Transformative learning in an overenrolled university course

Written by
Dr Ayub Macharia

Crowded lecture room


 Public universities in Kenya are confronted with problems of over enrollment that’s not reciprocated with additional staff recruitment. This may compromise quality of learning and competence of graduates. This paper explains how participatory action research approach was used to enhance active learning and problem solving in a class of 160 students. The ERC 100: Introduction to Environmental Education course was quite popular to students as it was to most of them the only opportunity to study environmental education, hence explaining why it was oversubscribed.

I conceptualized my project within 4 action research phases with an integrated problem solving objective. Thus the students were involved in Exploration, Planning, Action and then Reflection around a local environmental issue identified by students, all these making one cycle. The projects run for one semester (3 months) between September to November 2005.

Some of the main outcomes of the approach are local student centred innovations knowledge, skills and attitude development to address diverse issues. The students demonstrated enhanced capacities and motivation to address environmental challenges which may not have happened if a purely instructivist approach was used.


Ndaruga A.M. (2013) Innovative Environmental Education Methodologies. Manilla Publishers, Nairobi.


One of the key objectives of environmental education is to enhance students abilities to act to environmental concerns that affect them. Realisation of this objective entails a learning process that integrates analysis of environmental problems, and providing opportunities to act individually or as a group to resolve environmental problems (UNESCO, 2005). The current education system in many countries has been blamed for not adequately providing opportunities for active engagement with contextual issues due to its being biased towards transmission of predetermined knowledge systems. Even where action research is used, there is usually a tendency not to engage structures and to facilitate emancipation even when opportunities to do so exist (Mokuku, 2002),

It is generally agreed that global and local environmental problems are diverse and if well analysed very complex since their roots can be traced to ecological, economic, social and political aspects. Thus environmental problems assume broader dimensions of democracy, peace, development and ecological conservation (UNESCO, 2005). Thus even a seemingly small issue presents the educator with a broad field of operation which he/she may harness in/adequately depending on expertise, motivation and resources.

ESD challenges in Kenya

Kenya faces many sustainable development challenges which are complex and interlinked. The challenges can be classified as societal, economic, and environmental (NEMA, 2007, 2004). Societal issues include poor governance, corruption, bigotry towards cultural diversity, ethnic animosity, gender inequality, HIV/AIDS scourge, incidence of diseases such as malaria, TB and other diseases, human rights abuse, all forms of violence, insecurity, scolded lifestyles and behaviors, drug and substance abuse, and erosion of cultural values and morals, among others.

The economic issues can be traced to systems of production and consumption, investments and service delivery choices for enhancing GDP; high levels of poverty; inadequate investment infrastructure; unemployment, rural/urban migrations, corporate irresponsibility and lack of accountability, and corruption; inefficient and wasteful production systems; unsustainable utilization of natural resources and poor enforcement of policies and regulations (ibid).

The environment issues include droughts, natural disasters, acute water shortage, climate change and variability, loss of biodiversity and forest cover, poor waste management systems, land degradation and loss of forest cover (ibid)

Environmental Education within Kenyatta University

The first course to be developed on Environmental Education was described in 1986 after a presidential directive that the University prepares teachers to address environmental challenges in the course of their teaching. This course, EEN 100 – Introduction to Environmental Education was offered to all teachers and was administered from the Faculty of Education.

The EEN 100 course led to realization of the need to expand courses to address the various aspects of environment and sustainable development. Therefore in early 1990s courses were developed leading to birth of four degree programmes housed in the 4 departments that formed the Faculty of Environmental Studies (KU, undated). Among these were 5 courses that focused on environmental education and were housed by the Department of Environmental Foundations. These were

FEU 100 – Principles of Environmental Education (later recoded as ERC 100)

ENF 103 – Philosophy of Environmental Education

ENF 303 – Curriculum Development for Environmental Education

ENF 416 – Non – Formal Environmental Education

ENF 312 – Comparative Environmental Education

EEN 100 – Introduction to Environmental Education (only for B.Ed students)

There are 5 environmental programmes in the School of Environmental Studies and Human Sciences (SESHS) namely Environmental Science (ENS), Environmental Resource Conservation (ERC), Environment and Community Development (ECD), Emvironmental Planning and Management (EPM) and Environmental Education (EED). More details of these programmes can be obtained from Students are admitted into one programme but are expected to take courses from two other programmes of their choice within SESHS i.e. ENS, ERC, ECD or EPM. To graduate with BSc from SESHS, a student requires 50 courses.

