education provision that is advancing environmental sustainability, tracing a trajectory that begins with national policies relating to environmental sustainability and incorporating the national curriculum framework, textbooks, pedagogies used in classrooms, and learner experiences and anticipated actions. We consider Nepal’s education about and for environmental sustainability in the context of theories of environmental justice, and question if and how secondary provision might promote the behavioural change that Nepal recognises is vital for environmental sustainability. Qualitative data were generated through policy analysis, critical content analysis of secondary-level curriculum and textbooks, classroom observations, semi-structured interviews with 15 teachers and 4 headteachers, and a range of in-person activities with 24 students in purposively selected four community secondary schools in the three diverse locations across Nepal. The results illuminate pronounced disconnections across modalities that indicate incoherence and unresolved debates in the underlying narrative of what environmental sustainability is and the role of education in addressing it. Our findings suggest that learners’ ideas, opinions, thinking and experiences should be encouraged and celebrated in the classroom to aid learners in translating conceptual learning into practical, sustainable behaviours, as well as to contribute to environmental justice. The findings appeal to the concerned stakeholders for their consideration of future policy and programme development that promotes environmental justice through education and establishes a connection between classroom learning and students’ lived experiences through a participatory approach, collaboration, and critical and creative thinking.

Key messages

  • Existing curricula and textbooks are unlikely to deliver policy aims for education’s contribution to the environment.

  • Traditional teaching cannot instil attitude and behaviour for environmental sustainability.

  • It needs to bridge existing gap between learners’ lived experiences and their formal learning in school.

  • Education should consider fairness, equity and inclusivity in environmental matters.

Introduction

This paper offers a novel analysis of how Nepal is delivering its commitment to secondary education provision that is advancing environmental sustainability, tracing a trajectory that begins with national policies relating to environmental sustainability and incorporating the national curriculum framework, textbooks, classroom pedagogies, and learner experiences and anticipated actions. This wide-angle perspective brings to light the complexity of implementing a rapidly evolving area of educational programming that is a relatively new addition to mainstream education, especially in low-income settings. In particular, we detail challenges related to promoting skill development and behavioural change for environmental sustainability – which may be relevant to any education system that is still predominantly focused on cognitive, knowledge-based learning outcomes – and we suggest that environmental justice as an underlying value framework can help to foster a coherent, systematic approach to adopting environmental sustainability as an educational goal.

Environmental justice enshrines ensuring access to a healthy and clean environment for all, advocating for the human right to such conditions while also safeguarding reparations and compensation for those affected by environmental harm, particularly disadvantaged individuals and vulnerable communities. Environmental justice advocates for the embrace of practices that are both environmentally responsible and socially equitable, all while ensuring the preservation of vital natural resources for the generations to come. Environmental justice involves recognising the concept of ecological unity and the interdependency of all species, alongside the principle of intergenerational equity. This perspective encompasses not only the conservation of the entire ecosystem but also the proactive tackling of climate change–related issues and the promotion of sustainable development. Environmental injustice continues to prevail in economically and socially less developed communities facing inequalities caused by social structures such as class, ethnicity, racial identity and imperialism (Khanal and Murthy, 2007; Kelly-Reif and Wing, 2016; Parris et al, 2021). The fundamental equity-based principle of the SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals) to some extent creates synergies to achieve the dimensions of environmental justice – distributional justice, recognitional justice, procedural justice and capabilities approach (Menton et al, 2020).

Environmental justice is an especially cogent conceptual framework for Nepal, which is a highly vulnerable country to the adverse impacts of climate change (CBS, 2022; Dawadi et al, 2022). It is ranked tenth in the long-term climate risk index 2021 for the years 2000–19 with a Global Climate Risk Index score of 31.33 (Eckstein et al, 2021), despite its minimal contribution of 0.027 per cent to the global greenhouse gas emissions (MoF, 2017; GoN, 2019; NPC, 2020). The climate change–vulnerability mapping for Nepal study reported that Kathmandu valley (Hill ecological zone), and the districts of eastern Terai ecological zone are especially sensitive to climate change (Ministry of Environment, 2010). The negative consequences of climate change are already under way in many Himalayan ecoregions and poor people are particularly vulnerable to the diverse impacts of climate and environmental crises (Gentle et al, 2014; World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank, 2021). Given this context, the government and people of Nepal are receptive to solutions to support the survival of both their people and their environments.

Nepal’s policy landscape for climate change and environmental protection

Climate change is a defining issue of our time and the greatest challenge to sustainable development. Nepal understands the urgency of this issue and has taken numerous actions at national and regional levels. These actions include sustainably achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2045 (GoN, 2021) and development of National Adaptation Plan (NAP) 2023 with strategies to strengthen the nation’s resilience against climate change, demonstrating the country’s commitment to advancing environment conservation, mitigating climate change risks, and preparing for and managing disasters. The Constitution of Nepal-2015 (Article 30) declares that the right to live in a clean environment is one of the fundamental rights of its citizens. Article 30(3) confirms a proper balance between the environmental development initiatives within the broader framework of the nation’s development. Similarly, Article 51 of the constitution enshrines the policies of the state and prioritises environment-friendly and sustainable infrastructure and development, protection and sustainable use of natural resources, and adoption of appropriate measures to abolish or mitigate existing or possible adverse environmental impacts on nature, environment and biological diversity (GoN, 2015). These provisions enable and even appeal to the government for action towards consideration of environmental concerns in the current and future development plans.

