In an extension of its land-grant mission, Michigan State University is piloting a learning exercise--known as the Environmental Education Project--with Thailand's Ministry of Education. A venture that cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries, the project consists of MSU faculty members Christopher Wheeler and James Gallagher, both professors of teacher education, and Maureen McDonough, professor of forestry. David Campbell, professor of geography, serves as a consultant.
The Environmental Education Project has two primary goals: to build the capacity of Thai communities to address and solve problems related to deforestation, and to change the teaching and learning process in order to build a generation of community members aware of environmental issues. The project uses environmental awareness as an entry point for a new way of learning and teaching that enables students to "construct their own knowledge," according to Benjalug Sookpokakit, project member and official in the Thai Ministry of Education.
Anticipated outcomes include new teaching strategies, renewed focus on curriculum concepts, an increase in teachers' comfort levels within the communities, improved student attitudes about learning, and increased willingness by villagers to share information and ideas. Ultimately, the project aims to create new school-community partnerships focused on sustainable forestry projects.
Six rural primary and two lower secondary (7th-9th grades) schools serve as pilot sites. During the first semester of the project, students and teachers collected a village history and presented it to village residents. This helped accustom them to the new style of learning. During the second and third semesters, students studied local environmental problems resulting from deforestation and reported their findings to the community and to members of the Ministry of Education. Community members and students worked with each other to develop and implement strategies to solve local problems. Through this discussion, the students and teachers hoped to contribute to the awareness of the detrimental consequences of unmanaged tree cutting and to work with villagers to reduce the effects of deforestation. Student groups will work with communities during the final two semesters to formulate and choose among promising alternative solutions to forest-related problems.
According to Wheeler, engaging in participatory learning involves a drastic change in thought habits on the part of teachers, students, and villagers. Currently, Thai teachers most frequently use a "chalk and talk" method in which the instructor, posed in front of a chalkboard, lectures and presents information for students to record as notes. The Environmental Education Project encourages teachers to move away from this model, to think differently about the student role in learning, and to use different ways to engage students in the learning process so that they learn concepts through application and investigation rather than memorization.
Village members are proud of their schools (there is one in nearly every village because primary education is mandatory in Thailand), but they rarely interact with them. Villagers see education as a ticket to a better life for their children and although they respect the school system, they don't see themselves as having any knowledge or ideas to share with school leaders. Through discussions and interviews with student groups, village members are beginning to see that they have valuable knowledge that can enrich the educational process.
The MSU team developed a curriculum approach that promotes conceptual learning. Incorporating a "kite model" developed by David Campbell, the curriculum examines the political, cultural, biophysical, and economic aspects of local forest-related problems. Each of these four aspects (which form the corners of a kite) addresses current forest management practices. Students use these areas as a base for their analyses. They look at all four corners of the "kite" as elements of the problem and consider them as they propose solutions. They are beginning to understand that local forestry problems developed as a result of these aspects and that a successful solution must also accommodate them.
So far, the results of the project are very positive. "The changes in teacher attitude and community response are remarkable," Wheeler says. An increased interest in understanding forest management has arisen across the villages. Focus groups and household surveys show that parents like this new method of teaching--their children are learning, the teachers are learning about the community, and the parents are discovering that they have something to offer. Project directors anticipated that they would have to work hard to elicit community feedback. Instead, villagers took the initiative and asked for reports of the children's findings so they could help with feedback and planning of management procedures.
It is also important to note that teachers, students, and community members find the program very enriching. "Data from our studies show that the new approach stimulates teachers to create many new activities that promote student interaction with a wide range of community members," Gallagher reports. "Students learn more than how to apply concepts of science and social science to local conditions. Interactions with adult community members about important environmental, social, and economic issues have increased their writing and questioning skills as well as their self-confidence."
Community members also find the program beneficial in important ways. As one village headman put it after a public presentation by eighth-grade students to 200 adult community members, "In the past, we have had forestry officials, politicians, the police, and the army come talk to us about the forests, but today is the first time our own children and grandchildren have come to talk with us about our forests."
This type of interactive investigation can bring a broad array of issues, including power, status, and wealth distribution, out in the open. This sets the stage for healthy discussions of management procedures. For example, one class initiated a campaign to stop the burning of forests in its area. The headmen of the village took the class out to the woods to demonstrate how burning positively affected mushroom growth. They pointed out that a campaign against burning must provide a compensatory practice for the poor, who depend on mushroom harvests.
MSU has contributed heavily to the project's evaluation component, which is being conducted by the Social Research Institute at Chiang Mai University. MSU personnel who helped design the evaluation component also provide advice to the Thai Ministry of Education based on the collected results.
Several interesting ideas have been suggested so far. First, participants and project staff have learned how to promote teacher change in a centralized education system. Even though the policy orders come from above, teachers can learn to design a new curriculum that complements the standard one based on principles of learning, goals, and new basic concepts. The key seems to be "guidance without control." If there are too many restrictions, teachers do not feel involved or empowered in the education of their students. Researchers are also learning that if the proper conditions are created for teacher-villager interaction, these two groups will use the opportunity to learn from each other. Wheeler maintains that "in regular schools if you create the right context you can promote rather dramatic change that will have a beneficial effect for small villages." McDonough adds that "in so doing, you can improve the quality of forest resources and, ultimately, the quality of people's lives."
The future of the Environmental Education Project looks promising. Wrap-up and dissemination of research results will take place in the summer of 1996 and then the Thai government will expand the pilot to neighboring schools. Project principles will be incorporated into the next five-year education plan, thus expanding them to other parts of Thailand. In this way the project will have a real impact on the future of the Thai education system. "Through collaborative planning, one can see an idea become a reality, which is one of the best rewards one can get in academia," says Wheeler. He reports that following a presentation by a group of sixth grade students to community and Ministry of Education officials, the director of the ministry's Department of Curriculum and Instruction Development closed the session by saying: "I've traveled to Japan, I've traveled to Canada, and I've traveled to the United States looking for teaching and learning where students are actively engaged in material relevant to their own lives. And I found that all I had to do was travel to Lamphun and Wiang Pa Paw provinces. Thank you all for such a wonderful day."
Editor's Note: Funding for the Environmental Education Project is provided by the Ford Foundation; the MSU Foundation; USAID, through the Academy for Educational Development; USAID-Thailand; and the Thai Ministry of Education.