ERC 100: Principles of Environmental Education Course

As mentioned earlier, the ERC 100: Principles of Environmental Education was a popular course since it was a core course and the only one available to most students studying environmental courses. It was always oversubscribed with student numbers reaching over 150 and facilitated by only one lecturer.

The ERC 100 course which is discussed in this paper covered the following areas of study: Concept of environment, the four dimensions of the environment, the environment crisis, environmental education as a response to environmental crisis, objectives of environmental education, guiding principles for environmental education, international conferences that have influenced developments in environmental education, Stockholm, Belgrade workshop, Tbibisi conference, World conservation strategy, UNCED, Johannesburg Earth Summit, trends in environmental education in Kenya, Education for sustainable development (KU, undated)

Project methodology

This project was conceptualised along the environmental education for sustainability perspective. The project acknowledges that students should be given an opportunity to explore their local environmental challenges and to address them accordingly. The students are viewed to develop meanings pertaining to values and threats to their local environment and appropriate remedies. This conception of students by this project assumes that they are not empty vessels but active constructors of meaning who bring their existing understanding into the learning situation (O’Donoghue & Lotz 2006). The student is expected to promote the sustainability of the environment within his/her locality.

The Participatory Action R
esearch (PAR) model approach was adapted to guide student activities during the course. Participatory Action Research is a reflective process of problem solving led by individuals working with others to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. The students were expected to identify with sustainable development challenges affecting them and explore and utilise the potentials within their mandates and operations to address them to improve the environment. PAR is an informed process comprising of a spiral of steps involving exploration, planning, action and fact finding about the result of the action. The steps are as itemised below and these formed the roadmap for guiding ESD implementation during the course.

  • Team building, partnerships and mobilization
  • Planning which includes diagnosis of the baselines, conceptualizing change and documenting the roadmap
  • Implementation of the planned activities
  • Reflection and adjustments
  • Continuous improvement

The students worked as teams and were expected to take charge of their activities and share with others their achievements and challenges. The PAR model serves as a more rational way to track down activities by stakeholders. PAR model has several cycles and the process continues until the problem is solved. The project was conducted as explained below

Step 1: Instructivism phase

This aspect comprised of intermittent lectures done to ground students to environmental issues and environmental education as a response to environmental crisis. This step can be likened to ‘education about the environment’. This stage was concerned with creating awareness and imparting knowledge, often factual, with an aim to promote understanding about the human-environment interactions. It is the most common approach to environmental education that is currently practiced (Fien, 1993) and is common in courses/subjects offered at all levels, where environment is treated as a topic of study. This approach as used in ERC 100 was supposed to make students develop ecological and environmental understanding. This view of environmental education is associated with the neoclassical educational framework, the technocratic environmental paradigm (Ndaruga, 2003, Babikwa, 2004).

This view however has the problem of assuming a linear relationship between knowledge, awareness and behavioral change. The approach could be disempowering to learners since it treats them as encaged waiting to receive all the time from the teacher as if they do not know anything on their own (Mokuku 2002). Based on this criticism, it was therefore necessary to engage learners with another higher level learning experience to enable them explore their environment, deliberate on local problems and take appropriate actions.

Step 2: Experiential and socially constructivism

Students were divided into groups each made up of ten students. Allowing the students to work in groups enhances dialogue, sharing of tasks and working together as a community of practice. This stage involved students in several tasks each commencing with an oral presentation to the wider class, discussions and subsequent approvals. The students were expected to defend their plans and activities to their peers whom by consensus approved or rejected them.