As a signatory to the SDG, the Paris Agreement and other international agreements that relate to sustainable development and environmental protection, Nepal is implementing its commitments through its Environment Protection Act 2019, its National Climate Change Policy 2019, and National Climate Change Financing Framework 2017. The Environment Protection Act 2019 aims to protect the fundamental right of each citizen to live in a clean and healthy environment and makes provisions for pollution control, climate change, protection of national heritages, and environment protection areas (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2019). The Climate Change Policy emphasises adapting communities and economies, addressing the needs of disadvantaged groups, reducing emissions and building resilient ecosystems (NPC, 2015; 2020; GoN, 2019). In recognition of their distinctive access and networks, federal and local governments all have responsibilities for implementing policies for environmental protection. This devolved quality of Nepal’s governance is relevant both for responses to climate and environmental crises (which often have local characteristics) and for education by considering the ethnic, geographic, linguistic and demographic diversity of learners across different areas (MoE, 2016). It is also relevant in considerations of environmental justice, which we will come to later.

Nepal’s educational policy and programmes for delivering environmental goals

Globally, there is increasing commitment to utilise education as a vehicle to advance global goals for environmental protection (for example, SDG 13 on climate action,1 Article 12 of the Paris Agreement2). Some parties have suggested that the education system is a ‘critical social tipping point’ for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming (Otto et al, 2019). In the context of Nepal’s broader agenda for climate change and environmental protection, education takes a minor role; however, it is considered part of the machinery for environmental sustainability.

The Nepal Climate Change Policy 2019 established strategies for awareness raising and capacity development through the incorporation of subject matter related to causes and impacts of climate change and climate-friendly traditional knowledge, skills and practices in formal and non-formal educational curricula. Its strategies includes climate change–related training in focal schools and the formation of Eco Clubs in secondary schools to engage in activities pertaining to climate change (GoN, 2019).To meet the targets of SDG 4: Quality Education, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has developed the ‘Nepal National Framework of SDG 4: Education 2030’ with objectives to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education and promoting lifelong learning for all, promote sustainable behaviour, promote learning, and contribute to improved and sustainable livelihoods (MoEST, 2019). The Nepal government has attempted to improve education, awareness raising, and human and institutional capacity to deal with the consequences of environmental hazards. The National Planning Commission (NPC, 2017) reported that schools across the country teach about climate change, and more than 791 planners at the local level have received climate-change training.

As noted earlier – in relation to the government’s climate and environmental responses – there are national and regional jurisdictions and freedoms in relation to education. The School Education Sector Plan (SESP), National Curriculum Framework (NCF) and Nepal’s Education Act make it permissible for local governments to prepare and implement a supplementary, local curriculum based on cultural, economic, linguistic and social specificities. The local government has been given the right to plan, implement, monitor, supervise and evaluate school education (DoE, 2017; GON, 2017).

There is a dearth of research literature that offers in-depth analysis of how environmental issues are addressed through pedagogical practices in school education, in particular those researching this area from an environmental justice perspective. This paper makes a significant contribution to scholarship who are interested in the study of the practical application or execution of measures, policies or actions related to environmental concerns. It presents the lived experiences of secondary-level learners in relation to environmental education and suggests ways forward to bridge the gap, observed during the study.

Environmental justice and environmental education for advancing environmental sustainability

In this section, we introduce the theory and literature that we draw upon to analyse and discuss our data and findings. There are two key threads in our analyses that we will introduce here: (1) analyse evidence about how school-based environmental education is correlated with behavioural change and in particular environmentally sustainable choices among learners; and (2) the utility of environmental justice as a theoretical framework for environmental education, given the aims of promoting environmental sustainability.

Environmental education as a vehicle for environmental sustainability

One of the key claims and challenges for environmental education is about how it contributes to environmental sustainability, most envisaged through changes in learners’ knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or behaviours. There are diverse models of environmental education, and they are equally diverse in the outcomes they generate. For instance, Corral-Verdugo’s (2002) structural model of pro-environmental competence suggested that contextual factors (real world challenges) are anticipated to develop relevant knowledge and skill (competence) in response. Building on existing concepts and empirical evidences, Kaiser et al’s (2008) pro-environmental competence model considered ecology-specific abilities (environmental knowledge and people’s connectedness with nature) augment individual conservation behaviour and develop aptitudes for addressing environmental challenges. Environmental education with an evidence-based approach fostering both environmental knowledge and appreciation for nature can encourage sustainable behaviour changes (Roczen et al, 2014). Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) prioritises empowering learners with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes, and cultivating environmental and social awareness in students to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity and promoting sustainable development (UNESCO, 2020). ESD emphasises the interconnectedness of environmental issues with human well-being, people’s rights and fair distribution of resources (Kopnina, 2012).

