Kei Franklin explores how one school in Thailand fosters “good citizens,” going beyond simple environmental education. This article is excerpted from EarthEd, the latest edition of State of the World which examines how, education worldwide can help people better adapt to a rapidly changing planet.
The education needed to build a sustainable future need not be explicitly environmental. In some cases, a more life skills-based education can develop in students the same academic and personal qualities that a more orthodox and explicitly environmental education would seek to cultivate.
Supporting skills-based environmental education is one way of lowering the barriers to entry for students seeking environmental fluency and hoping to engage in environmental work. By focusing on the means (the personal qualities and vocational skills that support environmental fluency) rather than on the ends (the explicit connections of these qualities and skills to larger environmental narratives), schools can expand the opportunity for people from different classes, cultures, political affiliations, and disciplines to engage with environmental challenges.
Building the “Bamboo” Secondary School
In terms of skills-based environmental education, there is perhaps no better example than the Mechai Pattana “Bamboo” secondary school in Buriram, Thailand. Mechai Pattana was established in 2009 by Mechai Viravaidya, who believed in the need for radical rural education reform in Thailand, with a focus on changing: 1) what we teach, prioritizing material that is directly applicable in and relevant to the future lives of students; 2) how we teach, emphasizing student-centered and student-directed learning; and 3) the role of the school, reimagined as a “lifelong learning center” for students and families and as a hub for improving life in surrounding communities.
From this vision, Mechai Pattana was born, with the objective of fostering “good citizens”— learners who are not only academically capable, but also honest, generous, competent in vocational and life skills, confident as leaders in community development, and avid promoters of gender equality. Mechai Pattana currently has one hundred and sixty students from all seventy-seven provinces in Thailand, including students who represent ethnic minorities and some stateless students from the Thai border regions.
An Atypical Typical School Day
On school days, students at Mechai Pattana attend academic classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and from 2 p.m. onward they engage in a range of student-run businesses and activities. Some students tend to the chickens or goats on campus, others grow melons or off-season limes to sell for profit, others make ice cream or print t-shirts, and others greet guests and plan events. Through these activities, students learn the skills of growing food, working with others, starting and running businesses, managing finances, and more. Students pay their school fees not in money but by completing four hundred hours of community service and by planting four hundred trees per year. The parents of the students must fulfill the same requirements in their own communities.
Beyond Environmental Education
While there is no environmental curriculum at Mechai Pattana per se, all students graduate with certain skills and knowledge that are central to environmental fluency. They are all proficient at growing food and planting trees, and they understand—on an intuitive level—the limits of uninhibited population growth, both from regular discussions with the school’s founder (the former health minister and an active promoter of safe sex and family planning) and from the lessons of “Rabbit Island,” a now-barren island in the middle of a campus pond that has fallen victim to a surging population of rabbits who, as one student explained, “don’t practice effective family planning.”
The school also has partnered with environmental organizations to organize tree-planting initiatives in communities, conduct biodiversity surveys and water-quality testing on campus, and research the potential for bamboo as an alternative material for construction. In terms of “soft skills,” Mechai Pattana inculcates in students generosity, curiosity, respect for one another, and a strong sense of responsibility for the well-being of their community (human and otherwise).
These qualities, while not explicitly linked to larger environmental narratives, foster in students a deep environmental consciousness and fluency that will stay with them throughout their lives. Students grasp the direct personal relevance of environmentalism to their well-being and that of their families and rural communities. Mechai Pattana stands as one model of a less-explicit form of environmental education—one that teaches through the cultivation of personal qualities and vocational skills—and as a reminder to broaden our expectations of what exemplary environmental education might look like.
Kei Franklin is an environmental studies student at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. She is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.
Banner photo by Microsoft.
Worldwatch’s EarthEd, with contributions from 63 authors, includes chapters on traditional environmental education topics, such as ecoliteracy, nature-based learning, and systems thinking, as well as expanding the conversation to new topics essential for Earth education, such as character education, social emotional learning, the importance of play, and comprehensive sex education.
Ultimately, only by boldly adapting education do we stand a chance in adapting to our rapidly changing planet.