Task 1 : Exploration

Students were expected to identify environmental issues and risks within the university and choose one issue the group could address easily. Students presented the issues to other classmates orally and got useful comments.  

This approach can be likened to ‘education in the environment’ (Fien, 1993). In this project, this task capitalised on learner centred experiences in the environment as a basis for learning and developing new knowledge. This took the form of outdoor education where the learners were expected to use the senses to see, touch, hear, smell and taste. The outdoor experience could foster skills such as handling of apparatus, data gathering (observation, sorting, classifying, interpreting, analysing and interviewing) and social skills including cooperation and teamwork (Le Roux, 2000). The strong experiential orientation aims at developing environmental awareness and concern by encouraging personal conceptual growth through contact with nature.

Local sites are very important since they are familiar to students and this enhances continued and progressive observations of environmental phenomena. It also gives students increased freedom to construct their own investigations and develop their own theories to explain specific environmental phenomena. Outdoor learning leads to increased understanding of natural processes and their interactions and is enjoyable.

This approach is inclined to the liberal progressive education orientation and the ecocentric ideologies (Babikwa, 2004). Nevertheless, this approach is blamed for failing to promote critical environmental consciousness, critical thinking, political literacy and critical praxis in the learner (ibid).

At this stage, students were able to identify diverse environmental problems in Kenyatta university. These include issues such as litter, soil erosion, water scarcity, waste water disposal, stagnant water, rationing of electricity, noise, air pollution, congestion in hostels, drug abuse, land degradation, misuse of water, insecurity, diseases such as HIV/AIDS, conflicts and violence, poverty, misuse of electricity, exploitation, unfair distribution of resources, corruption and tribalism, unplanned settlements and dirty walls. The students were able to highlight the causes of these problems and their impacts. They then suggested the problem they could easily address as a group and how they planned to address it. All these findings were presented to the wider class during a plenary session.

Task 2: Planning

The students were asked to develop a comprehensive plan of action to address their prioritized issue (in Task 1). In this plan the students were expected to provide detailed narrative of all steps to be followed and their justification. Students presented the plan to the classmates and this was followed by a critical discussion, sharing information and seeking of consensus that the proposals were feasible.

Some of the environmental education approaches recommended and approved for implementation include use of posters, pamphlets, writing articles in Kenyatta University newsletter, songs, drama/plays/poems, public lectures, forming AIDS club, upscaling activities of a local NGO, use of placards, organising an essay competition.

Task 3: Action

The students were requested to implement their prioritized intervention for three weeks. They were expected to compile daily reports on their experiences and how the target community responded to their interventions. At this stage they were expected to work closely with the lecturer as a way of validating that the interventions were mounted on time and closely monitored. After 3 weeks, they were expected to report to the entire class. Some of the noted responses noted were writings on the displayed posters, essays and poems submitted to the groups that did the essay competition, articles were published on the Kenyatta University Newsletter that is widely circulated in campus, well attended drama shows.

Task 2 and 3 emphasise on the process of taking action to improve the environment. It is usually an integration of socially critical orientation and ecosocialist ideology aimed at social and political change (Gough & Robottom, 1993, Babikwa, 2004). The ecosocialist ideology upholds the view that environmental problems cannot be understood without reference to socio-economic and political values. Besides awareness, understanding and experience, education for sustainable development aims at developing a sense of responsibility in learners to get involved actively in resolving environmental problems. It adopts a holistic interdisciplinary approach
to solving environmental problems. It acknowledges the role of political elements that underpin an activity such as decision making and power relations and incorporates critical education goals within issue-based teaching and learning (McKeown, 2002). This orientation emphasises the ideological nature of education and environmental problems and is committed to the promotion of social justice, equality, and democracy through critical examination of social problems and active participation of people in transforming their societies.