Education systems teaching environmental justice help students to explore important social concerns relating to education (Kushmerick et al, 2007). As Peleso (2007) pointed out, environmental justice education helps students to develop critical perspectives on the environment, considering human, political and social actions, compared to traditional environmental education, which focuses on a deeper understanding of the environment and a sense of responsibility for the preservation of the environment. If students learn about environmental issues in school, they can change their attitude and behaviour towards sustainability (Piscitelli and D’Uggento, 2022) and can play a role in ensuring environmental justice in their communities. So, it is imperative to understand the justice landscapes children encounter inside and outside school.

The role and value of environmental justice in environmental education

Environmental justice is aimed at providing equitable access to natural resources and improving the livelihood of everyone, including those directly dependent on natural resources. This issue is more prominent for those who are already marginalised and disadvantaged due to their non-participation in the mainstream social, political and educational processes. The environmental justice movement has played a crucial role in shifting public and policy attention on the unequal distribution of environmental impacts, inclusivity, fairness, participation and sustainability, as well as intersectionality (referring to ethnicity, caste, gender, literacy, area of residence and so on) in the policy and academic debate. It has played a significant role in expanding our environmental concern beyond a sole ecological perspective to socio-political and environmental activism and reshaping environmental philosophy (Griffin et al, 2017; Figueroa, 2023). The movement recognised that poor people, minorities and remote communities are unevenly harmed by environmental hazards: they are exposed more to hazardous and toxic wastes, and polluted air and water, as well as impacted by resource depletion and ongoing development (Shrader-Frechette, 2002; Newton, 2009). In the JustEd study, we explored to what extent secondary school education related to the environment is taught as a ‘justice issue and how learners respond to both formal curricula and informal forms of knowing to develop their understanding and actions for their and nature’s futures’ (Milligan et al, 2021: 2).

Methodology

This paper is the result of a large comparative study, entitled JustEd: Education as and for the Environmental, Epistemic and Transitional Justice to Enable Sustainable Development (2020–23, funded by the ESRC3), which was implemented collaboratively with research partners in Nepal, Peru, Uganda and the UK. The research was conducted in stages, beginning with content analysis of relevant government policies and interviews with policy makers, followed by the analysis of curricula documents and teaching materials (for example, textbooks, teaching and learning aids), then qualitative data generation within schools, involving learners, teachers and head teachers; and finally, a large-scale survey including over 4,000 learners across the three countries, namely Nepal, Peru and Uganda. For the content analysis, each country research team conducted a scoping review to identify the most relevant policies, curricula, and teaching and learning materials relevant to the justices, and these were selected for in-depth analysis. This paper is based on Nepal-based empirical evidences. Further details on the geographical research sites and methods and participants follow.

Research sites

The research sites comprise four purposively selected community schools in the Mountain, Hill and Terai regions including Rasuwa, Lalitpur and Mahottari districts, respectively. These locations represent Nepal’s three distinctive ecological belts and are culturally as well as geographically diverse. The school in Rasuwa represents the rural mountainous context where the Tamang, Gurung and Magar are major ethnic communities. The Lalitpur school, in an urban setting in the Hill region, is mainly attended by students from migrant and economically deprived backgrounds. The third sample school is situated in rural deep Terai Madhesh region in the Mahottari district, dominantly populated by the Madheshi ethnic communities. The fourth school is in urban Mahottari, at a juncture of the Terai and Hill regions, and is attended by children from mixed communities of Madheshi and Hill peoples. All three regions where the sample schools are located are recognised for their vulnerability to environmental disasters: Mahottari stands alone at a very high flood vulnerability index (0.766-1.000) and is in a national priority for flood adaptation planning (Ministry of Environment, 2010); Lalitpur district is ranked high in most of the risk-specific and combined vulnerability indexes; and Rasuwa is a prioritised district for adaptation planning for ecological and landslide risk/exposures (Ministry of Environment, 2010).

Methods and participants

Multiple methods were used for gathering the data to ensure data reliability and validity (Cohen et al, 2018). As noted, the methods included qualitative methods with learners and teachers, and content analysis of government policies and national curricula documents. The methods with learners and teachers include walking interviews with learners in outdoor settings around their schools, creative participatory methods with four groups of six learners each, observations of classroom teaching and learning, focus group discussions with learners, and semi-structured interviews with teachers on school premises. These methods explored learners’ experiences, knowledge, skills and intended actions related to environmental concerns. Interviews with staff explored how they addressed environmental concerns in the school and/or teaching. This paper employs in-depth data from 24 secondary-level students, aged 14 to 16 years, and their teachers (15) and head teachers (4). In addition, 78 students participated in after-class interactions about their learning and experiences. Table 1 illustrates the participants and methods used for data collection.

