The future of water100%2

The subject of water is often present, as much in daily conversations as in the media; it is regularly in the news. Much the same thing happens in schools, where water is talked about and worked with. Aspects related to its properties and natural cycle are most frequently touched on; although in recent years the focus has been on the uses of “water as a resource”. Included in the proposals for courses in secondary or high school education are topics linked to the importance of water for human beings and other themes related to the finite nature of this resource. Curricular development happens over time, but the way that the subject of water is represented within the curriculum has stayed more or less the same.

Apart from its importance within the curriculum, the topic of water is one of the environmental subjects about which schools receive most proposals from local councillors, and from both public organisations and private companies. These proposals, while doubtless well-intentioned, have very different formats and somewhat varied aims; there ends up being a disjointed set of initiatives for development, whose impact is scarcely evaluated. Schools welcome them, but they rarely provoke collective debate.

Teaching pupils about water

So the jury is still out on how the subject of water can best be taught; to prove it you only have to carry out a search on the internet or have a look at the section on teaching resources in this magazine or others like it. Behind all the initiatives lies the conviction that educational work about water is always worthwhile. One assumes that its instigators believe that attitudes about water can be changed through teaching, that some behaviour is in need of change, and that global education intervention is relevant in this shift in attitude. Let us take these assumptions one by one.

There are those who maintain that habits are acquired through imitation, others say that they are learned as a result of thorough training, while some believe that neither the one nor the other is correct, but that it is the environment – the environmental problems at any given time – which generate the models for life and how it evolves.

It is possible that school children behave in a certain way because they do not realise that water is a precious and vulnerable asset, which belongs to everyone and is unequally distributed; this is because they follow social norms or because they have not been given precise rules of conduct in this area.

While it is known that intervention at the school level is relevant to changing behaviour, less clear is that the perception and readiness for action improve if there is social acceptance; this is the strategic situation. Pro-environ-mental actions carry more weight if backed up by similar practices in schools or society, providing they favour a sense of individual responsibility within the social group and if at the same time they are accompanied by coherent institutional initiatives.1

In that case, given that water continues to be a social concern and is maintained as a subject in school, there is no reason to say no to the educational activities. That said, it remains to be seen how it is to be achieved.

How do school children perceive water?

Any proposal to make changes in education should be supported by a thorough knowledge of the existing situation. A quick summary would show that the pupils understand that water is made up of several components, that it has a series of properties, can exist in different states, is used in everyday life and has a bearing on health; in addition they know about its role in the formation of the hydrosphere and in the water cycle. Generally, pupils respond without difficulty to questions about facts and figures, but find it much harder to evaluate processes and interactions between water and the individual and water and society. It is understandable that this should be the case, as these topics form part of the multiple curricular proposals which are taught during the years of compulsory education.2

It is also possible to see from this that some school children do not see the relevance in saving water, and that they pass the responsibility on to the different authorities; they also show a worrying identification with the relationship between consumption of water and quality of life.3

There are two hypotheses to consider when developing a plan for future action. In the first place, there seems to be a relationship between repetitive teaching and how much is learnt; in the second place, it seems that there is too much emphasis on the learning of facts and figures to the detriment of concentrating on other material related to collective action, which has not managed to “seep through” effectively enough into either the text books or the curricula set by the educational authorities. As a consequence, it should be clear that the power of schools to educate has not been lost, but that their aims need to be modified. The school syllabuses need an overhaul; this could come from within as there is room to achieve this in class planning processes.

Some suggestions for change

Summarising the most valid educational options for reversing such a deep-rooted method of teaching is not an easy task, still less to find strategies which will work for all school children. Still, following on from the aforementioned and working in teams to encourage participation, there are various possible options. They are complementary and would allow for multiple modifications, but they all require planning.

  • Studying problematic situations and working on problem-solving.
  • Developing teaching units with a “globalising” format and aims.
  • Improving environmental management in schools by implementing school eco-audits.
  • Collaborating with networks and organisations to work on the subject of water.
  • Studying a well known issue. Problems with the water supply or incidences of contamination, social conflicts caused by distribution, inequality between the First and Third World, etc.  These are issues which are useful to look at, although they do not solve the problem as they first require the mobilisation of intellectual and attitudinal resources. By varying the dimension of the problem, they can be used at any educational level. There is one condition: that the learning process is organised around a single argument, which makes sense of the whole sequence. Starting from pre-existing ideas and from the recognition of habits leads to a restructuring and questioning of certain behaviours within the group. The sequence to follow, which should be short (or school children lose interest), is simple: the creation of a global overview to highlight the situation and analyse causes, suggest actions, develop them and evaluate the results.
  • Teaching proposals on the subject of water. Working around two or three aspects, above all individual and collective uses of water, would mean that the most urgent situations can be identified to work on straight away. For example, related themes linked to the importance of water in life or in the environment, personal or collective use, etc. A few organised activities should be included: something to motivate, to develop ideas and to apply in a practical way. In this way there is time to deal with all of the issues and evaluate the results with the pupils, making it easier to stimulate learning. These proposals are recommended for groups which still do not have a clear global overview of the subject, although they already have a definite interest in teaching it.
  • Improving the management of the school. Nowadays, the problems which the use of water generates in a school can be solved by simple technical tweaking or by installing water-saving devices. However, an eco-audit of water could be useful, as it would favour collective participation in the common objective that is sustainable management. In this case, we should certainly consider the improvement of environmental management and problem-solving. If by doing this changes of attitude are achieved, these will carry over into family life.
  • Sharing water. The water network. There is a lot on offer from organisations such as UNESCO, Greenpeace, Intermón-Oxfam or others closer to home which offer materials and resources for schools. The creation of a water action group which could be linked to one of the existing networks is a good way of establishing the dynamic of learning from others and of sharing. Initiatives from autonomous government and town halls can also be taken advantage of, such as Agenda 21, Green Schools, Eco-Schools, etc. Given their participative nature, there would need to be a strong collective to keep them going year after year.

The unique position of schools to act as a catalyst for change has not been sufficiently exploited, but there is still time to achieve this. In order to do so, we have to make room for the educational practices which will create a different vision of water. This vision seems more related to a revision of the relationship between humans and water, with a global dimension and a participative aim, as opposed to just focussing on water’s properties and its use as a resource.

Carmelo Marcén, Professor at IES Miguel Catalán de Zaragoza

1 Benayas; Poguntke; Marcén (2004). “Recopilación y análisis de investigaciones sobre el agua y la educación ambiental”. Congreso Agua y Educación Ambiental (pp. 165-182). Alicante: CEMACAM.
2 Marcén (2006). Las ideas de los escolares sobre el agua. Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo.
3 Marcén (2004). “Usos y abusos del agua”. Cuadernos de Pedagogía (no. 334, pp. 34-37). Barcelona: Cisspraxis.