Task 4: Reflection

At the end of the activity students were asked to reflect on the entire process and its usefulness in environmental education. In particular they were expected to reflect on the potential of the project in enhancing sustainable development in Kenyatta University. They were also expected to report on the relevance of the project to the objectives and guiding principles of environmental education.

The student gave diverse views on how the project implied in terms of influencing awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills and participation as outlined in the objectives of environmental education. They also reflected on the domesticated nature of the principles of environmental education and the entire concept of sustainable development within the project.


Engagement outcomes

This project realized diverse outcomes as outlined below.


  1. Enhanced student autonomy

The entire project process allowed the students to respond to local issues of their choice using approaches most suitable to them. 15 different projects were designed and implemented by the students which comprised of diverse interventions such as drama, poetry, posters, upscaling external stakeholder efforts, and publishing of articles. Students took charge of the interventions reflecting on their relevance to course objectives. These projects allowed the lecturer and the students to gain more insights into the contextual environmental problems and designed locally based responses that were well within our financial and manpower resources.

2. Enhanced learning


Most students alluded to the fact that the project process provided them with new knowledge. The discussions in class during oral presentations further gave the opportunity for students to express learning and to defend their viewpoints to their peers. This helped students to acquire new skills and knowledge that enabled them to understand the local environmental challenges as well as the diversity of interventions necessary. Throughout the processes students shared different aspects of bringing about change to the environmentally unfriendly practices and problems in Kenyatta University.

  1. Invoking emotional feelings

As the students explored, discussed and presented their findings, they became emotional when they discovered the damage that had been done to their environment. They even pointed accusing fingers at certain sections of the university administration and community responsible for the problems. They hence felt that the problems were deeply rooted in lack of responsibility by certain individuals and the only way to solve them was to get audience with these people.

  1. Fostering cooperation


Participation in this project also fostered cooperation among the students. They were able to meet freely, share tasks and develop group documents for presentation during the plenary sessions. They were able to respect each other’s contribution since a single individual could not accomplish these tasks.

5. Supporting praxis


Janse van Rensburg and Le Roux (1998:104) observe that praxis involves asking why we do things the way we do, and this questioning informs the next course of action. In the context of this project, the students worked in groups to identify and explain the environmental issues around them. They also strategized on the way forward to address the problem. Each of these findings and proposals on the way forward were reviewed in plenary session and new suggestions were made. Consensus was reached before each group proceeding from one phase to another making sure that the entire class own and validated the intervention The groups reworked their drafts in the light of the suggestions from the plenary discussions.

This process therefore provides an opportunity for ongoing learning through dialogue, negotiation and reflection as the participants are involved in identifying environmental issues, planning and implementing interventions as well as through ongoing reflection. Therefore, long before the interventions are developed and implemented, the learners acquire and share knowledge and skills.

The processes enable students to critique their own practice and explore new, and sometimes better ways of doing things. This helps to empower the students to socially construct new meanings in the context, and consider alternatives and future possibilities.


  1. Student engineered impact


Students made commendable impact in making university conscious of environmental issues and risks and how they could be overcome. The diverse interventions mentioned earlier had not been witnessed before in the university’s history. The notice boards and social places were all of a sudden ‘environmentalised’ for at least 3 weeks of the project period.

  1. Post project initiatives

Since 2005, I have witnessed the students from this class regrouping and using the same model on their own to address community problems outside the university. The process was therefore transformative. Two students initiated a similar project in Mathare Valley (a Kenyan slum) to address social issues. One student took photographs of the environmental issues in the university and consulted me lengthly on how to develop a book. One parent reported to me that her daughter had started developing posters on environmental issues and attributed her activities to the ERC 100 course.

Challenges in the project process

Some challenges were experienced during the implementation phase of the action research process. The main challenges centered on participation, knowledge, skills and resource materials. These issues, though discussed separately below, are interrelated.