Table 1:

Methods and participants of the study

Data generation methods Participants Number
In-person activities Outdoor encounter with environmental justice (walk and talk) Students 24
Group work and discussion Students 4 groups, 6 in each
Classroom observation Structured and focused observation Teacher and students 26 (Science and ‘Health, Population and Environment’ classes)
After-class interaction Group interaction after the class Students 78 (3 students from each of 26 lessons observed)
Interview Individual Head teachers 4
Teachers 15 (from grade 9 and 10)

This research also analysed the content of government documents to assess how environmental justice was addressed in education. We analysed the Constitution of Nepal-2015, the School Sector Development Plan (SSDP) 2016–23, School Education Sector Plan (SESP) 2023/24–2031/32, the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2019, Environmental Management Framework (EMF) 2016 and other related educational policies to identify and analyse policy provisions regarding environmental education from justice perspective. We conducted a qualitative content analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006; Miles et al, 2014) of the science curriculum and the Health, Population and Environment (HPE) curriculum for grades 9 and 10. The data and the names of the participants in this study have been anonymised. The University of Bath’s (UK) Social Science Research Ethics Committee reviewed and approved the ethical considerations and protocols adopted in this research (reference S22-025).

Findings

Our study explored the trajectory of policy provisions and their impact on classroom practices and learners’ experiences and learning. The disconnection explored in this study are now discussed.

Disconnection 1: Aspirational policy statements gain low priority in the new curriculum

The SSDP and the SESP stated that education has an important role in promoting environmental sustainability and securing sustained livelihoods through acquisitions of knowledge, life skills and behaviour related to environmental protection (MoE, 2016; MoEST, 2022). The SESP suggested the integration of various soft/non-cognitive skills and human values, and important concepts like inclusion, respect for diversity, equity, human rights, awareness of sustainable development, environmental change and so on into curricula, curricular materials and learning processes. However, the new national curriculum, adopted in 2021, places a lower priority on environmental education compared to the previous national curriculum. The Table 2 provides a comparative overview of the content coverage of environmental education in the old and new core curriculum for secondary levels (grades 9 and 10) implemented at the national level.

Table 2:

Overview of environmental education in secondary-level curriculum

Grade Old curriculum (2014) New curriculum (2021)
9
  • Science

  • Natural and manmade hazards; disaster management cycle; glacier flood; cyclone; greenhouse effect, artificial greenhouse; climate change (causes, effects and mitigation)

  • Health, Population and Environment (HPE)

  • Concept and interrelationship between health, population, and environment; urbanisation and its effects; concept of environmental health; management of pollution; solid waste and drainage

  • Science and Technology

  • Ecosystem: land and water

  • Food web and food chain

  • Ozone layer depletion

  • Effects of excessive use of insecticides and chemical fertilisers

  • HPE

  • Subject is demoted from compulsory group and contents are distributed in different elective subjects

10
  • Science

  • Pollution: Air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution – effects, causes and mitigation measures; conservation and management of forest and water sources

  • Climate change policy 2067, climate change adaptation strategy programme, local adaptation programme, national adaptation programme and so on

  • The UNFCCC, UN climate change conference, Agenda-21, Kyoto Protocol, Intergovernmental Forum and so on

  • HPE

  • Conversation of environment and its management; biodiversity: Nepal’s biodiversity, adverse effects on biodiversity, and mitigation measures; pollution-induced diseases

  • Science and Technology

  • Climate change: concept, causes, effects and mitigation; acid rain: causes, effects and mitigation; Greenhouse effect: causes, effects and mitigation; Effects of pollution induced by industrial chemicals; chemical waste management; conservation of endangered species

  • HPE

  • Subject is removed from the compulsory group and the contents are distributed in different elective subjects

In grades 9 and 10 of Nepal’s new school curriculum (2021), the HPE subject was demoted from a core subject to an elective subject, ‘Environment’. With the subject becoming elective, fewer students may choose it, and therefore it potentially leads to reduced knowledge, understanding and awareness of critical environmental issues and environmental sustainability among the youth. The removal of important topics from Science and Technology subject means students miss out on essential knowledge about the environment. On the other hand, studies (for example, Bromley et al, 2011; Jimenez et al, 2017) have reported that curricular coverage of environmental issues has increased over time in many countries. It was found that old and new school curricula do not explicitly cover the content dealing with environmental justice: equitable distribution of natural resources, meaningful participation of people in policy-programme development, their implementation, advocacy and decision making irrespective of caste, gender, socio-economic status, location and so on.

Disconnection 2: Expected learning outcomes in the National Curriculum are unlikely to deliver policy aims for education’s contribution to environmental protection

Nepal’s National Curriculum Frameworks 2007 and 2019 state that they aim to prepare conscientious citizens to contribute to sustainable development by conserving, promoting and utilising the natural and national heritage and environments (CDC, 2007; 2019). This language is action oriented: it suggests that learners acquire and put into practice a set of skills and behaviours for protecting and promoting ‘natural and national heritage and environment’. However, our analysis of environmental content in the Science and the HPE subjects in the curriculum suggests that the rhetoric of learners acquiring transformational skills, attitudes and behaviours presented at the outset of the curriculum document does not follow through in the content and learning objectives for both subjects. The content and expected learning, outcomes are still largely ‘knowledge-based’, ‘factual’ and ‘cognitive’. Mostly learners are expected to ‘introduce’, ‘identify’, ‘explain’, ‘describe’ and ‘state’ the contents covered. There are a few behavioural, action-oriented objectives. For instance: explore the ways to mitigate climate change; engage in community, school and household waste management; adopt mitigation and protection measures of biodiversity loss; participate in local efforts to environmental protection; and demonstrate changes in behaviour.

Disconnection 3: Current textbooks are poorly designed for delivering and achieving educational goals of environmental protection and sustainability

We considered that although the curriculum itself is a sparse outline of topics, in this section we can now build on this analysis to explore the extent to which textbooks advance the action and behavioural outcomes set out by the curriculum and align with NCF outcomes. It is expected that textbooks may include more in-depth knowledge, activities and examples that promote behavioural change and specific actions for learners to advance knowledge, understanding, skills and behaviour for environmental sustainability. Based on the textbook content, learners are unlikely to consider that it is human activities that are contributing largely to natural environment deterioration. Our review of textbooks and learning aids used in the HPE and the Science subjects suggests they are unlikely ‘to prepare students as conscious citizens who can contribute to sustainable development by conserving, promoting and utilising natural and national heritage and environments as expected by NCF and curriculum (CDC, 2014; 2019; 2021). For instance, the textbook content included information about the accelerated rate at which glaciers are melting, the formation of glacier lakes and the risk of glacier floods due to climate change. This type of content provides knowledge and can make learners aware of the potential disaster caused by increasing global temperature; however, this textbook content is inadequate, on its own, to foster in-depth critical analysis or discussion among students with regard to the implications of climate-change disasters for justice and global inequality, and it also seems impotent to motivate action or behavioural change among learners as it does not relate this knowledge back to their own lives or experiences. It is thus crucial to bridge the gap between academic knowledge, provided through textbook and pedagogical practices, and real-life experiences by engaging students in experiential learning. Experiential learning builds upon students’ lived literacy, resulting in enhanced learning outcomes (Peloso, 2007; Nuwategeka et al, 2021).

In addition to the content, we also considered textbooks as pedagogical aids for teachers and therefore looked at the structure of the activities and learning aids within them. The textbooks include multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions and project work about the causes of climate change, its effects and mitigation measures. If properly implemented following the required standards, these exercises engage students in reflection as well as critical thinking about their behaviour and behaviour change, so these aspects of the textbooks seemed to be more aligned with the key aspirations set out at the beginning of the NCF.

Disconnection 4: Teachers mostly using traditional teaching methods often lack focus on skill development, attitudinal shifts or behavioural change for environmental sustainability

Regarding classroom practice, the commonly suggested instructional methods in science and HPE curricula are lecture, question-answer, demonstration, exploration, discussion, project work and field study. Furthermore, the HPE curriculum suggested problem-solving, survey and discovery, role play and critical thinking. Although the curriculum suggested a wide variety of teacher and student-centred methods (CDC, 2021), it is unclear which of the methods is suggested for what type of content. The curriculum and textbooks did not illustrate how to develop practical skills for students to deal with the practical aspects of environmental education.

The instructional process in all the classes observed was exclusively teacher-dominated. The teachers used textbooks as the only teaching material. Teachers were not able to go beyond the traditional practice. As the conventional deductive approach of teaching dominated the classrooms, teachers’ delivery was more informative than exploratory. Most of the teachers said that they neither consulted the curriculum nor the teacher guides. A head teacher opined, ‘A greater challenge is that many teachers only follow textbooks and try to convey the things written therein, but teachers should prepare more than what the curriculum says, and textbooks covered’. Most of the teachers focused on elaboration and description of content reading from the book and paraphrasing. In some cases, teachers began lessons with reflection questions to remind students of their prior learning. However, teachers did not conduct group or project work activities during classroom teaching. Students suggested that for better understanding and sustained learning, activities given in the book should be demonstrated – field trips and project work should be organised rather than just lecturing. On the flip side, the science teacher in the urban Terai school said that the school occasionally organised field trips for the students to give practical experiences of the life cycle of plants agricultural practices, and analysis of environment in the locality. The box shows a typical lesson beginning in grade 9 science class.

The teacher entered the class and asked the students to submit their homework from a previous class. He checked the homework of every individual student going to each bench. Among 31 students (8 boys and 23 girls), 29 students submitted their homework. One student said he had no textbook to complete his homework while another student said that he forgot to do the homework. The teacher gave oral feedback to only one student of the 29 students submitting homework. While checking homework students were asked to study the previous lesson content, but no specific task was assigned. Most of the students remained seated without any activity while a few students engaged in self-study. The teacher started class saying ‘do you have any problem related to the previous class’ but all the students remained silent. The teacher suggested the students develop a habit of studying at home. A female student asked about geothermal energy while another girl asked how earthquakes occur. The teacher answered the questions and tried his best to satisfy their queries about geothermal energy and the causes of the occurrence of earthquakes. The teacher explained, but did not ask whether they were satisfied with the answer or whether they had further queries. Then, the teacher began the lesson by lecturing, paraphrasing, elaborating and summarising the content. The students remained silent until the teacher asked them questions.

Disconnection 5: Gap between learners’ lived experiences and their formal learning in school

Analysis of both science and HPE curricula showed that there is content about environmental issues and environmental protection, for example, the impact of urbanisation on climate, global warming, climate change impacts, care of the Earth and so on. However, how such knowledge bases can go into implementation at the microlevel community processes has not been adequately discussed either in the textbooks or in the classrooms.