1. Participation


I facilitated the formation of groups where students were expected to interact and actively participate during the entire project period. Since the number of students involved was high, it took time to form the groups. This problem was aggravated by the fact that the course was offered during the first semester which is a time for changing courses for the fresh students. The students were given the choice to decide their group members and this was an advantage to those students who joined the course earlier. Those who joined later had no choice but to work with ‘strangers’. This affected participation during the group activities and there were several cases reported of inactive members. However, the fact that the students were expected to do at least four plenary presentations where it was mandatory for each member to attend mitigated against continued lurk by the students.

  1. Levels of participation

The students worked in small groups to analyse, plan and implement interventions to address particular environmental issue
s. Decisions made in the small groups were taken to plenary sessions for further analysis and ratification. It was through the plenary session where decisions on how to proceed the next phase were agreed on by consensus. The main challenge at this level was that the number of students was very high and this interfered with participation. Many students wanted to participate but this was not possible and classroom control was a major challenge.

3. Existing knowledge and skills


The students had wide-ranging knowledge of the environmental issues they faced. This was the starting point in planning for subsequent interventions. Some of the knowledge students had was from learning from other courses not necessarily from this ERC 100 course. Although the students possessed such knowledge and skills, they seldom had opportunities like the one provided through this project to express themselves. This project enabled them to express themselves through a flexible and open process of deliberation. Since some of them were not used to this process it took some time to encourage them to participate, speak up and to treat the locally derived knowledge and skills as valuable.

  1. Lack of resources

The students complained of lack of resources such as access to computers, printer and stationery. Some of the students had to fundraise to buy stationery for developing the posters. It is possible that lack of resources hindered the proliferation of student interventions.


This project portlays an innovative approach to teaching of environmental education in a university context especially where student numbers are high. The process can also be used at lower levels of learning at tertiary, secondary and primary level of education. The discussion above suggests that students have a wide range of action alternatives and this makes environmental education natural, refuting enslavement into any particular framework, but rather using what suits particular contextual situations. The approach changes the lecturer’s roles to that of a facilitator. The learning and action process transforms the students who in turn influence the wider community.


Babikwa, D. (2004) Education and the creation of sustainable rural communities in Uganda and Japan: Some lessons for DESD. Unpublished Post-doctoral Research Report. United Nations University, Yokohama.

Fien, J. (1993). Education for the environment: Critical curriculum theorising and environmental education. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University.

Gough, A.G. & Robottom, I. (1993). Towards a socially critical environmental education: Water quality studies in a coastal school. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25(4), 301- 316.

Janse van Rensburg, E., & Le Roux, K.(1998). Goldfields participatory course in environmental education: An education in process. Course evaluation report. Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit, Grahamstown.

Kenyatta University (KU) (undated) Kenyatta University Calendar 2001 – 2003. University Academic Division, Nairobi

Le Roux, K. (2000). Environmental education processes: Active learning in schools. Learning guide. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

Mckeown, R. (2002) Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. University of Tennesse, Knoxville  

Mokuku, T. (2002) Sustainable development in a Post-colonial context: The potential for emancipatory research. In Janse van Rensburg, E., Hattingh, J., O’Donoghue, R. & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (Eds.), Environmental education, ethics and action in southern Africa. EASA Monograph. Pretoria: HSRC Press. pp135-146

Ndaruga A.M. (2003) An exploration of teacher perceptions and actions to conserve wetlands in Kenya. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Grahamstown: Rhodes University

NEMA (2004) State of Environment Report. Nairobi: NEMA

NEMA (2007) Education for Sustainable Development Implementation Strategy (2005-2014). Nairobi:NEMA

O’Donoghue, R. & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2006). Situated learning, rubbish and risk reduction in Southern Africa at the start of the UN decade of education for sustainable development. Unpublished paper, Environmental Education and Sustainability Unit, Rhodes University.

UNESCO (2005) United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014: International Implementation Scheme. Paris: UNESCO

Leave a Reply