The curricula, textbooks and classroom practices failed to present and discuss the justice perspective on environmental education. The classroom observation revealed teachers were competently presenting the content knowledge in the class but did not talk about how the ongoing policies and practices impact the lives of people who are close to nature, living in poverty, and facing different forms of socio-economic marginalisation. As education is a key to social transformation, it is crucial that education should address in a timely fashion the environmental crises that disproportionately affect the poor, women, children, disabled people and people from marginalised, disadvantaged and rural contexts.

We found a significant gap between learners’ lived experiences and their formal learning in school. For instance, a teacher in a school in the mountain region did not bring recent examples relevant to environmental content despite their easy availability. Similarly, a science teacher in Kathmandu could have talked to their students about causes, consequences and responses to urban environmental damage in the context of school closures that took place due to air pollution in Kathmandu in March 2021. However, two experienced teachers were found to have contextualised the content knowledge by giving examples from their surroundings. For instance, a teacher tried to link biodiversity with multicultural and multilingual societies such as ethnicity and caste diversity, language diversity and geographical diversity, citing examples from the community context. Teachers’ effective facilitation of student learning through linking the latter’s lived experiences with curricular content illustrates how knowledge transfer takes place through instruction. A teacher suggested that for connecting school education with people’s livelihoods, teaching–learning about environmental issues and their impacts on people’s lives needs to be contextualised covering prevalent local content, and experiences. For example, exploring the causes of mosquitos being rampant; less snowfall; declining number of snow leopards; glacier lake outbursts in mountain regions; landslide and deforestation in hill regions; forest fire, flood, deforestation; more heat in Terai regions; pollution; drinking water issues in cities; and so on, and their disproportionate impact in livelihood can be brought into the school’s teaching and learning activities. Another teacher opined about involving parents in their children’s learning process. He said that ‘we can make students more inquisitive and tell students to ask their parents, to see the gradual change in the environment and link it to the topic’.

Students frequently talked about the socio-spatial distribution of environmental hazards and their impact on local livelihoods. They perceived that individuals, communities, industries and corporate companies as well as government policies and actions have exacerbated environmental hazards. A student from a school in Terai recognised the responsibility borne by the industries for environmental damage, ‘I have a strong belief that it’s because of illegal mining of sand and uncontrolled cutting of land, the communities living in mountains and plains are badly impacted, causing a high risk of flood and landslide’. Based on their observations and experiences, many students reported that environmental hazards in their localities are due to unplanned development, such as haphazard road construction in hill regions and an extension of unplanned residential areas in Terai regions; increased pollution – improper waste management, sewage of wastewater in rivers and rivulets, disposition of waste materials on the roadsides and riverbanks; deforestation; forest fire; excessive fossil fuel consumption; and so on. They believed that increased environmental hazards led to the climate crisis. The students’ observations resonated with the findings of the World Bank study that stated, ‘Average annual ambient air pollution concentrations of 50 to 80 μg/m³ nationwide considerably exceed World Health Organization guidelines of 10 μg/m³ … Water pollution and water scarcity affect women’s health, nutrition, workload, and, consequently, their opportunities to overcome poverty’ (World Bank, 2019: 59, 64). Families with low socio-economic status and their children are often highly exposed to environmental pollutants (UNICEF, 2016). However, teachers in their respective classrooms did not explore whether such issues have already been a part of their students’ real-life learning.

The students also argued that some religious and cultural practices help clean the environment as well as maintain peace, brotherhood and harmony in society. For example, cleaning ponds and rivers for the Chhath festival (mostly Hindu people in Mithila regions in Terai celebrate and are pledged to worship the sun), planting tulsi (Holy Basil) plants in house compounds, and the planting of bar (Ficus benghalensis) and pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees to worship as symbols of god are cultural practices that promote healthy living. On the other hand, learners also observed that activities such as people offering excessive flowers, food and other resources during religious and cultural festivals negatively affected the environment. A student believes that unhygienic traditional practices have continued due to illiteracy, and lack of awareness about potential negative consequences on the environment and human health. This epistemic understanding of the student is not adequately addressed in the textbooks and curriculum. Students’ understanding of the environments based on their lived experiences and the schools’ educational practices were not adequately connected. Students got opportunities to engage in several extracurricular activities inside and outside the school context on rare occasions. They organised several clubs in which they participated in pro-environmental activities. For example, it was found that children’s clubs and scouts conducted in-school and out-of-school activities – performing drama, and organising debates, cleaning campaigns and plantation programmes that increase awareness as well as realisation of their responsibility towards environment conservation.

Students reported mixed beliefs concerning teachers’ inability to contextualise their teaching with students’ lived experiences and noted that this affected their content comprehension and ability to relate learning to their lives. A female student from rural Terai said, ‘I found difficulties understanding climate change and I cannot explain more about it’. However, another student said, ‘I understood the content very well as the content was learned in lower grades and the teacher discussed it with detail and with local examples’. This shows that teachers’ ability to build on students’ lived experiences positively affects students learning.

Barriers to using more diverse and engaging pedagogies

We explored some factors that create barriers to use more diverse and engaging pedagogies in teaching and learning.

Limited availability of resources and financial constraint in schools was identified as one of the barriers to engaged pedagogies. Many teachers reported that they have limited resources for more creative, in-depth pedagogies. Despite the constraints of limited resources and budgets, teachers can use cost-effective strategies, such as integrating outdoor teaching in a local natural setting. Unfortunately, such strategies are rarely put into practice by schools. A teacher from the urban Hill school said ‘While it is beneficial to organise a field visit for students to explore environmental issues, the arrangement is challenging due to financial constraints. Neither does the school manage, nor do the students pay because most of the students in the school are from low-income families’. Teachers perceived schools’ limited resources contributed to constraining pro-environmental activities. Such practical limitations prevented students from obtaining first-hand experiences and the opportunity to engage with communities.

Classroom management was one of the constraints. All the 26 classes observed for this study had traditional types of row and column seating arrangements with very limited space available for movement, there were no computers, internet or projection facilities in the classrooms and there was no physical arrangement in the class to conduct the activities. All these posed difficulties for teachers to conduct group work and other student-centred activities.

Administrative support and willingness also contribute significantly to quality education. A teacher in the urban Hill school reported that lack of coordination in the school and reluctance of school leadership are among many factors hindering possible changes in the school practices. Schools were found to be not aware of developing policy regarding engagement of the school with the community, government and non-governmental organisations regarding environmental concerns.

Data also revealed that the medium of instruction, to some extent, creates a barrier to teaching and learning, creates confusion and inhibits comprehension. Some students reported that they could not confidently present their experiences related to the environment due to their inadequate proficiency in the languages of instruction such as English and Nepali. A Tamang native-speaking student from a school in the mountain region said:

My native language is Tamang, and I can better understand the environmental issues in my community in the Tamang language. When I speak Nepali/English in the class, it happens to be in a Tamang tone, so my friends laugh at me. Therefore, I do not frequently participate in discussions in the classroom.

Several other students reported similar experiences regarding language-related barriers in the classroom. They argued that teaching and learning should not be limited to a single language as a medium; rather, incorporation of local languages can increase access to information and participation of the pupils who do not speak the dominant languages, such as English and Nepali.

It was found that teachers were not trained in environmental sustainability. Teachers lack practical knowledge and skills to implement critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, reparative pedagogy, modern technology and so on to deal with local and global environmental concerns, beyond textbook content, in their lessons.

Discussion

The respondent students posit three types of relationship between nature and human beings: nature above humans (biocentric perspective), nature for the better use of humans (anthropocentric perspective) and harmony between nature and living beings (integrity perspective). Most of the students’ perceptions resemble Taylor’s (2011) ideas of environmental ethics, which claim that humans and nature together make a totality of living beings or the biosphere. Environmental ethics are either anthropocentric (human-centred) or biocentric (life-centred) (Taylor, 2011). Students gave different views regarding environmental conservation and utilisation. Most of the students opined that people and the environment should stay together in a balanced way. Some students gave the anthropocentric view that the environment is for people, and they have the right to use this environment, contrasted with other students’ biocentric view who perceive that the environment should be not only for humans but for all living species. A science teacher emphasised the latter view saying, ‘We should say “our earth” rather than saying “my earth”, the Earth is not only of human beings – all the creatures have rights over it’. His view represents Taylor’s (2011) idea that humans and the environment coexist. Another teacher opined that the worldwide initiatives taken by national and international organisations for the conservation of the environment and action against climate change were late. A teacher presented his view by saying how environmental justice weighs up against human survival/flourishing, ‘in school, we teach to save natural resources, which is not possible to apply practically as their butter and bread are earned by this’. Young learners have realised their roles and responsibilities towards the environment, they relate the environment to themselves and their communities and talk about the role and responsibilities of regulatory bodies such as government and organisations for promoting environmental protection and sustainability.

Dimensions of environmental justice that relate to the data

Right of people to have equal access to nature (for survival, leisure, enjoyment and so on – anthropocentric)

The data seem to suggest that there is little discussion of power and privilege related to climate change and environmental concerns. Thus, there is little critical debate about how the privileged choices and power exerted by wealthy groups (within and beyond Nepal) influence the rights of others to enjoy nature (Amos and Carvalho, 2020; Bhambra and Newell, 2022; Harvey, 2022). The human-centric perspective about the environment is centred around humans and their needs. It prioritises the consumption of natural resources to fulfil human needs and ‘nature is valued for its convenience’ (Sürmeli and Saka, 2013). It is imperative that the moral dimensions of humans’ actions towards the environment should be based on environmental ethics (Bourdeau, 2004).

Biocentric notions of nature

The data suggest that there could be some content that supports biocentric notions of environmental justice – for example, discussions of nature itself without reference to humans, such as glaciers melting, the devastating consequences for large ecosystems without mention of how it will impact people; this could be considered to foster among learners an appreciation for nature and to critique damage to nature beyond what the impacts on humans are. A biocentric perspective focuses on our responsibilities and contributions towards the environment, emphasising the importance of our actions for the survival and flourishing of all beings (Nuwategeka et al, 2021). It considers the natural world as a subject of justice, endowed with inherent rights and entitlements (Milligan et al, 2021). The Environment Protection Act, approved in 2019, contains a biocentric perspective and made a special provision for environmental protection. The Government of Nepal may declare adversely impacted or likely to be caused areas as ‘sensitive areas’ and issue any appropriate order for the maintenance, management or restoration of the environment (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2019).

Place-based – relating to learners’ lived experience

In Nepal’s school context, there is less space in environmental education to engage young learners meaningfully in the key challenges of our time by creating spaces for critical and integrative thinking. There are some considerations of place-based environmental education that could be mentioned here – for example, inconsistent use of local examples by teachers – perhaps employed by experienced teachers who know how to gain the interest of students and help students to succeed (regardless of the fact that localisation is not encouraged in the curriculum or textbooks). Our study identified non-formal knowledge streams within schools, religious practices of environmental conservation, and celebrations like Environment Day also play a significant role in building students’ sustainability values and competencies for climate-change action and future resilience, especially considering that these topics often receive less emphasis in the school curriculum. Many environmental educators focus on the ultimate desired behaviours (desired learning outcomes) rather than all the steps needed to get there, including habits, tasks and skills (Heimlich and Ardoin, 2008). ‘Environmental education and education for sustainable development (ESD) play a role in changing people’s behaviour, produce a generation capable of thinking critically and making decisions to solve environmental problems in their communities’ (Permanasari et al, 2021: 6).

Conclusion and implications

This paper explored whether and how environmental justice is incorporated in secondary-level school curricula of the Science and HPE subjects, and how students’ lived experiences have or have not been addressed by schools’ teaching and learning practices in Nepal. It is found that several environmental issues have been included in the curricula and textbooks to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes of students towards the protection of the environment they are living with. The environmental issues were also discussed and linked with SDGs. The analysis of the contents of textbooks also showed that the selected subjects are useful as they are helpful in developing knowledge and skills and exploring the ways to solve potential problems occurring in students’ lives. Although the content was organised logically and to the learning capacity of students, inconsistencies were reported regarding students’ content comprehension, which depended on teachers’ selection of instructional strategies. However, this study concluded that instructional practices in the schools, especially in the HPE and Science subjects, do not build on students’ lived experiences.

Moreover, these practices do not expand students’ real-life learning experiences due to several constraints such as a lack of teachers’ willingness and inadequacy of funds for fieldwork. Nepal’s education policy suggests young people will learn about environmental sustainability in school, and that education about the environment should produce more environmentally sustainable behaviours and knowledge among learners. It is essential to integrate sustainable development into academic activities through improved content, methods and approaches that go beyond disciplinary concerns and require extra effort and motivation from academics (Cebrián et al, 2015; Filho et al, 2021). There also exists a gap between young people’s lived experience and classroom/formal teaching and learning. This misalignment between curricular goals and classroom practices shows that the successful achievement of curricular promises is highly unlikely. Not achieving the curricular goals due to a lack of operational processes to link with the lived experiences of students leads to epistemic injustice in education. It is necessary that environmental justice should be incorporated into the school curriculum and activities to instil a sense of fairness and empower the students to stand for a just society ensuring environmental and other justice. Education can serve as an entry point to climate vulnerability mapping, climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Therefore, the findings of this study appeal to education policy makers, curriculum designers, education administrators, head teachers, teachers and school management to collectively work for ways to integrate environmental justice education with policy, curricula and instructional practices in schools. Climate dialogue in school can help find the climate vulnerability in the local communities, assess local needs, exploration of Indigenous knowledge, skills and practices of the local communities, climate awareness-raising, and find the ways forward for climate adaptation and resilience. Place-based and critical pedagogy, incorporating Indigenous people’s perspective and linking with students’ livelihoods, creates a strong foundation for nurturing a sense of responsibility, fairness, inclusivity and equity – all of which are essential for education as a tool for environmental justice and education for sustainable development. Achieving environmental justice requires the development and implementation of equitable policies and programmes, supporting school-led initiatives, multistakeholder engagement and collaboration, inclusion of affected communities on decision making and appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives and local practices for environmental conservation and protection.

The study suggests promoting environmental justice through education, establishing a connection between classroom learning and students’ lived experiences through a participatory approach, collaboration, and promoting critical and creative thinking.

Notes

1

SDG 13: Climate Action calls for improvements in education, awareness-raising, and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction, and early warning (United Nations, 2024).

2

Paris Agreement: Parties shall cooperate in taking measures, as appropriate, to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information, recognising the importance of these steps with respect to enhancing actions under this Agreement (United Nations, 2015).

3

Economic and Social Research Council, UK.

Funding

This research project was awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), UK [ES/T004851/1] and conducted jointly by the University of Bath, UK; University of Bristol, UK; Gulu University, Uganda; GRADE, Peru; and Tribhuvan University, Nepal.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge unconditional support from our participants in this study. Without their support, this study would not have come in this form.

Data availability statement

The data set generated and analysed during the study is not publicly available due to privacy concerns but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Mohan Paudel Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Ashik Singh Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Sushil Sharma Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Ganesh Bahadur Singh Tribhuvan University, Nepal

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Rachel Wilder University of Bath, UK

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